World News

12.15.13

Slouching Towards Maidan: An American Hair-Trader Reflects On Ukraine’s Protests

How an American-born hair trader living in Kiev found his city transformed overnight with a revolutionary fervor that may be good for Ukraine but is quite bad for business.

I have a daily routine in Kiev, honed over the past four years spent living in Ukraine’s capital, so banal that it could be a scene from the Truman Show. I leave my flat around lunchtime, and walk over to the hair salon down the street to discuss pending orders for my growing Russian hair extension business with the owner, Zhenya. Then I have lunch at a Lebanese fast-food restaurant, before heading to Sport Life, a Western-style gym for a 45-minute swim and sauna session.

With the ‘eurolution’ in Kiev racheting up a couple notches after Tuesday night’s police crackdown, I’m experiencing a nostalgia for the mundane days of yore. There is now a barricaded protestor checkpoint near the salon, which guards the rear entrance to the City Parliament Building. “We’re here so that the riot police can’t enter from behind,” explains an orange-hatted woman, shaking her fist in the air. At the hair salon, nerves are on edge, and the feisty sales girs are unsually silent. Zhenya’s pretty wife snaps at him for no reason today, and they have a public shouting match that I find shocking. I’ve always thought that they were such a serene, happy couple.

“My wife is stressed because business is very slow,” he confides over a cigarette in the snow outside. “I was expecting to make $25,000 this month but we haven’t even cleared $5,000. It’s the holiday season and yet nobody’s buying anything.”

We decide to walk through the ‘European Square’ on our way to the Lebanese restaurant to show our solidarity with the protestors, and are immediately drawn into the intense spirit of the revolution. Zhenya does a lot of business with Russia, and also runs a hair salon in Moscow, and yet he’s behind the Euro revolutionaries. Shocked by Tuesday night’s crackdown, he believes that President Yanukovych now has no chance left.

“After last night, Yanuk is finished,” he insists. “The more he cracks down, the more people are going to come out on the Maidan. It’s like pouring gasoline on the fire. Doesn’t he understand that?”

We come across a volunteer stall serving free food for the protestors, and decide to lunch on the square instead. The buckwheat with pork fat and boiled potatoes is served in cellophane bowls and is fresh and tasty. We both go for a second serving, and leave a generous tip of over $10 each.

“My colleagues in Donetsk and other parts of Eastern Ukraine are afraid to protest. But in Kiev we’re not. We’re not going to let Putin tell us how to live,” Zhenya says.

When I walk past the Lebanese restaurant en route to the gym, it’s packed with protestors draped in the Ukrainian flag, drinking beer from big steins.

“The more he cracks down, the more people are going to come out on the Maidan. It’s like pouring gasoline on the fire.”

The upside of the revolution is that the gym is a lot less crowded than usual. The old ladies and pregnant mothers who crowd the middle lines, and dominate the Jacuzzi, are nowhere to be seen. I’m the only person there, in fact, and revel in the pleasure of swimming undisturbed. The silence of the changing room is eerie, though, and I’m glad to come upon somebody in the Finnish sauna. It’s a pool regular, an old man who usually hangs out in the Jacuzzi, or sways in the pressure of the pool’s powerful water jets. I’ve never spoken to him in the past, but strike up a conversation in the hot sauna. Naturally, we talk about the protests on the streets, and he’s very forthright in his opinion.

“Matters of state are not decided on the street,” he declares, wagging a finger demonstratively. “It’s for specialists to decide what course the country must take. People on the street are not thinking. They’re much too impulsive for that.”

I try to argue with him but he’s rigid in his beliefs. I bandy with him for a bit longer, but it’s getting too damn hot in the sauna for a long discourse, so I beat a hasty retreat to the shower.

In the changing room, I overhear two jocks discussing the crisis.

“This country’s not stable now,” complains one.

“Yeah, it’s because some people want to live in Europe. Imagine that!” says the other.

“What a bunch of wankers!” says the first.

My phone is overloaded with SMS’s and missed calls from nervous hair clients in London, Tel-Aviv and New York. The business has ground to a standstill as hair suppliers in other parts of Ukraine are leery of coming to the capital. The hair gatherers in the small towns of western Ukraine, who go from village to village collecting girls’ ponytails, are most likely encamped on the Maidan under the Svoboda party banner. Nobody’s in the mood for work. The girl at the salon who bonds the hair with keratin for extensions has not come to work today because the metros in the center were shut down. I walk to the bank to withdraw some dollars to pay for an outstanding order, but the teller holds up her hands in apology.

“They’re not delivering dollars the center anymore because of the protests. You’re better off going to our branch a bit outside Kiev.”

I realize that getting there in the snowy streets of Kiev would be a logistical nightmare.

Fortunately, there are plenty of journalist friends in town from Moscow covering the crisis. I meet one for drinks at a hip Spanish restaurant catty corner from the European Square. She’s all vibed up from writing about the revolution, and full of praise for the brave, kind Ukrainian protestors. She describes standing on a bridge overlooking the square early that morning during the crackdown, and watching the orange-hatted protestors square off against the riot police.

“There were so few protestors, and so many police, hundreds and hundreds of them. But they were so brave, and stood their ground. I’ll never forget that moment for the rest of my life.”

We walk around European Square afterwards, which is now full of people come out to show their support after the brutal dawn raid earlier that day. I recognize a few Ukrainian professionals from a networking group and they hug me warmly. My friend also bumps into some local artist friends, who are dressed to the nines for their protest moment. The Square feels like a block party, with the rough-hewn peasant men, sitting around tent campfires sipping vodka, only adding to its appeal. We walk over to the ‘Christmas’ tree to meet another friend, and marvel at the posters, flags and messages that decorate its façade. There’s a large poster of the jailed opposition leader, Yulia Timoshenko, plastered on the front, and another of a scowling Yanukovych that says ‘Resign’ under it.

“It’s the most beautiful Christmas tree in the world,” says my Ukrainian friend proudly. “This is the true symbol of the revolution.”

I get home late that night to find my girlfriend crying in the kitchen. It turns out her application for a tourist visa to Poland was rejected, and the embassy had stamped a ‘Not Approved’ stamp on her passport.  It’s the second time that her attempt for a European visa has been rebuffed.

“I feel like I’m in prison,” she cries. “I can’t get out of this Ukraine! Europe doesn’t want me. The only place I can go now is Russia.”

Vijai Maheshwari runs a Russian hair extension business in the Ukraine. You can check out its website on whiterussianhair.com