Days ago, it was announced that Ukraine had been accepted as the 109th nation in the International Surfing Association, certain to exacerbate already intense relations with neighboring Russia. I visited the capital, Kyiv, in early Spring 2014 and just stumbled across the stories I wrote for Australian fashion publication Oyster. Would you like a peek into our newest brothers and sisters? Well then, you’ve come to the right place.
And Ukraine International Airlines flight 0518 cracks very hard on Kiev’s runway. It seems as if the pilot forgot that it was time to land and that we are all going to die here instead of there. I am clutching the armrest tightly and my Nick Potash pinky ring is digging into my finger. It was made from an old WWII pin that reads “God Bless America.”
We bounce twice before coming to a rest and the cabin bursts into spontaneous applause. I always chuckle when the innocents applaud landings, though, I suppose in this corner of the world where 1 in 10 flights actually crash, the applause represents genuine relief. Maybe I should join? I smile condescendingly, instead, at the Ukrainian woman next to me wearing a shirt that reads “FASHION ADDICT” while rubbing my finger. It really hurts.
I step off the plane after gathering my bag, an almost perfect Costume National carry-all, and wander through the eerily silent main terminal. No one is coming to Kiev. No one is coming to Ukraine, save the entire Russian Army and their tanks and their MiGs and their heavy metal Kalashnikovs.
This whole mess started, innocently enough, six months ago in a large square in the center of Kiev. There, protesters gathered to call on then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to accept a deal that would bring the country closer to the European Union instead of Russia. Both the EU and the Russian Federation had aid deals on the table. Debate swirls on which deal was favorable, but, in either case, the people of Kiev and western Ukraine wanted to be European. They had been Russian long enough, as a part of the Soviet Union, and, increasingly, they wanted David Beckham’s haircut, Carla Bruni’s voice, Donatella Versace’s plastic surgeon.
Yanukovych, though, spurned the EU deal and sent the protesters mad. Hundreds of thousands of them burned tires and threw Molotov cocktails and whatever it is that mad protesters do. The state riot police fought back, killing many, which sent the protesters furious. More burned tires. More Molotovs. And Ukraine teetered on the brink. Eventually, Yanukovych fled, the government collapsed and the protesters toasted their victory. Until Russia decided enough was enough, annexed a part of Ukraine known as the Crimea, propped up pro-Russian militias in the east and sent their Army to the border. And Ukraine has been teetering ever since. Will it implode? Will Russia invade? Will Beckham, Bruni and Donatella care?
I move through passport control and the soldier handling documents stares at me. His eyes are almost wild, almost pleading, almost laughing. Definitely bloodshot. It is not until later that I realize his eyes were simply telling me that, out there, beyond the sanctity of Boryspil International Airport, the patients had taken over the asylum. That, once I passed him, I might get my heart eaten by fascists, or Putin. But more on that later. For now he simply asks, “Why are you in Ukraine?” I answer. “Because the most amazing fashion things ever must be happening in the rubble. Have you seen Mad Max?” He grunts and stamps and sends me on my way.
Clearing customs, a starving cab driver grabs my arm and escorts me to his old yellow Lada babbling about Putin and Obama in Russian. I think he is saying both are bad but can’t be sure. He keeps smashing one fist into another.
We drive down a freeway that is as eerily silent as the terminal surrounded by trees and weird. A cold mist falls from the sky. And then I see my first real sign of madness. A homemade checkpoint has been erected in the right two lanes. It is not being manned by official Ukrainian army but by some ragtag bunch of mulletheads. They awkwardly wave old pistols. One is wearing a leather bandana over his mouth, a U.S. WWII helmet that has been spray painted black and welding goggles.
Fear and paranoia hang thick in the air like the lingering bottom notes of a Maison Martin Margiela REPLICA perfume. The little anarchist keeps looking at me looking at my passport looking at me looking at my passport looking over his shoulder to the other little anarchists occupying his tire and broken cement bunker. They all wear mixed camouflage prints, definitely not standard issue. It makes sense, I suppose. They are anarchists, after all. Eventually, he points through the taxi’s open window, at my Fujifilm X-20 camera and says, “Sho to?” which sounds like retarded Russian and I assume translates to “Shto eta” or “What’s that?” I tell him, “Gwenyth Paltrow calls it, ‘…a versatile work of art.’” He grunts and waves the taxi through.
And I was not expecting this. I was not expecting Ukraine to be in full failed state mode. My driver, who is continually smashing one fist into another while saying “Obama” “Putin,” and I have already been through three homemade checkpoints and have not even arrived at our destination yet.
I have been in war zones before. I have had my hearing exploded by dropping bombs, been shot at, chased and kidnapped. I have been to Somalia, for pity’s sake, and was expecting Ukraine to be a laugh. A candy coated European version of real Middle Eastern/African mayhem. But in some very serious ways, it is more menacing. In my experience, Caucasians, even little anarchists, take their due diligence seriously, which means detention. I do not want to be detained here. The weather is awful and #tuberculosis is trending.
Things have been out of control like this since the protesters drove the government into hiding. Ground zero of the movement was Maidan Nexalezhnosti, a large square in the center of Kiev featuring sculptured odes to Ukraine’s glorious past. Simply referred to as “Maidan” it was also ground zero for the last major uprising in Ukraine, the Orange Revolution. And the last major uprising before that called, “Ukraine without Kuchma.” The Orange Revolution ended well for the protesters. They overturned a fraudulent vote and ushered in their man, Viktor Yushchenko, though he was later poisoned by Russian agents, they say. Ukraine without Kuchma ended poorly for the protesters. They all got arrested and tortured, they say. How this latest uprising, called Euromaidan, will end is completely up in the air. It could unite Ukraine and strengthen economic ties to the west. It could effectively erase Ukraine as we know it from the face of the earth.
After two more homemade checkpoints we finally turn into a hulk knows as the Ukraine Hotel. It rests on the southeastern corner of Maidan and is a monument to mid-century Soviet modern all cement and bland and weird. I walk past its security, through a metal detector and up to the main desk. The lobby is cavernous and completely empty save two beautiful women working the front desk. I ask if there is availability. They smile tired smiles and say, “Yes.”
After checking in to my Soviet chic room, I stand on its Soviet decaying balcony and look at the utter chaos below. It is beyond anything I imagined. Mad Max’s knees would shake. Viv Westwood would think it was too punk even in the 1970s. Flotsam and jetsam of the protest still smolder. Bunkers housing self-appointed militias waiting for the coming Russian invasion polish swords. And it feels like it is all going to come undone. Like society is finished. But I have to go and get into it even if it means #tuberculosis because the last time society was finished Viv Westwood made some fashion wow. And downtown Kiev would be the perfect place for the next SEX.
Click, click, click. Clack. The sound of two dueling stick swords mixes with Ukrainian nationalist anthems rocking at full volume. Katniss Everdeen, the real one not the one played by Jennifer Lawrence, is sharpening her combat skills against a man twice her size/age in head-to-toe olive green. They circle each other slowly as a cold mist drains from heaven and click, click, click. Clack. Katniss wears black on black, of course. The man in olive green wears a belt so high, nearly to his armpits, that I feel certain it is the start of a new, prog, never-before-seen, trend. I look down at my own “belt,” a Yves Saint Laurent shoelace holding a trim pair Won Hundred jeans very much below my waist, and think, “Touche, Ukrainian comrade. Touche” before hiking them up. I will be prog too.
And I have been wandering around Maidan, getting deeper and deeper into the horror for hours or maybe days. It is a maze of bunkers, rubble, smoke, and paranoid stares. The paranoid stares carry particular gravitas because there is real fear that Russia may invade today. The eastern portion of the country, you see, is voting on whether to join Russia, simply secede from Ukraine or stay where they are. Conventional wisdom says the ballot boxes will be stuffed in favor of secession. Eastern Ukrainians, and the pro-Russian militias that have taken over some eastern towns, identify with their northern neighbor far more than western Ukrainians but, in reality, the whole concept of “Ukraine” is murky, at best.
The region has been inhabited for more than 45,000 years but didn’t achieve any real prominence until settled by the Kievan Rus’ in the 800s. The very same Rus’ who gave Russia its name. Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, is, in fact, considered the “mother of Russian cities” and Ukraine is sometimes called Russia’s older brother, though throughout the Middle Ages, it was simply, and less honorably, referred to as “Little Russia.” In 1921 it was absorbed into Big Russia, i.e. The Soviet Union and there it sat until 1991 when freedom presented itself in the form of massive institutional collapse.
Certainly, there have been flare-ups of Ukrainian nationalism over the past 200 years, yet they are not altogether consistent and are not shared by the whole population. Here, though, in the dead center of Maidan circa 2014, Ukrainian #nationalism is trending hard. #Ultra-Nationalism even, as evidenced by the red and black flags that flutter over the bunkers. “Ultra-nationalism” is sometimes called “fascism” and Putin regularly hurls this invective toward Kiev. He says that Neo-Nazis have taken over and he should probably invade to save the world from Hitler 2.0.
And perhaps Putin is right but probably not. The Ukrainian ultra-nationalist groups, such as Right Sector and Svoboda, despise Russian aggression and champion a romantic version of rose-colored Ukrainian amazingness but I could not find any overtly racial overtones within their discourse. All I see is Apocalyptic Punk 2.0.
Some men run mohawks that cascade down their foreheads into Danzig devil locks. Some sport red ankle length Cossack trench coats and by red, I mean eat-your-heart-out-Christian-Louboutin, red. Some wear neat little Trotskyite spectacles and blue plastic bags. Some perch black Maoist caps on their wide heads. Many have mullets that are distinctly menacing and not at all ironic.
Individualism is pronounced and seemingly encouraged but Maidan’s warrior class share one thing, besides a hatred of Russia, and that is camouflage. Desert camo is paired with Jean Paul Gaultier undershirts and marsh camo. Digital camo is paired with neon sashes and traditional U.S. woodland camo. Four-color semi-arid camo with anti-Russian buttons and French Tiger Stripe. Mixing prints has been hip for a minute but Apocalyptic Punk 2.0 takes it to the next level. Yes, when the world ends, mix your camos (and add a touch of Jean Paul Gaultier). It is a bold statement with questionable practicality. The hallmark of all great fashion.
Click, click, click. Clack. I look down, again, at my freshly hiked jeans. I was minutes late on that trend but, focusing on my shoes, I feel semi-satisfied. They are Louis Vuitton driving moccasins featuring a black/grey urban camo. And if my jeans were Luxembourgish forest pattern I would be completely next level #prog.
Uh oh. Not much of a peek. If I recall, I ran out of money, as I’d been covering fashion week in Tbilisi, Georgia prior and you know how fashion weeks go. I barely made it out of the country. I will now go back and surf.