THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

This november (2020) will mark seven years since the euromaidan demonstrations in Kyiv, Ukraine. I recount an EXPERIENCE I had on the eve of this event.  

On a frigid November morning in Kyiv, before dawn, I was having a coffee in a sleepy 24-hour café on the ground floor of the apartment building where I had been staying. From my table at the window I could see a few people gathered under the banners flapping in the wind in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), which had quieted down, for the moment, after days of protests. The only other person in the cafe was a very tired and aloof looking waitress, all eye shadow and boredom, who acted like she was doing me an immense personal favor when she brought me an espresso.

I was dressed in a suit and tie, waiting for a driver to take me to Zhuliany Airport. I would be flying to Donetsk for a meeting with clients who had just completed construction of a luxury residential building I had designed. There would be the usual V.I.P. tour, with photographers and a few local officials, followed by a heavy lunch. Through it all I’d be doing my best to act the part of “international architect.”

I was hoping the project would lead to more work in this dull and nondescript city in the Donbass region, a bastion of coal and steel production located close to the Russian border. I had a payroll, rent, and insurance to pay. My burgeoning company, a design-oriented architectural firm in New York, was a growing little monster, hungry and eating more by the day.

I had been making regular trips to Kyiv since 2009, not long after I had gone into business for myself. After four years, I was starting to make some noise in the Black Sea region, with a string of projects in Ukraine, Georgia and Turkey. As I downed my second espresso in an effort to fight off what had become a more or less permanent case of jet lag, it struck me as absurd that I had wound up here, of all places.

It started as a result of my work as the director of design at Costas Kondylis and Partners, a large New York firm. I had worked there briefly when I was just out of architecture school in the ’90s and had rejoined the company in 2005, when Kondylis himself hired me to lead his design team. He seemed to take a liking to me, or rather, my drawing and speaking skills.

Born in Burundi to Greek parents, Kondylis was a handsome, impeccably dressed transplant who exuded a smooth continental charm common to certain aristocratic expats who had landed on the Upper East Side. More Gianni Agnelli than Frank Lloyd Wright, he played up his old-world image and used it to project a “brand.” I suspect that Kondylis, much like Werner Herzog, was in on the joke: He exaggerated his mannerisms and posture to make himself stand out even more in the world of New York architects, who usually let their buildings speak for them.

His buildings didn’t have much to say. For the most part, they were utilitarian boxes whose designs resulted from an attempt to find a way to satisfy the restrictive New York City zoning laws, the dictates of the know-it-all market analysts, and the tight purse-strings of developer clients – a formula that almost guaranteed banal architecture with a capital “B.” It was clear to everyone involved that the purpose of these structures was to make money, plain and simple. So as far as character goes, Kondylis was far more interesting and colorful than any of the buildings that came out of his shop. And I’ll give him this — he knew how to hustle and sell.

Having built a reputation among demanding New York City developers in the 1990s as a no-nonsense outfit able to complete large and complicated projects on time and on budget, the firm had come to specialize in luxury high-rise residential design. When I became head of design in 2005, it had started riding a wave of development in emerging markets, a boom that spanned an arc from St. Petersburg to Dubai.

I traveled with Kondylis to Kyiv, Istanbul, Moscow, Doha. In addition to design services, we offered a brand of New York “know-how” that played well internationally. Maybe because my parents had emigrated to the United States from Greece and Romania, and had raised me in a bilingual household that was far more European than American, I had a diplomatic demeanor and a sincere curiosity about the world, qualities that made me more than willing to dive into environments that couldn’t be more different from what most of my colleagues were used to, or wanted to deal with, for that matter. So despite the “director” title on my business card, I assumed the roles of salesman, go-between, and hand-holder — a minister without portfolio, if you will, especially when it came to dealing with clients and payment.

All that changed one October afternoon in 2008. Upon returning to my hotel room in Doha from an hours-long meeting, I got a phone call from the office telling me to make arrangements to return to New York immediately. I turned on CNN and watched, rather puzzled, as the cameras were trained on people exiting the Solomon Brothers building in Lower Manhattan, cardboard boxes in hand. Wall Street was melting down. The international boom was done, for the moment, at least, and Kondylis’s firm would soon be a shell of its former self.

Two months later I was out of a job, part of a growing crowd of unemployed New York architects. So, having nothing to lose, I did what any good former minister without portfolio would do — I started “smiling and dialing,” as the old sales adage goes, mostly long distance. Kyiv called back, and I managed to parlay a façade-redesign for an old Kondylis client into a second project. That led to other assignments, and I went from this slightly out of place Greek-American architect into a go-to design guy for some of Ukraine’s biggest developers.

I could not see, at the time, that I was witnessing and participating in the post-Soviet aftershocks that were rippling through Eastern Europe. “Capitalist,” once a vile insult in this part of the world, was now the thing to be. I had never seen so many McClarens, Ferraris, and Mercedes G-classes. Much like Orthodox Christianity, which had been suppressed in the Soviet Union, but never extinguished (it had always been a covert “state religion” anyway), the desire for wealth and prestige, not to mention that great foil of all collectivist ideologies – individuality — was far too strong an impulse for corrupt state-controlled centralized economies and stale University courses in Marxism, to suppress. While I hadn’t spent much time in Eastern Europe up until this point, given my own Greek Orthodox background and the common cultural touch points that came with it, I felt I had a somewhat better understanding of this part of the world than most architects from New York.

Things moved quickly here. “Entrepreneurs” who had until recently been selling black market cigarettes and gasoline out of the back of their Ladas now emerged from the shadows, having become the owners of the very steel mills and factories where they had once been employed. I could only imagine the bloodbaths that had occurred. A free for all.

As the head of my own fledgling firm, I made regular trips to Kyiv. I would typically arrive Sunday evening and leave Saturday morning. Little by little I grew accustomed to the protests, which became routine, as I tried to maintain a steady flow of assignments against a backdrop of political turmoil in a part of the world where the members of a new administration tended to jail those who were part of the previous one. Through it all, the McClarens kept rolling through the Boulevards the Soviets had built decades before. Suffice it to say, when I met with these newly minted capitalists to discuss some project or other, I never asked how they had made their fortunes. It all seemed rather like magic. I would find myself in the company of a real estate “mogul” in his early thirties in a place where the concept of “real estate development” itself was about two decades younger than he was.

I was considering ordering a third espresso in the sleepy café on that dark cold Thursday morning in 2013. I had not gotten much sleep that week, because the protests in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, which were well under way when I had arrived on Sunday evening, had been more raucous than usual — and I had made the unfortunate decision to book an apartment right on the square. By Wednesday, the crowds – no doubt fueled by alcohol and the techno music being pumped out of the speakers which had been intermittently interrupted by patriotic speeches and the Ukrainian national anthem – had grown.

When I had asked my clients what was up, they said the president, a guy named Viktor Yanukovych, a real charmer who looked like a cross between John Gotti and Jimmy Hoffa, had decided, apparently at the eleventh hour, to suspend signing an economic agreement with the European Union, instead reinforcing an alignment with Russia and its Economic Union. While Yanukovych had been “democratically elected” (whatever that meant), Ukrainians in the streets were calling him a Putin puppet.

So while Ukraine was going through an economic boom, at least for the nouveau-riche moguls, it was also becoming the number one contested hot spot in a new cold war. As one of the largest states within the old Soviet Union, often called the “breadbasket,” because of its rich black earth and agricultural resources, and strategically important because of its warm water ports on the Black Sea, Ukraine was coveted on all sides. And the Kremlin was not going to allow a “free” Ukraine to pivot away from the old empire toward the E.U. and NATO.

Over the course of time that I had been going to Kyiv, I had seen a lot of politicians passing through, including a fair number from the United States. They would bellow their declarations of support for a democratic Ukraine, making sure to get their smiles and words of concern in front of the TV cameras before they headed back to the airport. Who knows what they were bartering in private?

While I have always had a suspicion of politicians (and most people in positions of authority, for that matter), my years of business travel, which had brought me into direct contact with many of them, including a few past and future presidents, turned that suspicion into utter contempt. It was obvious that Ukraine was in play for this continuation of what was known in the 19th century as “the great game”. I pitied the Ukrainian students — all idealism, shivering nightly in their square of independence, drinking cheap vodka and Red Bull, waving their flags, and actually believing their dancing and hoarse cries would make a difference.

The café door slammed. It was still dark, around 4:30 A.M. A figure in a traffic cop’s uniform stumbled in from the cold. He was mumbling rather loudly to the waitress, obviously inebriated. Then he made a beeline toward me.

He pulled up a chair and started speaking in slurred Russian, asking me in the tone of an interrogator who I was and why I was here. Using the little Russian I had picked up, I slowly and respectfully gave him my name and told him I was an architect and from New York who had come here for work. He slammed a hand on the table and demanded my papers. As I reached into a pocket for my passport and a worn letter of introduction in Russian, as well some business cards from my main client’s office, it dawned on me that he had come from the Maidan.

He looked over my documents and informed me in an official tone that they were unsatisfactory and he would have to take me into custody. Smelling the vodka on his breath wafting at me, and knowing that my ride was still about forty minutes away, I wasn’t sure what to do.

I could call my clients and ask them to intervene — but the last thing I wanted was to create aggravation for them, especially because I had learned they would use almost any excuse to delay a payment.

The uniformed man glared at me. Maybe it would be best to try to distract him or engage him somehow. I asked him to have a seat and allow me to explain who I was in more detail. To show him my projects on my laptop. Anything to keep him occupied until my ride showed up. Before he could respond, I called to the now concerned waitress and asked her to bring us a new bottle of Standard Vodka (the good Russian stuff), with two small glasses.

“We’re friends,” I said. “We’re on the same side. Let’s drink.”

From the square, a nondescript EDM tune had started playing over the speakers, not too loud. As the waitress approached, my eyes locked with hers, and I saw what could only be interpreted as a look of combined empathy and concern through her heavy mascara. She very slowly and deliberately set down the two shot glasses in front of us and positioned the vodka bottle just so, and repositioned the objects on the table. I smiled and said ‘spasiba’ and she nodded and walked quietly back to her stool near the cafe entrance, but her eyes were fixed on us. I poured both of us a glass to the top.

“Zdaroviya!” I said. And I added: “Slava Ukraini!” (Glory to Ukraine).

He glanced at me and downed the vodka in one go. I did the same.

The EDM from the square, pushed towards us by a shifting early morning breeze, segued into a heavy metal playlist, which I found rather funny. Somehow I thought of the moment when Odysseus disarms the cyclops with wine. He asked me why I was smiling, and I said, in slow English, “I smile when I make new friends.”

I asked my Polyphemus his name.

“Vitaly,” he said.

I poured again. We drank.

“Maidan?”

“Da!” he replied. English phrases started slipping into his slurred speech: “I am guarding our citizens,” he said. “I am there with my Kapitan to insure the safety.” Vitaly struck me as more than a traffic cop. “SBU?” I thought to myself.

I refilled our glasses. He was getting friendlier and starting to call me “Johnny.” With a drunken smile he said, “You are Amerikanski — you are ‘Johnny B. Goode’!” He started laughing and playing an air guitar.

“Da! Chuck Berry!” I had a stupid grin on my face. “Da, da! Johnny B. Goode!” I laughed, but it was nervous laughter, and I had this ridiculous notion that Chuck Berry might be the key to getting me out of this mess.

I glanced at my watch, and Vitaly straightened and asked suspiciously why I was checking the time. Emboldened by the vodka, I said, “A driver will be here soon. I am going to Donetsk for a very important meeting.”

“You can’t leave!” His command of English seemed to be improving. “I will not arrest you. You must come and meet the Kapitan and the rest of the team. I want them to meet you, Johnny B. Goode! You are good man, not like the others.”

Running out of ideas, I pulled out two 500 Gryvnia notes from my wallet. Feigning concern, I looked into his bloodshot eyes and said, “Vitaly, I am so sorry. They are waiting for me in Donetsk. But please. Take this and buy vodka for the Kapitan and the boys in the Maidan. I want you to stay warm in the Maidan. To protect the citizens.” I lifted my glass and proclaimed, “Slava Ukraini!”

“Slava!” he replied. And we toasted.

And then it began.

“Johnny? I know your country.”

“Have you been there?”

“Nyet. But I know we need only 20 kiloton in right displacement and position to destroy New York.”

And then he rattled off statistics.

“South Dakota, 75 varhead.”

“Montana, 150 varhead.”

“Vyoming, 100 varhead.”

“Nevada? Many. MANY varhead there.”

“Colorado, Texas — go, go, Johnny B. Goode!”

He cackled as he reached for the bottle.

“I was Soviet Naval Intelligence. I know your country, Johnny B. Goode!”

From the square came “The Final Countdown,” a 1986 hit by the Swedish metal band Europe. It was all too funny. Too surreal. The vodka was getting to me. I was laughing but I was horrified, listening in disbelief to Vitaly dutifully recite his laundry list of America’s nuclear arsenal from the mid-1980s, like the good intelligence officer he had been. As a Ukrainian, he had probably been stationed with the Black Sea fleet, perhaps in Crimea, which would soon be Russian again. I was listening to a horrific recounting of history first hand, from the source.

Sunlight began streaming through the large café windows, revealing the swollen bags under his eyes, a bloated nose, the red streaks of burst capillaries across his face. I suppose he thought he was still guarding the motherland as he was freezing his ass off and slowly drinking himself to death in the Maidan with his fellow “policemen,” albeit against old enemies in new clothing. Through his drunken haze he may have even suspected that I was one of them. I didn’t blame him. I had seen a lot of unfamiliar faces walking around the Maidan that particular week in Kyiv. Some of them not typically Slavic — men with angular bone structures and wheat colored hair. These were definitely outsiders. Everything from their looks and clothing to their body language was different. And as they loitered in the Maidan, near the protestors, they seemed to be waiting in anticipation. Waiting for something. Some of them, with their quarterback frames and open pea coats, looked like American college kids out of a Hollister ad. Others were short, stocky and dark haired. Could they have been U.S. or NATO? Or Russian special forces? Who the hell knows? Maybe all three…

“The Final Countown” reached its climax. Vitaly went quiet. The vodka had won. Like a vampire, he seemed to lose his strength as it grew lighter outside. A new day was starting. People walked to their offices at a commuting pace. A few entered the café. The waitress seemed relieved to have more people there, relaxing back into her look of abject boredom. The music returned to the EDM playlist and I saw headlights flash outside the café. My ride.

I looked at Vitaly, now staring off into space, and I said, “Dasfidanya, Vitaly. Slava Ukraini!”

I put out my hand. He weakly took it in his, a calloused sledgehammer of a hand barely able to wrap its swollen fingers around my palm, giving me a look of drunken resignation, as if he was watching one more enemy agent slip away. I smiled, shrugged, and left.

A few hours later I was in Donetsk, unaware that it would be my last visit there. Neither I nor my hosts could have foreseen that the Maidan protests would continue into the following months and eventually turn into violent demonstrations that would result in the death of over one hundred Ukrainian civilians at the hands of snipers whose provenance is still a mystery.

These events that became known as the “Euromaidan” demonstrations would eventually result in a war the following year that would set the Donbass region alight. Donetsk itself would be overrun and turned into a battlefield. The new, state-of-the-art Donetsk airport, built specifically for the European Cup, which I had flown in and out of, would be utterly destroyed. A civilian airliner would be blown out of the sky. Tens of thousands of people would be displaced. Thousands more would be killed. A small part of this new cold war would turn temporarily hot and then settle into a “frozen conflict,” to make certain that Ukraine was once again wrested from the west and put firmly back into the “neutral” column.

From what I later learned, that building I had designed and visited in Donetsk would be annexed by Russian-backed forces and used as some kind of headquarters.

Not my clients, not Vitaly, nor I, would ever fully know the forces behind these events. Because most of us mere mortals who live in a first world cocoon comprised of material consumption and media fairytales are largely unaware of the daily machinations by men behind closed and guarded doors, men most of us have never heard of, who drive large scale violence and human suffering around the world for their own self-interest.

Yet on that very cold November morning in 2013, when I found myself in a country that embodied the very idea of a “frontier” in every nuanced sense of the word, away from New York and its overbearing and playacting bosses or demanding employees, away from the comfort and routine of cushy offices, the egos of coworkers, and the banter over lunch about low-carb diets and delayed commuter trains, I was afforded a direct view into a very cynical and deadly world, usually relegated to the corner of my eye when I happen to pass a TV playing the evening news. I encountered one of its pawns, and I witnessed firsthand, yet another calm spiraling into yet another storm that I’d only read about in history books.

That world knows no daylight, and is full of vampires. And I suspect “The Final Countdown” is always playing in the background.

NOTE: Photograph taken by the Author, from his apartment balcony in November 2013.