There were no more than 50 of them, most middle-aged but a few young ones as well, all waiting for Putin, who was staying nearby during his one-day visit to Ukraine. I noticed them from quite a distance, because of the flags they were waving: one Ukrainian blue-and-yellow, one Russian white-blue-and-red and a few blue-and-white with Yanukovych's 2004 campaign logo and without it. No orange whatsoever, which is quite eye-catching these days. But somehow, I wasn't surprised to see this crowd, not at all.
Despite the wind and the freezing cold, I started photographing them. I was walking back and forth a few meters away from them (not circling around, you see, because they stood face to face with half a dozen indifferent cops, and going in front of the crowd meant crossing the police line no one was supposed to cross). I really regretted there were so few of them packed so close together - I couldn't mix with them and remain anonymous, and I wasn't in a chatty mood right then. Anyway, most of the pictures I was getting were really boring, and when two guys started sort of posing for me, all my energy went into smiling back at them and I kept missing the best moments by a fraction of a second.
I was preparing to leave when an anemic-looking, middle-aged woman came up to me and demanded to know who I was and why I was taking pictures. That was something I didn't expect. She repeated her questions several times, in a rather hostile way, before I managed to say something like, 'What difference does it make?"
It wasn't just this surprise factor that made me mute for a while, though - it was also this deja vu thing: suddenly, I felt like I was back in St. Pete, at that babushkas protest back in January, and not in Kyiv. It was there, in St. Pete, that they were paranoid and kept asking me who I was, as if I were some paparazza spying on their private lives. It had been quite shocking to experience this kind of attitude in St. Pete, after two months of the wonderful exposure to the wonderful orange crowd - and it was as shocking to experience it here in Kyiv, some three months after the Orange Revolution.
The pale woman was determined to either scare me away or force me to confess my identity. She was soon joined by four or five of her friends, all bloodless except for one who looked like a Soviet bartender, fat and wearing at least three tons of the most ridiculous makeup. Our conversation went something like this:
- Who are you? Why are you taking pictures here?
- It's none of your business.
- Who are you?
- A tourist.
- A tourist? Where from? What country?
- Do you want me to show you my passport? It's none of your business.
- Who is she? What's your color? You can't photograph here.
- Yes, I can. I can take pictures of anything and anyone I want to in the street. And especially when it's a rally like yours.
- No, you can't. I don't want you to photograph me.
- Okay, I won't take pictures of you.
- Me, too. I don't want to be photographed.
- Wonderful. I'm not going to include a picture of you in my tourist photo album, either.
This sounded so idiotic that this other woman who didn't want to be photographed smiled a barely noticeable smile and then walked away.
- Why are you hanging around here?
- Do you mind?
- Yes, we do!
- And what are you all doing here?
- We're waiting for President Putin.
- Oh yeah? And what are you gonna tell him?
- We'll tell him that we love him, and that we love Russia, and that we want to be together with Russia, and that we do not want NATO here!
The bartender woman was yelling all this at me, and I was smiling and nodding, and then another woman told her to shut up and stop wasting all her energy on me, and soon they all walked away to a nearby cafe to get warm. The men who'd been sort of posing for me earlier told me not to pay attention and to continue taking pictures if I wanted to. One had a Yanukovych campaign kerchief around his neck, the other was holding a little Yanukovych flag in his hand.
I took a couple more pictures and then went away to get warm myself. Over coffee, I was thinking, among other things, of the irony of this encounter: I told them I was a tourist because it was the easiest way to avoid a pointless political argument, and I did feel like a tourist at that moment, even though I've spent most of my life in Lipki, could walk with my eyes closed there and have always felt most comfortable and most relaxed there.
I returned to the mini-rally half an hour later and noticed that, first, the aggressive women hadn't come back yet, and, second, that a TV crew had appeared. Those who remained chanted the following for the camera: YULIA - OUT! YUSHCHENKO - OUT! UKRAINE AND RUSSIA TOGETHER! PUTIN - YES, NATO - NO!
And here's Andrei Kolesnikov's take on the same crowd (his whole text in the Kommersant (in Russian) is worth reading but I'm too sleepy to translate it... And God, the picture of Yushchenko next to Putin is hideous... the way his skin looks is too sad and scary...):
Some ten minutes before Putin and his entourage reached the residence, a group of 30 demonstrators showed up by the barriers set up to cordon off the street. "Yanukovych-2004" was written on their yellow-blue flags. [Actually, those flags were white-blue, not yellow-blue, the Ukrainian national colors.] These people must have been still in the midst of the Ukrainian presidential election.
- Russian? - they asked me. It was useless to deny it.
- God! - They were shining. - He is from Moscow! One of us!
And, interrupting each other, they started telling me how cruelly the new government was treating them, how it refused to agree that Ukraine needed the fourth round of the election. But the government didn't want the fourth round, thus admitting its weakness and the fact that their candidate, Victor Yanukovych, would have won in the fourth round automatically. And if not in the fourth, then definitely in the fifth.
- We wanted to greet Putin, but they sent us away from Maidan to the Mariinsky Palace, telling us that he was going to be there. But there's no one there! They lied to us! We've been fooled again!
Finally, they asked me the main question: could I help them with a flag? They had only one Russian flag for all of them. And they were aware that they had fewer chances for victory with one flag than with two.
At some point, I realized I couldn't bear listening to them anymore. I left but they did manage to hand me their most precious possession as a good-bye gift: a photo of Victor Yanukovych giving autographs. I couldn't reject this gift, even though later I would reproach myself for this fit of weakness. I should have let them keep the photo. They need it more than I do.