We got yelled at in the supermarket in Kyiv last summer.
“Hey! This is some bullshit!” a woman cried, as we cut in front of her in the checkout line. Stout with a granite face, she glared at us over small, judgmental glasses.
Our baby son was having a complete meltdown. I’ve been told that by the third kid, one’s parenting poise is polished enough to slide right on by the mortification that accompanies public tantrums. As it turns out, this is some bullshit.
Little Calin shrieked with physical force, as if everything else he’d cried for in his previous seven months of life had been a waste of crying. He paused—working up the breath to ensure that even the folks in the frozen foods section tuned in—and then shrieked again.
My wife, Iryna, had been cooing in a rapid fire—nu, nu, nu, nu—as I guided our cart with one hand and clasped our wriggling six-year-old son’s shoulder with my other. Meanwhile, our twenty-six-year-old niece and twelve-year-old daughter were providing backing vocals of overenthusiastic coos.
A young guy near the front of the line—with flaming, canary-green tats creeping up his face—had mercifully gestured us to the register. While Ukraine has fundamentally changed since we last lived there in 2011, racially the country is still pretty much completely white. As far as I’m concerned, Ukrainians with facial tattoos qualify as people of color.
I gave dude the nod I normally reserved for brothers, and we all scurried to the front of the queue.
The exact Russian expression the lady had used was, что за хуйня? which can be translated as, what the fuck? in Standard American English. Or maybe, what’s this fuckery? in millennial English. But in the black American variety, it could only be, this is some bullshit. One translates meaning, not words, and judging from the expression on this woman’s face, this is most assuredly what she meant.
“Oh, just ignore her,” the young man responded, waving off the older woman and prompting a frank exchange of opinions that our six-year-old son, Lev, followed like a tennis match.
At a nightclub in Kyiv’s dodgy outskirts during the early ‘00s, I’d once been told to, “Go ride a dick while whistling.” (More on that later.) This match between our tattooed Good Samaritan and geriatric tormentor was tame by comparison. Tessa, our twelve-year-old, had probably heard worse on the playground of her Kyiv primary school. But Lev had never attended school in Kyiv, and this supermarket showdown was a far cry from the dinner table Russian he was used to.
I understood Lev’s fascination. As wary as I am of contemporary Russia, I have to admit: I love their language.
During my stint as a United Nations field security officer in the North Caucasus, I asked my Chechen local security assistant (I’ll call him Khassan) if there was anything he liked about the Russians, anything at all. Khassan was ruddy and freckled, thick in the middle, with a receding hairline and dense, dwarfish beard. He’d buried uncles, aunts, and cousins during Russia’s wars in Chechnya. The Russian Ministry of Interior soldiers who “escorted” our UN convoys throughout the beleaguered republic eyed Khassan during every stop. Khassan eyed them right back. He had more reasons to hate Russians than anyone I’ve ever met.
He answered my question without blinking, “Their language.”
Vera, my mother-in-law, is Kyiv-born. She grew up speaking both Ukrainian and Russian. My father-in-law, Vasyl, hailed from Taly, in Russia’s Voronezhskaya Oblast. He grew up speaking Russian. Vera and Vasyl met and married in Kyiv during the Soviet era, both members of the generation who remember Yuri Gagarin, whose parents held Stalingrad. The last generation who saw Moscow as the center of the universe, with Kyiv in close orbit. Of course they spoke Russian at the dinner table. Iryna might hesitate when speaking Ukrainian, but she’d lived through the post-Soviet chaos of the ‘90s and marched in the Orange Revolution in ‘04. In the black of her blood she is Ukrainian, a patriot in the very best sense of the word. A truth undiminished by the fact that—like many Kyivites of her generation—she grew up mostly speaking Russian.
During the ‘80s, students at Taras Schevchenko Secondary School—located on Krasnoarmeiskaya Street, just across from the Olympiyskyi National Sports Complex (which used to be just plain old Respublikanskyi Stadium back then)—entered either the Ukrainian or Russian track. Core topics (mathematics, science, and physical education) were taught in the track language, and both groups took grammar and literature courses in both Ukrainian and Russian. The way Iryna describes it, the track one ended up in had more to do with luck than ethnicity. Iryna and her sister got Russian; their older brother got Ukrainian. After school, they all spoke Russian.
At first an imperial and then a communist imposition, the Russian language tied together a vast land mass stretching from Europe to the tip of Alaska, sweeping across Central Asia, and both sides of the Caucasus mountains. Russian observes no etiquette; “fucks,” “shits,” “whores,” and “dicks” elbow their way into sentences in an order dictated by nothing more than how the speaker is feeling that day. Мат, the Russian word for cursing, is derived from the word for mother, мать (imagine that ь as a sort of linguistic Downy, softening the final consonant). In every Russian expression where the word mother appears, fuck is emphatically implied. One of my favorites: мать твою через семь ворот с присвистом! Or, Your mother through seven gates while whistling. How could I not love this language?
Happily, Lev didn’t hear anything so brutal in the supermarket that day. Still, with every turn of phrase, I watched my son’s eyes flicker like a slot machine racking up reasons to love his mother’s hometown.
Iryna anchored me to Kyiv, but my fascination with this part of the world began long before we met. During my junior year in high school, I happened upon a copy of Tolstoy’s Master and Man and Other Stories, which contained the grandmaster’s fictionalized account of the real-life eighteenth century separatist guerrilla, Hadji Murat. For a sixteen-year-old obsessed with fantasy heroes, Tolstoy’s tale of valor, violence, and betrayal struck all the right notes. It was the first story I ever read about counterinsurgency, a mode of conflict that has defined warfare in the twenty-first century. I subsequently flew through Pushkin, Gogol, and Chekhov’s short stories. I took on War and Peace and failed—twice—but fell in love with The Master and Margarita in the meantime.
In Gather Together in My Name, Maya Angelou writes of her discovery of the Russian writers:
I walked the sunny California streets shrouded in Russian mists. I fell in love with the Karamazov brothers and longed to drink from a samovar with the lecherous old father. Then Gorki became my favorite. He was the blackest, most dear, most despairing. The books couldn’t last long enough for me. I wished the writers were alive, turning out manuscripts for my addiction. I took to the Chekhov plays and Turgenev, but always returned in the late night, after I had collected my boodle, to Maxim Gorki and his murky, unjust world.
For my part, I pictured cities that were snow-dusted amalgamations of Moscow, Prague, and Paris. I imagined locales that were brimming with intellectuals, radicals, and artists living in the sort of romantic poverty that bred great culture, far-removed from my North Dakota adolescence.
I enlisted in the Marine Corps out of high school and volunteered for embassy guard duty at the first opportunity (back then you had to pick up corporal before applying). After finishing a year and change at the US embassy in Amman, St. Petersburg and Moscow topped my “wish list.” I jotted the consulate in Vladivostok and the embassy in Kyiv into third and fourth place with (as anyone who knows anything about the Marine Corps can attest) inordinately optimistic disregard. In December 2000, I stepped off a Ukrainian Air lines flight at Boryspil International Airport, blowing into my palms and looking up at a sky that was like a dull, grey smear.
In Kyiv, I found a language tutor, Nina, through an ad on the embassy’s community board. Nina must have been in her early sixties and was a full professor of Philology at Taras Shevchenko University, the best school in the country. She tutored me in Russian for the Hryvnia equivalent of ten bucks per session. Early on, I tried to butter Nina up by waxing poetic about my love of her people’s literature. Nina let me finish my spiel. Then she made a bitter sound that resembled a laugh. “This part of the world only produced three things worth exporting: weapons, vodka, and great literature.”
So, yes, the Russophone world had been a premeditated destination for me, but not Kyiv per se. I ended up returning again and again for the same reasons other folks end up returning to Caracas or Cleveland. You meet someone, fall in love, and then discover that the package deal includes their hometown. The next thing you know, you’re buck-naked in a steamy wooden hut flagellating a male cousin-in-law with a bundle of birch twigs. A tale as old as time.
Iryna and I met during a “duck and cover” drill at the former USAID building on Kyiv’s Nyzhnii Val Street back in ‘00. When you’ve been together for as long as we have, you end up with several versions of the “how we got together story.” In the dinner party version, I add a bit about the angelic choir that accompanied Iryna’s butt poking out from under her desk.
“And that was when I knew,” I say, pausing for effect, “this was the one.”
Iryna’s cue to roll her eyes in our little performance.
“Hey, ma’am.” I said, squatting next to Iryna’s desk at USAID that day. “The drill’s over. You can come out.”
I hazarded a smile. She had hair so black that it was like an inverse dazzle, mascara that hinted at a dominatrix streak, and eyes bluer than anything I’d ever seen.
We got to chatting, and—brimming with lion cub swagger—I asked for her number.
Iryna gave me a profoundly unimpressed look before responding, “My number?” She smoothed the front of her skirt with her palms. “I don’t think so. I heard about you.”
What Iryna had heard were spot-on assessments of the Marine security guard detachment’s exploits in Kyiv at that time—sordid tales that don’t jibe with the clean-cut, Sergeant-pulling-himself-up-by-his-bootstraps narrative I now try to project about my stint in the Corps. The truth is, I was just as bad as any of the other five Marine guards assigned to the US embassy in Kyiv back then. Hell. Given the (occasional, but palpable) hookup advantages my “exotic” black American status afforded me, I might have been the worst.
We had two main accomplices in debauchery: “Jeff,” a five-foot-two, perpetually pissed off good-old-boy, working for one of the alphabet soup of US government agencies based in the embassy, and “Oleg,” the youngest supervisor of the embassy’s local guard force. Oleg had been a professional athlete in a Canadian hockey league, spoke excellent English, and had a face like a Gogol story—sharp and crookedly striking.
While Oleg was responsible for the external guard force at the embassy, the Marines were chiefly responsible for “internal security,” which really meant safeguarding the classified material—a role tainted by one Corporal Clayton Lonetree, the first Marine ever convicted of espionage. Lonetree had been an embassy guard in Moscow during the 80s when he fell victim to a KGB honeytrap elaborate enough to strain the credulity of a Tom Clancy novel. In response, the US Departments of Navy and State clamped a rigid set of visitor, curfew, and alcohol-related regulations on Marines assigned to overseas diplomatic facilities.
To avoid these rules, we’d hang at Jeff’s embassy-leased apartment, where our host livened up our evenings with drunken rants directed at his living room’s walls.
“I know you fuckers are listening! Say, ‘Hello!’ to The Boo, everybody! You motherfuckers aren’t slick!”
The FSB had replaced the KGB in Russia; in Ukraine it’d been replaced by the SBU, which we affectionately referred to as “The Boo.”
The embassy’s five Marine guards stood post on a rotating schedule: days, eves, and mids. Jeff and Oleg worked nine-to-five with regular weekends, but, as unofficial members of the Marine Detachment, they’d heroically hit the bars with us until 3 a.m. on a Tuesday.
It took me leaving the embassy in Kyiv and rejoining the civilian world via the University of Oklahoma—a frat dominated, Southwestern, football school—to fully appreciate the Corps’ culture of binging. OU even on a game day weekend didn’t come close to your average Camp Lejeune barracks on any given Friday. Now plop those same working-class corporals and sergeants—hayseed white boys, second-generation Mexican Americans, and brothers only recently removed from the block, all auditioning their new personalities as bad asses—into the world’s capitals and watch what happens.
In Kyiv, we got after it as if the vodka sea was in danger of evaporating. Shot glasses clutched like grudges, exchanging nods and pouring liquor down our throats as if extinguishing something deep in our souls. At first, we tried to keep pace with Oleg in the standard American fashion, chasing vodka shots with slugs of beer. After a couple nights of dragon retching into Jeff’s toilet, I finally learned to stick to one poison and chase it with the pickles and black bread that, seemingly unbidden, always materialized at our barroom tables.
We’d lay down the first coat at Cowboys, which had all the trappings of a conventional American tourist bar: a Route 66 road sign, one of the those flashing neon placards of a cabaret dancer kicking up a leg, and a framed photograph of the filming of one of the Die Hard movies signed by Bruce Willis. The toilets contained no urinals or stalls, just a dingy open row of shitters that gave put-upon sighs when you pulled the dangling torture-room chains. In high spirits, we’d ditch Cowboys for the 111 nightclub’s rotating bar and dated Eurotechno sounds. Upon failing to make anything happen at 111, we’d wash up at Kyiv’s seediest strip joints at our most lecherous, leering at strippers until the birds chirped in the sunrise.
Instant assholes, just add alcohol.
After our meeting at the USAID building, I ran into Iryna at 111 nightclub twice. The first time, I held my vodka-addled brain together long enough for a conversation over cigarettes outside the nightclub, watching the cars zip by on Victory Square, just across the street from Kyiv’s circus. Iryna tightroped the curb and then snapped her Zippo shut with a martial swipe that made me jump. We talked about U2. She made me laugh. Then, grinding out her cigarette on the heel of her cranberry-leather Doc Martens, she again declined to give me her number. The second time I saw Iryna at 111, I scribbled my number onto the back of a cardboard coaster and convinced her to take it. Eventually she called.
When I served in Kyiv, the Marine House was in the Sirets district, which is infamous as the site of the Babi Yar massacres. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I returned to the city a few years later as a graduate fellow in the National Security Education Program. One of my professors at the Kyiv Linguistic Institute gave me an English language copy of Babi Yar, Anatoly Kuznetsov’s brilliant, under-appreciated memoir. In the book, Kuznetsov described hearing the 1941 massacre as a boy in occupied Kyiv:
Grandmother came back from the neighbors with news. A fourteen-year old boy, the son of the stableman, had come running back to the kitchen garden and was telling of the horrors he had been through. He said that everybody was being undressed, that people were lined up in front of pits, one packed closely behind the other, so that one bullet could kill many. He said that the bodies were stacked in a layer, covered with dirt, and then a fresh layer of bodies was laid on them. Many of those shot were still alive, so that the ground kept moving; some had even managed to crawl out. That was what he had done—crawled out and ran away.
Kyiv’s German occupiers murdered at least 33,771 Jewish children, women, and men at that ravine.
Even later, when I worked as a UN security advisor in Jerusalem, a shadow would fall across my Israeli colleagues’ faces when I mentioned that I drove past Babi Yar every day during my commute to the embassy. Past Babi Yar, past sherbet-colored apartment buildings, trolley cars, and monuments of buff Soviets grimly facing down Nazi hordes. Past men sipping plastic bottles of vodka on park benches. Past playgrounds of corrugated steel giraffes and horses, painted in festive pinks and oranges.
On the way to the morning shift, I’d usually pass a guy in at least his late fifties, jogging shirtless in the cold. Real cold. The sort that creeps into your bones and carves you from the inside out like a Ginsu knife.
“How’s Russia?” my father would ask over the phone. He’d recently retired to Oklahoma after a twenty-seven-year career in the Air Force.
“I’m not in Russia, Dad. I keep telling you, I’m in Ukraine.”
“Well, how’s the Ukraine?” I heard the shrug in his career cold-warrior’s voice.
“You don’t need the article anymore, Dad. It’s just Ukraine.”
“Well, how’s just Ukraine, then?”
“What can I say?” I paused. “These are a different sort of white people.”
When asked about race in the former Soviet Union, I gauge my audience. Sometimes, I go with the story of the time I found myself back to back with Oleg in one of those aforementioned dodgy establishments on Kyiv’s outskirts; it was the type of place where all the dudes looked like extras from a Steven Seagal movie. In the moment before getting coldcocked, I locked eyes with a woman gyrating in one of the cages surrounding the dance floor. Her makeup shimmered in the club’s oscillating lights, and without saying a word we communicated something warm and sincere, something intensely human. Then we both looked away. That’s when I caught a crack like a shotgun slug to the left side of my face—easily the cleanest punch I’ve taken in my life.
I raised my hands and staggered into someone who immediately shoved me in the back. I flayed into the crowd on the dance floor and felt, for a horrific moment, surrounded by ghouls, assaulted by the nightclub itself. I spun just in time to see Oleg land a left in what must have a tidy one-two combination. We traded a couple punches with a couple guys for a couple seconds, before darting for the door. Our attackers hung back, cursing. The poet of the bunch invited us to ride a dick while whistling. And thus, we circle back to whistling and dicks. I usually cap the story with Hemingway’s advice for working abroad: Give the men cigarettes and leave the women alone. Honestly though, I’m uncertain whether this brawl was actually about race. The expression above my skin-tight T-shirt that night in the club—the worst possible combination of disdain and confidence—was probably, as the Ukrainian sayings goes, just begging for a brick.
When I’m feeling more kumbaya, I tell people how my professors at the Kyiv Linguistic Institute went on and on about how much they’d adored their Cuban students back in the day. Or about the Stevie Wonder-loving embassy driver who remembered the 1979 Radio Moscow broadcast of Angela Davis receiving the Lenin Peace Prize.
“Чёрные Пантеры,” he said smiling, and then in English, “Whatever happened to them?”
Sometimes I tell people about variations of the following conversation that I’ve had in gyms throughout the former Soviet Union.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m American, from the USA.”
“Yeah, but where are you from”—here the guy would run his hands in front his face, as if to say, because you’re not white—”По национальности?” “by nationality?”
“Well… most of my ancestors were from Africa…”
“So, you’re African American?” they would interrupt, as if this combination of nationality and ethnicity alone inspired awe.
“See,” Calling to his buddy on the other side of the weight room, “he’s African-American, like _________.” Fill in the blank with famous black American boxer, wrestler, or UFC contender of your choice.
“Да, Roy Jones Junior, oн такой красавчик!” or “Yeah, Roy Jones Junior, he’s the man!”
More recently, when asked about race in the former Soviet Union, I responded simply, “People in that part of the world respect strength and resolve across cultural and ethnic boundaries.” A truthful, but incomplete answer. Then I launched into a soliloquy chiefly concerned with my love of Hadji Murat.
Iryna and I were living in Kenya during the Euromaidan protests at the end of 2013. We huddled around her laptop to watch YouTube clips of Maidon Nezalezhnosti—Independence Square—in central Kyiv. The initial carnival atmosphere—young people, under Ukrainian and EU flags, blowing on their fingers next to vats of spiced wine—morphed into scenes of tear gas wafting above a sea of glistening black helmets. Then stun grenades like cracks of thunder and Berkut riot police with iron batons pummeling teenagers Rodney King style. Women and old men—with blood-matted hair and stunned, eight-ball-hemorrhaged eyes—braced themselves behind makeshift street barricades.
Watching footage from Euromaidan, I saw a shared expression of absolute clarity on the protestors’ faces. Few moments in a person’s life are quite so enlightening as that first real kick from a representative of the state. That first time your heels are pushed apart during a frisk. That first slap to the testicles during a pat-down. That first time you realize who your country’s security forces work for, and that it damn sure ain’t you. I don’t think any of the women and men on Maidon had any illusions about what would happen when the shooting started. At least one hundred and eighty-four people sustained gunshot wounds in Kyiv’s city center during the protests. Sixty-seven died.
President Viktor Yanukovych bet his presidency on the cowardice of his countrymen, and they’d answered on the streets, fiercely and en masse. After the brutality Yanukovych released on Bankova Street, the protesters sang the Ukrainian national anthem like a prayer, while priests rang the bells at the Mikhaylovsky monastery.
Patriots in the black of their blood. Some born after the fall of the Soviet Union; others with scant grins and faces carved from stone. Still others with hyphenated identities—Canadian-Ukrainians, Ukrainian-Americans. All infuriated beyond despair. This was no longer just a fight for European integration, but for human dignity by a people whose hearts had no more room for fear. For a stark beautiful moment, this tribe I’d married into—by far one of the world’s gloomiest—transformed into true believers.
Iryna and I returned to Kyiv in the summer of 2019 to christen our son, return my father-in-law’s remains, and get some dental work done. It was more family business than vacation, and only our second visit to Ukraine since the Euromaidan protests. But I know Kyiv; the city’s air still crackled with an energy that hadn’t been there before.
Americans, impatient to scroll down and move on, now discuss the Ukrainian capital as if the city sprang into existence after Hunter Biden took a seat on Burisma’s board of directors. My Kyiv. Where I fell in love with my wife and where we christened two of our children. Where we stroll down Andrey’s Descent—one of my favorite streets on the planet—to visit the home where Bulgakov began work on The Master and Margarita; where one of the greats sat and did what all of us writers do: struggle and second-guess. Where we visit family and friends who remember us when we were young. Where my wife watches our kids interact in the Russian speaking world and then breathes easier, confident that the language will stick. Where I’ve spent some of the best days of my life.
When watching Kyiv’s wrenching, elegant, violent, infuriating, and heroic story fade in and out of the international headlines, I realize how much pride is mixed up in my complicated feelings about the city. It’s funny what ends up feeling like home.
Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov.