Last night I had the opportunity for a metaphysical interview with a group of protesters in eastern Ukraine. (As I explained in a previous post, a metaphysical interview is one where instead of talking to a person you speculate about what they might say.) While the kids were watching Johnny Test I nipped over to the town of Kramatorsk.
Kramatorsk looked to me like a typical East European city, a pretty centre with old buildings and tree-lined streets surrounded by the enormous grey concrete blocks that passed for housing in Soviet days. On a street corner outside a little butcher’s shop I spoke with Pavel Aleksandrov, a muscular young man with a bit of a slouch, and two of his friends, both of whom introduced themselves as ‘Ivan’.
“We are ordinary Ukrainian citizens,” said Pavel. “And our country is being ruined by the fascists who have seized power in Kiev. And so we decided – we were sitting in the pub one night discussing this – we decided that we had to protest this fascist government, just like they did in Maidan. We came to that decision in the pub, with no support or inspiration from any other country. So we got together a few friends who are also ordinary Ukrainian citizens like us, and we organized a little sit-in. To protest.”
“Mm hm,” I said, writing in my notebook. “And where did you hold your sit-in?”
“The police headquarters.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s quite a protest. You stormed and occupied the police headquarters.”
“No, no,” said Pavel. “It’s just a sit-in. There might have been a little storming before the sit-in, possibly some shots fired in the air, but you know, we were just exercising our right to protest.”
The two Ivans nodded enthusiastically, and one of them said, “It is very normal protest. We sit on floor and sing the John Lennon songs.”
“I don’t mean to push you guys on this,” I said, “but that just seems like an odd site for a protest. I mean, if you’re trying to take over the city, sure, but aren’t protests usually held in the town square? Or marching down a major street – that’s popular too.”
“It is the traditional place for protesting,” Pavel replied. “Our townspeople have been holding protests there for generations.”
“Inside police headquarters.”
He and the Ivans nodded.
“And where are the police now, and the other officials from the city government?”
“They, um, went to the pub.” Pavel fidgeted with his belt. “There’s a football game on.”
“Go Arsenal!” one of the Ivans shouted.
“Guys,” I said with a sigh. “I don’t mean to sound suspicious or anything, but there are a few things here that don’t quite make sense.”
“What on earth do you mean?” said Pavel.
“Well, for one,” I said, “those look like Russian army uniforms you’re wearing.”
“No they’re not.”
“Camouflage shirt and pants, army boots, and I think those are Russian insignia.”
“No, no,” said Pavel. “I am dressed as a typical local of my profession. We all are. See?” He pointed to a pocket protector holding pens of different colours. “I am an accountant.”
One Ivan pointed to his cowboy hat. “I am rancher.” The other showed me his horn-rimmed glasses. “I am hipster university student. Rest of outfit is ironic.”
“What about those?” I pointed to the assault rifles each one had slung over their backs. “I’m pretty sure those are Kalashnikovs, the same kind used by Russian soldiers.”
“They might – also use rifles like these,” said Pavel. “I wouldn’t know anything about that. I am an ordinary accountant who has spent his whole life patriotically in this city.”
“Sure, whatever. But where did an accountant, a rancher, and a hipster get automatic weapons?”
“eBay,” said Pavel.
“You bought automatic weapons on eBay.”
“Yes. They’re from, um, Arizona.”
“You’re telling me that you ordered fully automatic weapons and had them shipped to Ukraine.” I thought for a second. “Never mind. That probably is legal in Arizona.” I shook Pavel’s hand, then said, “Before I go, can I just get you to spell your last name for me?” He did, and I added, “And where’d you grow up?”
“Here,” he said. “I’ve spent my whole life in this town.”
“Mm-hm. How do you spell that?”
Pavel eyed me suspiciously, and mumbled, “T-H-A-T.”
“Thanks, wiseass. I meant the name of this town. How do you spell it?”
“This town?” Pavel glanced worriedly at the Ivans, who shrugged. “This town is our home. We love our town.”
“Right,” I said. “But what’s its name? I’m very sorry, but I kind of forgot. K-something.”
“Yes,” said Pavel. “K-something.” The Ivans nodded.
I waited for a second, then said, “What’s the rest of the name?”
“The rest?” said Pavel.
“Yes. Of the name of this town. The town you all grew up in. Can you spell it for me? Or at least say what it is?”
“The name of this town…” Pavel mumbled. The three of them started looking in all directions, as if hoping to catch sight of a sign. “The name is…”
I coughed. “You can’t remember the name of this town. The town you say you grew up in. How could you possibly forget the name of the town you grew up in?”
Pavel grabbed the side of his head. “A stroke! I must be having a stroke!” He started pacing around in circles, one arm limp, dragging a foot behind him. “The whole left side of my body is numb!”
I turned to the Ivans, but before I could open my mouth one of them yelled, “Epileptic fit!” and they both lay down on the ground and started thrashing their limbs.
This went on for several minutes, and then an eight-wheeled armoured personnel carrier drove up to the curb. It had a turret with a machine gun barrel poking out and a little sign on top that read TAXI.
“Ah,” said Pavel, suddenly recovered from his debilitating stroke. “Our ride’s here.”
The hatch opened, and a man in camouflage popped out. “Greetings, ordinary Ukrainian citizen!” he cried, and gave Pavel a salute. “Colonel Sakharov needs to speak with you.” He glanced at me and quickly added, “I mean, your wife called and said lunch is ready.”