Gonzo in Ukraine – part four: the Fury Road

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Odessa is a five hour drive from Kiev, a straight line stretching south for 475km on a desolate highway, with nothing but the Ukrainian outback on both sides. Pushing 200km/h, we were making good progress, on every level. We had clocked up two interviews the previous day and were on our way to film another, our fourth. We’d set off early which hadn’t been easy, seeing at how intense yesterday had been.

We’d first made our way to a rooftop studio to meet Ubik, a photographer of some renown who had been exhibited in the US. In what was becoming classic Ukrainian fashion, we were welcomed with warmth and open arms. Ubik gave us full access to his domain and we set up camp under the canopy on the terrace, to be able to get a shot of both himself and his portrait on a huge mural in the background. Ubik, a name he had found for himself in a Philip K. Dick novel, wasn’t phased by our cameras. Though he was used to being on the other end of the things, he knew how and when to move as well as when not to.

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In perfect English, he explained how since the revolution, there had been an explosion of creativity in the country. The protests and the change of regime they’d brought on, had sent shockwaves across Ukrainian society, a massive release of energy that transformed what had so far been stale and dull, into a wild art scene and youth culture. This also translated into a change in the people. It is said that the difference between order and chaos, is three meals. The Ukrainians had skipped a few and the bond between them had grown stronger because of it. They’d all stared into the abyss together, seen how fragile the social contract really is and in the end, they’d stepped away from the edge, turned to each other and realised what united them.

A free society is an ever perfectible project. In no better case does it ring more true that it’s not the destination but the journey that really matters and god knows there was still a long way to go and work to do. Just like Vlada, Ubik cracked on with the determination of a stakhanovite. He showed us his series of photographs, from cityscapes to fashion shoots and it was easy to understand his success. His shots showed a keen eye for being able to find the beautiful in the mundane and I thought it must be quite something to see the world through his eyes. As was to be expected, he hadn’t stopped there. Beside running his company and making commercials, he’d also found the time to start painting, again spurred on by the revolution. We left carrying gifts and assured that his door was always open to us.

Our second interview was to take place at our flat. Her name was Sasha, she was Yuliya’s niece, she was 23, she was beautiful and she was a soldier. She came in full battle-dress which somehow accentuated her features which wouldn’t have been turned away on the catwalk. She was a little nervous and took some time to ease up and get into the groove but once again, even though they were all in Russian, her answers were long, thought-out and detailed. She explained she’d been studying in Spain as part of her political sciences course, when the troubles began. Until then she’d only been just another foreign student, working hard and making the best of the experience of being in another culture but when tires went up in flames on the Maidan, things took a turn for the ugly. She was assaulted three times by Russian communists émigrés, for the crime of being Ukrainian, young and one suspects, a woman.

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She was marked as a fascist, a representative of the uprising that couldn’t be anything but a reactionary plot to overthrow the Kremlin friendly government and oppress the culturally Russian part of the population. Recollecting the event brought tears to her eyes but she soldiered on. She returned to Ukraine and joined the military. She spoke fondly of her time going through basic training where, along with the other new recruits, a majority of them women, she learned how to march, how to shoot and the rudiments of survival in the wild. She’d joined the signal corps as a private and had ambitions of becoming an officer.

Sasha loved her job. She was lucky enough to be able to live in her own flat and every day, made her way to the base, determined to do her best in the service of the country that meant so much for her, a country that despite its many problems, was little by little becoming more free. She was fully aware that the military didn’t enjoy the same prestige it once might have and she knew that to many, it was seen as the only option to make a living for the untalented and the destitute. However, perhaps a little naively, she was convinced she could make a difference and somehow enact the changes that would replace the dusty old Soviet mentality with a modern, forward looking mindset.

Fittingly, she smoked like a trooper and over a cigarette, she told me she would be in the next wave sent to the front. I didn’t know the Ukrainian military deployed women in combat roles but the situation, now rarely mentioned in the western press, being so dire, that was what they now had to resort to. She was apprehensive. She had no foolhardy wish to prove herself in the crucible of war, nor did she have any ill intent towards anyone but she’d signed up and that was that. I am not a militarist but I pity the foolish cynics who sneer at the men and women who protect us whilst we sleep. In an imperfect world, mandated violence is sometimes the only solution. Sasha had guts and she did what she thought was right. She had answered in the affirmative to a question I hoped I would never be asked and I respected her immensely for it.

Hours later, we were speeding down an empty highway on our way to Odessa. As I said before, there was little regard for safety in Ukraine, nowhere more so than on the road. Kuba, who’d driven around these parts before, explained that the highway system had improved a lot but occasionally you still came across potholes that could have doubled up as tank traps. I guess we were lucky to be in a Subaru 4×4, expertly driven by Kuba yet I couldn’t help but hold to my seat for dear life at the breakneck speed we were going, stopping short of praying, for there are atheists in foxholes after all. The Ukrainian countryside offered some comfort and plainly showed where the inspiration for the flag had come from: a bright blue sky over endless fields of sunflowers.

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We eventually arrived in Odessa. The city’s population had already doubled with the summer holidaymakers only to be compounded with the thousands of attendees at the Odessa International Film Festival, where our contact was currently employed. Volodymyr was a photojournalist. Up until three years ago, he’d only ever trained his camera on city architecture and industrial landscapes but, when the protests started, he’d made the decision to go down on the streets and see things for himself. In time, the events grabbed the world’s attention and Volodymyr and his colleagues provided it with images of the frontline. Day after day, when no one knew which way the wind would blow, he joined barricades, camps and marches met with Berkut phalanxes. Violence erupted and on more than one occasion, he narrowly avoided certain death under the government’s bullets.

His work started to get noticed, thankfully by the right people and along with being able to earn a living, Volodymyr managed to build himself a reputation. By the time Yanukovych fled and peace returned to the streets of Kiev, he was a fully-fledged journalist. Naturally, his next step was to go to Debaltseve in the east where, as he recalled, he came across American networks correspondents reporting as if they were on the frontline when they actually never got within 25 miles of it. Volodymyr pressed on and got as near the action as would be sensible. He told us how mortar shells obliterated his still fresh footprints along the streets he’d only just visited.

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There was a certain nervous quality to the man, one I think usually found in those who have seen true action. He was used to mind his step and watch over his shoulder. Everything he did had an inherent danger to it and I guessed this demeanour was what kept him safe. He was a regular visitor to Chernobyl, a place with a personal resonance to him, seeing as his grand-father had curated the evacuation of the affected zone. He was now mandated by the company building the new casing for the reactor to document the work’s progress and occasionally took disaster tourists along with him. Just like everyone we’d interviewed, he seemed to be working all the time, utterly devoted to being productive and successful in the field he’d chosen. Yet, there wasn’t a hint of pretension to it. He was genuinely interested in our project and glad to have been of any use.

We got back in the car for the five hour drive back to Kiev, a hypnotic dash to safety under the cover of darkness. The trip was mostly silent as I think we were all taking in what we’d heard. I certainly was mulling it over. I was a little older than the people we’d interviewed and yet, I had never taken the kind of decision they’d all had. It wasn’t jealousy and I of course didn’t envy the hardships they had been through but when faced with adversity and with the little means they had, they’d all taken their destiny into their own hands and run with it. I had come to Ukraine to make a documentary and was truly interested in the people we were meeting but my ambitions weren’t exactly sacerdotal. In a mere few days, I would be back in the comfort of my London home whilst they would be grafting on to build the life and the country they thought they deserved. Having met them and somewhat having befriended them, I thought I had no right to do any less and would have to figure out a way to go about that.

For now though, I just wanted to make it back to the flat in one piece. Throughout the day, Kuba had been powered by a steady supply of Red Bull but now muscle fatigue started to show. We were pumping high-intensity electronic music through the stereo to keep awake and despite it all, I managed to pass out.

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