2. Ain't Gonna Study War No More

"The whole city used to be covered in ХУЙ!” says Marichka, noticing the lack of ‘COCK’ in the city’s graffiti. “Have you noticed?”

“How come there are black robot heads everywhere?” interrupts our son Yehor, pointing to another Darth Vader stencil on the scaffolded walkway under an apartment building construction site. The building has been half-finished for over a year, since developers ran out of money.

“Our president,” answers Marichka. Yehor is not paying attention anymore— he’s spotted a cat in a nearby tree who is reaching for the milk carton bird feeder hanging from one of the branches. 

“МИР. МИР. МИР. Look— МИР. There’s a new three-letter word in town” — ‘PEACE.’

Yehor stares at the stretched-out cat gently rocking his first loose tooth back and forth with the loose thumb of his mitten.

“I guess even the vandalizers are sick of the war.”

GONNA LAY DOWN MY SWORD & SHEILD,
DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE

“I want to believe that this will be a good introduction to our collective project and that I will not have to remind you to be quiet.” The principal of School 129 scans the auditorium from the front of the stage, locks eyes with some of the more mischievous students. Above her, orange wool butterflies made by seniors spread their fuzzy wings, cast oblong shadows on the kids’ incongruous plaid shirts. 

“Good. And now— it’s your show. You created project ЯРУС— Я, Родина, Україна, Світ.”  

“No we didn’t,” whispers someone behind me loud enough to have wanted to be heard. “No way could we come up with a lame title like that!” The project she is outlining directly translates as I, Family, Ukraine, World. 

She signals to a student in charge of the slides to start the PowerPoint. “You are our pride, our future. And it is my pleasure to present the first instalment of your creation: Patriotism in United States of America!”

GONNA STICK MY SWORD IN THE GOLDEN SAND,
DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE

Comfort Town is a gated community on the former territory of Vulcan, a state rubber factory that manufactured shoe soles for the entire Soviet Union. 

“Back then, everyone hated Vulcan,” explained Marichka. It constantly poured black smoke into the sky and stunk up the entire left bank of Kiev. “No one wanted to live in Darnytsia region.”

Most of the trees and some of the monuments that used to adorn the Vulcan— like a steel elk and a brass bullet commemorating factory workers who served in the Second World War— remain, but for the most part, the property has been completely reformatted.

It looks like Lego Land— every building is a different colour and a different height and width, though the doors and windows are all stock and most have Ukrainian flags hanging out of them. With its multi-coloured facades and novelty landmarks— a burgundy windmill, a 10-foot clothespin pinching a mound of grass, a bus-sized tube of red paint exploding over the concrete— Comfort Town is unlike any other soviet-era apartment block in the city, despite still being an apartment block.

Everyone wants to live in Comfort Town. The only thing that remains from Vulcan is the original address: 6 Regenerator Street.

GONNA PUT ON MY GOLDEN SHOES,
DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE

In 1997, Vulcan was seized by Pravex Bank, then the largest bank in Ukraine, upon threat of bankruptcy and became known as Vulcan Pravex. Pravex was owned by the infamous mayor of Kiev, Leonid Chernovetskyj, who was often accused of fraud as well as drug and weapons trafficking and nicknamed ‘Cosmos’ because he was reportedly always high. 

Cosmos soon turned the cafeteria of Vulcan into a soup kitchen called ‘Stephania.’ Not only that, but Stephania offered toilets, showers, phones, a sewing/shoe shop, a barbershop, a medical centre and legal advice for homeless people. Needless to say, the city’s drug addicts and hobos flocked to ‘Stephania,’ renewing the neighbours’ hate for Vulcan.

In 2006, there was a public land dispute (headed by Mykola Tomko of Block Yulia Tymoshenko) based on Kiev City Council’s preliminary decision to allocate the 28 hectares of Vulcan to Vulcan Pravex for 15 years. In 2007, Cosmos formed Neo Vita, another development company which shared many executive board members with Pravex. In 2008, he sold 100% of the shares of Pravex to Italian group Intesa Sanpaolo for $750 million. In 2009, there was another public land dispute (headed by Vitaly Klitschko this time, heavyweight champion and aspiring politician) based on Kiev City Council’s decision to now allocate the 28 hectares of Vulcan to Neo Vita for 25 years. 

Cosmos tried rectify the situation by giving part of territory to his long-time friend and business associate Sunday Adelaja (aka Chocolate), the founder and senior pastor of the evangelical-charismatic megachurch, Embassy of God. Originally from Nigeria, Chocolate moved to Ukraine in 1993 and has since grown his church in Kiev to over 25,000 parishioners and has opened filial chapters in over 50 countries. His main constituents are said to be past alcoholics, druggies, politicians, and millionaires and he has been accused of fraud, embezzling parishioners' property, and helping Cosmos rig the elections.

In the mean time, Neo Vita started to build Comfort Town… until it defaulted in 2013 and sold its shares to KAN Development, another monster on the Ukrainian market. KAN has developed some of the most chic properties in the city over the years, including IQ Business Centre, Arena Entertainment, Ocean Plaza, Central Park, Diamond Hill, Respublika, and others. KAN was founded by the Boxer, his brother (a better boxer), and Ihor Nikonov, who currently runs the business.

Later that year: Euromaidan protests, the occupation of city hall, and the Revolution of Dignity, which ultimately led to the ousting of the corrupt president and new federal and municipal elections. Cosmos moved to Israel and the Boxer became Kiev’s new mayor; Nikonov— his chief consultant and deputy mayor, responsible for the city’s budget, taxes, investments, transport, and PR.

Chocolate continues to preach in Kiev.

With over 60 variations of apartments on a 28 hectare territory, Comfort Town is ideal for active/independent people and families alike, says the brochure. “In the morning, the sun will enter your apartment before anyone. At night, you will be seduced by the starry sky. And the exclusive interior will not leave your guests ambivalent.” On the inside jacket, a model in a white dress stares out the window of a loft that looks nothing like our 2-bedroom unit.

“Why’d they choose a model with crooked legs?” asks Marichka.

Start your European Life, reads the slogan.

GONNA TRY ON MY LONG WHITE ROBE,
DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE

We both “mmmmmm” from the smell of gourmet coffee as we walk into Java House and order cappuccinos from a young woman with inch-long glue-on lashes serves who doesn’t take her eyes off the guy with neck tattoos on the afternoon dating show. Yehor announces that he wants to draw, takes out a sheet of paper and a pen from his backpack and sets up beside the java bean christmas tree in the window.

“What are you drawing?” I ask over the piercingly loud television. The guy with the neck tattoos has just been rejected by a middle-aged widow because he looks like a cartoon with all his body ink.

“A trumpet and a drum.” 

Neck-tattoo guy can’t believe he’s been rejected, but thinks she had saggy tits anyways.

“Nice. Where are the musicians?” 

A new contestant comes on— a jock in a v-neck sweater and tight jeans.

“They’re taking a break.” 

Cut to a date with the same saggy-breasted widow.

“Oh. When will they be back?” 

A Mercedes Benz dealership— they are about to take an S-series for a test drive.

“2 minutes. They’re drinking coffee.” 

The jock revs the engine. The widow rolls her eyes.

“Mmmmm,” groans Marichka, taking another sip. The barista is tending to her lashes, which have started to peel from excessive blinking.

GONNA TRY ON MY STARRY CROWN,
DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE

A seventh grade choir framed by a calamine drape accurately sings America the Beautiful facing the video screen. Sunsets, canoes, cows, mountains, tractors. The White House, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty. “Traditional cake, which looks like American flag” and “usual American house decorated in traditional colours and American flag in Independence Day so everything remind about great holiday.” Portraits of important Americans like Ralph Emerson, who “described United States as ass-ee-lohm of all nations” and even Superman, who “saved American from both fascists, communists, and terrorists.”

For the next two hours, readings of wikipedia articles on patriotism and American holidays as well as melodramatic recitations of O Captain, My Captain, Taxation without Representation, and a poem about 9/11 by an American grade school student. A couple of teenagers sing Yankee Doodle Dandy accompanying themselves on guitar, the first of a set of American folk songs played with the wrong chords. A teacher sitting in the front row tries to get the auditorium to clap along but it throws the boys off. She points to the corners of her over-exaggerated smile with one hand, conducts rigorously with the other, encouraging them to stay positive and keep going until the end. When it’s clear they’re beyond redemption, she frantically cues the video of American children reciting the pledge of allegiance in front of a background of stars and stripes— “Al-ee-gee-ants! Al-ee-gee-ants! Go! Now!”— but it’s too late: the whole room is roaring with laughter, except for a few kids focussed on hair-braiding, ass-slapping, or texting.

GONNA SHAKE HANDS ACROSS THE WORLD,
DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE

We live in the Building 4, Entrance 13, Apartment 676 on the 3rd floor, past the wind mill, between the salons Le Monde and Arzu, dubbed ‘the Lemon’ and ‘the Rose’ by a security guard who can’t ever remember the foreign names. He’s always pouring something or other into his coke bottle. 

“Don’t step on the manhole!” Marichka suddenly shrieks at Yehor, who quickly jumps over the iron disc. “My father once fell into one of those— it was slightly open and collapsed under his weight.”

“No way! That’s like a cartoon!”

“It’s not funny. He broke a rib. Or a vertebrae. I can’t remember.”

Two kids are waiting for their parents outside the supermarket at Comfort Town’s front gate. One of them fires a cap gun at us and scares Yehor. The other one laughs, twirling a pink umbrella with a picture of Mickey Mouse juggling baseballs.

“It’s not funny!” he says with a furled brow, briefly upset before “I wanna do it!,” grabbing at Marichka’s key ring to open the gate.

It takes two key cards and two keys to get into our apartment, the only decent place we could find in the city that was willing to both a) rent to anyone with kids, and b) rent for any less than 6 months. And that was only because the realtor found a way to double her commission. Kiev realtors make 50% of one month’s rent on every lease— some take 50% from the leasee, some charge the leaser 50% too. It’s usually purposefully left unclear in the contract.

“Listen,” she advised, “I told my client you’re from Canada— he knows. Just sign a 6 month lease and when February comes along, I’ll tell him you are getting deported cause you’re only allowed to stay 90 days. And then I’ll just find him another tenant for the next 3 months— no problem,” hence doubling her commission. “He won’t say anything either cause he’s got three apartments in this place and he’s not supposed to have any cause he’s a deputy. Oops! I’ve said too much…”

It doesn’t take us long to get comfortable when we move in— Marichka’s niece brings over pots and pans and household appliances and stays the night. Her daughters turn the radiators down to 2 and screw out two of the light bulbs in the ceiling fixture to “economize.” Yehor finds comfort drawing at the glass table: this time, it’s a kayak docked on an island. Birds are flying over the island, dropping eggs in mid flight into a giant nest. A crescent moon and two stars with hairy auras light the way— the only stars that haven’t fallen yet, he explains. Across the lake, a boy scaling a long ladder running off the page.

GONNA CLIMB THE ROAD TO HEAVEN,
DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE

“Young people need to reflect on patriotism!” scolds the principal, irate with the students for not taking the presentation seriously. “You need to understand that it is so precious and so rare and learn to love your country. In short, to become patriots, not comics. We must show to other young people that in this country are many heroes and we must lead them to say I want to be like them!” 

“What the hell is she talking about,” whispers the same mouthy kid behind me. No one answers though a couple of kids almost choke on their giggles.

“It’s a tough time we live in. Today, we pack our bags and leave because it’s a different time. The world is a big communal apartment and we all live in it. It’s so important for you to decide where you will go next. 10 percent of students in this class will leave to go to America…”

She pauses, collects her thoughts. 

“I forgive you the ceiling of the gym.” I later find out that the seniors got busted kicking a soccer ball repeatedly into the rafters as hard as they could, over and over until the roof almost collapsed. I look up at the shoddily patched ceiling— between two giant fuzzy butterflies, I see a flock of paper doves I didn’t notice before, their wings folded like tiny white accordions.

“It’s Christmas time, the best time to show your patriotism. We have taken in several students from ATO refugee families. They have put up a tree in the front hall and we are collecting warm clothes for their families and friends who are still in Donetsk Region. We are all so tired of this war, but we must continue to write letters to the soldiers too because we know they keep them strong. Like Superman.”

The keener in charge of the slides flips through the entire presentation quickly, trying to find the superhero slide; a montage of red, white, and blue as the principal wraps up her address.

“I trust you will all be good patriots when you leave this auditorium. Ok. I wish you all health, happiness, and peace…”

Everyone recognizes the this assembly tagline, gets up instantaneously and starts herding towards the exit.

“That means it’s done,” says Marichka. “It always ends that way.” We shuffle slowly to the back of the room with the plaid flock. “Except she added ‘peace.’ It used to be health, happiness, and cock.”

 AIN’T GONNA STUDY WAR NO MORE
 AIN’T GONNA STUDY WAR NO MORE
 AIN’T GONNA STUDY WAR NO MORE

“So often in the past little while I’ve heard the phrase: “people are tired of the war.” Dear people, relax. We are not tired and we will defend your rest. For you, there is ‘no war,’ right? Yet you have all the same grown tired of it. Don’t worry. Here, where there is ‘no war,’ we idiots, who could have bought out or fled to another country, will defend your rest. We don’t tire— we don’t know how. And you don’t have to fret about the boys who are here. You didn’t ask us to defend you. You don’t understand at all who we are fighting for over here. But this is not important. You are tired— relax.”

- Малиш (Little Guy), 27, one of the so-called ‘cyborgs’ who fought in Donetsk Airport (among other hotspots), one day before his jeep blew up on a land mine just outside of Pisky, Donetsk Region.

 AIN’T GONNA STUDY WAR NO MORE
 AIN’T GONNA STUDY WAR NO MORE
 AIN’T GONNA STUDY WAR NO MORE

- bb