There were exhibitions and a film I'd wanted to see passing through London so I'd ignored the newspapers all the previous day. It was only as we were boarding that I found out. Some passengers ahead of me in the queue were delaying everybody, helping themselves to three or four different newspapers at the entrance to the aircraft. Fresh from my day of doing without I muttered inwardly at this pitiable craving of ours – but took one anyway when my turn came. That paper was the first I knew about the tens of thousands thronging central Kiev. Journalists weighing up the risk of special forces being used against the students now encamped along one of the main streets. I was aware of the elections and guessed there might be a row about them – but this…?
You get a curious effect if you fly east across Europe around midday at the end of November during a revolution. Try it some time. Your afternoon feels as if it's all being squeezed into about ninety minutes before the sun sets at alarming speed behind you and the earth starts going black beneath you. There was a blizzard forecast for Kiev that night, I read on, and looked down, wherever the cloud-cover thinned, at fields powdered with snow. And then the darkness and the cloud swallowed everything – that aircraft and everyone inside it and all our queasiness included.
There weren't that many of us. Outside the terminal I chummed up with an engineer from Reading, in the Ukraine to install some machines in a new margarine factory. We discovered we had the same aversion to taking taxis from East European airports. Being treated like one more westerner to be shamelessly fleeced is no way to arrive in a country, we agreed, and it wasn't snowing yet, so we took our time, found a bus that would take us across the Dnieper bridges, and from there caught a packed metro into town.
We emerged into a street market and the first snow beginning to fall. The engineer gave me directions to my hotel from there – we parted quietly elated by the snow and this luck or misfortune of ours, whichever it was. I took various turnings then went up a steep cobbled street one hundred metres past an old church, as directed. And as soon as you got away from the market you could hear it – that surging dull roar – just like a football crowd at first but then the booming angry voice it fell silent for and then surged up again in the wake of. More chanting, then silence again for the voice. And the light snow falling more steadily now.
I didn't go straight to the demonstration might I miss it? But how would I find it anyway? The buildings along this street seemed old, as I climbed it, and the travel agent who booked my room had said the hotel was central – and yet there was almost nobody about, just one empty street after another – as if that vortex of sound had created an eery human vacuum elsewhere in the city. The chanting of repeated refrains surged in and out of phase and the booming voice broke through them again and again but each row of buildings I passed seemed to give a different reading for which direction it was all coming from.
‘Events' like this, and I've been in two or three of them now, are a bit like hearing a helicopter overhead as you walk along a street. You look up but the sound seems to be reflected now from one wall, or now it is approaching from another, and now it is bouncing off a third. After spinning round on your heels you become a little self-conscious perhaps and just look straight up, hoping to catch sight of the machine as it passes directly above you. What I mean is they are disorienting experiences. Journalists 'know' what is happening because they are paid to whether they do or not, but people who more or less happen upon these occasions don't know really and since nobody is paying them to pretend they don't have to.
That said I was actually there for a magazine – and must have been aware at some level of having struck gold, even if it was all still a bit too beautiful for such vulgar reflections. In my defence, however, it should be said I wasn't there because of the elections but to write a long-planned article about a nature reserve in the farthest south west corner of the country. The old government, the one which had now rigged these elections, had started cutting a deep-sea shipping canal right through the middle of this reserve – the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, to give it its full title. People I'd been talking to over the internet had mentioned the country's growing problem with its government, of course. But it wasn't till I stood with my suitcase in Andriivski Street and listened that I began to have any real inkling of what they had meant.