Thursday, December 02, 2004

Michael Subotin has translated the first part of Andrei Kolesnikov's story on Ukraine that appeared in Kommersant, a Russian daily. Thank you so much for sharing this awesome translation, Another Misha! (My translation of the final part of this piece is here.)

(Kommersant - Kyiv – November 30, 2004)


By Andrei Kolesnikov

Late in the evening it was announced that the authorities decided to unblock the buildings of the cabinet and administration, and that dozens of buses with special forces were already dispatched there.

I decided to head there, too. At first, it seemed that it was a false alarm, as is often the case in these situations. The Independence Square is a brisk 5-minute walk away from the presidential administration. Or rather it would be, if it weren't for the climbing slope that slows you down. As it happened, at 11 o'clock in the evening there were many more people coming down than going up. The warning had already been called off. Crowds of hundreds were walking towards me. People in orange were standing in front of every entrance to the cabinet and administration.

The idea that anything here could be unblocked seemed plainly comical. If these people didn't want to leave on their own accord, no force could have moved them. At any moment, thousands more could have come to join them from Independence Square.

Then, however, I walked further and was greeted by a different sight. On the other side of the administration building, where there was more darkness and less noise, stood dozens of buses. Their window curtains were drawn shut. Their doors opened periodically, letting out well-dressed men. They were wearing bullet-proof vests and spherical helmets, carrying plastic shields and rubber clubs in their hands. Having left the buses, they moved
quickly and almost without a sound. What was their hurry? I began to get the impression that all their movements, without doubt, followed some plan. I decided to observe one of the squads.

I accelerated to pass it by and assumed a casual gait. I'm sure this must be among the methods they use to tail someone. Then they began to close in on me. I started running. Still, they kept getting closer and closer. It soon became apparent that it was me whom they were after. I was struck by a desire to hide from them, but by then I understood there was no way out...

At that moment they took a turn in the direction of a courtyard, and I retraced my steps to discover a crowd of people in orange. They were standing in a dense picket line blocking the way of the men in black. It was an impressive view. The special forces soldiers stopped, seemingly unsure of what to do next.

The lieutenant-colonel who was commanding the squad asked who was in charge. People pointed to a youth of about 20 years of age. According to my estimate, he weighed in at some 300 pounds. It was easy to guess why he was in charge.

- We want to pass, - the lieutenant-colonel told him.

- And whose agreement did you get on this? - shot back the youth with surprise in his voice. His nose and mouth were covered by an orange scarf. The lieutenant-colonel asked him to remove it so he could hear him.

- No need, - said the youth, - I'm just going to speak up. I said, who told you that you could pass?

- You know we can just go through, - quietly said the lieutenant-colonel.

- No, goodness, - said the youth, - people don't just go through like that here. We've got everything coordinated. Hold on, I'm going to hook you up with someone.

The lieutenant-colonel signaled his men to wait. As far as I could tell, they didn't seem to be in a rush.

After a couple of minutes, a police colonel walked out from the picket line. He looked every bit as formidable as the youth. Together they gave the impression of two sumo wrestlers getting ready for the Shikotan championship final.

The colonel and the lieutenant-colonel struck up a conversation in Russian.

- Who are you? - the lieutenant-colonel asked.

- I'm in charge of the base, - replied the colonel. - What did you want?

- We need to go in, - the lieutenant-colonel said.

- Do you have orders?

- We don't work without orders.

- Purpose?

- The men are really hungry, - suddenly said the lieutenant-colonel imploringly. - And they also need to go to the bathroom. They can't stand it on the buses anymore. If they don't take a leak in a few minutes, they might trash this whole place, you know!

- Understood, - said the colonel. - Can your men hold out five more minutes?

- I think so, - the lieutenant-colonel said without conviction.

The colonel turned out to be a man of his word. He discussed something with the youth in orange scarf, the youth called someone on his phone, and the picket line parted to let through the special forces.

Amidst the confusion I followed them under an archway. On its other side was the quiet of a nocturnal Kyiv courtyard. The snow fell on the ground without melting. The swamp of slush didn't reach inside from the streets. I couldn't see a single person within the courtyard's perimeter. The fighters ran by at a quick pace following their commander, who seemed to know the way well, and within a minute were entering open gates. The colonel who negotiated their passage was already there.

- Are you the one who's in charge here? - I asked him.

- I guess so, - he replied casually.

- Why, that's not a certainty?

- No, - he said frankly. - What certainty can there be around here?

- Do you mean that it isn't clear whether it's you or them who is in

- "Them" meaning who? - the colonel asked, annoyed.

- The people in orange.

- They're also our people, - he said with a menacing note in his voice.

I wasn't getting on his good side with my questions.

At that point several people from the cordon approached us, including the youth with the scarf.

- Well, there we go again! - he said with repoach to the colonel. - What's up with that? That wasn't the deal. Our deal was, we let through five buses into the mess hall, people eat, get on their buses and drive off. And these guys? They're coming up without coordination. I let them through, but you've got to understand me, please, I could get reprimanded for this. Our headquarters allowed the passage, but that was an unscheduled event. If this comes up, who's going to take the fall? I will! That wasn't a very good way to do things, do you agree?!

- Yeah, myself, sure I agree. - mumbled the colonel. - But you've got to understand me too. They were already here. They were supposed to sit on the bus. It wasn't their turn to eat yet. We also do things according to plan, just like you. But they had their reasons, they gave me a very compelling explanation... We have got to trust each other, otherwise we won't get this done.

I was listening to the conversation in amazement. What, exactly, were they supposed to get done?

- Ok, all right, - the youth went on. - When are your buses leaving?

- In about fifteen minutes, - said the colonel. - Here's the main thing you guys need to understand. Right now it's going to be like this: people will be coming in and going out, and there will be less and less of them coming in. Soon, there may be nobody left here.

He spoke the last words with hesitation.

- Officer's word? - asked him several people at once.

- Come on, guys, give me a break, - he sighed. - when have I lied to you?

- You told us there wouldn't be any buses at all! - shouted several voices at once. - But they came. Did you want to unblock everything here? Come on, say it, didn't you?

- So maybe we did. - the colonel said annoyed. - How do I know? I'm in charge of this sector. I need to keep things in order here.

- Our job is exactly the same, - readily agreed the people in orange.

They were about to part ways, quite satisfied with each other, when another special forces squad rushed up to the archway entrance. This one also wanted to go in and even received an order to do so from their commanding officer. To make matters worse, the youth with the scarf wasn't getting through to someone in the headquarters on his phone. The special forces started to press on the human chain.

- Police are with the people! - began chanting the picketers.Others were rushing to reinforce them from every direction. The special forces were also getting seriously wound up.

The colonel rescued the situation again. He came out to the fighters and asked for their commander. He was approached by a person who for some reason wore civilian clothes. For about 10 minutes they discussed something in hushed but agitated voices. In the meantime, the fighters changed their position. They now stood in a file along the wall of the house. People in orange immediately took to chatting them up. The fighters spoke no word even to one another.

Then the man in civilian clothes gave an order:

- We're leaving!

They ran towards a bus.

- Can you explain to me what they wanted? Why are they so high-strung and making everyone else nervous? And why are they not doing anything? - I asked the colonel.

- Too many questions, - he answered. - I have those too. These wanted to sleep at our base instead of the bus. They didn't have any orders at all. That's just anything-goes. You can't have that. Therefore, they will sleep on the bus.

- And when are they going to unblock the administration and cabinet?

- When they get their beauty sleep, - the colonel said morosely.

Whatever worldly reasons caused the movements of special forces on Kyiv streets, they were, firstly, having an aggravating effect on the people in orange. Secondly, this was a way to test their readiness for battle.

As far as I could tell, they were ready. Their actions did seem to follow a plan after all. They even had a military headquarters, as it turned out.

In a word, I felt well-defended from all sides. Now I could go to bed for the night with an easy heart.

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