Temporary shelters

The snow falls silently on the graves of the people I love
On the graves of the people I would have loved
If given half a chance
The sky above my house is made of remembrances of raven wings
And amethyst
The pear trees my dead grandfather planted
Offer their bark up to be kissed.

*****

I was in London recently and I was very happy – in a way that I’ve never been before while in London, my unattainable city, the place I’ve always loved and which had never loved me back. I think this happiness came from not caring.

“You’ll love an Englishman, of course,” my grandmother’s fierce cousin, the late Yevgeniya Andreyevna, told me once. “And loving him will be like cracking open a snail shell – that is to say slimy and cold.”

I was seventeen, had never had a boyfriend (yet alone loved anyone), and didn’t realize she was making a prophecy. She was very fond of making casual prophecies back then, as easily as she refilled my wine glass at dinner, and every one came true eventually.

I remembered her when I walked through Mayfair, when I couldn’t tell what it was that beat inside my chest – my heart or a pair of dark raven wings.

And I drank champagne in her memory when the city lay beneath my feet – a scattering of rare jewels, satisfyingly hard to the touch.

You cannot love London too much. You have to turn your back on it and scowl at it over your bare shoulder and then turn away again. Possibly for years. And London, being London, will be proud for a while, but then it will ask you back for a spell, and it will make you very happy during the whole of it. Only you must always say goodbye first and close the door very firmly behind you. Go under the cover of darkness, go, go, one boot in front of the other. Life is getting shorter, life is thinning out and chipping on the edges, all you can carry away with you is, as usual, God and love. Everything else will be too damn heavy and not worth the strain on your shoulder.

*****

Øystein Bogen and I gave a joint seminar on the Ukraine crisis & the propaganda war surrounding it in Oslo a few weeks ago. I think we did a good job – well, Øystein certainly did, I think I became too emotional in places – and I think it was that evening, in that beautiful city where candles burn on tables throughout the winter, that I accepted that the world has changed irrevocably, and there is nothing I can do about it, except tell the truth as I see it.

I associate a lot of pain with my background these days. These veins that run through me – Ukraine, the U.S., and Russia – they all bleed quite a startling red. For the obvious reasons.

I’ve struggled against the new normal, “You can’t be real,” I said. It was like arguing with weather. And it was Oslo that whispered about the futility of that into my willing ear. So dark it was and so lovely. I know now why they call Norway troll country. Or I almost know. (Will I come back? I seriously hope to come back)

*****

In Moscow, even before the ruble starting crashing, there was already electricity in the air. Static. Hands touched in ways that made you gasp.

I lit small lanterns and Christmas lights and listened to the wind lashing the khrushchyovka. Nothing says “temporary” like a khrushchyovka – nothing says “shadows and dust,” nothing says “only love and God.”

I went to the theater and saw my own work up on the stage – or a reflection of my work – and there was joy and outrage in the audience, and I was so grateful. My husband introduced me to the coat check ladies as “the author.” He would do that, of course. He would drag me backstage afterwards, too. If it wasn’t for him, I’d just leave anonymously – but he’s a different breed of person, not shy, and not ashamed of me. This is something I will also always be grateful for (I think I am now at that age when I can begin to use the word “always” and actually mean it).

I’ve been so bitterly disappointed with Moscow, but even so I have clutched its gifts to my chest. Would I have dared to become a mother anywhere else? It was the wildness of this place, the bones exposed through the supple flesh of civilization, that said “Jump!” Now Lev has gotten to be very tall for a toddler, and is mastering sarcasm. The top of his head smells like last night’s dreams. He seems to be growing so fast that I want to hit “pause” – already looking longingly at babies in prams and remembering when he was tiny.

And I am constantly saying “Oh Moscow” and it comes out differently each time.

*****

The book is going well so far. (What book? THE book. Or possibly A book. I don’t know right now)

*****

And I woke up again in my father’s house and the night was already dented in several places, losing out to one of those slow, scruffy winter dawns. And I said, “I am not prepared to go on this journey, but I am always going on it anyway, I’m not sure where the journey ends and where I begin. It feels like a dress rehearsal for death. Or life eternal. I can’t tell anymore.” And there was nothing anyone could say to that, but there was still good coffee in the offing, and sometimes, that’s the best that any of us can hope for.

All the king’s sweets (a song for overgrown children)

When you walk out into this night
You will find what you’re looking for
– Or maybe a little bit more.

Gunpowder on a stick
So sweet that it hurts to lick;
A border where lace confronts thigh
Patrolled by a a jealous eye;
A star in the forehead,
A golden sieve,
And all you can see
Is all you believe.

My darling, I took the rather bold step
Of stabbing the dragon
With a pen
In the back.
But nobody comes
And nobody cares,
I’m alone with the beast
I have not taken care.
He’s rather amused, giggling into his gold,
He’s not shy with his smile
Though his fangs smell like rot.

My darling, other heroes will come,
To fuck all the women, to drink all the rum;
I will not be among them, I was silly, it seems,
My bones will be toothpicks,
My memory will dim.
They’ll make armor from dragon scales
And wear it down to the pub
While my scattered molecules
Still demand all the credit.
(I told you, I’m silly,
I told you, it hurts)

You keep trying to reach me
Through other men
When they put their hands
On my exposed neck.
I wish you would fucking stop it,
But honey runs thicker than water.

This is my city, and I won’t share,
I’ll scrape the moonlight off the asphalt
I’ll pack away the flaxen air.
You’re only allowed
To exhale.

I told you, being a wife
I’m as dull as a butter knife,
Dull blades hurt so much more;
The last czar’s daughters would know.

Pearls of moisture
Gleam like satellites
In the spiderwebs
Between the trees at night.

Pearls of moisture
On my skin
Swiped by a burglar
As my years grew thin.

When we were young
We didn’t know
Our lover was night;
Night was the cream on the upper lip
Clotted to butter
From body heat;
Night was the watcher
On the cemetery wall;
Night was the angel
In the hospital hall;
Paint peeling off walls
Like silks off your mistress,
Tell me, who among us
Would dare take it all back?

very long engagement

A statement on the state of things

I dreamed that a former lover took me by the hair
Wrapped my hair around his wrist
Like a chain.
He beat the people he loved with me,
Beat them bloody
So that they could never hurt him again.
And in the melee
I wondered where he ended and I began.
I called my hairdresser and said,
“Pasha, why did you make my hair golden again,
So that it attracts the attention of thieves
And other people of questionable character?”
“Sanctions, my darling, sanctions,” Pasha said.
“We all have to invest our precious metals on the sly.”
I dreamed that my mother’s television
Detached itself from the wall as gracefully as it could
And volunteered to be my headstone.
My mother shook her head and said,
“Well, I can’t say I’m surprised by the situation,
As you know, someone is trying to steal our Arctic,
Just pack it away and steal it,
In a suitcase with a false bottom,
A man in aviator sunglasses and a rudely colored Hawaiian shirt,
Is trying to do it,
Just like that.”
People were dying.
In the kitchen of a khrushchyovka
That forever has bits flaking off of it, like another callus
On the groaning, unkempt body of the city,
Cigarettes were being crushed to death
And people shook their heads
At the horrific carnage and cruelty.
I dreamed that someone kept calling my number
And telling me that I could come home now,
But when I looked over my shoulder,
All I saw was the eternal return.
And I said to it, “That’s OK, that’s really OK,
We’ve been here before, you and I,
Come at me, bro.
Come the fuck at me, bro.”
But even then thermodynamic free energy
Was packing its bags and putting them on the sidewalk,
All aggrieved
Making a big show of checking the time,
Waiting for a cab.
It was getting so much colder.
Tears were already
Freezing at the corners of my eyes,
Like tiny icicles, like daggers for a mouse,
And I was too proud to say
That they were the only weapons
I could fuck shit up with
At this time.

……

time is a flat circle

Why it sucks to be a journalist (and why people do it anyway)

In the West, the news is a commodity, a product. And the customer is always right. If you’re not giving the customer what they want – you’re usually screwed.

In places like Russia, the news is more like a government-owned resource. And the government gets to set the agenda on how said resource will be exploited. If you’re not giving the government what it wants (or getting a little too uppity or bothersome) – you’re usually screwed.

I’ve worked for both English-language Russian state media and Western independent media. I’ve been lucky so far. Lucky for having intelligent editors who set good standards, for being able to speak my mind, for being able to walk away when facing censorship. Lucky that I’m still, at this stage in the game, able to feed my family (on a diminishing income). Lucky that I’m not an exploited freelancer in a conflict zone (for now, anyway).

Im-not-anybodys ygritte says

But the more online harassment I experience, the more threats I receive, the more insults (many of them gender-based, others aimed at my complicated cultural and ethnic heritage) I hear, the more I have to wonder if I’m tough enough.

When I was writing about the fateful 2010 winter election in Kiev, there was an incident I’ve been loath to talk about. Perhaps a couple of my friends know. It made me feel vulnerable and unprofessional at the time. I certainly didn’t want to complain and make it seem as though I was afraid of anything.

I had argued with a security guard near a polling station. He insisted I couldn’t be on the sidewalk, talking to people. He thumped me on my chest and pushed me hard. I went flying on the black ice that seemed to encrust every surface that winter, landing on my back, hitting my head in the process. After the immediate shock and pain wore off, I let a woman who had just voted help me up. The guard had scampered off. I went back to doing my job.

The incident stayed with me, because the pain stayed. I had problems with my back before, but that one bad fall caused chronic pain that lasted for over a year. After I got pregnant, I had to seek out specialists capable of helping pregnant women with severe back pain. The pain sapped my strength and bank account. It still flares up every once in a while. X-rays so far have been inconclusive, and I am convinced that a part of it starts in the mind. Chronic pain is complicated, but it has its roots. Some are abstract.

People don’t like journalists – for reasons are both abstract and concrete. People take, ah, liberties with journalists, especially in countries with brittle regimes and a high tolerance for violence. People don’t like it when journalists tell them what they don’t want to hear. People don’t like it that journalists take money from either governments or corporations or NGOs – i.e., people don’t like it that journalists have a powerful need to eat every once in a while.

I’ve been both a reporter and a pundit – a reporter takes risks in the field, only to be shouted at for bias. A pundit feels like Cassandra with tongue in place, but no one listening anyway. Everyone is down in the comments section, bitching about how you’re the wrong ethnicity to have an opinion on some matter, while others are busy e-mailing you detailed odes on how awesome it would be when you’re finally gang-raped.

“You go out there and do your job!” People shout at me on the internet, from the comfort of their homes. I’m remembering the first story I did for The Moscow News – on a neo-Nazi stabbing in southwest Moscow. I visited the scene of the crime, talked to the neighbors of the victim, talked to the crying wife on the phone outside. On my way back, I had to walk through an apple orchard at dusk. Two guys began following me. They weren’t neo-Nazis, they were thugs, enraged at seeing a reporter asking questions “without permission” on their territory. Didn’t I know I could be “punished”? There was no one else around. We were in the middle of a major city at peacetime, but in a second it was brought home to me – how unsafe I was. I let them catch up with me, joked with them, bummed a cigarette off of one of them, discussed my story. I smiled at them. They eventually began smiling back.

Female journalists are lectured on “using our looks” and following “the principles of feminism.” We’re still seen as women first and journalists second – hello, “mother of three” headline! – but we must pretend as though this isn’t really so in our work.

In the company of bad men, however, there are no illusions. You appeal directly to their strength. A strong man wouldn’t need to prove his strength by hurting a girl-reporter, would he? Except sometimes, he would.

Our readers hate us. We hate each other. When I joke about dick-measuring contests on Twitter, I’m not really joking. Professional solidarity usually only appears when someone gets their head cut off – to be quickly forgotten.

Everyone knows that you don’t get ahead by being the best. You get ahead by proving that the others are worthless.

If you’re a young woman, prepare for the possibility of getting harassed, raped, or simply used by colleagues you look up to. And then, of course, they’ll tell their friends that you only got that one gig because [insert body part, outfit, etc]. Hoity toity male journalists will punish you for admiring them as surely as they will punish you for not admiring them.

girls see more blood ygritte says

(And if you’re ever, say, attacked while doing your job – men will write hit-pieces about it, minimizing your suffering while making your entire job about your looks. And when you start getting older, people will begin getting mad at you about it – and asking why the hell are you still on TV, you fat cow)

In times of conflict and tension, you will be seen as a tool first and a person second – by everyone from the security services to Jim-Bob who’s never frozen his ass off at a demo that swiftly erupts into violence when the boys with the batons move in, but will still write your bosses and demand you be fired for your “pro-[insert whatever it is that Jim-Bob doesn’t like at that moment] coverage.”

In a conflict zone, you will be accused of propaganda if any particular side appears to trust you – though trust is how you get people talking, how you get them to let you in, and how you get them to not kill you.

The late Andrei Stenin got the pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine to trust him – so now I’m constantly being told that he deserved his death. Meanwhile a friend has reported extensively on the right-wing Azov battalion on the Ukraine side – only to be accused of being a “Nazi sympathizer” in the process.

When you acknowledge the pressure you are under, you’re weak and hysterical. When you don’t acknowledge it, it begins to do your head in.

I was in a bar in Kiev with a cousin last month, when your typical Douchebag Expat Stereotype who’d only been in the country for a couple of weeks but had oodles of opinions he was dying to share sidled up to us. In the course of trying not to talk to him, I found out that he follows the work of a friend of mine who has been reporting on the armed conflict in the Donbass. “He’s just so biased! And so cocky!” Douchebag Expat Stereotype ranted.

“So why don’t you go out there and show him how it’s done,” I replied – then instantly regretted my words.

The last thing you want to do is give a self-assured blowhard the idea that he can do this kind of job.

Meanwhile, one of the defining characteristics of the human race is our need to tell stories, to bear witness – and to pass the information on. I think that people tend to get into journalism because they’re human. And a little crazy. It’s a calling – in the sense that a pied piper is playing a tune somewhere. You stumble off the safer path and follow the song. You live to regret it and you live to love it – sometimes in equal measure.

but first well live ygritte says

Summer night Kiev blues

I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
I was young and running wild -
“Be a darling,” said the raven,
“Keep my beak inside your heart.”
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
Beak in heart and heart in throat,
Acid bubbling in the tear ducts,
Muscle in a Gordian knot.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine -
Soldiers shivered in the ground
As the god of tits and wine
Put my fire out with his tongue.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine -
I am friends with rock and rye,
Candle flame and worm and lichen,
And the torture spikes of stars.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
I have seen the mirror crack,
I have seen the flaming sword
Buried in a templar’s back.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
I have knelt for the Red Sun,
Drank the moonlight from the river ,
Stroked a hussar’s shiny gun.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
In its hollow bones are caves,
In the caves the saints are sleeping,
In the saints the wormholes wait.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine -
Thank you, physics, thank you, fate,
Thank you, lindens, thank you, chestnuts,
Thank you, cemetery gate.

I was born in Kiev, Ukraine -
The fault lines in my face
Cry tears of happiness,
Cry tears of happiness.

With thanks to Solomia and the musicians who play at the Buena Vista Bar in downtown Kiev on Thursdays

Moonlight night on the Dnepr. Arkhip Kuindzhi.

Moonlit night on the Dnepr. Arkhip Kuindzhi.