An Orange Revolution

Askold Krushelnycky is that rare creature, someone who has grown more idealistic with age. He is also unusual in another respect. In the blowhard world of foreign corresponding he is something of a shrinking violet whose inclination is to underplay his adventures. I have come to know AK well down the years. Yet until now I had little idea of the extraordinary range of his experiences, some of which he modestly – perhaps too modestly – recounts here. This important and moving book is essentially about Ukraine, that great, juicy slab of land whose fate it has been to be torn to pieces periodically by its carnivorous neighbours. It is also a chronicle of the Krushelnycky family, whose lives were caught in the snapping jaws. Running through it like an orange thread is the author’s uplifting story.

He grew up Ukrainian in London and Reading, living a parallel life playing the violin in his English grammar school and the mandolin in the Ukrainian orchestra. The family home was a forum for exile politics. The author’s father Ivan was a controversial figure. Like other honourable nationalists he found himself fighting with the Germans against the Soviets and had to face the awkwardness that fact engendered in a post-war world unconcerned about the complexities of the conflict. His activities in the pro-independence diaspora, first as the editor of an émigré newspaper, earned him Moscow’s hatred and he was denounced as a traitor. His sister Leonida had fallen on the other side of the ideological divide, working as a Red Army nurse. Twenty years after the war ended she and her mother were allowed out to England. This was no act of humanity on behalf of Ukraine’s Communist rulers. Leonida bore a message from the KGB. Either Ivan returned to answer for his ‘crimes’ or the members of the family that remained in their clutches would suffer.

The list of the enemies of Ukrainian independence is long. In the last century alone the land was dismembered at various times by the Russians, the Germans and the Poles. For Krushelnycky the biggest villains are the Russians – they, and the local stooges who worked so enthusiastically on behalf of Moscow’s selfish interests and, of course, their own. The heroes are those strugglers of the Left and the Right who refused to accept their neighbours’ cynical view that Ukraine was merely a territory and insisted, at great cost to themselves, that it was a nation. That fight, as Krushelnycky makes very clear, is still going on today. The collapse of Soviet Communism did not bring the dawn of democracy. He gives a fascinating description of the black ingenuity and cynical ease with which the Ukrainian party elite teamed up with security bosses and the mafia to ensure that power and wealth stayed in their hands. This squalid troika in turn ensured that Ukraine remained inside Moscow’s paranoid embrace, a deal the West was happy to go along with. It was only after 13 years of a corrupt interregnum and the arrival of a new leadership backed by people power that the shackles were finally loosened. Even now, as President Putin’s naked bullying over gas supplies proved recently, the chains have yet to be struck off.

Ukrainian independence was never a fashionable cause in the West. Before the Orange Revolution, few in Britain could place it on the map. The author never lost his father’s faith. As young activist he organised protests outside the Soviet Embassy and smashed the windows of Soviet offices in London. As a journalist he witnessed the beginning of the end of Russian Communism, first in Afghanistan where he spent months accompanying the mujahideen in their long campaign to drive the invaders out. His reporting earned him the hatred of the Russians, who at one point ordered his assassination.

He was in Berlin for the fall of the Wall and in 1990 made his first visit to Ukraine where he went on to probe the crimes of the regime, most notably the murder and beheading of the investigative journalist Georgiy Gongadze. His belief was vindicated in the autumn of 2004 when he stood in Kiev’s main square amid a sea of orange, convinced that Ukraine could become ‘the kind of democratic, fair and above all decent place that my parents and so many millions of their compatriots dreamed about for generations.’

Ukraine has faded from the headlines. But Krushelnycky’s book provides a powerful reminder of why we should care about it. It is the best available guide to the subject and is likely to remain so for some time.

From War Zones to the Wilderness – 14/03/06

It was an intimidating sight. A wall of snow on both sides with one tiny path down the middle – part ice, part mud. We squeezed our new pick-up truck with it’s trailer and the little Golf diesel Kristin was driving through the gap and inched our way towards the front door.
This was our new home. Grizzly Bear Ranch. 32 acres of unspoilt wilderness in the British Columbia Rockies. It had cost us everything we had and a lot more and we hoped it would be our home for years, even decades to come.
The whole adventure had begun two years before when, as Moscow correspondent for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, I had been sent to the Estonian capital Tallinn to write a story about how Brits were taking over the quaint little town, drinking too much and behaving badly.
I arrived, met Kristin, who was working as the local correspondent for Reuters, drank too much and behaved badly. She did too. Five months later, after long weekends together and short, stolen holidays in different European capitals, she moved to Moscow to be with me.
Typically, and to my shame, I wasn’t there when she arrived. Revolutionary fever – of a kind – had broken out in Ukraine and I was stuck with the orange marchers on Maidan, the miserably cold square in the middle of Kiev.
That winter Kristin and I lived quietly, taking long walks through the beautiful Moscow district we lived in and hung out with friends in our local bar – a terrible place with 1980s Soviet pop and almost naked girls dancing on the bar called Rok Vegas (without the “c”.)
When spring came we decided to move to Canada. For more than a decade I had been covering wars for the Daily Telegraph – first Bosnia, then Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq. It had become a tiring, numbing business.
Although I still got a sense of satisfaction from bribing Russian soldiers to get me into Chechnya, drinking tea with Afghan warlords or surviving a brutal day in Iraq, my heart yearned for something wilder, more natural and more elemental.
I took a job with the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, covering the Canadian prairies and the dozens of northern Indian reserves where people still live in Third World conditions.
My hope was to be able to fly around central Canada in my own little plane (I’d got a commercial pilot’s license several years earlier) and write stories about how people lived. The paper, naturally, wanted more news, less travel and fewer expenses.
It would be easy to say that growing bored at the Globe propelled us into the wilderness. But things were not that chronologically neat. We actually saw Grizzly Bear Ranch for the first time while driving through British Columbia last summer.
It was coincidence really. I’d seen the ranch advertised on the internet while we were still in Russia and we’d dropped in on a whim. Richard and Joanne, who had run the ranch for a decade, were getting on and had decided to move away.
It really did seem to us the most beautiful place on earth that day. The sun was shining, the grass was green and the sound of the river bubbling along its stony course permeated our thoughts and still colours our memories of that day.
Anyway – so here we are. I can hear the river bubbling as I write these words which will go out into the ether on our new – far from perfect – satellite internet feed.
Our grand plan is to run the ranch as a destination for travelers and visitors who are looking for something a little different. The beauty. The seclusion. The incredible wildlife.
We want it to be a refuge for friends too – especially, but not only, for those colleagues who have spent years in war zones. A place where they can come to unwind, write, lay some of their demons to rest or just enjoy the serenity.
We’ve starting out by offering fishing tours (that will be guided by a veteran local fly-fisherman) and ATV quad tours which I will lead and which will take visitors up into the stunning Selkirk mountains.
At first we were a little reluctant to buy these noisy little machines but we were soon won over. They also simply so clever and versatile and get you to places you could only otherwise reach on foot. And it takes a couple of hours instead of several days.
We also want to show people the best of the wildlife. To do that we’ve bought a Zodiac inflatable boat we’re going to try and use on the river and for lake trips. And, of course, we’ll also use our four-wheel-drive truck.
As for Kristin, she’s already settling into her new kitchen. She’s got lots of gleaming new equipment, books crammed with ideas and recipes and, though she denies it, I know she can barely wait for the first full house.
So – if you’re still reading this – come and visit us in Grizzly Bear Ranch. It really is one of my beautiful spots I’ve ever been to and I’ve seen many wonderful places in my years on the road. Friends, visitors, friends-of-friends, travellers – you’re all welcome!

Get out claws

It’s been a little lonely in the hotel of late. For the last three weeks I have been the only guest. Not the only ‘foreign’ guest – the ‘only’ guest. Over the weekend a citywide 24-hour curfew exacerbated the sense of solitude by preventing my four Iraqi staff from reaching me even during daylight hours. During this period the only company has been that of the receptionist, Sammad, a similarily stranded man. Only last night he offered to share another beheading video with me, this one showing members of the Shia Mehdi army decapitating an alleged Sunni terrorist (well – a Sunni man anyway) on his mobile phone. “You know what Sammad?

Not right now…” I replied primly, and got him to dig out the last bottle of revolting 11% French red from his basement as an alternative pastime – giving a ghastly hangover for no temporal escape, it doesn’t give enough flash for the bang, but then these are thin times. War snuff flicks are big in Baghdad. Suicide attacks, missile strikes, assassinations, executions, firefights: you can catch them all plus soundtrack on American and Islamic websites, street DVDs and Iraqi mobile phones. Denied the normal access reporters have in war, I have watched them often in order to try and understand the realities of what is happening in Iraq. I don’t watch the head-sawing ones as I find the gurgling too much.

They can be illuminating, sometimes compulsive, and there’s nothing like getting my two drivers and interpreters in on the act to cut to the quick of where people’s responses lie. We see an American marine standing by his Humvee in a dusty street. Iraqi children are loitering around him. Suddenly a single tracer round flies out from a flank and whacks him slap in the head. He goes down with a thump and his legs give a parade ground ‘one-two’ kick in terminal spasm.

“Wow. What a shot!” the Iraqi staff murmer admiringly. “So check this out,” I retort, and with a quick tap of the keyboard another image grows.

We see an empty Fallujah street in grainy black and white, filmed from the camera of an airborne weapon system. A group of about thirty figures steps into the street.


‘I got numerous individuals on the road. You want me to take those out?,’ a disembodied American voice asks.

‘Take ’em out,’ the immediate reply comes back from ground control.

‘Ten seconds.’ ‘Roger.’

‘Impact!’ The ant-like figures disappear, obliterated in a huge explosion, driven from the screen edge like tumbling leaves caught be a violent squall. ‘Ohhhhh dude!,’ the operator signs out. The video ends and my staff step back from the computer screen, open-mouthed and appalled.

“Now that, guys, is what I call smart technology,” I tell them, hoping they get my irony. And so another black brain bending Baghdad day continues.


An icy swim in a sea of tears, there is zero appeal in doing an Iraq assignment at present. I completely accept the arguments of reporters who point out the inverted risk/ reward ratio produced by an atmosphere in which journalists here are seen as legitimate targets. I cannot operate with the remotest degree of personal freedom and I deeply resent the constraints. To do something as basic as a street voxpop becomes a sweaty, rushed affair with negligible gain. I am doing this assignment for the simple reason that I agreed to sometime ago.

However, as the last weeks have passed more than the loneliness, the frustrations, the strangling claustrophobia and the twisted nature of a virtual war experience, what I have grown to resent most about the Iraq story is the glib assumption of journalists in the UK who suggest that the western reporters who do continue to exist here contribute nothing to the story. Only yesterday I watched a bunch of suited cappuccino-class hacks on BBC World agree from their London studio that all reporters in Iraq were based in the heavily fortified Green Zone and were unable to report. The asinine assumption was advanced further a couple of months ago in The Guardian by a colleague who concluded a braying and nonsensical opinion piece claiming remaining foreign journalists in Baghdad were doing a “disservice to truth”.

Beyond the natural smarting of ego, I know these criticisms to be deeply misleading for a number of reasons. Geographically they are plaintively untrue. Like most of the few journalists here, for what it is worth, The Times bureau exists very much in the ‘Red Zone’. More significantly though, western reporters in Iraq have a vital role in the management of the story. Management is not a natural or agreeable task in a competitive profession that exhalts the endeavour of the individual. But in Iraq it is crucial.

To our chagrin we cannot get out and write incisive first-hand stories, a product of our engagement with the Iraqi people. As foreigners, the risk to ourselves, and indeed those Iraqis we speak to, seldom justifies the effort. However, our Iraqi staff can get out. Intelligent, courageous, resourceful and motivated, they get to the face of events; the killings, passions, and facts so neccessary to report the story. They risk their lives in our place. And thus their management, by knowledgeable western journalists in place in Iraq, is an essential fulcrum between their inexperience and vulnerability, and the hungry naivety of editors in London.

Take the 24 hours that followed the bombing of Samarra’s Shia shrine as an example. The desk in London immediately requested me to send our local staff to Samarra, as much of Europe’s media announced civil war while the coalition and Iraqi Interior Ministry tried to downplay the immediate reaction. Rather than indulge in knee-jerk response to these differing pressures, the presence of a foreign manager in Baghdad allowed instant debate and assessment with the Iraqi staff. We agreed that the Samarra scene was already of secondary importance beside the coming knock-on effects in Baghdad, and anyway too dangerous for them to reach. Al Arabiya were to have three dead on the town’s outskirts by nightfall – I rest our case. Within hours the guys were reporting back to the bureau by phone from the streets of Baghdad, telling me of the first revenge attacks on Sunni mosques, reporting – as eyewitnesses – details of hit squads being allowed free passage through Iraqi army checkpoints.

A day later, as Baghdad’s casualty count became contentious, I sent them off to the city morgue.

“Get the statistician,” I told Ali, my interpreter, after he arrived there. Minutes later he came back with a count: 127 Sunnis dead in a 12-hour period, a truck with another 47 bodies waiting outside the morgue. “I was with a guy who identified his dead son,” Ali informed me, obviously distressed. “He had been shot in the head, been tortured and had one eye and his teeth pulled out.” “What was his expression when he saw the body?” I asked. “Did he cry or slumpor get pissed off or what?” I would write about it if I was at the scene. I am not, but I am going to write about it anyway so I need to know: if the story is to breathe then this death needs some life.

My legitimacy in asking this type of question is born from similar first hand experiences in many wars, and the fact I sit in front of Ali as the day closes, can look him in the eyes and can filter and contextualise what he tells me. I know him. I know his ethnic background, his experience and capabilities. If I were sitting in London as a stranger on a telephone would I have the same justification in asking Ali the same questions?

Probably, but not with the same effectiveness: by being here I am one less degree removed, and it is a big degree. Not ideal, certainly not nice, but significant in that it produces the ability for a smoother, more fluid line of reportage.

Two days later, and while London-based reporters still appear not to know whether Iraq is experiencing civil war, is at the brink of it, or stepping back, by debriefing the staff here direct we are getting a clearer picture. The violence is not a grassroots swell involving mobs in a cycle of tit-for-tat killing. It is organised, disciplined even, conducted by well-ordered Shia militia teams who are rolling up and executing Sunnis in specific areas.

In general terms the killings are beginning to slow, as the story begins to change shape. Moqtada Al Sadr, the radical Shia cleric whose sudden support gained Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari his narrow win for a second term at the post earlier this month, and whose Mehdi militia conducted most of the revenge killings in Baghdad last week, is emerging as a very powerful if unlikely peacemaker. Publicly he is urging restraint. Privately he is brokering deals with other Shia leaders and Sunni clergy. Their shared sentiment? Antipathy towards the coalition. Their shared aim? To counter the coalition strategy which intended to produce a democratised government of national unity in Iraq.

So the country is not yet experiencing civil war. It could do. But what has happened instead in the space of a few short days, a bomb explosion and nearly 200 dead, is of weighty significance: the west’s game plan here has been left in tatters, its hope for a quick military exit broken and its political gambit sundered.

Believe me, I would prefer to be anywhere else in the world than here. I cannot wait to leave the country and I will be happy not to return for a long time. But when I get home, if you fancy yourself as an experienced foreign correspondent, then please tell me you no longer operate in Iraq because you don’t like the working environment, the style, the place, the risk, the people, even the story. Tell me any of these things and I’ll respect your opinion and accept your decision.

But don’t try to tell me you are not there because the journalists who remain in Iraq cannot report or are doing a disservice to truth, because the allegation is bankrupt both in its moral and practical argument. If accurate reporting, and the lives and industry of our Iraqi stringers mean anything to us, then we should give both deserved respect. And that means keeping the Baghdad bureaus manned by expatriates. Don’t make it worse by walking away.