Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The presidents of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova are in Kyiv now for a 2-day GUAM summit - and my friends, Marta and I almost got detained by the police yesterday.

We were walking home from the park, the four of us plus Marta in a stroller, and we were at that little cute maidan in front of the presidential administration when we noticed that one of the two (I guess) newly-installed Ukrainian flags was rumpled and basically wrapped around the flagpole in an awkward way. One friend considered doing something about it - lower the flag down, straighten it out - and I was telling her it was probably not a good idea: I've spent too much time in Moscow, so yeah, I'm pretty timid.

Another friend, however, somehow slipped past me and was already pulling lightly on the flagstaff cord - and a few seconds later, the flag was on the ground.

No one came up to us at first. We stood there laughing, feeling like naughty kids. A cop on duty nearby didn't seem interested.

But then a young, solid, plainclothes guy walked out of the administration building and went to see what happened to the flag. Next, he approached us, looking somewhat angry. We explained to him - and to the lazy cop nearby - that we had just wanted to help, that it was actually good it happened Monday evening and not the following day when all those presidents and their entourage would be here - just imagine what a shame that would have been! He didn't seem amused or convinced: "Why did you have to touch it?" he kept asking rhetorically - Zachem bylo trogat'?

At one point he said this: "What if this is how it was intended to be? Why did you have to touch it?" I was so surprised to hear this, I even made a few steps in his direction: "Intended to be like what? Like a rag on a stick? The national flag?" He left it unanswered.

He walked back to the fallen flag, and we just stood there, looking and chatting. We weren't in much hurry to leave: we were waiting for another friend to join us in that area. But we were free - no one was holding us.

The plainclothes guy returned a few minutes later - and asked to see our IDs. I announced pretty loudly that, out of a Moscow habit, I even had my passport with me and that this would be the first time someone checked it here in Kyiv. He collected our passports and IDs and started to leave somewhere. We protested. We asked his title, but he refused to give us his name. I asked him if he needed Marta's documents as well, and he said menacingly, "Are you making fun of me?" - Vy chto, izdevaetes'?

Then we stood there waiting to get our passports back. I was getting a little bit nervous, imagining how I would have to feed the screaming Marta in a police department. But very soon the plainclothes guy brought out an elderly, high-ranking cop, plump and short, handed him our IDs, and the guy spent a while asking us the already familiar rhetorical question: why did we have to touch the flag? Not what our goal was - but more like why did we have to disrupt such a nice (and orderly) evening. At my friend he, a man with his roots deep in the Soviet Union, snapped at one point: "Initiative is punishable." To which she replied, laughing, "Oh, this we do know, thank you!"

Then they let us go. When we were outside the fence, we looked back and saw six or seven of them standing around the flag, trying to figure out how to get it back up.

I was so deeply in my Moscow/Belarus state of mind, concerned about our rights being violated and all that, that it took me a while to realize that they actually had every reason to detain us - because with so many presidents visiting, what seems like a prank - or, in our case, an accident - may not be what it seems, but something a lot more serious. And if you think about it this way, the cops and the plainclothes guys were way too slow and relaxed about it all.


Marta behaved beautifully throughout the ordeal, by the way.


Bankova is shut down today - the infamous fence is locked till 5 pm today - to keep the pranksters like us away, I guess.


  1. I guess they really had no idea how to get it back up--it wasn't their detachment's responsibility and they probably needed to call someone to get it back up. Who knows.
    When I was in Budapest 4 years ago, a friend of mine and I happened to cross the low-haning and very heavy decorative chains surrounding a square in front of the parliament. It was dark already and we were just walking, not even paying much attention to the chains (we thought there was an opening somewhere, but we just needed a shortcut.) As soon as we stepped onto the square, 4 policemen rushed to us from 4 different corners of the square speaking on their walkie-talkies. At first, I didn't realize they were running to us, but then I figured it out and we turned back, stepped over the chain and walked away. I'm sure should we've touched any flag there'd be planes throwiing bombs at us.

  2. Can you imagine if that "zhlob" (plainclothes guy) could use Internet and read your blog, what he would say: "why you are writing about this?"