Skip to content

Chess in Kiev

Tales from a city of beauty, corruption, and a journalist's faked death

I left for Kiev shortly after the assassination of Ukrainian journalist Arkady Babchenko and I arrived on the day that the final episode of The Americans aired. Both seemed relevant to my visit even though The Americans is fiction and so, it turns out, was the murder.

Kiev is a gorgeous, two-airport city with three reliable metro lines, a major river, and a huge stadium that was first named for Leon Trotsky, then Nikita Khrushchev, and finally for Olympic ambitions that may never be realized due to a countrywide reputation for corruption.

Corruption is no bugbear fiction, and Ukrainian authorities have recently opened thousands of corruption investigations all across the country.

“All our people are corrupt,” Oleg Popov, twenty-six, says with a gesture to his unlicensed park table in Shevchenkivs’kyi District, where he sells intricate jewelry that he and his mother craft together, by hand. “I, too.” Pressed for a more robust example of corruption, Popov—not his real name—cites the high price of oil. Why is it high?

“Because of corruption!”

Corruption is no bugbear fiction, and Ukrainian authorities have recently opened thousands of corruption investigations all across the country. Nevertheless, Kiev is a gleaming city with architecture embodying past and future, an older wedding cake aesthetic jockeying alongside spaces that aspire to the milieu of Times Square. Underground markets—like those in other former satellite republics that suffer from cement décor and Dollar General merchandise—have evolved here into something more like small-town malls. The uncrumbling of all the crumbling Sovietness is ongoing with next-gen microdistricts rising on the outskirts of town, like upgrades to the towers that Le Corbusier once hoped would transform Paris.

The populace impresses as well. Ukrainian women are so beautiful they make matchy-matchy look good, and to generalize a bit, a quick stroll along any Kiev boulevard confirms that there is absolutely nothing remarkable about Melania Trump apart from her choice of husband. On the flip side, one wonders why Russia keeps blundering into wars—Afghanistan, Chechnya, and now Eastern Ukraine—where the men are palpably tougher than the likes of Vladimir Putin, whose popped-pimple pallor in bare-chested horseback photo-ops betrays a doomed ambition to the hulkiness that Ukrainian men project fully clothed.

Less impressive are Ukraine’s politicians, including current president Petro Poroshenko, whom jewelry salesman Popov derides as a “chocolate rabbit.” It’s a wry jab at Poroshenko’s previous role as head of the Roshen Confectionery Corporation—the suggestion being that Ukrainians now play Oompa Loompa to Poroshenko’s sweet but hollow Willy Wonka.

A wholly unscientific survey that I conducted over three days suggests that 100 percent of Ukrainians hate talking about politics. Alexander Boyko, twenty-eight, who tends bar near Independence Square and complains that his job nets him only $150 per month, is willing to say more than most.     

“Politics destroys the good side of people—everything may change, but politics remain the same,” Boyko says, referring to the Maidan protests in Independence Square four years ago, which resulted in the deaths of more than one-hundred people and the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. “People forget what it means to be happy.”

Among Boyko’s few late-morning customers is Jenya, thirty-two, who shares Boyko’s political disdain but won’t share her surname. She is available to be interviewed, she says, only until her American boyfriend arrives, which might well result in the same jealous rage that was visited upon on her friend, Martin, in this same bar just a couple of hours earlier.   

Jenya represents the opposite pole of a Ukrainian political divide either orchestrated or exacerbated by Russia. Pitting one half of Ukraine against the other was prologue to what Russia would do in the 2016 American presidential elections, and the result is that Jenya believes that the 2014 Maidan protests were fake—poor people paid to create turmoil. She argues that no current Ukrainian political candidate deserves any attention at all.   

“Nothing will be changed,” she says.       

Martin, thirty-four, is similarly reluctant to give his full name, and wears a bloody bandage over his left eye—the work of the volatile American. A Dutchman, Martin has visited Kiev six times in recent months for his import/export business. Asked whether “import/export” is code for the kind of corruption that he claims is preventing Ukraine from entering the European Union, Martin only smirks and shrugs.      

“Kiev is like a city in Western Europe,” he says. “Except if you smile here people think you’re an idiot.”     

The same 100 percent of Ukrainians who hate talking politics have no idea that Ukraine has now become a battleground of a Cold War the United States is waging with its executive branch tied behind its back. They have never heard of Paul Manafort, they have no idea that an American played a role in electing a president it took bloody riots to expel from office, and they are oblivious to the fact their current president paid Michael Cohen, President Trump’s dimwitted personal attorney, for a meeting, and thereby wound up entering into an unholy arms-for-charges bargain that has enabled Trump to end Manafort investigations that he would not otherwise have been able to interrupt.      

Every appearance of conflict between Trump and Putin is propaganda—about as believable as the body slam that Trump once delivered at a professional wrestling match.

Does that sound farfetched? The timeline is circumstantially conclusive: Poroshenko paid Michael Cohen $400,000 for a “drop-in” meeting with President Trump in June 2017. The approval process for the sale of weapons to Ukraine began six months later. Ukrainian authorities launched several thousand corruption investigations a month after that, including four investigations into payments made to Paul Manafort. Three months later, final approval for the sale of 210 Javelin missiles was provided, and just weeks after that members of Poroshenko’s inner circle acknowledged that the four Manafort investigations were being dropped, so as not to annoy the Trump administration.

Ukraine might be corrupt, but to Ukrainian officials what was most remarkable about this episode was “how dirty [the] whole arrangement was.”

To make it a bit clearer: President Trump has no soft spot for Ukrainian independence, and every appearance of conflict between Trump and Putin is propaganda—about as believable as the body slam that Trump once delivered at a professional wrestling match. Just one question remains, really. Would Vladimir Putin accept or sanction the sale of a few missiles to Ukraine, to be used against his own forces, if it meant that he might confound investigations into the one man who could unravel the administration of his Manchurian president?  

Of course he would. Putin plays chess, not poker—short-term material sacrifices can ensure a long-term positional advantage.   

Countries in this part of the world try to have a sense of humor about their Soviet past. A Tbilisi restaurant called KGB draws customers with a cutesy slogan, “Still Watching You,” and a Kiev bar advertises a meal for about forty dollars that lets you “become an oligarch for the evening.” But regional tensions with Russia run so deep that a journalist has faked his own death to foil an assassination plot. It may not be surprising that the sale of a few missiles can purchase loyalty.           

Sasha Sim, sixty, is the Fisher King of the sprawling used books market in north Kiev. He can generally be found perched on a paperback throne—seated alongside a stack of books the size of a minivan. He won’t let visitors photograph his books until he is given a dollar.           

“Trump is okay,” Sim says, flashing a thumbs-up, but he changes his mind at once at the suggestion that Trump and Putin might be friends. It’s a little similar to Africa, where some are desperate to believe a rumor that Trump is in favor of removing long-serving heads of state. In fact, he’s said the opposite.

Prideful Ukrainians suffer from an irreconcilable duality that is perhaps expressed by the city’s art, which ranges from the work of impressionists whose paintings line the Andriyivskyy Descent, a steep street connecting the upper and lower cities, to the vast surreal allegories muralled onto the sides of buildings all over town. There is also the work of a prolific graffiti artist whose tag, “ETC,” is either a plaintive suggestion that Ukrainian corruption will never end, or an acronym that is hopeful in spite of everything: “Enjoy the City.”

For Americans, Kiev should be something more than a beautiful city in easy striking distance, where the dollar goes much further than it did even a few years ago. It’s also a cautionary tale. As Americans ravenously consume another cautionary tale, The Handmaid’s Tale—the most banned fiction in recent history, by the way—they should quaver at the realization that for far too long Americans have accepted that books and stories are mere entertainment. Rather, it is fiction that can provide an antidote to the propaganda that is the epidemic of our age.

On February 18, 2014, two days before the Maidan protests descended into bloodshed, a man arming up to join the protesters was heard to exclaim, “God gave us an idiot for a president! May he be blown away by all that money!”

Some of that fervor is gone from Ukraine these days—and a malaise has set in that may be what’s in store for Americans as well.

Max Karnienku, twenty-eight, quietly enjoys his coffee on Independence Square on a perfect Sunday evening. A banker, he is happy to give his name to a stranger as he speaks for his country.

“Sometimes our politics work very badly,” Karnienku says. “Ukrainian people work very hard, but our economic situation is very difficult right now. And our politics—it is war. We are at the center of everything, Europe, Asia. We must be strong—and then we can do it.”