MY COLLEGE CLASSMATE and good friend Roman Kindrachuk is a longtime resident of Kiev. I spoke with him this week about the situation in Ukraine:
You grew up in Pennsylvania, attended school there, and went to Georgetown. You’ve been living in Kiev since, what, 1997? Why did you choose to settle there? Why did it appeal to you?
I’ve actually been here since late 1995. In 1998 my partners and I founded Radioaktive Film, which was the country’s first commercial production company. Although we started it in order to serve the local advertising market, we ended up becoming very popular among West European production companies looking for a cheap, funky place to shoot.
I never thought I would stay here this long. I always assumed we would run Radioaktive in Kiev for a few years, then move back to New York or LA and continue our business there. But the company just kept growing, and we were working on bigger and bigger projects. And we managed to put together a really good team of smart, hard-working, dedicated Ukrainians that I truly enjoy working with. So, for now, Kiev is home.
Most Americans, I’d guess, have never been to Kiev. Heck, most Americans could not find Kiev on a map. Describe the city for us. What’s it like there? What other cities does it compare to? I imagine something like Berlin, or maybe Warsaw.
Kiev is a beautiful European city of about four million people. There’s an interesting mix of buildings built by the sugar barons in the 1800s, Soviet-style monstrosities, and modern construction. It’s a two-hour flight from most major European cities.
Kiev also has a great vibe: the people, generally, are friendly and relaxed. It’s a very green city, and there’s even a river with beaches running through the middle of it. Only in the past few years, though, has Kiev begun to consider itself as a tourist destination, so it’s kind of been off the map for a lot of people.
The current conflict seems to have started because then-President Yanukovych decided not to join the European Union, opting instead to put his eggs in the Putin basket. That’s when it started to make news here, anyway.
Our former president (Yanukovych) is, literally, a thug. He spent several years in jail in his late teens and early twenties for assault and robbery (if memory serves). He managed to turn things around, got his record wiped, and made a career for himself in the regional government of Donetsk (eastern Ukraine).
That’s very different from the U.S., where our politicians go to jail after they’ve been in office. How did he manage to assume control of the country?
How he became President, is a long, long story. But once he achieved power, he worked very quickly to form what Ukrainians call a very strict ‘vertical’. He took everything under his control: changed the constitution to give him more powers and jailed his primary political opponent on trumped-up charges. While he initially depended on the oligarchs from the east for financial and political support, he very quickly began putting his own people in key positions in the government and bit by bit squeezed out the other players. With his own people in place, his oldest son – a former dentist (!) – quickly became one of the most successful businessmen in the country. Billions of dollars of government purchase tenders were won by the son’s company. Even more billions of dollars in expected tax revenue were alleged to have been diverted to groups controlled by the president. I’m sure you’ve seen the photos of his house on the outskirts of Kiev.
Yes. It looks like a McMansion on steroids
Keep in mind, this is a guy who has lived on a government paycheck (which in Ukraine is tiny) ALL his adult life. Now he’s got a house with land that’s literally the size of Monaco?
I’m shocked, shocked.
It’s important to understand, though, that Yanukovych was not the one bad apple ruining it for everybody. Ukraine was and is a very corrupt country. Any company doing business with the government is expected to kick back between 30 and 50% of the price to the minister approving the deal. Everything is shady. The courts are corrupt, the tax regime is oppressive. The police are for all practical purposes a mafia group: every officer is given a daily quota of how much money they have to bring in to kick up to their superiors. Promotions are bought for hundreds of thousands of dollars, because it leads to control over these streams of money. University dons and professors demand money for degrees. And so on…
This all actually seems insane now that I’m writing it down, but corruption is one of those things that Ukrainians just became resigned to.
And that was, and is, the appeal of the EU membership.
Closer ties to Europe, which had been promised by the Yanukovych administration, was for a lot of people a chance to put an end to all of that. As part of the deal, Ukraine was supposed to bring its legal system in line with European norms. People were hoping for honest courts, reasonable taxes, and accountable politicians. When the President made an about-face and froze preparations one week before the treaty was supposed to be signed, people were understandably upset. However, Yanukovych had such a lock on all the levers of power, and such enormous financial resources, that most people were just as resigned to the fact that he would be re-elected in 2015. We were feeling pretty helpless.
Immediately after the announcement that the European treaty would not be signed, a group of students gathered on the Maidan (Independence Square) to protest. They camped out, made speeches on an improvised sound system, and played music all night to keep themselves awake and motivated. (I happen to live right on this square, so I can confirm that round-the-clock disco). This was early December. The students managed to hang around for a couple of weeks, but the protest was beginning to peter out. It was cold and the protests failed to generate any kind of mass support. In a few more days, most of the students would have gone home on their own accord.
Now here’s where it gets interesting, one of those black-swan type of events. Maidan is the central square in Kiev. Every year there’s a giant (fake) Christmas tree installed there, along with a little Christmas village. These students were getting in the way of setting that up. For some unfathomable reason, somebody (it’s still not completely clear who made the call) decided to use riot police to clear the remaining protestors so that they could build the tree. The police employed shocking violence against these kids. Men and women, even some pensioners who had joined in. They were beaten to a pulp. A lot of protestors took refuge in a nearby church. Many were arrested. The nation was shocked. We had never seen anything like this before. It was a completely disproportionate use of force.
This was late Friday night, December 20th. The students had been planning to end the protest on Monday!) The majority of the nation heard about the police action Saturday morning. Facebook posts and YouTube videos spread the word very quickly. People began gathering on Maidan Saturday afternoon. On Sunday a million people came out to protest the police brutality. And everything just snowballed from there…
Did they set up the Christmas tree, though?
The tree was already half constructed out of a metal frame when the protests started. It was not completed, but instead turned into a massive circular billboard for the protests. Flags and banners representing groups from all around the country were hung there.
The wire stories all stress that the country is deeply divided…there’s a conservative, Soviet-spawned swath of land in the east that digs Russia, and a more progressive, Western-style section of the country in the west that would prefer to align with the EU. Is that accurate, or simplistic?
It’s accurate and simplistic. Western Ukraine, by reasons of geography and history, were always more aligned with Europe (at one point it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Eastern Ukraine was heavily industrialized during the Soviet Union, and populated by ethnic Russians. So there is a great difference in mindsets. Also understand that during WWII, a lot of western Ukrainians fought against the Red Army while it was fighting off the Germans, in order to gain independence for Ukraine. Soviet history books later painted these Ukrainians as Fascist Nazis and enemies of the state.
It’s important to mention, I think, that Stalin starved millions of them to death in 1932-34.
Actually, most of the suffering happened in eastern Ukraine: a lot of the Ukrainains died, and the territory was re-settled by Russians. So, a lot of people in the East still have this false impression of Western Ukrainians, and truly believe that they want to string up all the Russian-speakers from the nearest tree. In recent years, politicians have used this divide to drum up support in one half of the country or the other, making things even more complicated.
How does it compare to the United States, which is also deeply divided: the progressives on the coasts and in the North, and the conservatives in the middle of the country and the South?
I guess it’s similar, but in Ukraine it’s an existential question. I don’t think that anybody in the U.S. really expects the country to split up into parts.
When last you and I communicated, there were some demonstrations in Kiev against the president. Tensions escalated quickly—Obama and Putin are both rattling their sabres, and the Secretary of State has been dispatched to Kiev—although it now seems like things will settle down. Walk us through a timeline of events, from your perspective.
This article has a brilliant analysis of the whole situation, as well as more on the follow-up to the revolution.
From my point of view, it was a very strange three months. On many occasions, the government showed unprecedented brutality, and a complete disregard for popular opinion. At the same time, there were a number of times where the riot police probably could have put an end to the protest and chased everybody out. But they always seemed to pull back at the last minute, as if the person in charge didn’t quite have the balls to actually go through with it.
When it ended, it ended very quickly. The violence escalated in a matter of days, and it was a very tense time. A lot of us thought that a much more serious ‘war’ could break out. Representatives of the EU in Kiev negotiated a political settlement – a new constitution, and presidential re-elections at the end of the year (only three months earlier than scheduled.) Opposition politicians, who were pretty serious pussies during this whole thing, hailed this as a breakthrough. The protestors on the street, however, who had seen over 80 of their fellow countrymen killed (by snipers, by police, in a fire started by the riot police), this was a sell-out. They threatened all-out war if Yanukovych wasn’t gone by the following morning. And then he was gone. At first he fled to one eastern city, then another. Rumors circulated as to his whereabouts. Eventually he turned up at a press conference in Russia, claiming to still be the legitimate president of Ukraine.
The unrest happened almost parallel to the Olympics, which took place not that far away, in Sochi. Is this coincidental, you think? Is there any relevance at all to the timing?
Not really. Again, you have to remember that the events that happened in Kiev and Ukraine were not an anti-Russia movement. It was a movement to restore the democratic values of Ukraine, fight corruption and create a more progressive society.
There were rumors that Yanukovych would clean out Maidan in time for the Olympics, in order to not distract from Putin’s Games, but that obviously didn’t happen.
The key players, other than Putin, are Yanukovych and the newly-liberated voice of dissent, Yulia Tymoshenko. Is the former really a Putin puppet, as he is portrayed? And what do you make of the latter?
Yanukovych is not a puppet, but he’s a politician very much in the style of Putin: authoritarian, brutal and corrupt. He sided with Russia because they were offering government loans with relatively no strings attached (while the West was also offering, but insisting on political and economic reforms.) The country’s treasury was empty, due to his brazen corruption, but the President really needed funds to pay for pensions and other social programs to look good for re-election. So he jumped at the ‘easy’ money.
Yulia Tymoshenko, the opposition leader just released from prison, has come out into a different world. Three years ago, she was the outspoken, charismatic leader of the opposition. Now, it seems like a lot of the protestors have soured on her and feel that she’s from the past era. People now want a complete break with the old regime, including the old opposition politicians.
What do you think will happen? Where is this going? Will the country split in half? If it does, is that a bad thing?
The country won’t split. A lot of the so-called pro-Russian protests that you’re seeing on the news that are happening in eastern cities are actually Russians being bussed in by the Putin regime to act as if they are oppressed Ukrainians. It’s a lot of political theater, but Putin is trying to use every dirty trick in the book in order to keep Ukraine off balance and within the sphere of influence of Russia.
There are some in the U.S. who think what’s happening in Ukraine is a CIA- and EU-backed coup. This is one such story. I saw a tweet by a European novelist whose name escapes me a few days ago, suggesting that the unrest was a preamble to an onerous World Bank aid package. Your thoughts?
Sorry, I have to call bullshit on this one. The Maidan protests were a massive grassroots effort. Ukrainians from Kiev and other cities donated so much food, clothing, and medicines that the storerooms were overflowing. Most of my employees and many of my friends were out there every night and on weekends; we all donated part of our paychecks. There’s no way the CIA is competent enough to pull off something like this and keep their involvement hidden.
That’s not to say that the US and EU didn’t help. For years they have been sponsoring seminars and workshops for civic organizations, teaching them how to organize, how to communicate with the public, and how to make effective use of new media. But I don’t recall any seminars on How to Overthrow a Corrupt Tyrant in 90 Days or Less.
It would be pretty simple for you to leave and return to the States, I’d imagine. At what point would you consider doing that?
As much as I miss the US, I like it here. I think it would take an all-0ut war to get me to give up everything that I’ve built here over the last 15 years.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.