Tuesday, 25 February 2014


A Writer’s Notebook

No. 47, February2014


James Watson

Friends and contributors


Having spent several months researching Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004 in preparation for a teen novel set in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities I felt the pull to put my oar in to what originally looked a simple tale of human rights protest. Then the orange turned to red. Complexity ruled; an elected, albeit authoritarian president was sent packing. Europe and the US dipped in their own oars, pontificating as usual about matters of which they had questionable knowledge. Russia was not amused; nor were Russia-leaning citizens south and east of the capital.

Then we are informed out of the blue that Ukraine is teetering on the abyss of bankruptcy: why has nobody in the European community mentioned this before? It’s all too complex for a blog which will be out of date the moment it is posted. Amazing, though, how the protestors stood the bitter cold all night, and night after night, fought off police and snipers, many dying as they did so. Shades of Occupy?

So in KIEV EDITION – NOT something that did happen and something that didn’t but surely might have…


A real-life journalist martyr

Little known in the West and long forgotten is the story of the journalist and outspoken critic of the government of the Ukraine, Georgiy (or Giya) Gongadze, editor of the online newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda. In those days the country was ranked by Reporters Without Borders as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists to pursue their trade. It still is.

    Giya disappeared on 16th September 2000. On 2nd November a farmer discovered a headless body on the outskirts of Tarashcha some 80 miles south of Kiev. The corpse was identified as being that of the 31 year-old Gongadze, murdered, many have claimed, with the approval of the then President.

Only in 2008 did the trial of three policeman, Mykola Protasov, Oleksandr Popovich and Valeri Kostenko, reach a verdict. Protasov was jailed for 13 years, Popovitch and Kostenko each for 12 years. The instigators of the crime remained, at the time of writing, unidentified.


Kiev: The body in the woods

Early morning, and to the north-west of the city, a man is calling to his dog. Yuri Semko has work to go to as an estate labourer, but every day without fail he walks the dog through the woods near his cottage. ‘Hey, Valeri – come on now.’

Valeri, his son, had been killed in the same week that Yuri’s black Labrador had appeared in his kitchen garden. It was starving, scarcely more than a skeleton on flimsy legs. ‘Strays,’ Yuri had decided, thinking of the kids who had recently walked into his lonely existence, ‘are my speciality.’

 Dogs, cats, birds with broken wings or missing tails, even a wounded fox once, they all seem to have tuned into a message carried on the wind: Try old Semko’s place. He never turns anyone, or anything, away.

And so it was a delight and a relief to him when three children appeared at his front door one afternoon recently, asked him for food and offered to do jobs in return for shelter for the night.

He had taken them in, out of the snow. Beggars. At first he had thought they were one of those gangs of kids that roam the city, stealing, breaking in to places, mugging folks. They’d slept in the loft for the first night. No parents, no friends. They’d run away from some institution. But then, he guessed, these three had been running away all their lives.

‘I’ll have to report it to the authorities. Or I’ll be in trouble.’

The bright one, the leader, called Katiya, had pleaded with him to give them a chance. ‘We can ’elp you round the house, Mister. Olga is ill sometimes, but Dmitri, well, he’s little, but he’s good at some things.’

Yuri had been persuaded. His only son had been called up for the Russian army only weeks before Ukraine had become independent. He’d been sent to the war in Chechnya. On his first day he had been shot dead by a sniper.

So Yuri had felt compassion for the Three Strays, befriended them and felt bitterly about a world that could treat its children so neglectfully.

‘I guess it’s either me saying yes, or you lot being sold into slavery. But if there’s any thieving – you’re out.’

Katya, Dmitri and Olga clean, chop wood, fetch water, help cook meals. In return, Yuri feeds them, shelters them, has bought second-hand clothes and shoes for them from the open-air market on the edge of town. Most importantly, in his view, he has begun to teach the younger ones to read, and Katiya to write.

‘If you read, you learn. If you learn, you advance. No one can make slaves of you.’

Yuri is standing now in the woods, calling once more for Valeri; and feeling upset and badly let-down. ‘Young wasters,’ he is saying to the trees. ‘Them skipping off like that, without a word. At least they didn’t steal anything, not that I’ve anything worth stealing. We were making out. Smart kids. Good company.’ He shakes his head. Melted snow is still dropping from the trees.

He had come home from work last night, in the dusk as usual. The fire had been lit but had gone out. The table was laid, but of the Strays there was no sign. That leaves just the two of us again, Valeri.

‘Come on, Boy! Come on!’

Whatever explanation Yuri has given himself for his young companions’ disappearance is wrong: it isn’t that he didn’t feed them enough; or that they were unhappy bunked down beside the fire; or that he bored them sick with his tales of the past. They had gone because they had been witnesses to an event. They had been chased away, and the explanation, at least in part, is about to be made clear to him.

‘Valeri, come on away from there.’ The dog’s barking is enough to wake the dead. Or rather, not enough.  Yuri steps off the narrow path through the trees. He notices the buds. How early they are this year. All the snow has melted, but snowdrops are sprinkled everywhere; and among them, here and there, are the first glowing heads of crocus.

At this point the woodland thickens. There are enough fallen branches to keep Yuri’s fire cheerful through any winter. He stops. Valeri races to him, then about-turns, charges back into a thicket of brushwood. ‘What’ve you got there, then – rabbit?’

There used to be wolves in these woods.

Yuri pulls back the bush, steps into undergrowth, and halts. ‘Oh my God!’ He reaches forward, pulls away loose branches from a naked corpse. ‘No!’ He wrenches away his gaze, shuts his eyes, for a moment never wishes to open them again: the body lying before him, its limbs tangled like the undergrowth, is headless.

Yuri steps back, jamming his hands to his face, almost trips over the branches he has removed. He opens his eyes. He wants it all to have been a mad vision.

Valeri seems to share the trauma of this discovery. He has gone silent, pants, mouth open, staring at his master.

In the early light, the skin of the male corpse resembles the flesh of mushroom, and like mushrooms it is flecked with streaks of earth.

Yuri gags, turns, clutches a tree for balance. Horrified at the sight at his feet, he retches, though only saliva gushes from his lips. His hand beats his forehead. He backs away, hears the pounding of his breath, sees it rise through the cold morning air.

Valeri watches his master, seeks a signal to retreat, to go on with the walk; perhaps continue as if nothing had happened, as if nothing this morning were different from every morning. He begins to bark.

 ‘Shsh, shsh, Valeri.’ Yuri gazes about him, nods. ‘Dumped.’ He gathers together his nerves. It won’t bite. He is standing over the corpse, reaches down, then decisively rolls the body over on to its chest. The victim’s wrists are tied behind his back with cord.

‘An execution. Here I was thinking the bad old days were over.’

What’s for sure, this body was not here yesterday morning; otherwise Valeri, on their usual walk through the woods, would have found it.

But what to do now? Of course, in a civilised country, you call the police.

 Yuri hesitates, for his first thought is – they could arrest me for this. I’m the only witness to my innocence. What’s it to them if they accuse me of murder, bang me up, execute me, if they end up with a clean sheet; crime solved?

Got to think about all this. Not got to rush. Keep a cool head, for I’m in trouble, no question. Which is worse, though, reporting it or not reporting it? Yuri steps out from the corpse’s brushwood grave. He tidies up the site so that from the path nothing can be seen.

He pauses, sorry for the dead man, racked by the callousness of his execution. ‘Poor sod, whoever he is, whatever he’d done, there’s no way he could have deserved such a dying!’

 Extract from Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa (Spire Publishing and Kindle e-reader).

 Regretfully the Ned Baslow correspondence has been held over for another month, but readers can follow Ned’s campaign to put the Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven Grand Festival of the Arts on to the world map of cultural excellence in previous editions the WRITER’S NOTEBOOK. Here are a few gems from Ned’s tireless pen: Florence Nightingale (December 2013), Inspector Morse (November), Marcel Marceaux (October), Vincent v G (September), Agamemnon (May), King Harold (April) and Capability Brown (March).