I wrote this in the year 2001 while living in Kyiv, Ukraine and participating in the Ukraine without Kuchma movement. I lived just off of Maydan Nezalezhnosti on Lutheranskya and demonstrated, threw my stones and wandered the tents on Khreschatyk. It was a heady time and eventually after a late evening at Buddy Guy, the main downtown beer joint for expats and the rich locals, I left town early the next day. You don’t fool around when you get an ultimatum from two Chechen war vets.
But so little has changed, here or there. I write about the Ukraine but really it is about anywhere. Journalists continue to die on order of heads of states – die for our benefit and to keep some fresh air in the system. Recent events had me dig this up (murder of Jamal Khashoggi) and offer for anyone who might spare some minutes and some mind moments. I hope it means something to you.
This is dedicated to the children of Gyorgy Gongadze – may they one day return to their mother land in peace and prosperity, in love and enduring faith.
Read more through the Gongadze archives.
UKRAINE: THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES
“But even the President of the United States sometimes has to stand naked.”
— Bob Dylan, It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
I live in a land where the emperor has no clothes. He struts around the country and does what all emperors do; lays flowers on monuments and graves, issues edicts, meets heads of state and pronounces, “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” But it isn’t and I repeat, the emperor has no clothes and further, it is winter, a cold winter and not a good time to be without clothing.
Where do I live – in a book of fairy tales? No, I live in a forgotten land, a beautiful land of swaying wheat, sunflowers and endless blue horizon, a land of suffering, so many hands reaching out, yet smiles. A land of plenty yet so little, a land of crumbling concrete but a spirit that endures – a country called Ukraine. But I repeat, here, the emperor has no clothes and despite his professing otherwise, all is not right.
I will not bore you with the details. It is a tale too common the world over. Power, corruption, secret service, murder, money, lies, denial. For the rest, the poverty of the day to day. It would make a perfect Clancy bestseller. The only seemingly universal missing is sex. But this too may rear its head though in this part of the world it is preferred to be done rather than talked about. No, I will not bore you with who did what to whom, nor with historical explanations for the failure of this nation, nor with any whining about the lack of economic support to post communist countries, nor with any geopolitical finger wagging. No. I will rather just dwell on one fact, I repeat, the emperor has no clothes.
One of the most delightful things about the Bill Clinton years was how finally after 200 plus years, the presidency had finally come down off its too clean pedestal. The scandals, minor as they were during the Clinton years revealed for us the plain fact that yes indeed, the emperor has no clothes. He (too seldom she) is just like us, breathes, defecates, eats too much fatty food, lusts, utters the odd profanity. And the unique thing about this phenomena, the sparkling jewel of possibility this offers us, Joe citizen, is that in consequence, this man or woman is judged by the same standards as us all. Clinton, because we finally saw the emperor without any clothes on, was judged as any normal individual and he was found quite properly, not guilty. What other man would be thrown in jail because of a brief, regretted affair with a co-worker? Or because of a “white” lie? It happens and is not what we might consider inhuman. Clinton was endeared by the American public (and even more so internationally) precisely because he represented that final realization of the long process of enlightenment, of throwing off the shackles of tyranny. First collectively as a people and now to end, as individuals. The hope had always been that we stop erecting false idols, fatuous prophets, infallible kings and precocious presidents; that we see our leaders in the light of day, as those like ourselves. That we see the emperor without his garments, robes, sashes, medals on. “L’etat c’est moi!” is erased from our unabridged dictionary. It is the arrival of the Greek concept of “primus enter pares”, first among equals. A place where power is stripped of its “defacto” legitimacy and whereby legitimacy is granted because of substance, not just ceremony, inheritance or position.
Here in the ‘Ukraine, the snow continues to fall, the truth continues to crawl. Journalists are killed with the wave of a hand, newspapers are printed with blank pages, millions of dollars are sent with a wink to small island states, protesters disappear in the night in paddy wagons, every second person wants to emigrate. It is business as usual. The president walks around without any clothes on but nobody wants to raise their voice and say, “THE PRESIDENT HAS NO CLOTHES”, though this fact is plain as day. It is as if it were raining but we’ve agreed in this kingdom that it is always sunny. So we stand outside, dripping wet, talking about the weather that never changes, the sunny weather. So easily it can happen, here or anywhere, so easily are people duped, made a nullity, turned into what Norman Mailer in his tough guy way coined, “the wad” — only significant to the powers that be as money makers (to steal from) or as trouble makers (to be afraid of and “eliminate”). So easily it happens how the ordinary citizen is turned into a voiceless non-entity; home and work, children and toilet paper, vodka and a musical interlude then there’s the dishes to do …. So easily as Hannah Arendt has told, to destroy “the private morality of people who think of nothing but safeguarding their private lives.” The emperor here has started destroying and there is no voice rising up, no public spiritedness, no one stating the obvious, “THE PRESIDENT HAS NO CLOTHES” Just a few tents of protesters set along the main boulevard and from which I am writing. Writing while waiting for the “public spirited thugs” or police to come any day (night), waiting for the final black boot of power to come down upon the pivot of liberty, on those that might see things as they are, raise a voice, dissent. Ah! So easily this happens and the prophetic words of Tocqueville rise up inside me and the truth of them having been told, knocks me about .
“For their happiness such a government willingly labors …. .it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, directs their industry …. – what remains but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? …. Then having taken each member in its grasp ….. covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the …. most energetic characters cannot penetrate …. The will of man is not broken but softened, bent and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting; such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence …. stupefies a people, °till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
These words I suck on like a cough drop. Applicable almost anywhere, but I am in Ukraine and it is an exact model, the prototype of this “democratic despotism”. And the president stands on the top of this heap without his clothes on …..
I am digressing. This is the bad habit of the poet. Yes, I am just a lowly poet, shadow worker, set on a perch high above this city of Kiev, sometimes swooping down to street level, watching and wondering as all poets (and fools) do. But if I have any fraternity with this “poetic” brotherhood, it is to call a spade a spade, cry like the old demented lady in the cattle car, “we are all going to the fire, to the fire!” And this is what I am trying to do here, through metaphor and by way of explanation. So let me now explain.
The short of it is that the president, a Mr. Kuchma, was caught with his hand not just in the proverbial cookie jar but in a bloody cookie jar. And by implication and fact, we see his whole presidential house is rotten (unfortunately it isn’t falling yet). Last September, an opposition journalist (and what journalist isn’t “opposing”?), Georgy Gongadze disappeared, leaving behind his loving wife and two cheery 3 year old twins, disappeared and later reappeared headless and deformed, in a forest outside of Kiev. His death should have been of little consequence here. He was just a journalist, a little known one at that, page 5 in any newspaper (10 journalists have died “officially” since “independence here). But his death was not in vain, without voice. A major in the president’s security force had secretly recorded almost 300 hours of conversations in the president’s office by taping a digital dictaphone under the presidential sofa, revealing the soft bottom and shitty goings on there in. He then escaped abroad with his family and released extracts of a presidency drunk on power. We got to see even more clearly that not only the emperor has no clothes on but he even has blood on his hands.
One fundamental to be understood when dealing with kings, queens, sultans, czars or emperors is that they can deny the obvious and the people will chose to believe them, to not see THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES. This is a curious socio-psychological fact. Mass hypnotism. The president despite so many facts continues to deny; Me? It is not my voice, I don’t speak such profanities. His administration spews the tired and worn out (after so many years of communism) party line of foreign or “certain forces” trying to destabilize the country. He leads off every lie with a “Patriotic Comrade!” What is surprising here is not that the people just believe him rather that though they know the truth they do nothing, nobody wants to stand up and say, THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES. To say this so he may be judged as a man, any man and not be above the law and continue with his regime of impunity. This is a land without mirrors.
There are some people who have stood up to declare the truth about this emperor. One was the security guard, Mr. Melnychenko. Others are the protestors who have put up tents in the capital (and other cities but unfortunately without the outside world’s eye on them, they have all been attacked, torn down). Others are in parliament and braving the cold winds and looks set against them. But fire has failed to catch. The reformist prime minister has been gagged, incriminated by some dirt and made like in a bad movie (Oh! Say it ain’t so!) to sign a document of allegiance. His right hand lady has been arrested and made into a “dupe” , a distracting comedy. The president continues his program of “Mussollinization”, his picture and image appearing everywhere (who didn’t get the symbolism of him with his finger on the button of Chernobyl, daddy turning off the lights, in what other country do 90 percent of 7 year olds state the name of the president when asked to name any famous person?). The average Ukrainian has burrowed down into a land of just surviving, the hopes of 1993 and independence crushed, betrayed. They are like the babushka selling cigarettes on the street who wants to hear nothing of all this scandal but rather looks up with her crooked, golden toothed smile and crackles, “tell me what it will do to the price of bread?” Can you blame them/her? Same old song and dance, survival concentrates the mind. The famished man doesn’t look up much from his soup bowl.
The” regime” (and I use that word properly, it is but an administration of nonklementura backed up by uniforms) has suppressed dissent. The camps of protesters have been disbanded, sent fleeing by armed thugs or where under the eyes of foreigners, by official court orders. I look out my window onto beautiful Independence Square, a place of historical importance, gathering, of hope and goodwill. There is nobody there because a huge green wall has been erected around it. The people’s heart has been anaestitized, the patient kept living but just barely. Every 20 or 30 meters, baby-faced policemen patrol, the fence keeps its polished, clean look. No posters, no graffiti, no ads. Everything in a dictatorship always looks so clean and ordered.
Why has the square been cordoned off? The simple reason is that the emperor is doing what all emperors do when they want to distract the people’s attention (and this has the further benefit of keeping people from assembling there). He is building a monument. $15 million is to be spent while doctors and teachers wages remain unpaid, while most of society lives back in the stone age, while the average Ukrainian works 5 years just to save to buy a TV or a washing machine. The president is creating a new version of a banana republic, but here there aren’t even bananas, they have been stolen.
Living here, I have come to realize how fundamental a role, dissent and protest are in a society. In fact they are the very life of society itself Until coming here, I had just paid lip service to this, it was just an answer in civics class. Oscar Wilde in his ever quotable way said, “disobedience is man’s original virtue.” This is so because by merely saying, THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES, by voicing dissent, we churn up the soil and like a plough, allow the land, ourselves to offer up fruit. These magical words said out loud break the spell of tyranny. Without dissent, a free press, opposition, there is decay, rot and of course that thing the great Slavic soul knows so much about, suffering.
I came here to learn more about the Slavic soul and slowly (as all knowing must), I am gaining footholds up this great and sorrowful mountain. Wherever I travel I have the poet’s luck of hitting upon books which light up the encroaching darkness. One such book I found by chance, stuck away on a library shelf between a primer on black American history and a review of surrealism. It was Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. With his chemist’s discerning, dissecting eye, he writes about the chemical properties of zinc — how when pure it resists the attack of acid, how when ever so slightly impure it gulps it down and changes. I quote him at length because his words speak towards how necessary, how fundamental impurity, diversity, dissent is to life.
” One could draw from this two conflicting philosophical conclusions: the praise of purity, which protects from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life. I discarded the first, disgustingly moralistic, and I lingered to consider the second, which I found more congenial. In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not.”
In today’s week old International Herald Tribune, there is no news about Ukraine. But yet there is some relevant news, to a poet signs, metaphors and associations appear everywhere, the world leans towards explanation. The headline is about the human gene code and how we are seeing inside “the machine”, ourselves. We are learning of that material which commands us to be who we are. But the astonishing news is that so little of what is directly devoted to making human beings is strung onto the DNA which is stuffed into everyone of us. The rest, 95% of the human genome is filled with “weird life-like entities that have settled in the genome like squatters”, “parasites that feed on the human genome”, others “remnants of genes that were left behind by prehistoric viruses eons ago.” We are fully made of diversity, dirt, dissent, mildew, decay, the forsaken, the different. At bottom a human being is made not of the stuff of which gods are but of the bordello. Or to hit the nail on the head, the shimmering ancient words of Herakleitos, “latent structure rules obvious ….. they do not understand what is at variance is in agreement with itself: a back-turning structure like that of the bow and the lyre.”
The tyrant, the emperor without any clothes, wants a world of bland sameness, no variance, wants a world where he will always be king and nobody will” stir the broth”, wants a world unchanging where the news is always the same and the stealing may go on ad infinitum. He is detached from reality. He wants a country that is void of life, that merely exists.
Here, hidden away as a poet (and all poets are exiles, banished as we were from Plato’s Republic as a destabilizing influence, carriers of influenza, bad lungs), I have been coming to terms with this. Within the safety net of my Canadian passport, I can shout back at the police officers that stop me for ill every other day (and to be fair, they only want bribes, to feed their families, here all overt power exists because there is hunger, just enough hunger). I am in Satre’s “Republic of Silence”, so damn free because of all this, because “I encountered the revolting and insipid picture of ourselves that our oppressors wanted us to accept.” I feel so damn free because I have felt this great NO rise up in me. But unfortunately for the majority of Ukrainians there is no protest, no NO, Ukrainians haven’t even a mirror to see this picture in. Ukrainians have not learnt to raise their voice, they are still after all the years of communism fearful. They are what Cszelaw Milos so presciently named, “Captive Minds.” Vaclav Havel, post Velvet Revolution, referred to his Czech countrymen as like, “paroled prisoners”, having to learn how to act civilized again. I accept the analogy here but in the case of Ukraine, the more appropriate one would be that of a just released psychiatric patient. After so many years in the crazy house of communism, Ukrainians have no way to tell the truth from a lie. After so many years of being told production was up 5000% while there was no wheat to make bread, they do not know how to believe, never mind who. The president can say the sky is falling and Ukrainians don’t really believe him and look up but they don’t deny the lie either. They do not know how to believe, how to be free as in the statement of Koestler (who knew a thing or n\1O about dictatorship), “Freedom is the ability to say NO.” They have become as one academic I read here stated, “a society of onlookers.”
I say onlookers in the sense of those who seeing a crime, just walk on by. Who know what is right and do nothing (but still look on). Psychologically, there is a crawling away into oneself and of course the always pervasive and winning agent – fear. Every day I run by the parliament buildings, the presidential palace, Dynamo Club with its black waiters, strip shows and bread and circus atmosphere. I run to clear my head of all the deceit and contradiction. I run along the great Dnipr river and my mind meanders through the center of Ukraine like it does. And as I run, every day I come upon a man who is the ideal symbol of Ukraine, a man I call, “the pigeon guy.” In an old tattered lawn chair, he sits near the grand arches of Russian – Ukrainian brotherhood. He sits quietly in tattered, dirty clothes, unshaven, seemingly burdened. He sits surrounded, buried by hundreds of pigeons, one on his head, four on his lap, a carpet of pigeons at his feet. He sits there unmoving, quiet, at home. Stoic, fallen into a fierce fatalism like Nietsche’s Slavic soldier who unlike all others doesn’t march on to the end; knowing the game is lost, he, frozen, without food, will just fall down into the snow and lay there waiting for whatever may become.
Ukrainians alone are not to be blamed. The rest of the world are onlookers too. Or even worse because they are free to “cry freedom” but do not. I have searched, read every little thing the foreign press has to say about the situation. It can be summed up as follows, “Some people say the emperor has no clothes but he says he does and so it must be so.” They say nothing. They evade their responsibility. Also, the foreign community continues to give money (most then stolen), give money to prop up a dictator. One of my most angry moments came one morning watching the news and seeing the president of Germany, his honorable Gerhardt Schroeder, shaking hands with Kuchma, all smiles. Business as usual. We need more leaders who will press hard to change things here, knowledge is the first condition. Forget all the conspiracy theories, Russia, geopolitics, oligarchs. We have a regime that is headed down the road of fascism, stealing the people blind, killing when necessary (and here I must mention that only in the last month 3 politicians have died, suicide and car accidents, a statistical improbability). There is no other road but to fight against this. The first thing is to refuse to do business “as usual” with those whose hands are dirty, even bloody. The memory of Mr. Gongadze asks this of us while the memory of Kuchma would only be his words, “Scumbag. Fuck it. The Georgian guy …. Yeah Gongadze, just get rid of the cock sucker.” I hope in the privacy of his own home, in the warm embrace of his own family, Mr. Schroeder scrubbed his hands hard and slept a little less soundly.
What is needed by the outside world is a strong declaration that, YOUR EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES. A wise word, a word to give the people here that little help up the steps towards declaring the truth themselves. They know but they just have to have this support, this shoulder on which to tell their dirty, little secret. And once this is told, once Ukrainians see their president as any other man, they can judge him accordingly, equally. I am confident that this judgment won’t be favorable. Kuchma (and cronies) unlike Clinton has dirty money and murder on his hands and not just tax irregularities and adultery. In the court of the everyman he would be convicted but only if (and I repeat) we see him as the emperor his is, AN EMPEROR WITHOUT CLOTHES. Then maybe light will shine here and we can sing the words of the Ukrainian national anthem, “Ukraine has not died yet.” Sing and know that we have built a society which lives because it is full of diversity and those saying no. A society that is alive because it has those with the courage to draw lines in the ever shifting sands of time.
I will leave you with one thought. What we fear most is fear itself Here in the Ukraine this is most evident. In the face of abject evil, to be silent is to be complicit with that fact, force. I hope others will speak out against those who would like to sterilize society, create of it a tidy Victorian garden. I leave you with the words of Camus, a journalist of the highest order, like Gongadze. I leave you with his thoughts of what a man, each man should do in the face of a murderous regime.
“One must understand what fear means: what it implies and what it rejects. It implies and rejects the same fact: a world where murder is legitimate, and where human life is considered trifling …. All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice. After that, we can distinguish those who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their force and being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it will be a gain if it be clearly marked.”