Pirates of Kiev

An assignment for Wired magazine ends up in Kiev, Ukraine, world’s hotbed for CD piracy. This version includes a visit to the Chernobyl Museum.

statusquo_russian5.jpgCheat Or Be Cheated in Kiev

An old man stands on the sidewalk, holding out his hand. A small cloth is spread in front of his feet, with two carrots and a large onion. Twenty feet away, a man with a monkey on his shoulder approaches pedestrians, offering a Polaroid photo with the monkey. In an outdoor plaza, an orchestra sits in folding chairs, playing traditional patriotic Russian songs, accompanied by a chorus line of cheerleaders shaking pom poms. This is downtown Kiev, Ukraine. I’ve seen some weird things in my life, but it’s impossible to prepare for a city with monkeys, dancing cheerleaders, legal prostitution, and bootleg CDs. There are no travel books about Ukraine, because there is no tourism. The US Embassy warns visitors not to use credit cards or ATM machines, not to walk alone at any time, to watch for muggers with guns, and go straight home to your hotel after dark. Despite all this, I am now here.

My main contact is Andrey Dakhovsky, a tall thin Ukrainian guy with a degree in nuclear physics, but since there’s no jobs he runs the Kiev office for Universal Music, distributing the latest by Bon Jovi and Eminem. We take a walk down Khreshchayk Street, the main thoroughfare. Kiev’s had a long history. It was the original capital of Russia, and has been a trading center for over 1,500 years. After World War II, when the Nazis blew up most of the city, it’s been rebuilt as a combination of Spanish architecture and good old Soviet grey slabs. Several office buildings are decorated with red stars and hammer and sickle logos. I mention to Andrey that these images seem odd, because in America we were indoctrinated to believe Russia was the evil enemy. “Oh, us too,” he says.

He points out a sculpture which spans over the street. The Arc of Friendship was erected to represent the friendship between USSR and Ukraine. Unfortunately, it was completed in 1991, the same year the Iron Curtain fell and Ukraine declared its independence from Russia. So maybe it’s more of an Arc of Understanding. Concrete blocks line the sidewalks, about waist-high. Once they held 13 flags, one for each Russian republic. Now they’re full of cigarette butts and candy wrappers.

The Stalin statues were torn down after 1991, but I spot a few of Lenin, one of him leaning forward as if walking into a headwind. The most popular statue by far is of a Cossack warrior on horseback, whipping a spiked club over his head. If Ukraine has one national symbol, it’s the “hetman,” a fierce soldier who led troops into battle. The club is called a “bulava.” You see toy versions of bulavas for sale on the streets.

Because Russia was the enemy for so long, we Americans have no frame of reference for their culture, no context other than James Bond villains, a few anorexic gymnasts, and the old Bullwinkle cartoons. Every single second means new information. The only thing I know about Ukraine is Chicken Kiev, which I’m told nobody ever eats, and the Beatles lyric about Ukraine girls really knocking me out. And indeed the people are attractive. Girls stroll the streets braless with short dresses and G-string thongs—even the 10 year olds. It’s like the movie set of “Revenge of the Junior High Hookers.” Some of these girls are gathered around a tossled-hair kid on the street curb, nodding along with his acoustic guitar. As we get closer, I hear him singing the Nirvana song, “Rape Me.” A few months ago, Andrey produced a free concert in downtown Kiev for 10,000 kids. The star attraction was a pop group named Taty [TOO-tah], two 16-year-old girls who dress like school sluts and tongue-kiss each other onstage, while water is dumped over them. “Eez just an image, nussing more,” he tells me.

Andrey has arranged for me to meet his wife and two sons for a drink at an outdoor café in front of the Dnipro Hotel. We sit and chat, the boys fidgeting. Above our heads are the windows of the Millenium Strip Bar, attached to the hotel. It’s still afternoon, and the dancers are already gyrating, visible from the street. I notice that Kiev has several new churches, some so recent their lawns haven’t yet grown in. Andrey explains that the mayor’s brother is a contractor, and therefore more churches were built. So why is everything so corrupt, I ask. Why is it such an established way of life? “In the old Soviet ways, Uncle Joe took care of everything,” Andrey says. “People never learned to have responsibility. An old Russian saying is, cheat or be cheated.”

I get back to my hotel and meet up with Nikolai, my photographer. Nikolai is from Moscow, and used to be a Bosnia war correspondent, until his partner got blown up in front of him, and he crawled off the road into the bushes. Now he shoots for magazines. We’re staying at the Hotel Ukraina, an old ornate building built in 1908. In a month, the Hotel Ukraina will change its name to the Premiere Palace, and just to make sure everyone is confused, the Hotel Moscow will then change its name to Hotel Ukraina. The next morning we take advantage of the complimentary breakfast, in the eighth floor restaurant overlooking downtown. Like everything else in Kiev, there’s an undercurrent of shamelessness. A screaming Santana guitar solo plays softly, and we watch businessmen stand in line at the buffet, accompanied by slinky women in catsuits, teetering on high heels. Nikolai takes a bite of omelet and smiles: “Prostitutes.”

We stand on a busy streetcorner, looking for a taxi. Kiev gives us three options: Official cabs, gypsy cabs, which are really beat-up official cabs driven by scowling chainsmokers, and if all else fails, you can just flag down a working joe on his way home from work. A gypsy pulls to the curb, I slide into the trash-filled back seat next to some dirty clothing, and Nikolai jabbers at the driver in Russian. He nods. The cab drives through several downtown blocks, passing an incredibly ornate Opera House, and ends up in a tree-lined district of brick buildings. I’m here because of one of these buildings, the former Rostok missile parts factory.

Much to the outrage of international corporations, Rostok has reopened as one of the world’s largest bootleg CD plants, cranking out thousands of pirate disks which end up smuggled around the globe. Nikolai and I want to interview a CD pirate and get some photos. We pay the driver to wait, and walk up to the entrance. Security cameras are mounted on the building. The factory’s lobby looks very deliberate, as if they knew we were coming. Inside glass display cases are arranged a benign selection of food processor blades, electrical motors, a toaster, a blender. Nikolai begs the receptionist if we can go into the factory and take photos of them making CDs—a ludricrous request, but hey, you have to ask. The woman shakes her head and says in Russian, “You have to leave. The Americans are trying to shut us down.” They argue for a bit, and then Nikolai turns to me and says, “Let’s get out of here.” We walk outside just as a black Mercedes roars around a corner and pulls to a stop, the driver watching us and speaking into a cell phone. And I don’t think he’s calling his wife. A few months ago, a Ukrainian journalist was found beheaded just outside the city, for writing stories critical of the government. This is not good. Nobody knows where I am. My passport is at the hotel. My language skills are limited to “da,” “nyet,” and the Polish words for “chocolate” and “potato.” The driver stares us down, then mutters into the phone and drives off, screeching his tires like it’s a TV show. Nikolai looks at my worried face, then at our taxi, and says, “Our driver’s throat is slit.” He bursts out laughing.

Our next stop is Petrovka, an enormous outdoor market in the poor section of Kiev. The average Ukrainian makes less than $100 a month, so this is where most of them do their shopping. You can buy everything from books to CDs, clothing, household goods, all of it pirated, with phony labels. Police raid it occasionally, and haul away boxes of bootlegged CDs, and the next day all the stock has been replaced. It’s a hot sticky afternoon, the air is filled with the stench of sweat and diesel exhaust. We wander the stalls, and I spot a pirated CD of the band Metallica. To a Russian it looks the same as the other bogus CDs of Eric Clapton, Sting, and Deep Purple. But if you’re American, it’s a rich irony that the group most responsible for putting Napster out of business has been ripped off to an unimaginable extreme—nine albums on one CD. Cost: three bucks.

We return to our hotel and then walk down Khreshchayk Street for a beer. The sidewalk cafes are packed with boisterous young people wearing leather jackets, or Nike, Adidas, and Disney logos. Everyone is talking and smoking. Pockets of loud laughter. “Look at them,” says Nikolai. “Ten years of freedom, and they’re still celebrating.”

We meet up with Dimitri, one of Andrey’s employees, and Nikolai heads back to the hotel. Dimitri is a local record producer, about 30, with a hip haircut and the smile of a car salesman. He carries a wad of cash in his pocket, and his cellphone rings constantly. I wonder what kind of scam he’s running on the side. He says he has something to show me: “I take you to the Buddy Guy Blues Club. Lez go—Eez American, you love it.” We walk down a flight of stairs, underneath a photo of blues guitarist Buddy Guy. I ask Dimitri if he knows who Buddy Guy is. He shakes his head no, smiling, and beckons me into the bar, where he assures me, we will see really great American blues music. Neon beer signs hang on the brick walls. Three guys sit at the bar. A group of high-school age musicians finish performing a pop song in phonetic English, and a handful of family members applaud. Dimitri gestures around the room and shouts, “Eez this great?”

We go back upstairs to the street, and Dimitri suddenly announces he has to do some “beezness,” and leaves me with his girlfriend Nataski, an 18-year-old student who weighs about 56 pounds. I sit with her at a wobbly plastic table, and as a black car with tinted windows creeps past, she asks, “Is it true, in America only poor people eat at McDonalds?” At the two Golden Arches in Kiev, prices are too expensive for the average Ukrainian. I imagine teenagers going to their version of the prom, and the big night on the town culminates with a Big Mac and fries.

One taxi ride later, the three of us are walking across a footbridge of the Dnipro River to a little island lit up with nightclubs, discos and casinos. This is where the new money parties, a resort-town blaze of lights and loud techno music. As we approach the Sun City disco, Dimitri mutters “Don’t say anything, we’ll have to pay if they know you’re American.” I put on my best Russian scowl, and the doormen let us in without charging. We grab drinks and walk down to the sandy shores of the river. Guys and girls are shedding their clothes and splashing around in the water. I ask Dimitri, “Isn’t this the same river that flows through Chernobyl? This is the water that flows through the world’s worst nuclear disaster zone, and people are swimming in it.” “Eez been tested,” he says. “The government says eez perfectly safe now.”

I nod, thinking, this is one screwed up country. The outlaw Wild West aspect is entertaining, the absurd collision of old and new. I know Ukraine is only ten years old, and it came out of this culture of no responsibility. But I still can’t get a bead on why. I want to see something that will explain it. And I don’t know what it is.

The next day, I’ve got a few hours before my flight and take a cab to the Chernobyl Museum. Outside in front of the door, children are buying ice cream from a cart. The entrance is decorated with Russian language flags and signs. A main exhibit room is covered from ceiling to floor with photos of the workers who died. There’s a tour in progress, of Americans, all watching a video. It’s pretty sad. When the reactor exploded in 1986, the Soviet government waited several days before telling its own people what had happened. The world learned of Chernobyl only when a nuclear plant in Sweden noticed the high levels of radiation. Ukraine citizens wandered around in nuclear fallout so hot, it registers on the videotape as white spots. A child is shown playing outside in a yard, and it looks like it’s snowing. Fortunately for Ukraine and Kiev, the wind blew most of the radiation north, where it landed on Belarus. For years afterwards, babies were born with no eyes or arms.

I wander around the room. Display cases show diaries of plant employees, medical reports, a horribly mutated dog, born soon after the accident. Horror after horror. A separate room is covered with children’s artwork. It’s like the Russians are wallowing in the tragedy, a culture of victimization, reliving the deaths, keeping the wounds open forever. It suddenly strikes me that there is no explanation for the explosion, anywhere in this museum. In America, there would be a detailed diagram of exactly how the accident occurred, who was at fault, how it could be prevented in the future, how a normal plant is supposed to operate, a table piled high with anti-nuke flyers and solar energy brochures. Here, nothing. Apparently, Chernobyl just—happened. It’s the ultimate denial of responsibility, the ultimate Russian paradox, the culmination of decades of Soviet rule, when Uncle Joe Stalin would take care of everything. I make my interpreter go ask the museum staff why the explosion occurred. She has a long, five-minute conversation with a curator, then walks back and says: “It’s believed that there are three reasons. The main reason,” she searches for the word in English, “is negligence.”

(Another version of this story appeared in Wired magazine)