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One Night in Odessa

Taking sides at home in the ongoing fight for sovereignty in Ukraine

Vladislav Davidzon
May 12, 2015
Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images
Donetsk, April 2015.Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images
Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images
Donetsk, April 2015.Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

On our way to my mother-in-law’s house on a trip by car to Odessa, we were warned that a distant relative from Donetsk had overstayed her welcome. We were instructed not to specify the length of time we would be staying, so that our visit might be used as a salubrious opportunity to cleanse the spare bedroom of Ludmilla.

My wife’s very distant relative, whom she had not seen since she was a teenager, turned out to be a plump, cheerful, and not entirely unpleasant woman in her mid-50s. The late-Soviet-style black bob haircut should have warned me at the time. The war had depressed the Donetsk fur business, and the chance of being killed by an errant shell had been drastically increased as skirmishes raged around her apartments in Horlivka and Donetsk. As a result, she had spent several months camping out in the apartments of unhappy relatives in Moscow and Odessa while ostensibly trying to open up another fur outlet.

Ludmilla invited me to visit her in the Dombass, so that I could see how things were with my own eyes. My newly discovered relations would put in a good word for a border pass and protection papers for me with rebel leader Zakharchenko. He really is a nice guy, I was informed, his reputation to the contrary notwithstanding. Nothing bad would happen to me in Donetsk, she insisted, despite my American passport or my camelhair coat.

Forty minutes after my father-in-law left the house to drive her to the bus stop, we received a phone call informing us that Ludmilla had missed the last bus back to Donetsk. She had mixed up the bus schedule—Donetsk was now an hour ahead of Ukraine, having recently switched onto the Moscow time zone. The only other bus went through Mariupol, which would require going through a Ukrainian army checkpoint. My livid father-in-law attempted to catch up with the bus by speeding through traffic, but after half an hour of futile chasing he capitulated to the inevitable. Ludmilla returned to the kitchen to continue drinking the Odessa region’s surprisingly palatable Shabo sparkling wine, and to persist in arguing about politics with my mother-in-law and wife. The awesome screams and sounds of titanic battle that emanated forth from the kitchen for the rest of the night would have terrified all but the bravest members of the human race.

“There is blood on Poroshenko’s hands!” Ludmilla screeched.

Shouts of “We are a rich region! We don’t want to feed Kiev anymore! Your oligarchs have gotten fat off of our people long enough!” were countered with haughty retorts that “Parasitical Dombass takes more in infrastructure funds from Kiev than it pays back in taxes!” “One day Yatsenuk and his ilk will be shot by a Russian tribunal,” mixed with cries of “Your precious criminal Yanukovich was a bandit” and “The Ribbon of Saint George”—the orange-and-black band commemorates the Soviet victory over the Nazis and has been appropriated by the pro-Russian Baltic and Ukrainian Dombass separatists as well as the Kremlin during the Victory Day festivities—“was worn by Andrey Vlasov’s treasonous killers as they massacred innocents!”

Unperturbed, Ludmilla took another tack. “We don’t go to their land, to Kiev, to kill. To kill our brothers on their own territory!” she exclaimed, her eyes glittering with her delight in the battle.

“If by ‘your territory’ what you mean is the land of sovereign Ukraine …” riposted my mother-in-law.

“I don’t consider myself a Ukrainian, but I was born in Ukraine and I speak Ukrainian …” Ludmilla whispered, switching into a few words of Ukrainian with a trembling voice.

“We wanted federalization. All we wanted was federalization! Federalization! Fe-de-ra-li-za-tion!”

“Then why did you march with Russian flags?” my otherwise placid wife interceded, repeating arguments that themselves are being repeated word for word across a hundred thousand Ukrainian households.

“You can’t protest freely in your beloved Russia!” my mother-in-law accused.

Ludmilla did not give in. Was all this not a double standard? Was this all not cosmic injustice? Why could their side not go out to demonstrate if we pro-Ukrainians could stand around all day on the Maidan? Why could one side not have a referendum?

“Life was good under Yanik! Not at all like under your Yushchenko, let alone your baby-killing Poroshenko!”

“They don’t even import Poroshenko’s horrible Roshen chocolate into Europe!”

“No, it is the Russian chocolate that is the crappy chocolate!”

Chocolate aside, the assertion that life was indeed better for Yanik’s clan and his constituents in the Dombass under his kleptocratic reign was doubtless true. “Do you have any idea how many furs I sold then?” Ludmilla demanded with rueful disbelief.

Ludmilla was incensed. “The ousting of Yanukovich was a great coup” was parried with “he fled his responsibilities as head of state and was impeached.” Allegedly, Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh had walked into Yanukovich’s office on Feb. 21 and told him that it was time for him to leave. “Yanik did not flee his office out of cowardice, he was coerced! Yarosh even admitted to this once in a television interview!”

There seems to have been an ominously voiced Russian made-for-TV interview about the incident. In the interests of fairness and to determine if this was true my mother-in-law agreed to watch the entirety of a rambling YouTube interview with Yarosh. Thirty minutes later Yarosh had yet to make the self-incriminating comments about forcing Yanukovich to flee for Russia. My wife gently insisted that there might be a cultural clash between East and West and a problem with the cities of the Dombass, with vestiges of the region’s historical criminal mentality still prevalent in the eastern coal mining towns of Eastern Ukraine.

“This is all pure Russophobia!” exclaimed Ludmilla.

“I am not Russophobic, even though I am Russian!” my Jewish mother-in-law insisted passionately to her ardently pro-Russian relative. (She was half-Polish, half-Greek, which debunks arguments about ethnicity.) As the conversation grew even more heated, both sides began using slang neologisms and argot for the other.

“If we want to clean up the city, the region and the country, let’s start with our kitchen and stop calling Western Ukrainians ‘Banderovtsiy,’ ” my wife insisted.

“You all think that we in Dombass are backwards retards!”

“I don’t divide people into the first and second sort,” Ludmila sniffed. “I am Russian and I like it in Donetsk! One day there will be a trial in The Hague! For Poroshenko, for Yatsenuk, for Arsen Avakov! One day there will be a tribunal! Poroshenko will beg for mercy from the firing squad and Yarosh will put a revolver to his temple!”

And what about the perfidious Joe Biden? I wondered.

“Yes, Biden!” Ludmilla eagerly assented. “What do you think Biden does here? Why does he keep coming here? Why all those meetings in Kiev? The Kiev Junta are going to sell the Dombass to the Americans on a 50-year lease!” she warned darkly, despite a certain lack of evidence.

The argument degenerated over the presence of marauding Russian soldiers on the separatist side and the alleged existence of crack American divisions and mercenaries on the Ukrainian side. The question of NATO special operations “ghosts” fighting on the Ukrainian side drove the argument in the direction of pure epistemology: How do we know what we really know? Do Western Ukrainians really want to make speaking Russian illegal? How do we know if Biden really did not send NATO ghost legions into the Dombass?

The debate raged inconclusively for several hours, concluding only when my mother-in-law began yelling about the “zombifying” powers of Russian television. She then began grasping theatrically at her chest while reaching for her heart medicine and valerian root pills. “Don’t get agitated,” Ludmila tried to soothe her. “It’s bad for the heart. Take your pills! After all, I am being shelled by Ukrainian troops all day, and I am not getting hysterical in the middle of the kitchen.”

My wife and I left as soon as possible.

Ludmilla stayed.

I have since been informed that the argument has continued unabated at every meal for the past three months.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.