I’d hoped to make it back to Ukraine for another metaphysical interview for a while now, but with my work schedule it just hasn’t been possible. It takes time, you know, speculating about a transatlantic flight. Finally, while doing laundry this afternoon I managed to get back to Kramatorsk, in the self-declared sovereign state that used to be the province of Donetsk.
Looking one way down the street, it seemed like a normal afternoon. People strolled and chatted and shopped. A pair of old men played chess outside a café. A grocer argued with a heavyset woman who was waving around a beet that had apparently offended her. But just twenty yards away, the street was cut off by a barricade of sandbags and cinderblocks. Soldiers lolled in the sun or rested in the shade cast by an armoured personnel carrier parked on the sidewalk. They still wore uniforms that looked oddly like Russian ones, but they had patches freshly sewn on their shoulders that read Donetsk People’s Republic.
“Greetings, Dr. Lipak!” Pavel Aleksandrov strode over to me, a rifle slung over his shoulder, followed by two of his men – who I think were both named Ivan. They stopped a few feet away and saluted me. Pavel’s eyes fell for an instant, and then he said, “Welcome back to Kramatorsk!”
“Pavel,” I sighed, “I can see that you wrote the name of the town on your hand.”
“I had it tattooed there. Because I love my hometown so much.”
“Let’s not go there again.” I pointed to the insigne on his shoulder. “So you’re in the Donetsk army now?”
“Yes,” said Pavel. “In our referendum the people of Donetsk overwhelmingly voted to become a sovereign state. And a sovereign state needs an army, so as a patriot who loves his region, I felt obliged to join up.”
“Of course, we may not remain independent forever. We might, for instance, vote to join Russia someday. But who knows what the future will hold?” He raised his hands and glanced upward as if to say ‘only God,’ though I suspected that He wasn’t the one who would make the decision.
“I wanted to ask you about that referendum,” I said.
“It showed overwhelming support in favour of sovereignty. 89% in favour.”
“That certainly sounds good,” I replied, “though according to pollsters, support for independence is only around ten or fifteen percent. Little odd, that. Anyway, what was the turnout for the referendum?”
There ensued an awkward silence.
“We asked the people of Donetsk to give 110%,” said Pavel, “but they did not. They only gave 103%.”
“Yeah – um.” I took off my glasses, then put them back on. “Okay, you do realize that giving 110% is a sports metaphor and not actually possible?”
“Well, maybe for your apathetic voters.”
“No, I mean it’s literally impossible. You cannot have more than 100% of the voters turn out.”
“It’s not impossible. Only challenging.”
“You can’t have more votes than you have voters.”
Pavel just looked at me, his face impassive except for a polite half-smile; but one of the Ivans said, “Why not?”
“Why not? You’d have people voting more than once.”
“But of course!” said Ivan.
I gave him a second, then said, “You meant, ‘of course they don’t vote more than once,’ right?”
“If someone feels strongly about Donetsk’s sovereignty,” said Pavel, “they should be able to express the depth of their patriotic sentiment. Sometimes one vote just isn’t enough to capture how much a man loves his region.”
“Okay,” I said. “And if they’re strongly against sovereignty?”
“Then they can express their views in the privacy of their own homes.”
I shook my head. “Guys, this is why no one’s going to take this vote seriously. If you want to hold a referendum, you need to do it properly, with international monitors to certify that it was free and fair.”
Pavel sighed. “All that trouble we went to,” he muttered. Then he grinned. “You’re international! We’ll hold the referendum again, and you can monitor it.”
“I guess,” I said.
“Wonderful! Then we vote again.” Pavel took a little spiral notebook and a stubby pencil out of his breast pocket, and turned to the Ivans. “You?”
The two said, “Yes,” at once, and one of them quickly added, “Jinx. You owe me bottle of vodka.”
Pavel mumbled, “Me – yes,” then shouted to the men on the barricade. “Lieutenant!” A young man who was half-asleep jerked to his feet, knocking his elbow on the corner of a cinder block. He saluted, then rubbed his elbow and winced. “We are holding another referendum!” Pavel shouted.
“Yes, sir!” said the Lieutenant. He asked for the votes of the other men, counted their dozy grunts, and shouted back, “Four yeses!”
Pavel waved to the nearest people on the street, the grocer and the heavyset woman. “Are you in favour of the sovereignty of Donetsk!” he called.
“Sure,” said the grocer with a shrug.
The woman spun around and shook her beet menacingly at Pavel. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times – no!”
Pavel made two tick marks in the notebook. “Well, that’s nine votes, eight yeses, which is…” He chewed on his pencil as he thought.
“That's not it,” I said. “Is that it?”
“89% in favour,” said Pavel. “So, you certify on your blog that our vote was free and fair, and we will be an independent country. Or maybe join Russia. Who knows?”
I shook my head. “Is this seriously how you conducted the referendum? Where did you get the idea that this was how voting works?”
“Joseph Stalin,” said Pavel.
“Ah,” I replied. “I really should have seen that coming.”