Activists keep riot police at bay standing on makeshift barricades on the Maidan, Kyiv, in January. Photo: Espen Rasmussen/Panon
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Ukraine: Rebirth of a nation

Bullied and humiliated by Russia, seen as a strategic buffer by the US, Ukraine is riven by corruption and deeply divided. Can it rise and free itself?

The revolution in Ukraine and the celebration, grief and apprehension it has inspired mask a fundamental misunderstanding. The country has released itself from the larcenous grip of a bullying dictator and his venal friends – but Ukraine has been a surreally corrupt parliamentary democracy, run by a lineage of serially corrupt presidents, for 23 years. So why now? And it has risen up only to fall foul of yet another bully. But why President Putin’s wildly aggressive reaction? And will it snuff out the hopeful revolt begun in Kyiv? To answer those questions, we need to acknowledge that the events of the past three months in and around the bloody crucible of Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv have been only secondarily about power – though Putin’s illegal occupation of Crimea is about nothing else. And to explain that, we need to recognise that the nation of Ukraine has been misunderstood, not for months but for decades, possibly for centuries.

The historical source of the misunderstanding is the assumption that Ukraine was not a nation at all, but always a province, an administrative region, a westerly satrapy of an eastern empire whose ideology, language and aspirations were so uniform that you couldn’t get a papiros paper between Moscow, the boiler room of that ideology, and the country Russia called its “little brother”.

That attitude, expressed sometimes paternally, sometimes viciously in the tsarist period, and patronisingly and with violence throughout the Communist era – Stalin was the arch-exponent of “little brother” politics – conditioned generation upon generation of Ukrainians to see their lives in permanent thrall to an overlord. To some degree that is what Putin, a relic of that era, is still counting on to secure his ends, whatever precisely they turn out to be. In 1991 independence came: a largely romantic gesture, because romance or sentiment are all that is left when a country is reduced to folkloric subservience, as Ukraine was under communism. Afterwards Ukrainians’ historical sense of subordination, resignation and quietism persisted, as did Russia’s belief that, deep down, Ukraine was still its indivisible property. It persisted through four corrupt presidencies, increasingly weary but intact until last November, when the Maidan protests started. It was bred in the bone.

The justification for Ukraine’s sibling relationship with Russia, that Kievan Rus’ was the cradle of Russian nationhood (the Slavic population of this early-medieval state then migrated north to safer, forested regions under pressure from incursions by Turkic tribes), is a thousand years old. Later history nevertheless puts it into a less dominant perspective. Since the 12th century large parts of what is now Ukraine have been invaded or settled by Mongols, Lithuanians, Poles and Tatars and the territory has been gathered up by an array of rulers, from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to the Crimean Khans. In 1654, foreshadowing what some have already assumed will be the eventual outcome of events on the Maidan, the leader of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, then battling the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, pledged loyalty to the tsar: three decades later, when peace was signed, Kyiv and the Cossack lands east of the Dnieper came under Russian rule and the Ukrainian lands west of the Dnieper went to Poland. For Peter the Great’s Russia, read Vladimir Putin’s; for Poland, the European Union.

When Ukraine finally emerged in 1991 as an independent state for the first time in 354 years, it was from a history of extraordinary stagnation. (Various messy proto-independent Ukrainian states were declared after the 1917 revolution but imploded rapidly.) Under the tsars, Ukrainian language, culture and national identity had been suppressed systematically: it was known simply as “the south-west”. In the early 1920s a Soviet experiment with a policy of Ukrainianisation gave the country fixed borders and a national identity but, as Nikita Khrushchev noted later, “For Stalin, peasants were scum,” and once collectivisation began the family relationship nosedived into domestic violence.

A measure of that violence is that today, three generations after the horror of four and a half million dead in the golodomor (famine) of 1932-33, my Ukrainian relations still instinctively cram their fridges with stale bread, refusing to throw it away. In the late 1930s Stalin’s purges of the intelligentsia were nowhere deadlier than in Ukraine. From Russia’s little brother, it turned into Russia’s alternately petted and viciously battered wife, shrinking culturally to a folkloric backwater and politically to a servo-state with a handsome but vacuous Stalin-classical capital. The origins of revolt always lie in dormancy and one centralist decision, silently but deeply resented, may have been more instrumental in Ukrainians’ move towards independence than any other: the decision in 1970 to force on the country the construction of its first nuclear plant 140 kilometres north of Kyiv, at Chernobyl.

It would be insulting to say that Ukrainians have misunderstood themselves; but in the strange relationship dynamics of a horribly abused polity, it is possible – as in an abusive relationship – to become the thing you are treated as. The liberal west might have helped Ukraine to emancipate itself but instead has obstructed Ukrainians’ healthy self-view with its own misunderstandings and condescension. In August 1991 George Bush visited Kyiv to lecture listeners on the dangers of nationalism and separation. Subsequently the EU and US treated independent Ukraine with indifference, viewing it as just another newly open marketplace for everything from obsolete US hand-ploughs to mail-order brides. For years the English-speaking world has gone on calling it “the Ukraine” – the British Foreign Secretary did so last week – as if it were still a region of Russia, like the Urals or the north Caucasus.

Only when the 2004 Orange Revolution, the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and gas disputes with Russia in 2006 and 2009 kept dragging it on to the west’s foreign-policy radar did Brussels and Washington start to see its significance as a buffer between Europe and Russia. Yet even then they viewed it as no more than a commodity: a strategic chess piece, a prize of influence, a resource-rich target of western expansionism.

The result of this psychically toxic mixture of abuse, neglect, condescension and exploitation? The Ukrainian people, ethnic Ukrainians (78 per cent), ethnic Russians (17 per cent) and others, had a nation but did not – until 31 November last – start to have the confidence of nationhood.

In such an analysis, Crimea is no doubt a special case with its majority Russian population (58 per cent), but that figure has been shrinking for 50 years while the proportion of Crimeans who consider Ukraine their homeland has doubled to more than 70 per cent in the past five years. As a footnote, the 1897 census shows that, just over a century ago, the largest ethnic group in Crimea was the Tatars. So the Russian flags thrust aloft in Simferopol today are woven from thin stuff. Of more importance is Putin’s wrath at Russia having had to give up Crimea – its elegant strategic solution to Mediterranean influence, its Riviera – and rent floor space there after Ukraine separated itself, on paper at least, from the USSR.

What finally triggered Ukrainians’ confidence? President Yanukovych’s rejection of a trade and political associa­tion with the EU provides a part-answer; so do living costs and the vegetative state of the economy (Poland’s economy, slightly smaller than Ukraine’s in the early 1990s, is now more than twice its size). Yet political opportunism and vulnerability to threats from big brother Russia have been around for years, for as long as the economy has been a basket case. And the third element – corruption by the bucketload – has also been a constant of Ukrainian life for decades.

But let’s, for the sake of argument, examine what corruption means in Ukrainian terms. In the mid-1990s a friend living in Odessa asked me what I thought of his country’s prospects. I said it seemed to me that building on the foundations of the time – stagflation, ubiquitous mafia activity, dire infrastructure, astronomical fiscal crime – was like trying to fill a rusty bath full of holes. He shook his head. “It is worse,” he said. “We are an open house which is being looted while the people who live in it watch.”

Roads are another helpful metaphor. In more ways than one a journey in Ukraine can be long (the country is nearly twice as big as Germany), uncomfortable and dangerous. The standard of driving is appalling, though not quite as bad as in Russia: you are eight times more likely to die in a traffic accident in Ukraine than in the UK. The usual causes – speeding, drink-driving – are aggravated by another factor: many Ukrainians don’t pass a driving test but merely pay money to obtain a licence. The same principle applies to university places, jobs, planning decisions and judicial verdicts.

You will witness frequent fatal accidents on the roads and need to be alert for super-sized potholes, even on prestige projects such as the relatively new 480km Kyiv-Odessa highway. This is because it is common practice in public infrastructure projects for a contractor to tender for a specific quality of construction, spend a quarter or even an eighth of the value of the tender, and split the difference between himself and the minister in charge of the budget.

Similar rake-offs are practised across government. Farmers deliver their wheat to the ministry of agriculture for sale through official channels: the eventual sale price is roughly three and a half times what the farmer is paid, with most of the multiple going into ministers’ and officials’ pockets. If you fancy a secure job in a ministry there is an interview, but then you’ll also have to pay to be appointed: the going rate for a middle-ranking job is around $50,000 to the relevant minister. Family and friends will have to chip in to help.

One thing is not appalling on Ukraine’s roads and that is some of the cars. Automotive swank was part of Isaac Babel’s stories about Odessa gangsters in the 1920s – his young “king” Benya Krik drives “a red automobile with a music box for a horn playing the first march from the opera I Pagliacci” – and luxury cars were one of the first signs of business wealth in post-independence Ukraine. In Kyiv before the Maidan protests you’d have seen two-a-penny Porsches and Bentley Continentals. Maseratis and Ferrari Californias were common; for exclusivity, you had to move up a little, to a Lamborghini or a Rolls-Royce drophead coupé. The race, when “business” opportunities abound, is always to the swift. Cars are potent symbols in that realm: the wheels of fortune.

And, for two decades, business in post-Communist Ukraine has been synonymous with politics. Yanukovych’s kingmaker, the eastern oligarch Rinat Akhmetov – owner of the Shakhtar Donetsk football club, the most expensive private flat in Britain and more wealth than anyone else in Ukraine – is reported by the BBC and Ukrainian Forbes magazine to have secured 31 per cent of all state tenders in January through his businesses (though Yanukovych’s son Oleksandr trumped him, obtaining 50 per cent of contracts in the same month). Akhmetov controlled 50 deputies in parliament, and his loyalists held six positions in cabinet.

But, having supplied the private Airbus to ferry his protégé to Moscow for the cabalistic meeting with Putin at which the infant EU deal was thrown out of the pram and replaced with a rowdy Russian pact – loud promises, some threats, little money so far – Akhmetov had a change of heart when snip­ers shot and killed protesters. After Putin’s forces occupied Crimea he issued a statement asserting that “the use of force and lawless actions from outside are unacceptable”.

Parliament’s change of heart was even more decided. It removed the president from office by 328 votes to zero; after his dismissal, his own Party of the Regions followed up with a statement declaring that “full responsibility [for the violence] rests with Yanukovych and his entourage”. Many of these deputies are the same ones who, little more than a month ago, passed draconian anti-protest laws that led to the first shootings of protesters.

Which brings us back to why the Maidan revolution began.

For years Ukrainians have known that their political class is among the most self-seeking anywhere in the world. Their tolerance can even be said to have been an inevitable part of the abusive relationship dynamics I mentioned. When holding legislative and executive office not only confers access to patronage and public funds as well as immunity from prosecution, but also allows leaders control of law enforcement and the courts, and none of this seems so different from the Communist system that preceded it, it’s a reasonable reaction for the ordinary, exhausted citizen to put his head down and get on with it. In many senses the system is a continuation of the old Communist way. From the 1970s onwards few Soviet officials privately believed in Marxism-Leninism, and when these ideology-less men took power in 1991 they had nothing but cynicism and venality to offer their citizens. The former Ukrainian prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko was recently released after eight years in detention in a Californian jail for embezzling at least $100m from United Energy Systems of Ukraine, the company that he set up with one Yulia Tymoshenko. Yanukovych’s predecessor Leonid Kuchma negotiated an amnesty for himself over alleged illicit weapons sales to Iraq. Even the “honest man” of the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko, rapidly disgusted his people by enriching his family members.or years Ukrainians have known that their political class is among the most self-seeking anywhere in the world. Their tolerance can even be said to have been an inevitable part of the abusive relationship dynamics

The rot didn’t stop with cynicism, however. The combination of venality and freed markets brought with it wild lawlessness. Ukraine is a world leader in political “accidents”. The former interior minister Yuriy Kravchenko apparently killed himself with two shots to the head; the transport minister Heorhiy Kirpa (in charge of the Kyiv-Odessa highway), supposedly shot himself in the sauna of his holiday home; the opposition politicians Vyacheslav Chornovyl, Anatoly Yermak and Oleksandr Yemets all swerved off the road or drove thoughtlessly into trucks.

It adds up. It adds up to the kind of amorality described by Yulia, the young woman in the viral protest video I am a Ukrainian. It adds up to the reaction of Volodymyr Parasiuk, the 26-year-old from Lviv who picked up the microphone on the Maidan and who, as protesters carried the open coffins of victims of the violence towards the stage, demanded that they reject the opposition’s EU-brokered deal with Yanukovych – which they did. (So decisive was Parasiuk’s speech that the opposition leader Vitali Klitschko apologised to him afterwards for having shaken hands with Yanukovych.) It adds up to the words of the anonymous female Maidaner, tweeted the day the new government of unity was to be announced: “We haven’t won yet. All the politicians in power during the last ten years must go.”

This is why the Maidan backlash began when it did. These protesters are a new generation, without their parents’ resignation, grown up, despite their government’s monstrosity, with something that passes for freedom – access to the internet, television, mobility, consumer goods. They have looked west, embraced a prospect of European ideals of fairness and justice just as we begin to become blasé about these, and erupted into revolt at their denial. They are protesting for themselves; they are, I think, also protesting for their families, for their parents and grandparents, and for their nation. It is not an intellectual reaction, nor a particularly political one. It is the final, unreflecting “Enough”.

Nationalists, ultra-nationalists and the motley crew of right-wing survivalist and anti-Semitic groups represented by Svoboda (“Freedom”), Right Sector and others all made themselves visible on the Maidan. But their prominence, like that of genuine separatists or Putin’s stooges in Crimea or Kharkiv, could – with tactful handling –have been diminished to the margins where, even in the most balanced societies, they will always exist. The nationalism of most Maidaners is that of the core of Ukrainians who, from the 18th century onwards, when Johann Gottfried von Herder, the pastor of nationalism, declared that their country would become the new Greece “for the blueness of its sky”, began to cultivate a sense of nation as a cultural, literary and social rebuttal of their suppressed status.

All this is now significantly more complicated by Putin’s invasion of Crimea. We should have foreseen it; the abusive partner never wants to let the other one go; or, put it another way, Putin’s very Soviet cynicism understands how little the west wants to take him on. But we can’t anticipate everything. There were suspicions, however, that he would act after the Olympics were done.

What we must now do in the Europe to whose values the new generation of Ukrainians aspires is, yes, be sympathetic bankers, tactful facilitators, members of a vigorous effort (bilateral, if Putin withdraws, which I don’t think he will) to aid the belated emergence of the independent nation that was created, but in name only, 23 years ago. What we must not do is fail to give strong support, and so embitter Ukraine’s new-found belief in European ideals. We must not, from neglect or pious realpolitik, act as we did previously and let it slip back into its old abusive relationship and subservience, subject to Putin’s violent but oddly fey muscle-flexing. That includes not allowing the Russian president to go a metre further towards occupying eastern Ukraine. Yet when the wind carries away the smoke, the task won’t be achieved by filling a power vacuum in Kyiv with a temporary government of national unity or with new elections featuring many of the same old candidates. The Maidaners know it. It is why they have said they will not leave, and that all the politicians of the past ten years must go.

I believe a majority of Ukrainians know that, too. They know that it’s a moral vacuum they need to get rid of in their country. That is the only vacuum that matters. Understand this, and you – concerned outsider, careful diplomat, pragmatic politician, deep-thinking strategist, denizens of all shades of eastern and western foreign policy – will understand what needs to happen next in the nation of Ukraine.

Julian Evans is a travel writer and biographer

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.