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Broken Ukraine

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Message Linh Dinh
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Kiev, 2016

I hadn't even changed money when a guy in a military jacket approached me for a donation for Ukraine's war efforts, and he was quite persistent too. This happened in Maidan Square, now turned into a death shrine, with photos of sacrificed soldiers scattered all over. Of different sizes, many were draped with rosary beads and/or accompanied by a flag, flowers, votive candles and/or pine twig. Many of the dead had faded or bled smearily. Some posed with pets, guns or cars. In his tent, a red bearded, smiling dude gave a thumb up. A chubby, bespectacled man hugged a tree, while a suited fellow appeared to be singing karaoke. Baby faced or wizened, all these men and a few women have died in a hopeless war with no objective save the American imperative to harass Russia.

As for their government, it is US-installed and seeded throughout with foreigners. Remember the tie-biting President of Georgia? He contributed 2,000 troops to the US invasion of Iraq then, egged on by Bush, decided to trade blows with Russia over South Ossetia, with predictably calamitous results. Mikheil Saakashvili is now head of Ukraine's International Advisory Council on Reforms, as well as the Governor of Odessa Oblast, having been granted Ukrainian citizenship just the day before. Only a wrecked nation would recruit the wrecker of another to join its wrecking crew. Mikheil was plucked right out of Brooklyn, where he was moping to escape prosecution back home. The just-resigned Minister of Economy and Trade, Aivaras Abromavicius, was born in Lithuania and does not speak Ukrainian. Minister of Finance Natalie Jaresko retains her American citizenship, wisely, it must be said, so she can quickly jump off this sinking ship.

Taking the bus from Leipzig to Kiev, I crossed all of Poland and half of Ukraine. This took nearly 24 hours of sitting stiffly, with over 2 spent at the Polish/Ukrainian border. All of the 61 passengers but me and two others were Ukrainian. One was a World Bank financial advisor in her 60's. Half Russian by blood and born in Tennessee, Carol, not her real name, has spent most of her adult life in Europe, working in Frankfurt, Moscow and now Kiev, with brief assignments to Manila and Banjul. Her father was a chemist on the Manhattan Project.

Out the windows, villages passed by, their houses humble and somewhat dilapidated, though a few were quite grand. Colorful churches cheered up the grim winter landscape, as did decorated wooden crucifixes. Here and there, a Madonna shrine. Stores and hotels also stood out. A cheeky motel mimicked a castle with turrets. Peddling seven heads of cabbage, a forlorn man displayed them on the hood of his rusty Lada. I spotted vehicles I didn't know were still extant. Inside cement bus stops, well-bundled folks waited stoically. One shelter had a painted helicopter. Black coated women under flowery babushkas waddled down frozen paths. I even saw three horse-drawn carts. "You'll see more off the main road," Carol informed. "You know Adidas has saved many lives here. Their clothes and shoes often have these reflectors. Before, you had all these people getting run over because they were walking on these dirt roads at night, drunk."

"This highway is in pretty good shape, though."

"Turkish contractors had to be brought in," she laughed. "The locals couldn't finish it. They were so corrupt!"

As for Ukraine's political and societal dire straits, Carol pinned it all on Putin. He wants to invade the Baltic nations and the rest of Ukraine. He is causing unrest all over Europe by supporting extremists on both the left and right. Putin is destabilizing Bosnia and buying off Hungary's Viktor Orban.

Before reaching Kiev, we paused in Lviv, Rivne and Zhytomir. I had seen enough concrete, Communist-era apartment blocks in Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, but the Ukrainian ones seemed even more dismal. They contrasted quite grotesquely with the faux utopia of advertising billboards, where all faces were ecstatic, all bodies trim and fashionable and all products, even the most banal, lickably sexy. In Lviv, there's a spiffy shopping mall called King Cross Leopolis. Over the next week, I would spot many more references to landmarks from that mythically prosperous Europe that most Ukrainians will never experience.

The outskirts of the capital were basically more of the same dispiriting Communist urban planning, but here and there rose new high rises that were not unattractive. I was surprised, though, by how beautiful and sophisticated the center of Kiev was. With much of the country's wealth parked here, brand name shops were everywhere, but all were bedecked quite stridently with large SALE signs of up to 90% off. Whatever that was wrong with Ukraine before the Euromaidan demonstrations, it was clearly making progress, for otherwise there wouldn't be all these shops for all budgets. Now, thousands of salesclerks and store owners stand around all day to look pleadingly at every passerby. As I strayed into the meat and fish section of the vast Besarabsky Market, each stall owner shouted a torrent at me to buy a just-killed piece of something, so that I had to wade through a sea of incomprehensible words just to get out.

Such a gem of a city would normally be swarmed with tourists, but I saw almost none. Taking the subway several times each day for a week, I was clearly the only alien, with the lone exception a black man who didn't look all that comfortable. I heard no foreign languages on these extended rides far underground, and the Kiev subway is bizarrely deep. I wondered why most people did not hurry up or down the endless escalators, but those long, angled tubes were indeed soothing. A man sat down on a grooved, steel step.

Near Lisova Station, at the end of the red line, I found over a hundred businesses selling used clothes and shoes. Folks rummaged through enormous mounds, looking for suitable bargains. At one stall, one could even choose second hand skis and skates. Appropriate to their wares, these complexes were mostly shabby, with corrugated tin or plastic walls. Often, I walked on planks or dirt under tarps through poorly lit passages. Among the merchants, there were Black Africans, Arabic speakers and Vietnamese.

Vietnam's only (publicly known) billionaire, 47-year-old Phan Nhat Vuong, had his start as an instant noodle magnate in Ukraine. Carol, "I ate Mivina noodles too. Everyone did. After the Fall of Communism, people had very little money." There's a Kiev high school named Ho Chi Minh. There are also North Koreans in Ukraine. They do some of the hardest agricultural works, such as picking onions.

Kiev restaurants that serve foreign foods, whether Japanese, Thai or Turk, etc., are almost always owned and run by Ukrainians. Sushi is hugely popular, with even chains like Burger Club and Mafia offering it. There are 22 Sushiyas, 17 Eurasias and 15 Murakamis. There's a Chinese joint, Bruce Lee, one of only a handful. There are 32 McDonald's, with one seemingly outside each subway station. At Minska, there are two. Taxi Bar, a 50's styled American diner, is like a Day-Glo tableau from Grease.

Though its war and sinking economy have chased or kept foreigners away, Ukraine's culture is intensely outward looking, with international references everywhere. Cigarette stands have images of New York or London. Inside a Kiev shopping center, there's a gigantic English styled phone booth, with a Sherlock Holmes scaling it. At the same mall, there are fake cactuses and two effigies of Mexicans, one dozing, one climbing onto a ledge, as if breaking in. Kiev night clubs have names like Pink Freud, Rout 66, Carribean and even Franklin, with a huge picture of Ben towering over pedestrians. An American flag hangs in a neighborhood bar in Holosiivskyi. Ukraine, it is clear, wants very much to belong to the wider world, even as it's receding in everyone's rear view mirror. At least a million Ukrainians have already fled the country, and this number will only multiply as its human crisis deepens. In the warzone, many are starving or have committed suicide. Europe has another refugee crisis coming.

As of October 2015, the average net wage in Ukraine is only $136 a month, among the lowest in Europe. On Kiev sidewalks, people sell whatever they can, with, say, three plucked chickens on a piece of cardboard. In trendy Podil, a woman picked up her bare, stiff fowl at dusk and marched away in frustration, while behind plate glass windows, hipsters sipped drinks in fancy cafes. I saw a boy of about 14 stand stoically behind some beets, onions and garlics. On subway trains, wandering, clearly desperate people tried to push calendars, toys, candies or icons, etc. Riders looked away as they delivered their sad pitches. With nothing to offer, many begged with a sign and/or a sustained yet exhausted plea. Inside stations, some stood in silence with heads bowed. Plopped next to her crutches, a woman stuck her destroyed foot out. Instead of toes, there was but a bloody stub. A one-eyed woman had a cardboard sign around her neck. Outside in all weathers, many beggars prostrated most abjectly. On magnificent and still glittering Shreshchatyk, a crone was bunched up like a giant toad, face hidden, with a hand on the cold pavement and a cane next to her. Near Vokzalna Station, a black-clad, young and blonde beauty knelt under an umbrella while holding a sign with a photo of her son. Sleet was slanting down.

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.

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