×

Perpetually Awaiting A Rebirth of Wonder

Steven Boyd Saum
17 Snaps

I. In which the mobile ballot box is carried to the communal apartment 

The Molotov cocktail hit the front door of Kherson School No. 56 in the early morning hours of Ukraine’s Election Day, on the last Sunday in May, 2014. Three polling places were inside. The entryway to the building was charred, but no one was hurt, and the polling places opened on time. The incident was not widely reported in the press—unlike the previous Friday’s explosion of the bus on the outskirts of Kyiv, or the assassination of an armed leader in Donetsk who was trying to establish a separate Republic of Donbas. Or, the day before that, the deaths of at least eleven Ukrainian soldiers in a clash with pro-Russian militants.

Later on this same Sunday morning, in the southern city of Kherson, near where the Dnieper River meets the Black Sea, on a street named Freetown, across the yard behind Polling Place No. 698, in the kitchen of a communal two-story apartment building, someone is frying onions. The pungent, sweet smell fills the blue-walled corridor on the second floor and the dark stairwell. The roof of the building is zinc and the outside walls are painted two tones of dusty peach. On the ground floor is a stomatology clinic with security bars on the windows, and upstairs are apartments and the communal kitchen. Laundry hangs from a line above the clinic.

Memorial to the Heavenly Hundred on Independence Square in Kyiv. The man at the upper left was forty and a father of two. Photo by the author.

An old man in a dirty white T-shirt and shorts and plastic sandals pulls aside the curtain to see who’s arriving: eight strangers, including a policeman in uniform. The old man frowns. If you live in a communal apartment building, you know everybody and their business; that was one reason why the Soviets built collectives in the days of Lenin and Stalin. Also a legacy from Soviet days: don’t trust a stranger. There is a woman in the kitchen, not much younger than the man, and she eyes the unexpected visitors with curiosity, if not wariness.

We, the strangers, nod in greeting and say hello. It’s clear we have not come to see a neighbor for a social visit: none of our crew carries flowers or sweets or a bottle. What we do haul is a metal-­framed cube with clear plastic sides, emblazoned with the blue and yellow trident symbol of Ukraine. This is one of a pair of portable ballot boxes from the polling station. There is no absentee voting in Ukraine, so the portable ballot box provides a special service for the aged and infirm, the sick and the disabled. But it’s not a service that is provided automatically. You have to sign up for it in advance. Today the elections are for president and, in Kherson and many other cities, for mayor.

Leading our parade and carrying the box is the head of the electoral commission, a matronly woman with wavy brown hair not quite down to her shoulders. Four more members of the precinct’s electoral commission accompany her: three women and one man. As is true in most precincts, in 2014 the lion’s share of the work—time-­consuming, repetitive, detail-oriented, and thoroughly unglamorous—falls to women.

It’s just past 10:30 a.m. and the heat of the day is beginning to bear down on the city. Bringing up the rear of the crew with the portable ballot box are a pair of observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, with badges and armbands bearing their logo. Marte is a historian from Norway; yours truly is the editor from California. Alevtyna, our interpreter, has worked on cruise ships and has easily visited more ports than the rest of this group put together. When we met I guessed she’d just finished university studies, perhaps was a graduate student.

Down the hallway of the communal apartment building, the commis­sioner’s knocking is answered by a slippered old woman with bright red dyed hair. She’s been expecting us. She looks us over and invites us into the entryway of her apartment. Inside, furniture demarcates a makeshift foyer: a tall wardrobe, paired with a blanket hung from the ceiling, blocks off a sleeping area just beyond. The place is cramped, musty, and worn.

“It’s my husband who wants to vote,” the woman says, in the same tone you’d use to explain the situation to a plumber: There’s the pipe that broke. He’s a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, but he can’t walk anymore, she tells us. “He’s had six strokes.”

The old man’s breathing is shallow, labored. “You see how we live,” the woman says. “In the Soviet Union, we were waiting twenty years for an apartment. And then the Soviet Union ended. We’ve been here ever since.” That was more than two decades ago.

The head of the electoral commission helps the old man make a mark next to his name on the list of voters for the mayoral election. But there’s a problem: while he is on that list, regrettably, he is not on the list of voters for a presidential ballot. And the law makes no allowance for a provisional ballot or same-day registration.

The old woman sighs. She doesn’t bother to argue, but she’s clearly disgusted. As if this voting business is something that this stubborn old man wanted to do even though she could have told him that it won’t make any difference. The old man does not speak or move from under the covers. With obvious strain, he lifts his arm enough to make a mark on the long sheet of heavy white paper next to the name of one of the candidates for mayor. A commissioner folds the paper for him and slides it into the ballot box.

In an election that holds the promise of a fresh wind of political change—​a springtime of new hope for a land that desperately needs it—it is possible, among the frying onions and the stale closeness of a decrepit communal apartment, to smell despair. It’s a familiar odor.

*

When I came to Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer almost twenty years ago, teaching in the western Ukrainian city of Luts’k at a university named for the poet Lesya Ukrainka, one of the first courses I taught was a semester-long study of contemporary American literature. We kicked things off with the Beats. The students were particularly taken with Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I had the students compose their own versions of Ferlin­ghetti’s “I Am Waiting,” a litany of pent-up frustration and national aspiration and dreams of innocence regained. Variations on a refrain:

and I am perpetually awaiting

a rebirth of wonder

A different poet is present at Precinct No. 698. In front of the school where the polling place is set up stands a bust of Vladimir Mayakovsky, looking rakish and intense. Where does this early-twentieth-century chanter of futurist verse and crafter of Soviet agitprop posters fit in on Election Day? He could be shrill in defense of the Soviet regime—though that didn’t stop the regime from driving him to suicide, in 1930. Open one of his fish tins, though, and you might hear the hum of the stars that speak truths from an age of a new world unfolding:

Men, crumpled like bed-sheets in hospitals,

And women, battered like overused proverbs.

I wonder how Mayakovsky would do in Putin’s Russia.

 

II. the gift of crimea

Before the vote came the campaign. The Friday morning before the presidential election, across the street from Freedom Square in the center of Kherson, candidate reps set up tents and information tables and politely invited passersby to take a leaflet. Nearby, a woman in a paper hat sold ice cream from a cart. She chanted her campaign slogan the loudest: “Samaya vkusnaya morozhenoe! Tol’ko zdes’! Tol’ko sevodnya!”—“The tastiest ice cream! Only here! Only today!” Since the day before the election is a twenty-­four-hour “quiet period,” flyers and billboards needed to come down by the end of Friday. As for the ice cream, no interruption of sales was demanded by law, but it provided a lesson that Soviet and post-Soviet scarcity and hyperinflation taught again and again: if you see something you might want or need, buy it now. Who knows what tomorrow and the next day might bring?

Only here! Only today!

Even Lenin was now gone from Freedom Square, though his statue in Kherson had endured the breakup of the USSR, unlike statues in many cities in Ukraine, where more than two decades ago communist monuments were torn down or hauled away. Until February 2014, Kherson Lenin stood atop a plinth of stone at the center of the square, until he was toppled amid the climax of protests that drove then president Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country, and brought in a new government. Scores of the Lenins that survived the turmoil of independence were likewise taken down amid those recent protests. In Kyiv, the famous Lenin statue on Shevchenko Boulevard came down in December 2013; protesters replaced it with a golden toilet, a gesture of anarcho-­artistic mockery that wouldn’t resonate quite as well in sleepy Kherson. Here, Lenin was replaced immediately by a hand-lettered memorial to the Heavenly Hundred, those killed in January and February 2014 in the protests in Kyiv. By May, the marble platform was covered with flowers, the original rough dedication redone in flawless blue lettering using a folksy serif font. Wrapped around the base is a band of traditional Ukrainian geometric designs in red and black, like those one finds on embroidered shirts and towels. Projecting from the center of the stone is an enormous metal flagpole.

Losing the Lenin statue is something that Alevtyna recounts a bit wistfully. It’s not that she longs for a return of the Soviet Union. But the removal of the statue now, all these years later—​“It was like losing part of my childhood,” she says. True, years ago the street that bore Lenin’s name was changed to Cathedral Street, but printed tourist guides to the city still include the street name Lenin in parentheses. Street signs in the city itself put Lenin in small letters beneath the official name, too. In a similar vein, Karl Marx Street is now Potemkin Street. A monument of Prince Grigory Potemkin, general and founder of the city, stands proudly in Potemkin Square. The statue depicts a man with windswept hair, his steely gaze fixed on the horizon, clad in breastplate, his right hand grasping a telescope, his left hand resting upon the hilt of his sword. In a bower near the statue, lovers bind their fates together with padlocks attached to a bench. After all, Potemkin was Catherine the Great’s lover and secretly her husband for decades: he was her “dearest dove” and “twin soul.”

A construction site in Kherson, across from Freedom Square. The poster on the left says Don’t shoot in Ukraine, and the poster on the right depicts Yanukovych, making fun of him for a spelling gaffe made in 2004 that became something of a symbol for his unpopular presidency. Photo by the author.

The city of Kherson takes its name from the ancient Greek settlement of Khersones, the northernmost outpost of the empire of Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great. But that ancient city wasn’t built here. The ruins of Khersones lie in Crimea, just east of Sevastopol. This Kherson was, until the eighteenth century, a village with another name on the banks of the Dnieper where the river often flooded and standing water bred disease that took its toll on nascent trade with the West. Then the levees were built. Catherine the Great had an affinity for things ancient and Greek; they conveyed the grand sweep of history and her place in it. Hence the name Kherson. It became part of a territory to the north and east that Catherine had christened “Novorossiya.”

But with the addition of Crimea and the “wild field” of the steppe lands bordering the Black Sea to Novorossiya, the existing designation became something grander. Catherine wanted it to evoke the restoration of the empire of ancient Rus’. Potemkin was named governor general of Novorossiya, and Catherine commissioned a commemorative medal. Engraved on it: I have recovered what was torn away.

In 1787, Catherine and an epic entourage departed the capital to make a grand tour of the South. The royal parade departed St. Petersburg in January by carriage and sledge, all pulled by more than five hundred horses. South of Kyiv, in the spring, they floated by barge down the Dnieper toward Kherson. This is the fabled journey that was accompanied by rumors of “Potemkin villages”—facades thrown up along the route of the empress to try to fool her into thinking derelict towns were growing and thriving, populated by peasants herded from the hinterlands to “settle” these new places. Catherine had heard Potemkin’s detractors claiming that his tales of bustling communities and noble cities rising were all lies, but at least in Kherson the empress found a flourishing town after the royal procession arrived there, in a ceremonial parade of carriages, passing beneath an arch on which was inscribed This is the road to Byzantium.

Down by the riverbank is another statue that has become a symbol of the city: a bulbous, concrete, Soviet-­era rendition of a three-masted sailing ship, The Glory of Catherine, the first sixty-six-gun battleship in the Russian navy, launched in 1783 and named after the empress. The ship heralded the dawn of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which was originally based in Kherson. But the city of Sevastopol in newly acquired Crimea turned out to have a better harbor, and the shipyards, which were originally slated for the riverbank in Kherson, were moved west, to Mykolaiv. Kherson lost both the fleet and the shipyards, but it kept Potemkin: he’s buried here. Or at least part of him is—but more on that later.

Crimea, with its rugged coast and balmy breezes, was for years the prime vacation destination for many Ukrainians—​and, before that, for holiday-­makers from across the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. For people in Kherson, Crimea is next door: the only roads and rail routes in and out of the peninsula pass through the Kherson region, which also supplies Crimea with fresh water and electricity from a massive hydroelectric dam on the Dnieper River, at Nova Khakhovka.

In March of last year, Russian troops established an international border for Crimea. Mines were laid. While the little green men were taking over, they also made a foray into a small peninsula that’s part of the Kherson region, but soon turned back.

Memorial Tower on Independence Square in Kyiv, May 2014. The banner in the center says “We Love Russians, We Despise Putin.” Photo by the author.

On Election Day, there would obviously be no voting in Crimea. But would people from Crimea try to vote elsewhere? Perhaps some would come to Kherson, where it was expected the day would pass uneventfully; aside from one Molotov cocktail, it did. But in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to the east, where separatists didn’t want voting to take place, there was less than 20 percent voter turnout on Election Day, due to violent suppression and intimidation.

On television and social media, self-appointed leaders of various break­away territories around Donetsk and Luhansk were speaking of a unified effort to establish a place called Novorossiya. The two-centuries-­old name was put back into active use by Putin in April. Maps of this imagined land extend across the Kherson region as well, encompassing a swath from eastern Ukraine through Odessa to Moldova in the West (with its own Russian-backed breakaway territory since 1992, Transnistria), incorporating about half of the territory of Ukraine—and all of its Black Sea coast. There was talk of correcting an aberration of history: namely, Khrushchev’s “gift” of Crimea to Ukraine, in 1954, on the three-hundredth anniversary of the signing of a treaty of friendship between part of what’s now Ukraine and the Russian Empire. The story is often told in terms of Khrushchev showing favoritism to the part of the USSR where he spent some of his childhood and rose up through party ranks. Usually glossed over is the economic logic—and that Khrushchev believed in the Soviet system and tried, endlessly, to find the levers he could pull to make the damn thing work. Given geography and routes for transport, energy, and water, it made sense to him for the peninsula to be connected administratively to mainland Ukraine.

But in October 1964, Khrushchev was pushed out in a coup, his so-called harebrained scheming in many fields denounced, and he was packed off to his dacha to plant corn and tomatoes. The KGB installed listening equipment in his toilet and confiscated the manuscript of his memoirs. Crimea stayed part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

 

III. the mobile ballot‑box brigade meets the woman from Crimea

From the communal apartment building where the veteran is not allowed to vote for president, the head of the election commission for Precinct No. 698 carries the portable ballot box out into the sunshine and across the yard. A boxy white Lada is parked in front of the stomatology clinic. The yard between the buildings is scruffy but not derelict; grass goes untrimmed, there are bushes with dead branches unpruned, and one tree’s trunk has been hacked to a stump two meters tall. But there is no trash to speak of. It’s an urban courtyard landscape of paved and dirt paths where children play away from the traffic and noise of the street, neighbors stand and talk for hours, men in sandals cross the yard carrying plastic bags of produce brought back from the market. Women hang laundry on lines: a red-and-white-checkered tablecloth and an orange-and-yellow-striped blanket; sheets, towels, shirts.

One of the neighbors, a woman in tracksuit pants and a pink T-shirt, breaks off from the other women she’s talking to and smoking with and intercepts our parade. Her cigarette is thin, the smell of tobacco pungent and cheap.

“You’re taking the ballot box to people, right?” she says. She is from Crimea, she says, and that’s where she’s registered to vote, but she lives here now. “Is there anything I can do about voting?”

Unfortunately, there is not, the commissioner says. Last week, yes. Even two days ago, through the courts. But now—it’s too late to do anything today.

The woman shrugs. “Just thought I’d ask,” she says. “In case.”

“Maybe for next time,” the head of the election commission says.

“What’s next time?”

“Maybe a second round of presidential elections in two weeks.” If no candidate receives a majority vote, there will be a runoff. “Then parliamentary elections.” At the time, those are expected near the end of the year.

The woman nods. She goes back to her cigarette and her neighbors.

We don’t expect to see many more voters from Crimea—not here, nor in small towns close to the border. Unless people from Crimea have left their homes for mainland Ukraine, they’ll need to have invested the time and expense to register in advance, then come again to vote. To pay for that could cost a week’s salary. Online registration might seem like a good idea, were that possible under the law, but reports of a spoof voter-registration web page used to harvest the names of would-be voters make it seem like less of a good idea. There is no doubt that a van of Crimean Tatars trying to cross the new border just before Election Day would raise suspicion. Delays would occur at the crossing. Personal information would be taken down. Reprisals would be expected.

In a five-story white brick apartment building, up two flights of stairs, the head of the election commission rings a bell. A boy of about seventeen answers. He’s thin and shy, but he knows why these people are here. He calls for his babushka, and retreats to the room where he was, by the sounds of it (digitized thumps and whumps and crunches), playing a video game on the TV. An old woman and an old man shuffle into the kitchen and invite us in. They show their internal passports to the commission head. Grandfather is on both lists to vote, but his wife is not. She will be able to vote only for mayor. She sighs.

Another quiet moment of failure and frustration: What is to be done?

The head of the commission gently explains: if you’d checked to make sure you were on the list last week and weren’t, there were options to be pursued. But everything takes time. Especially for someone who is housebound. What about your grandson? Perhaps he could have done something: gone down to the polling place a couple of weeks ago to make sure you were on the list. Brought back papers to fill out. But not now.

A billboard for Yulia Tymoshenko in Kherson reads “Tough Times. Decisive Steps. Strong Leader. Let’s Defend Ukraine!” Photo by the author.

It occurs to me that carrying the portable ballot box has a quality of performance art about it, like traveling as part of a theater troupe, door-to-door, with the rules and rituals—yet on such an intimate scale. And, too, it has the element of capriciousness, particularly in a moment so charged with historical significance.

The polls in the run-up to the presidential election predicted a win by Petro Poroshenko, known at home and abroad as the chocolate baron of Ukraine. The question was by how much—and whether Poroshenko would win outright in the first round, or whether there would be a second round of elections pitting him against Yulia Tymoshenko, the hero of the Orange Revolution, who was sent to prison under Yanukovych and released as he fled the country, only to discover that her political star had set.

In his campaign for president, Poroshenko chose a slogan that was about breaking with the past, in a hopeful but innocuous way. Billboards and posters, some with his name and photo, some with just text, counseled, in red, sans-serif type, in all caps: It’s time to live in a new way.

Among the new ways Ukrainians have already been living: flying more Ukrainian flags than ever before. From lampposts and flagpoles, yes, but also from the balconies of apartments in towering concrete blocks, from the windows of cars, from bicycle handlebars. In May, you can still breathe the air of European winds blowing in from the West; it helps that the EU’s starred flag is also gold and blue. On the outskirts of Kherson, a World War II–era tank monument sports a flag flying from a pole thrust into its hatch. Billboards in yellow and blue block text declare: Your voice is the deciding one. Inside a café where the chalkboard outside bears the message Make coffee, not war, suspended from the ceiling are enormous paper blossoms of blue and white and yellow.

The election precincts are the most decorated places of all. A flag marks the entrance to whatever building serves as the polling place, and inside, the colors of the flag are repeated in the swaths of fabric that hang on the frames of the polling booths. On the third floor of School No. 57 in the Komsomol region of Kherson, the woman heading Precinct No. 687 has supervised the installation of a display of the paperback election codes in what amounts to a shrine to things traditional Ukrainian: a linen towel embroidered with red and black stripes serves as a runner, with another, more elaborate towel draped across it, embroidered with red and orange flowers and the phrase For Happiness. Perched atop the towel is a round, braided loaf of bread with a cup of salt at the center. To the right stands a brown vase filled with plastic vegetation: a pair of golden sunflowers, a spray of green and orange maple leaves. To the left is a vase holding a sheaf of wheat. Above it hangs a flowered headband with trailing orange and red ribbons. Propped up behind the desk are posters about election processes, the electoral code books, and some poetry—including a pair of volumes of Taras Shevchenko, one bearing the likeness of the young poet, the other depicting the grizzled, walrus-mustached bard who recently returned from his decade of exile ordered by the tsar.

Near the polling-place shrine is a one-paragraph-long child’s manifesto of sorts, neatly typeset and displayed in a plastic protective sheet: “Ya Ukrainets” it says at the top—“I am a Ukrainian.” It’s a youngster’s story of family and place and identity.

*

In the center of the city at School No. 25, during the heat of the day, the line for the polling station stretches into the courtyard. People are sweaty and tired and impatient, and inside there is a sick old woman whose eyes roll around wildly and who can’t steer herself in a straight line across the floor or even walk at all, save for when the only slightly younger woman escorting her guides her by the arm. Her breathing is raspy, like a pump sucking water and air, but not for much longer. But when her escort guides her to the polling booth and then tries to follow her in, candidate representatives seated on the side of the room scream for her to stop. “That is forbidden!”

Actually, in this case, they’re wrong: it is permitted for someone to assist disabled voters. But—befuddled, unsure what is the right thing to do, with this shaking woman in the booth and seated accusers shouting at her from across the room—the woman escorting the voter waits outside the booth, looking on, helpless. In the booth, the woman’s breath grows more labored, panicked—as if she’s having an attack. I expect to see her tumble through the curtain at any moment.

Finally she comes out and grasps the arm of her escort, totters over to the ballot box, stuffs the paper in, and shuffles out. This takes a long time. One of the candidate representatives tries to make the others understand: “That’s a very sick person,” she says.

Then, a few minutes later, another kerfuffle.

A man and a woman who are perhaps in their sixties—he skinny and stooped, hat in hand, she sturdy and determined, like a small tank (a stereotype I know well), having survived the long wait to get into the polling place—though perhaps this is nothing compared to the decades they’ve endured together—now show their passports and pick up their ballots. They head for the second booth. The woman, without saying a word, turns and takes her husband’s ballot, then steps behind the curtain. Across the room, candidate reps scream bloody murder.

“Mister! You can’t do that! You have to vote yourself!”

The man turns and looks at them with resignation and frustration: don’t they realize what a farce this all is—not simply the election, but life itself? He shrugs with his arms, his face, the whole of his weary, henpecked soul. The message is unmistakable:

You tell her she can’t do that.

 

IV. On the banks of the sparkling Ingulets, where Marx has half his head chewed off

Geography may be destiny, but the conversations we have about Ukraine’s geography are too often cast in misleadingly simple terms, especially since the protests started in November 2013: East versus West, Russia versus Europe. In terms of continental geography, technically all of Ukraine is Europe; so is Russia, west of the Urals. But wrapping one’s head around the meaning of the May 2014 presidential election in Ukraine, it seems fitting and proper to carry on the conversation in terms of national boundaries, territorial integrity.

There are many layers to those boundaries: what was the Hapsburg Empire, what was Russian; what was the Tatar khanate, what the Zaporizhian Cossacks called their own. Centuries back, through the empires that ringed the Black Sea with military garrisons or trading outposts (Italian, Byzantine, Roman, Greek), through the mighty Scythian horsemen of the steppe and the fabled Golden Horde, there flowed trade in grain and salt and fish and slaves. Or let’s speak of geography in terms of a river: the Dnieper delta lies here in southern Ukraine, but its watershed encompasses nearly the entire breadth of the country, from Donetsk in the East to Luts’k in the West. Most of Belarus drains into the river, too; in Russia, western waters nearly as far north as Moscow flow into the rivers that feed into the Dnieper.

I traveled to Kyiv by plane, I traveled to Kherson by train, and for the election we travel by car—a black Hyundai Tucson that belongs to Dima, our driver. He is soft-spoken and thin. He is careful behind the wheel and he doesn’t drink or smoke, unusual for a Ukrainian man. And, on Election Day, he has pledged to stay at all times with the car. We never know when we might need to make a quick departure. The threat of violence means we pull back.

The polling place on October Street in Ulyanovka. Photo by the author.

After lunch on Election Day, we drive east: past Fabrika, an enormous mall with a Walmart-sized grocery store, an ice-skating rink, a swimming pool, go-carts, a multiplex, and scores of clothing and jewelry shops and restaurants, including Kherson’s first McDonald’s, which opened in December 2013. Out along the main highway, the bustle and commerce of the urban becomes farmland, and there on the outskirts is a yellow and blue billboard that exhorts: Kherson—Rise up and protect your land!

“Those are Ukrainian colors but Novorossiya sentiment,” our interpreter, Alevtyna, assesses, puzzled.

Perhaps. But self-defense forces fight on both sides in Ukraine: Rise up! That’s one of the factors in a civil war in the making, where militias and mercenaries, National Guard troops and Russian soldiers in disguise are all part of the mix.

A little farther on, a billboard shows Vladimir Putin with a Hitler mustache. Its message is less ambiguous: Go away from Ukraine!

Across the road is a vehicle checkpoint where self-defense forces and police have set up sandbags. They fly a small Ukrainian flag atop a spindly pole.

We turn north off the main road, up toward the village of Ingulets. Fields of sunflowers, not yet opened, stretch for miles. And then there is a sea of yellow: rapeseed in bloom. Cinder-block bus stops along the way are painted yellow and blue, along with an image of a sunflower and a jar of mayonnaise. Inside the polling place at a school, where we sit for half an hour, watching people come and vote and go, the commissioner cheerfully talks my ear off in Ukrainian: how they prepared for today, traversing the village, making sure everyone was on the voting lists, how exciting it is having young people vote for the first time. And then, almost on cue—You see?—one young woman arrives: she’s eighteen and casting her first ballot ever. The members of the commission congratulate her on the rite of passage and guide her through the steps.

South along the River Ingulets, in the village of Mikilske, the elementary school is built of tan-and-rust-colored brick, with a stripe of whitewashed bricks at the base of the walls and columns. Affixed just above the front door, printed in dark red letters that match an accent stripe painted on a row of bricks set vertically, is a sign in Ukrainian with letters printed eighteen inches tall: ласкаво просимо. We kindly welcome you.

The school is the site of Polling Place No. 70. In the heat of the afternoon, the white double doors of the entrance are propped open, one with a brick, one with a clod of concrete resembling a yanked molar. Occasionally a voter comes in, chats with the election commission, votes, chats some more. Here, most of the voting is over. This is a farming community, and there aren’t many people. Or, as Dima, our driver, points out, there are people like him who are still registered in their villages but they live somewhere else—where there’s work.

Mikilske is a quiet place. The school is located on Lenin Street, a cul-de-sac that runs southeast alongside the Ingulets, which empties into the Dnieper. Next door to the school is the onetime center for political activity in the village​—a club, now closed, where the grass is untrimmed and crumbling steps lead to the locked entryway. On either side of the stairs, tucked in among the unpruned trees, is a pair of busts atop pedestals painted in faded turquoise. Marx is on the left. Half his head is missing, the top of his skull and forehead broken off in a messy chunk, as if a zombie had gone in from the front left and eaten Marx’s brain, devouring one eye while he was at it. A couple of empty beer bottles lie in the grass. Lenin is on the right. His entire head is gone, hacked off where the neck emerges from the collar. Whatever inscription had been here for him—that is gone, too.

*

There’s more than one town and village in Ukraine named Ulyanovka. The one we want lies a few bends north on the river, up a road flanked by fields of red poppies and yellow and purple wildflowers, just past one of the local prisons with cinder-­block walls topped with concertina wire. Near the polling place a baby goat is chained alongside the road. A stork nests atop a concrete post. The stork at least means good luck.

The club that’s serving as a polling place here is on October Street. This is where Dima votes. It’s far enough off the main road that Dima said we shouldn’t take the time to come here. We had other polling stations on our list of places to visit, and, as he said, his vote wouldn’t make a difference anyway. We didn’t agree, but we didn’t argue; Marte and I simply made it clear at the beginning of the day, and again at lunch, that we needed to make sure he and Alevtyna both had time to vote. Since we’re just down the road from his home polling place, he caves in. And as it turns out, his arrival to vote is the big event of the afternoon—village boy come home as local celeb, with international observers in tow.

Antonia Stepanivna is the woman in charge of the written log of visitors. She clearly relishes the role of busybody battler against injustice, playing it for laughs. With her metal-­framed glasses and yellow hair and gold teeth, short-sleeved green dress with a flower-print pattern, she proudly and loudly informs me that she has relatives in California. Though she isn’t sure where. But she has a few questions for me: how did I get here? Did I volunteer? Good! Then she’d like to volunteer, too! Bring her to America to observe elections!

We aren’t there long—twenty minutes or so. But Dima is the only voter to walk through the front door during that stretch. Most of the commission members follow us out the door and stand in the yard and watch us drive off. Back behind the wheel, Dima says, “She’s one of those women who knows everything about everybody in the village.”

 

V. “We’ve been living under bandits for twenty years.”

When a polling place closes, the doors are supposed to be locked: no one is supposed to come or go until the counting is complete, the ballots wrapped up, and election protocols and ballots have been taken to the district electoral commission. In practice, people step out for cigarette breaks or to use the toilet. But it’s a good idea to come prepared with food and water to get you through a long night.

As the hours for voting wind down, we drive back into Kherson and stop by the central grocery store. Alas, the woman selling ice cream has kept her promise: she has not returned on Sunday. Only here! Only today!

Inside the market, the cases of smoked fish and cheeses and sausages form an island near the back of the store. The selection is mouthwatering, especially after a long and increasingly dusty day. Half an hour before the polls close, I stand in the checkout line with piroshki stuffed with cabbage and meat, along with smoked cheese, water, and some chocolate. The woman behind me is buying buckwheat, wrapped up in a clear plastic bag from the bulk-foods section. She points at my badge. “You’re an observer, yes?”

I nod.

“Thank you for being here,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of observers around town. That makes me very happy. Where are you from?”

“California,” I say. “America.”

“Help us,” she says. “We’ve been living under bandits for twenty years. They’ve all been bandits. Putin, too. He’s a bandit. It’s like slavery. The young people of Ukraine are smart and they deserve a chance. We need to bring an end to all of this—”

She waves her hands in the air over her head: the flutter and turmoil above.

Hers is a hope articulated, or quietly held close, again and again, as the intensity of election campaigning culminates in the journeys to polling places, the taking of the ballots, the marking of X’s, the folding of paper, and aspirations placed in a box.

*

We end the evening on Red Flag Street, in Special School No. 2, in Polling Place No. 685. The school compound is enclosed by a gate, with a garden and a playground in the courtyard and a separate building where two women set up a table to sell sweets to voters. We’d visited here on Saturday, too, inspected the offices and the safe where the ballots were kept. In the hallway outside the offices is a display of photographs and stories of veterans above an orange and black Saint George’s Ribbon: They defended the Motherland. From the Great Patriotic War is a photo of nine-year-old Nikolay Dvorik in snow-dusted shapka, machine gun braced against his shoulder, fighting as a mascot of sorts with the partisans in Belarus. In grainy black-and-white, dark-haired Lyubov’ Nikolaevna Belaya, a nurse, carries a Soviet soldier on her shoulders past a disabled German tank; in a color snapshot decades later, white-haired Lyubov’ wears more than a dozen medals on her vest, and poses with half a dozen schoolchildren. Alongside these photographs is a column of text and photos about the liberation of Kherson: 70 Years Without War. It is time to reset the counter.

Just before Polling Place No. 685 closes, an old woman shuffles in, signs the voter roll, and picks up her ballot. She is slow but sure-footed. She seems to understand what is happening just fine. But she lingers beside the table where she’s picked up her ballot, then quietly asks the commissioner who handed her the paper: “Who should I vote for?”

The tone of her voice makes it clear that this isn’t a matter of having looked at the candidates and not having been able to sort things out. There must be a correct answer, not just for this one voter but for everybody: the candidate who is supposed to win. The commissioner tells the woman that she can’t select for her. She points to the posters of candidates on the wall behind the voters’ booths. The posters show photos and names and parties and candidates’ statements. The old woman looks bewildered: twenty-­one to choose from.

Those who lived most of their lives in the Soviet Union remember a different style of elections: when turnouts of 99.99 percent were regularly reported. Here in Kherson, turnout will be 45 to 55 percent at most polling places.

Among those turning out here in the final minutes: a pair of guys around age eighteen, both of them thin with close-cropped hair, one in jeans and a short-sleeved button-down, one in a tracksuit. It is clear that they don’t quite know how this is supposed to work, they’re feeling a bit embarrassed, but they have some desire or have been encouraged to be here. They wander around, checking the place out—​posters, polling booths—not quite loitering, but the doors are about to close.

Alexander, one of the men on the electoral commission, walks up to them and informs them, in a voice that isn’t loud but is sufficiently scolding: “You can’t just hang around. You need to choose, then vote.”

The boys vote. The polling place closes. The sorting and counting of the ballots, unused and used, begins.

*

A litany near midnight, the reading aloud of names marked on ballot after ballot: Poroshenko, Tihypko, Poroshenko, Poroshenko, Gryshin’, Bohomelets’, Poroshenko…

Some time later, Alexander and I step out into the yard of Special School No. 2. It is a clear night and we can see the stars.

Alexander has cigarettes on his breath. He sings the praises of the coast of the Kherson region and the Black Sea near here, and how Russians and Belarusans used to come to vacation there in the summer. You can rent a place for just fifteen to thirty-­five hryvnia—two to four dollars at the exchange rate in May. Swim and rest, he says.

Yes, he says. A lovely rest. Then he says, “With this election, what does the West want?”

“A good process,” I say. “That Ukrainians choose their own president.”

He nods. Nonpartisan observers are not supposed to voice support for any candidate or party.

He runs down the list of failures of leadership since Ukraine gained independence, from Kravchuk to Kuchma to Yushchenko to Yanukovych. How Tymoshenko reinvented herself. Poroshenko is someone other leaders can believe in, he says. He likes the positions he’s held. Later, inside, as the commission is writing out multiple copies of the election protocol, Alexander helps the other commissioners spell out numbers correctly in Ukrainian. “Sixty-­eight,” for example, is spelled differently in Ukrainian than it is in Russian.

 

VI. Canadian wheat sent as aid to the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union

Just after 4 a.m., the ballots from Polling Place No. 685 are packed up in an enormous white bag and taken by taxi downtown to the District
Election Commission. In the hallway, local commission members line up before being given permission to enter the main hall to hand over the bags
of ballots and present the protocols.

It turns out the commissioners at the precinct forgot to seal the bag with the marked ballots in it, so they improvise a seal with a piece of ribbon.

The election protocols from our precinct are accepted, the numbers entered into the computer system. The ballots join an enormous pile in a front corner of brown cardboard fileboxes sealed with packing tape and labeled with black Magic Marker. Leaning against the towers of boxes are enormous white bags made of woven plastic, piled like sacks of letters waiting for delivery. The bags, it turns out, are stamped with WFP on the side and once contained fifty kilos of grain from British Columbia from the World Food Programme.

*

We’re pulled off duty at the election commission before noon; sleep is ours, if we want. Unofficial results are showing Poroshenko victorious, with more than 50 percent of the vote nationwide. There will be no runoff.

I have been drinking coffee. I do not want to sleep. I want to know how the city feels on the day after the election—perhaps a quiet return to normal? It’s Monday, which means the market won’t be busy. I’ll stroll through the parks and downtown and talk to shopkeepers and passersby on Suvarova Street, the main pedestrian drag, which is named for another renowned Russian general. First, though, a visit to a church and a grave.

The domed St. Catherine’s Cathedral lies just behind Komsomol Park, inside a complex that was once Kherson Fortress. It’s built of “straw colored Ingulets chalkstone in the style of Russian Classicism,” as the historical marker puts it. The church was constructed at the direction of Potemkin, who, in grand modesty, apparently modeled the cathedral dome on his own palace’s dome in St. Petersburg. Four columns front a portico that speaks to Greek architecture from millennia before; the style also illustrates Russia’s claim to the Byzantine church’s heritage, like St. Sophia’s Cathedral was meant to in Kyiv: how the true light of the religion, while it dimmed in the West, was carried across the Black Sea and sustained in Kievan Rus’. In recent years, Kyiv and Moscow have dueled over who is the true keeper of the orthodox church’s flame. For Russia, the church symbolizes a moral anchor that stands in opposition to the decadence of the West—as a corollary to the economic union meant to provide a post-Soviet (or restored Soviet?) alternative to the European Union.

When I arrive at St. Catherine’s Cathedral in the early afternoon, a scarf-headed babushka in a dark skirt and maroon slippers sits on a tree stump outside the gate on Perekopskaya Street, begging alms. A small plastic tub that once contained yogurt and now holds a few coins stands on the pavement in front of her. Inside the church, the smell of beeswax candles burning before the icons; a cleaning woman mops the floor.

Potemkin’s tomb lies to the right of the altar, near the center of the church. It is a marked stone slab on the floor surrounded by a low iron railing. When Potemkin died, his corpse was carried here from Bessarabia, where he was leading a military campaign. His body was placed in an unsealed tomb in a crypt in the church, but not properly buried.

His heart and his brain never arrived here. In Potemkin’s day, “when great men were embalmed their viscera were buried separately,” writes historian Simon Sebag Montefiore. Supposedly Potemkin’s brain and innards are now kept in a Romanian monastery, under the red velvet throne of the Hospodar of Moldavia, beneath the carpet and the flagstone, and inside a golden box. His heart is thought to be buried in Chizhova, his home village in Russia.

Does the heart long for the bones; does the brain desire the body that could carry it once more: a reunification, a conquest, a military reign of terror? For now, I imagine that Potemkin’s brittle ghost—without a heart, without a brain—stalks the boulevards and the banks of the river these nights. We have Potemkin to thank for joining Crimea to the empire and creating full-blown Novorossiya—also a convenient geo-historical rubric for those bent on taking apart Ukraine in the twenty-first century. The old maps and the new aspirational ones both include Kherson. By the end of August, there were soldiers and tanks and troops moving in from Russia across the south of Ukraine, creating a unified separatist territory stretching from Luhansk to the Sea of Azov. It began to appear that Novorossiya might be back from the grave after all, even if not fully formed. Perhaps it will not emerge as a separate country. But perhaps it will become a frozen in-­between—like Transnistria in Moldova, like South Ossetia in Georgia—where the world does not recognize the separate existence that is carved out, and a new bitterness and permanent uncertainty seep through the lives of those living within the breakaway. 

More Reads
Essays

To Be Continued…

Hanif Abdurraqib
Essays

A Voice More Beautiful Than Blue

Katie Booth
Essays

The Devil’s Bargain

Casey Jarman
more