Front-line journalist: Chornovol is still recovering from her attack.
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No chickening out for activists subject to intimidation in Kiev

“I don’t hide behind the title ‘journalist’ any more,” says Tetiana Chornovol. “My investigative reporting is just one of the weapons I use in my battle against Yanukovych and his clan.”

Tetiana Chornovol specialises in exposing the murky world of Ukraine’s top officials. As an investigative reporter for opposition websites, she has a reputation for unorthodox methods and daring stunts. On Christmas Day 2013, she was dragged out of her car, beaten up and almost killed in an attack most Ukrainians believe was linked to her work as a journalist.

When I arrive at her house on the outskirts of Kiev her three-year-old son is racing around the front room on a scooter. Chornovol’s mother, Natalia, watches him nervously. “He’s fearless and Tetiana was just the same as a child,” she tells me. “She climbed up the highest fences in our village and scared her granny witless.”

Now 34, Chornovol is still fearless and still climbing fences. As we drink tea, she shows me photographs she took secretly a couple years ago of the palatial residence outside Kiev occupied by the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Wearing a camouflage jacket, she hid in the forest nearby, waiting for the right moment. Then she shimmied up the wall Lara Croft-style, using a plank and a rope, right over the heads of the security patrol.

Before she was caught, she smuggled out some images of a gold-plated barge where he’d throw parties. Just one of the imported crystal chandeliers there costs £60,000 – almost the equivalent of Yanukovych’s official annual salary. “The worst thing,” she says, “is that we don’t have a hospital in Ukraine for children with cancer – the government says it lacks the funds.”

The president’s estate is just one of many lavish residences built by the ruling elite. Chornovol believes a new mansion south of the capital is for the president’s eldest son, Oleksandr, but she could find no official documents for the building. So, a few months ago, wearing a plastic helmet, she crawled through a hole in the fence. She managed to blend in with the workforce and grab a blueprint from the construction office. “Crudely speaking, I stole it,” she admits. “But since all that property is being built with stolen government funds, I felt I had the right.

“The security service probably said if these plans reach the public, everything would have to be rebuilt,” she says. “I think this was the reason they went for me.”

Whatever the case, Chornovol is not short of enemies. The night before she was attacked, she had published a blog featuring pictures of what she says was the out-of-town residence of the interior minister.

Five men are in custody for the attack on Chornovol but few believe that whoever ordered the attack will be brought to justice. The prosecutor general’s office says she was a victim of road rage, a theory Chornovol dismisses as “absurd”.

Some are uncomfortable with her close links to the Fatherland party of the imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. In the October 2012 election, she ran unsuccessfully for parliament as a candidate of the party in western Ukraine.

“I don’t hide behind the title ‘journalist’ any more,” she says. “My investigative reporting is just one of the weapons I use in my battle against Yanukovych and his clan. I’m also very active socially.” She has been on the front line of the mass protests that have rocked Kiev since November last year.

“I would be much more active if I wasn’t a mother,” she says, but her children motivate her, too. “I can’t give up because I know that this is for their future, about what sort of country they’ll grow up in.”

Lucy Ash’s profile of Tetiana Chornovol will feature in the BBC Radio 4 series “Europe’s Troublemakers”, which runs from 17-21 February (1.45pm)

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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What David Hockney has to tell us about football

Why the sudden glut of blond footballers? A conversation I had with the artist back in 1966 gave me a clue. . .

In 1966, I went to interview David Hockney at a rather run-down flat in Bayswater, central London. He was 28 and had just won a gold medal at the Royal College of Art.

In his lavatory, I noticed a cut-out photograph from a newspaper of Denis Law scoring a goal. I asked if he was a football fan. He said no, he just liked Denis Law’s thighs.

The sub-editors cut that remark out of the story, to save any gossip or legal problems. In 1966 homosexual activity could still be an offence.

Hockney and a friend had recently been in the United States and had been watching an advert on TV that said “Blondes have more fun”. At two o’clock in the morning, slightly drunk, they both went out, bought some hair dye and became blond. Hockney decided to remain blond from then on, though he has naturally dark hair.

Is it true that blonds have more fun? Lionel Messi presumably thinks so, otherwise why has he greeted this brand-new season with that weird blond hair? We look at his face, his figure, his posture and we know it’s him – then we blink, thinking what the heck, does he realise some joker has been pouring stuff on his head?

He has always been such a staid, old-fashioned-looking lad, never messing around with his hair till now. Neymar, beside him, has gone even blonder, but somehow we expect it of him. He had foony hair even before he left Brazil.

Over here, blonds are popping up all over the shop. Most teams now have a born-again blondie. It must take a fortune for Marouane Fellaini of Man United to brighten up his hair, as he has so much. But it’s already fading. Cheapskate.

Mesut Özil of Arsenal held back, not going the full head, just bits of it, which I suspect is a clue to his wavering, hesitant personality. His colleague Aaron Ramsey has almost the full blond monty. Paul Pogba of Man United has a sort of blond streak, more like a marker pen than a makeover. His colleague Phil Jones has appeared blond, but he seems to have disappeared from the team sheet. Samir Nasri of Man City went startlingly blond, but is on loan to Seville, so we’re not able to enjoy his locks. And Didier Ndong of Sunderland is a striking blond, thanks to gallons of bleach.

Remember the Romanians in the 1998 World Cup? They suddenly appeared blond, every one of them. God, that was brilliant. One of my all-time best World Cup moments, and I was at Wembley in 1966.

So, why do they do it? Well, Hockney was right, in a sense. Not to have more fun – meaning more sex – because top footballers are more than well supplied, but because their normal working lives are on the whole devoid of fun.

They can’t stuff their faces with fast food, drink themselves stupid, stay up all night, take a few silly pills – which is what many of our healthy 25-year-old lads consider a reasonably fun evening. Nor can they spend all their millions on fun hols, such as skiing in the winter, a safari in the spring, or hang-gliding at the weekend. Prem players have to be so boringly sensible these days, or their foreign managers will be screaming at them in their funny foreign accents.

While not on the pitch, or training, which takes up only a few hours a day, the boredom is appalling, endlessly on planes or coaches or in some hotel that could be anywhere.

The only bright spot in the long days is to look in the mirror and think: “Hmm, I wonder what highlights would look like? I’ve done the beard and the tattoos. Now let’s go for blond. Wow, gorgeous.”

They influence each other, being simple souls, so when one dyes his hair, depending on where he is in the macho pecking order, others follow. They put in the day by looking at themselves. Harmless fun. Bless ’em.

But I expect all the faux blonds to have gone by Christmas. Along with Mourinho. I said that to myself the moment he arrived in Manchester, smirking away. Pep will see him off. OK then, let’s say Easter at the latest . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times