Saturday, October 22, 2005

On the Road to a Documentary

READ AGAIN the comments to the fist photo below, if you already have read this post: I added more text about corruption, nepotism, and meritocracy today, Oct. 23, 2005:
These are all stills taken from some of my video footage. If they turn out well here, I am going to have a new obsession. These are stills on the road to becoming part of a documentary. .
Men Loading Sacks of Flour
This photo is from the local mill in Pidhajtsi. The mill was part of a factory complex in Soviet times that also included a preservatives section and bakery. In the early 90s, the managers ran the preservatives and bakery sections into the ground while enriching themselves, and when it they closed, the managers sold most of the equipment. More than a 100 people were put out of work. Lesja Kolodnytska, wife of my father's fist cousin Hryts, worked there and has not held a job since then.
There is an overabundance of such stories in rural Ukraine. The mill survived the closure, and the bakery has been re-opened, but the preservatives section never re-opened. The mill and bakery are privately run and the management would not let me in to film.
There also is a dairy factory in Pidhajtsi that was also run into the ground, after which it was bought by a private interest that would NOT let me film. I had an argument with the plant manager, a woman who I asked if she was not ashamed to be defending the plant's secrecy after the Orange Revolution was a push for transparency in government and business practices. . .Of course, the woman has a boss, too, but she would not even try asking her boss to let me in and do an interview. . .
I told one fellow I know in Pidhajtsi about this, and he said to me, "Hey, no worries, I have got a contact there. . ." Such statements are of huge significance in Ukraine (as it is in all poor countries with hugely corrupt governments and business practices): "I have a contact, a friend, a colleague. . .
MUCH MORE than they are in the West, contacts are very important here. Far more people get positions in business or government based on contacts here rather than their competence or meritbthan in the so-called West. The OR in part was the expression of a desire to change this system of nepotism into a system that is more soundly based on principles of a meritocracy.
. .
Imagine a continuum of how one gets jobs or positions of power or influence, with contacts on the one side and merit on the other. The people of every country in the world, whether the West or otherwise, rely upon a combination of contact and merit. The question is which takes precedence. In the West, one can say in general that merit has an advantage over connections/contacts, especially ideologically if not in actual practice. However, there are those places in the West that the need for contacts is especially strong, such as in the journalists' and academics' world.
In Ukraine, the obvious emphasis is on connections/contacts. You often can't even get an interview without a contact, and people in the past (i.e., pre-OR), and I am sure that they still do, often pay just to get an interview. Sometimes there is no interview. You will get a job somewhere just because some family member or colleague works where you want to and has influence. I have family who have jobs purely through these means, through connections. They did not have any experience with their profession before they took their specialized jobs. But they were family and they needed work. Unemployment, scarcity, poverty all lead precisely to nepotistic and kleptocratic systems, no matter how democratic they appear in form. (And unemployment, poverty and scarcity are the creations or symptoms of a political-economic system sick with corruption and abuse of power, since scarcity and poverty are human-made problems, human-made constructs, especially in a country as rich in labor and natural resources and tourist/historical destinations as Ukraine).
The OR is making a difference in all this, however, in the following way: People can invoke it (depending on region, I am sure) in tough situations when dealing with police, or secutiry, or officials, or in seeking an interview, or getting medical care, or in just correcting people's brutish and annoying public behavior, etc. If you run into a problem, you can say, "What was the OR about?" etc. I was waiting in line to buy a train ticket in Kyiv when someone cut into the front of the line and someone confronted her by saying, "Do you remember how we all behaved during the revolution?" I had a problem getting into the Ivan Franko University in Lviv to do an interview (with the renowned Prof. Yaroslav Hrytsak). They have security guards who check IDs as you enter the school. This is a good thing in general, but I told the guard that I needed to get in to do an interview with Prof. Hrytsak, and that I didn't know that I would need a pass, and that I could not call him as I only had his home number, so could you please either escort me to his office or just let me? The guard sent me to the security desk where the other guards sat on their asses and told me, "We don't know him, we won't let you in, we can't help." I was so mad. I said, "What, is Ukraine still a wild country or did it become a more friendly place after the Revolution? Either let me in to go find his office, or walk with me, and if you don't want to do any of the asking to find, I'll hold your hand through the building and do the asking myself. . ." To which the captain stood up startled and told the guard at the gate to let me in!
There are more of such stories from others, but anyway, this would make the subject of a great anthropological study: How mere invocation of the memory of the OR is making a difference, however small.
Of course, one encounters plenty of such unhelpfulness in the US as well, but there is much more of it here. And once again, in connection to all of this I can talk about why I am so against the Bush administration. In addition to systematically eliminating hard won guarantees for transparency in government and in business through the Patriot Acts and the phony excuse of terrorism, it is one hell of a nepotistic and clannish (business clannish, mind you) administration. For example, was it mere coincidence that during the first Bush administration that the son of Collin Powel was made Chair of the FCC, at the very moment that Clear Channel, a Texas-based multimedia GIANT and Bush campaign supporter was pushing for further media deregulation along with Rupert Murdoch, the arch conservative media mogul, all against a massive grassroots campaign against further deregulation? Or how about Halliburton, whose CEO was VP Dick Cheney, being one of a number of Bush-friendly companies and campaign supporters to get no-bid contracts to rebuild Iraq, and which is a company that has overcharged the federal government, i.e., which has overcharged US taxpayers.
Didn't Ukrainians just begin a fight against politician-tycoons getting rich on public revenues? Didn't they just begin a fight for more transparency? Did they not just begin a fight against nepotism? And the US is going in the opposite direction. . .
And oh, once again, a message to all those activists in the West who think the OR (and the rebellions in Georgia and Yugoslavia) was a slick, postmodern coup led by the US: Perhaps activists should either pay more attention to what is going on in the US, or if they want to talk about Eastern Europe or the post Soviet world, they should get out of their armchairs and come here and talk to people on the ground, as they do in relation to people's struggles in Latin America!
I would be very happy to be any fellow progressive activist's guide if one should decide to come here and become more personally familiar with people's struggles on the ground in Eurasia!
Now, here's a thought: Observation or study of the countries of the post Soviet world, whose peoples are in the main nowhere near to as immiserated or impoverished as are the masses in countries such a India or those of subsaharan Africa, may just suggest what the critical mass of poverty and scarcity is for nepotism to take the advantage over merit. No doubt, there is a huge social sciences dealing with such questions in the abstract if not dealing specifically with the post-Soviet world, actually. . .surrounding such terms as collective action, game-theory, tragedy of the commons, etc.
As for Ukraine, after the OR and after expression of a great will to creat a more meritocratous system, we still wait to see how competent the people who have made into government after the OR will be. This comment includes Yushchenko, who still has yet to prove himself as a competent politician, to my mind and that of many others in Ukraine. I have always felt, before the OR and then during, that he is "zamajkyj (too weak)," which is a comment I have heard quite a few people make about him; check out this link to something I wrote to my list-serve last year about him during the Orange Revolution. He began his administration by relying too much on Soviet/post-Soviet practices of widely rewarding those connected to him, and insofar his appointment of a supposedly "technocratic government" is an attempt to reverse a policy of pleasing allies who did something for him and an attempt to create an effective government based on skill and competency, it is indeed praiseworthy. But only time will tell if these technocrats are competent at much more than betraying OR promises. . .
Also, one more complaint about Yushchenko: his attitude toward the press has been too similar to that of post-Soviet executives by virtue of his condescending attitude. It is of course a relief that he does not issue official orders--i.e., temnyky. But he does give unofficial ones when he scolds the press and tells them what they should be taking seriously, as he has in realtion to his son, to the charges of corruption among his cohorts, and in relation to his memorandom with Yanukovych and the Regions party. More on this matter of Yushchenko's problematic attitude toward the press later. . .
The rest of the photographs in this post are a continuation of the story of the sugar beet harvest discussed in the previous post. . .

Cleaning Beets in the Fields
Before the beets can be brought to the burjakpunkt, all the stems have to be chopped off.

Vladimirets on the Scale

The Vladimirets being weighed in at the burjakpunkt. The tractor and trailor are standing on top of a large scale. You weigh-in with the trailor full of beets, then you dump the beets, and then you weigh-in again. Thus you know how many beets you dropped off, and you will be paid in sacks of processed sugar accordingly, with the factory taking a cut of your sugar as payment for processing your beets.

This fellow is from the tiny village of Muzhyliv, about 7km from the Pidhajtsi limits. He brought his sugar beets to the burjakpunkt by horse-drawn wagon, which is pictured below. Notice the pile of sugar beets behind him. A quarter of his day was spent getting there, another quarter getting home. He might have had enough in that wagon for half a sack. While talking to him, I learned that he was quite poor. I asked him why, to his mind, so many Ukrainians have remained poor while Pinchuk and Akhmetov (Ukrainian oligarchs) are billionaires. He said, "Because we don't have any good leaders. They always think about themselves. . .
And His Horse and Wagon
About such wagons: One day during my first ever week in Ukraine I was with my father's cousin and his daughter, Oksana, who turned to me and said, in perfect English, "Stefan, look. . .our national mode of transportation for centuries, which, still has not died. . ." The last clause of what she said was an allusion to the Ukrainian national anthem, whose opening line is "Shche ne vmerla Ukrajina (Ukraine still has not died). . ."
Mountain of Sugar Beet
To the left of this photo is the start of a huge pile of sugar beets.

6 Sacks of Processed Sugar for 3 Trailor Loads of Sugar Beets
All those sugar beets piled up outside get processed, and people get paid in sacks of sugar.
Bringin' the Sugar Home
In these three photos, Taras Kolodnytskyj and his mother Lesja unload the sacks of sugar, which are 25k each. I did put down my camera to carry in two sacks as well. I am no stranger to physical labor, as I grew up in a family of woodworkers and as the son of a good immigrant father who tried to teach me the value of hard work. While friends slept-in on weekends I went to work at his shop. While friends goofed around for the summer, I went to work at his shop. It's probably why I became such a hippie (I am not serious; there are real reasons of protest against the #1 American sickness of workaholism that one becomes a hippie). But now I like to thank him for the fact that, through his guidance and effort, I can work with both my hands and my head. When I work in the US, I drive a truck and do contract gigs, and am damn proud of it. . .

Bringin' the Sugar Home

Bringin' the Sugar Home
They have a Ukrainian flag flying because this was UPA day, last Oct. 14. . .read the previous post for more. . .


Leopolis said...

Strange...I never was stopped to show a pass anytime I entered Ivan Franko University. That was back in 2002 and last fall. Same thing with border guards entering/exiting Ukraine. I've read horror stories from people (usually non-Ukrainians) about bribes, harrassment, etc. Again, I never have experienced serious flak, aside from the usual gruff "where are your documents?" I guess the problem is how guards & police arbitrarily deal with citizens rather than any clearly defined system to piss people off (i.e. soviet). I'm glad you stood up to them and reminded them of the OR. I think often these guys are simply bored and see how they can abuse their authority.

Stefan said...

You are quite right to point out that anyone engaged in any kind of normal behavior has no need to worry about unusual harassment from authorities in Ukraine--usually.

The problem, as it is everywhere, is of course doing something unusual or out of the ordinary that calls the attention of police and security guards. But the consequences in Ukraine of calling such attention can be much more costly than in the US. . .unless you are a minority in the US, of course. . .

So I was trying to get into Ivan Franko to do an interview. . .I guess one can say that was unusual. But they definitely have guards at the entrance these days. I went back a second time a few weeks later for the interview (as it turned out, the fellow I had wanted to interview didn't have time that first day for the interview), and this second time I was let in by a friendly security guy.

But earlier that same day I was almost arrested by police in front of the Polish Consulate in Lviv. I have planned a segment about Ukis working abroad for the film I am doing, and so I wanted to shoot footage of people waiting in line outside of the Polish consulate for their visa interview. I asked one policeman if I could film interviews with the people, he said sure. So I did. But when I turned my camera on the consulate building itself, he came up to me with two other police and he insisted that I come with them, and that I leave my camera and tripod standing there on the street corner. I told him that he was going to have to arrest me and tear the camera from my hands if that was the case, and I asked them, btw, are you arresting me and why don't you ask for my papers?

So one of the guys, the most sensible of them, said, of course he should take the camera with. So the issue was, apparently, that I could film the people but not the building. Luckily, just as they were leading me somewhere, I don't know where, an official looking guy exited the consulate, and I turned to him and said "These police are arresting me for filming outside the consulate. Is it illegal to do so?" The official said no, and told the police to let me be. So the police guys said, "Ok, fine, but just don't film us. . ."

Of course, it is risky filming outside gov buildings and embassies in any country (as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 showed), so I obviously did stand out doing so.

Foreigners at the borders traveling into Ukraine by train or bus do stand out, and I have twice been removed from the line by Ukrainian officials and have been asked questions in what seemed to me to be stalling tactics. . .but stalling for what? I have never been directly asked for a bribe, except for when I was leaving Ukraine last year after the OR by bus to Warsaw. Out of everyone passing the Ukrainian exit customs check, the border patrol lady asked only me to open my luggage--it was a small group of people on that overnight bus from Lviv to Warsaw on a W, and I am pretty well sure that I was the only one onboard without a Ukrainian passport.

On the top of my suitcase was a stack of poster-calenders with that image of Tymoshenko putting a flower into the shield of a spetsnas. The borderguard looked at it, paused, and with a knowing look said, "You know, we don't have such a poster here in our guardhouse. . ."

Perhaps this was perfectly innocent, but say it was a sign of the corrupt border practices: then I love the irony that it was a corrupt way to get a poster representing the anti-corruption campaign! But it was probably just an innocent, if inappropriate request. . .of course, I would have liked it better if she had just asked me outright for the poster, instead of hinting. . .

But then another police story. You know the internet club on Dudaev St. in Lviv? I was there one night, when leaving the club, I heard some commotion just outside the doors, and then the owner of the place, a young guy who is a perfect gentleman, stopped me from leaving. Some guys in font of the club door in the passageway from the street to the courtyard were getting into a fight, and the club owner said that he had called and the police were on the way. He did not want me going out there and getting accidentally mixed up in whatever was going on.

So the police came, broke up the fight, and then some officer came charging into the club, barking, "Who called us? Those guys were doing nothing, just some stupid fight!" The owner stepped forward and politely said, "I called because this is my place of business and when people are fighting in front of my store, no one will come in. . ." The officer said, gruffly, "You're the one who called? It was nothing, it was nothing. . ." and just stood there, looking mad. So the owner of the store went to the cash register, grabbed a wad of money (I could not tell how much) and handed it to the officer, in that I'm-only-shaking-your-hand kind of way. The officer grinned, turned, and went out the door.

That sucks. But that, still, is Ukraine. . .and many parts of the US, too, especially among a significant number of inner city cops that don't seem to give a damn about local businesses and people, unless there is something in it for them beyond their meager wages.