6 - Declaring War

Kyiv Moskovska Boulevard in winter photo elenameg.com

[Image 6-1] Elena on Moskovska (now renamed) Boulevard. The state of this major arterial road is typical of winter road conditions in former Soviet republics.

Mama rang Elena at precisely one minute past five. Figures! I'd forgotten Russia is an hour ahead of Ukraine. Earlier, Elena begged her mother not to respond before six, thinking a cooling off period seemed to be in order. At five, however, we were getting groceries on Lesi Ukrainky, thinking we still had at least an hour before the shit hit the fan.

Elena stared at her mobile, petrified.

I was thinking, brilliant! There she is: all grown up, well adjusted and finally setting the record straight; dealing with the source of her spinally compromising stress; putting an end to further harassment. Showing them, she is the boss of her own life. I took her basket and gestured toward the exit. "Go, go."

Light poured from the shopfront onto the pavement. It illuminated the pedestrians swerving to avoid the statuesque woman on her mobile. From inside the grocer's, Elena looked to me like a visitor from the future; as though she didn't belong, shining with her own light.

She lowered the mobile, shuffled toward grocery's glass shopfront and stood there, blankly staring inside. I looked back and saw only fear.

We came from completely different worlds. Elena knew they were about to collide and foresaw only disaster and heartbreak. Mama's call was clear. She wouldn't let her go without a fight. Elena's letter didn't assuage doubts and assert her independence. It declared war. And now, that war was coming to her. She didn't know if I would flee during the first barrage or be there for her. I had a choice. She didn't.

Demonstration on Boulevard Lesi Ukrainky, Kyiv, Ukraine 2006 photo elenameg.com

[Image 6-2] Russian leaning, anti-European, supporters demonstrate on Kyiv's Lesi Ukrainky Boulevard, winter 2006.

It's a matter of realities, -- expectations, perhaps -- basic agreed upon truths we rely on to make informed decisions about how to interact with others. Something I couldn't grasp, at the time, was just how insanely different each of our realities were. In one reality -- let's call it The Megaverse -- opposite charges attract. A dropped object falls. Adult human beings have inalienable rights, and borderline antisocial-behaviour is held in poor taste or even outlawed. But in an alternate reality -- for the sake of argument, let's call this one The Elenaverse -- human rights are a subversive Western ploy. Domestic abuse is none-of-your-business. Everyone is out to get you. And if you don't get what you want, resort to violence.

☸ ☸ ☸

Nan stumbles through London, looking for Florence. She finds her true love heartbroken and miserable. Russian subtitles grace the laptop's screen.

I came in with breakfast on a tray. Continental: fruit, baguette, brie, juice.

Breakfast in bed photo elenameg.com

[Image 6-3] Breakfast in bed, with Russian subtitles.

Elena hit the space bar, looked up from the laptop and smiled. "Oye, such a feast! In the bed?"

"Yup. Skooch over." I backed in, preparing to land without dumping the tray.

Her mobile rang. She looked at it, crestfallen.

"Leave it. Let her wreck the day after breakfast."

"I'm afraid." Elena put the mobile down, still ringing. "I don't know what she can do." It stopped after twenty or so rings. "But, I am afraid."

On the laptop, forbidden love remains unrequited and Nan cleans house. Without comment, we defiantly concentrated on the story -- or made it look that way for each others' sake -- mechanically munching on food that had mysteriously become tasteless.

The mobile chimed one incoming message after another. That they had started coming from more than just her fiancée and Mama, was truly not a good sign.

☸ ☸ ☸

Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc supporters on Kyiv's Lesi Ukrainky boulevard photo elenameg.com

[Image 6-4] The trademark Valentine's heart on white flags of The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc are waved by her supporters along Kyiv's Lesi Ukrainky Boulevard.

Following a rousing warm-up in front of the Prokuratura, supporters of the ousted, Orange Revolutionary prime minister, Yuliya Tymoshenko, chanted, stomped and colour coordinated their way toward the Central Election Commission's huge building and public square. I grabbed my camera. Elena grabbed me, and off we went, chasing the crowd.

Militia paddy wagons line Moskovska Blvd, Kyiv around the Central Election Commission building and square in 2006 photo elenameg.com

[Image 6-5] Militia paddy wagons line Moskovska Boulevard in Kyiv. In Winter, 2006, their presence was an optically calming influence on protests and demonstrations in the Central Election Commission of Ukraine's public square and headquarters.

Riot police were out in force. Lesi Ukrainky and Moskovska Boulevards were lined with paddy wagons. Bored militia leaned on their vehicles, but nothing impeded the flow into the square. The factions, the parties, the forces were out in droves. Fronts and swarms of trademark colours swirled around speakers, booths, tents and displays. An aerial view would reveal a real-time, full-colour graphic illustration of crowd psychology. The atmosphere was exhilarating, carnival-like, breathtaking.

That was the kind of energy and excitement I craved. Yearned for. My camera never stopped. It was real life. Raw, unpredictable -- risky. I was on fire.

Maidan Nezalezhnosti during a 2006 demonstration photo elenameg.com

[Image 6-6] Maidan Nezalezhnosti - Kyiv's Independence Square, was already a focal point for massive demonstrations.

Elena was in fear. Intimidated by the surging crowd. The younger, better-coordinated groups leaned toward European integration. The pro-Kremlin mob was older, rougher and angry. They looked about ready to start busting heads. Elena recognised that rage, hatred and intolerance; knew exactly where it was coming from; knew it wouldn't bend without bloodshed.

And then, her mobile rang.

☸ ☸ ☸

I thought about taking myself out of the equation, but it was way too late for that. Elena opened her heart to her family, her friends. Their support was transformed into hate. Bridges burned. Diatribes intensified. Her mother, her fiancée: Dmitry, and even her friends were organising against her. Thinking I enabled her self destruction, or that I was the cause of it, tore at me.

Mind you, doing a runner wouldn't leave me unscathed. Sharing Elena's hunger for the world; watching her timidly self actualise; smiling at her guarded innocence; revelling in her curiosity and unbridled joy at the simplest things, absolutely filled my heart. I loved introducing her to new experiences -- letting her do the driving, so as to speak -- and then, seeing where we ended up.

☸ ☸ ☸

We came across a black Lexus stuck in our building's drive. Its wheels spinning like crazy. Road clearing wasn't a priority, so ice built up into wickedly slick humps, hillocks and ruts that not only made walking an adventure in sprains and fractures, but driving a highly specialised skill. The bloke in the Lexus clearly didn't have the hang of what not to do on ice. He was, however, making enough noise and billowing clouds of steam to get several alarmed Prokuratura guards in ill-fitting suits running to his rescue.

We shuffled close enough to see a stony-faced mound of blubber in the back seat.

"Ooookh tee! That's a big shishka." Elena gushed.

"Shishka! Hilarious, a big 'pine cone!' Cute, you call the Mafioso, 'shishkas.' Too funny!" I guffawed. The tailoring-challenged muscle gave us a major glare.

"Shush, they hear you!"

"So what? We're speaking English."

" 'Shishka' is Russian and 'Mafioso' is the same word." She whispered.

Typical overhead view of drivers, bodyguards, waiting outside a vehicle while a backseat deal takes place between big honchos photo elenameg.com

[Image 6-7] Typical overhead view of drivers and bodyguards waiting outside a vehicle while a backseat deal happens between a Prokuratura shishka (pine cone: poo-bah, honcho) and interested party.

Elena's mobile rang. Mama had a new tactic. "Sergei needs you. The company needs you. There is work to be done. Come home, just for a few days, then you can go back. You can say goodbye properly. Let everyone wish you well."

She asked if she could bring me.

Mama went nuclear.

Elena went into a fugue state, grabbing things, throwing them into her suitcase.

Gutted, all I could think of saying was, "You really think they'll let you come back?"

"I will explain to them."

Realistically, I knew that once they got her, there would be one hell of a fight if she even thought of coming back. With things going from bad to worse, and now, a weird uncle in the fray that just screamed Russian Mafia to me, I really didn't want to be the reason Elena got herself killed, or worse. "I won't be here."

"What?" Elena stopped dead.

"The flat is paid for through March. You can stay here, if they let you come back."

Her knees buckled. She flopped onto the bed, sobbing. I tried to approach. She kicked at me without connecting. My eyes stung with tears. I tried to say something. Anything, but what?

Screaming into a pillow, Elena told me to get out.

Russian Embassy in Kyiv as seen from the Central Election Commission of Ukraine's public square photo elenameg.com

[Image 6-8] The Russian Embassy's building in Kyiv -- the one with the Green Party banners -- is seen from the Ukrainian Central Election Commission's public square.

I zombie-walked to the kitchenette. Poured a couple fingers of scotch. Didn't drink any. Already hollowed out, it wouldn't do me any good. Instead, I watched a platoon of Prokuratura guards swarm our building's car park with picks, axes and shovels. They worked into the twilight, providing an anvil chorus accompaniment to the usual megaphone protester's wailing and shrieking. They did a beautiful job, clearing saloon-trapping ice and frozen crud from our drive.

Influence at work, I thought, smiling without joy. "I'll raise a glass to that." I clinked my tumbler to the window pane. "Such admirable, neighbourly concern for the residents across the street. Here's to you, gentlemen!" Which is when I saw a ghostly reflection in the window.

"I'm staying." Elena took the glass, inhaled the vapours and took a long, slow sip. "It's not going to get any easier you know."

I reached for her.

She put down the glass and pulled in close. We held each other tight, swaying to unheard music, until we dared to let go.

[[ updated June 17, 21:32 GMT ]]