Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Ukraine to join NATO?

The Financial Times reports that Ukraine may be on the fast-track toward NATO membership:

The US would like Ukraine to join the membership action plan by September and certainly before a Nato summit in Riga in November. That would give the country the prospect of becoming a member before President George W. Bush leaves office in early 2009.

If Ukraine joined NATO, Ukraine's borders would be protected by NATO troops, meaning any dispute between Russia and Ukraine (in The Crimea, perhaps, a Russian-leaning region which was gifted to The Ukrainian Socialist Republic by Kruschev) would be a dispute between the Kremlin and The White House.

My Russian tutor is one of many people in this region of the country who are strongly opposed to NATO membership, in large part because of fears that travel back and forth between Ukraine and Russia would be made more difficult. Born in Kursk, just over the border, my tutor is like the majority of people in Kharkov -- an ethnic Russian.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

A Walk in the Park

Took this picture Saturday while walking behind the Opera House to Schevchenko Park. Had meant to only take a photo of the closed night-club (an interesting take on an American legacy, not the Rock & Roll Club but the Roll & Rock Club), but then this man stepped into frame and all but lifted a leg on someone's spray-painted "Clapton is God!"

Otherwise, from Schevchenko Park to Gorky Park, all of Kharkov on Saturday seemed to be pushing a baby stroller or teaching a four-year-old hold to get up on those training wheels. Bikes and babies, babies and bikes -- that's all I saw, save for the nauseous ten minutes I spent in the Gondola that carries you (much further and much higher than I expected) from the 23rd of August Metro Stop to Gorky Park.

Before exposing my vertigo here, I was able to finally take in the huge, huge monument commemorating the Soviet Army's victory over the Germans in WWII (our history books prefer Nazis, here -- fascists).

Other than that, I spent the last two weeks writing like crazy, trying to finish a draft of my novel. I got everything but the ending done. Now for about two weeks, I'll take a step back. Visiting Volgograd soon, I hope. So perhaps pictures of it (formerly Stalingrad) in the next week or two.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

Euro Sport

While golf fans in America (and much of Western Europe) were watching Phil Mickleson win the Masters on Sunday, I was flipping through my 50-some channels, hoping to find an azaela bush, a green jacket, maybe a cut-away to Hootie Johnson's face. Instead, I got live Euro Sport coverage of The World Curling Championship, held in Lowell, Massachusetts. Scotland beat Canada, apparently avenging a blow-out loss at the worlds last year. I tried to get into it. Picked Scotland early, taunted the Canadians every time they appeared on the screen. But I don't know. Even if I were involved in the World Curling Championships, I'd still probably rather watch the Masters.

Photo by Ryan Remiorz, AP/CP

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Friday, April 07, 2006

Bangkok and The Third Date

It was a balmy 12 degress tonight in Kharkov, and everywhere I looked I found signs of spring: the kids biking and skateboarding out front of the opera house, the young and old walking through the park, sitting on the benches, and the women up and down Sumskaya in short skirts and their newest fishnet stockings. They are fishers of men, let's say, and why not? Because the "bride-hunters" are back too. They're like the podsnezhki, the first flowers up from under the snow. As soon as the sun appears for a few days in a row, out they come.

A former Fulbrighter back in town for a conference told me about one he'd met on the plane. He was an Angeleno coming into Ukraine to meet his girlfriend. Then he was going to Bangkok. Where he also had a girlfriend? The Fulbrighter didn't ask. What happens in Bangkok even Las Vegas doesn't want to know.

I had lunch with another American earlier this week. He too was from California, the Bay Area, a former military pilot in his early 40s who'd already visited Poland, Lithuania, Moldova and now Kharkov (twice). Loves the culture, he says. But if he was sleeping his way through the countries of the lapsed Warsaw Pact, an another ex-pat in Kharkov says he was doing it all wrong, at least with this latest girlfriend, a 24-year-old. He hadn't slept with her, you see, hadn't even kissed her, and already they'd been on four dates. "I'm telling you," the ex-pat said, "you don't sleep with these girls by the third date, they'll never look at you in that way again. You'll just be her American friend," he said. "Her American friend who buys her things."

Apparently, the American I met wasn't the first bride-hunter who genuinely seemed to want a romantic, old-fashioned relationship. "He's pussy-whipped," the ex-pat said, when the American took another call from his girlfriend on the cell-phone. "Look at him."

The ex-pat is an Aussie who makes me look politically conservative. While the American was chatting with his girlfriend, the ex-pat spoke to me of another bride-hunter he'd met, a man in his thirties who'd had a 19-year-old girl in his bed, topless, and he didn't make a move. Couldn't even kiss her. "I don't understand it," he said. "This girl was beautiful, she takes off her top in his bed, and what does he do? Nothing. Is he mad?"

Can't say, for sure. But it does show everyone's not necessarily going to Bangkok.

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Sunday, April 02, 2006


During the run-up to the New Year, I determined that Kharkov has more fireworks displays than any other city in the world. Entirely unscientific of course, but this is how I determine things. Just about every night, sometimes two or three times an evening, I'd hear loud booming crashes that'd send me scrambling to my window. Sometimes it'd just be a faint illumination over the tops of apartment buildings, a flash and then gone. Street to street fighting -- that's what it reminded me of, especially when the latest pwoo-pwoo-pwoo coincided with a car racing by beneath my window. But slowly I began to realize it was just fireworks. A splatter of light would spread across the sky, a red burst, a green one, maybe blue, and then it'd be gone. Sometimes full fireworks shows would be heard and seen in the periphery, coming from Svobody Square or Karl Marx -- something I'd see out my bedroom or living room window.

Last night, I caught one at Svobody Square, formerly Dzherzinsky Square, where Lenin still stands, of course, as I've shown in many photographs before. The show caught me and my friend off-guard. We were just walking through Schevchenko Park, thinking there really was quite a crowd. It was the first weekend of spring, we decided, so we figured everyone was just glad to have the opportunity to be out and about. There was light drizzle in the air, puddles on the ground, mud beneath the feet -- but all but a few dirt-blackened piles of snow were cleared, and the weather was plus 7 or plus 8.

This thinking began to change a little when we got to the square and saw a huge crowd of people standing around enjoying the music. I looked for some tents, some sign of a carnival or a bazaar, maybe a stage, but nothing. Just people standing, drinking, talking, everyone vaguely facing in the direction of Lenin and the music. A pony passed, a child in the saddle. I looked more closely for the source of the Russian pop songs: a small blue bus bearing the name of the state telephone monopoly, Ukretelecom. It had four old-style speakers mounted on top. On the side of the bus, a neat painted message: Zbukova Reklama. Essentially, radio commercials.

A few minutes later, the fireworks filled the sky, majestic burst of every color you could mate with a pile of gunpowders. Reds, yellows, blues, greens. The crowd ooh'd and ah'd as the fireworks shot up, spread out, seems to come raining down right on top of us like the special effects for warp speed in some science-fiction movie. I began to revert to US-thinking, insurance hazards, municipal codes, because these fireworks were shooting up into the air from right behind Lenin and going off low in the skies. Some fireworks sent a line of five or six glowing dots floating through the air on the hold of a little parachute. They drifted toward the Kharkov Hotel, the old Military University. They came down in trees and onto buildings, these and other fireworks, the lights streaming down still afire as they hit the ground.

It seemed to go on forever, one percussive boom after another. The woman with the pony calmed her animal, stroking its face, and then all eyes went to a hanging display of sparkling fireworks that were drawn out against a wire background and kept aloft by a crane. It lit up in front of Lenin, while a voice from the old propaganda bus announced the name of the political party now sparkling lit up in the sky for all to see, spelled out in sparkling yellow and blue: Party of Regions. And then lighting up above, Victory, as the bus announced the same, and the crowd continued to ooh and ahh.

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