• In the Age of Political Thugs

    Sonya Bilocerkowycz, from Ukraine to Putin to Trump and Back Again

    This one is red, communist red, the color of tomato paste and new cars. South Dakota has been easily carried by the Republicans in every election since 2000, when the color scheme of conservative “red” states and liberal “blue” states was cemented in our national consciousness. Thirteen years later, my mother, two sisters, and I are in South Dakota drinking red wine at an Italian restaurant named for a painter.

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    Botticelli’s Ristorante is fancy by South Dakota standards ($16 linguine). Botticelli’s is where we celebrate birthdays and bring out-of-town guests and where, tonight, the women of my family are having one last meal before parting ways for the school year. It is the summer of 2013, and soon I will fly to Ukraine to teach at a university in one of the country’s western oblasts.

    We are drinking wine in a red state, in our usual spot, but tonight there are bodyguards at the door of our small restaurant. Nearby, there is a long table of men wearing Polo shirts, and Speaker of the House John Boehner is sitting at its head. He alternates between Seafood Capellini fork twirls and smoke breaks. Every 15 minutes John Boehner slips past our four-top and out to the dumpster alley with one of his hulking guards. Clams, Chianti, Lucky Strike. I am in awe of his tan. This man is aggressively tan. His skin, the color of afternoon tee times, his eyes, a blue I only know from cruise ship commercials.

    On the sixth or seventh brush by our table, John Boehner stops and turns on unsteady feet toward my mother, the matriarch. I just can’t help but say what a fine group of ladies you have here. He stretches out a hand to shake, his breath boozy, but we, too, have been sharing a bottle of red and are giddy at the sight of celebrity in South Dakota.

    There have never been guards at the door of our small restaurant before. He looks longest at my youngest sister (19 years old), the one with blue eyes to rival his own. John Boehner is drunk in a red state and very good at feigning interest: So, what do all you lovely ladies do? My sisters politely mention their colleges, and he seems to approve. When I tell him I’m moving to Ukraine in a few days, his cheeks drop, as if just remembering that back home in Ohio, the stove was left on.

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    John Boehner is caught off-guard, but he barely misses a beat. Their president’s a thug, he says, matter-of-factly. I bristle at the word. Did he just say that? It is a loaded word and a loaded thing to say—as in, John Boehner must be loaded. I gawk at his tan, his skin the color of bronze money.

    I know, I say quickly, because I don’t want this man I don’t know to think I don’t know something.

    Putin’s a thug, too, he continues. All those guys are.

    I know, I say again, though I’m not sure I do.

    John Boehner glances past me, toward the Birth of Venus or the gondola scene or whatever is painted on the wall. His cruise-ship eyes glint with some faraway concern. Glassware pings in the background. I’m sorry to say we’ve really let our interests go in the region, he mumbles, brushing against our table on his way back to the alley.

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    I had lived through a revolution and a war, and I could now say, with academic smugness, that yes, Vladimir Putin is a thug.

    Seven months later there is the revolution, the sniper fire, the hundred dead. Yanukovych absconds and Putin sends his little green men to annex Crimea. The revolutionary chaos serves as perfect pretext for an illegal invasion. American politicians condemn Putin’s land-grab, and the Kremlin responds to sanctions with sanctions of its own. Speaker of the House John Boehner is barred from entering the Russian Federation. Proud to be included on a list of those willing to stand up to Putin’s aggression, he tweets, while John McCain jokes about not being able to summer in Siberia, so disappointed.

    From my bedroom in Ukraine, I scroll John Boehner’s Twitter account and remember the restaurant. I hear him again, Putin’s aggression tucked as neatly as a shirt collar over that other uglier word. Underneath, it shrieks like a mean sunburn. John Boehner is lost at sea in a red state, he has forgotten about the stove, he looks straight through me toward the Venus on the wall.

    Botticelli’s painted woman has legs the color of uncooked noodles and she is standing crescent-shaped on top of a scallop shell. But experts say that her posture is anatomically impossible. She could never stand like that in real life, they say. Up there, tottering on the lip of a seashell, she is impossible.


    After the revolution and the war, I moved to Ohio. This was like coming home, though it didn’t quite feel that way. In 1988, three years before the fall of the USSR, I was born in an Ohio hospital, just 40 minutes up the road from where John Boehner and his 11 siblings grew up. I was only there for a year before my parents got divorced and my mother took me to South Dakota, the land of ponderosa pines and chokecherries.

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    After Ukraine, I moved back to Ohio to attend graduate school. I had lived through a revolution and a war, and I could now say, with academic smugness, that yes, Vladimir Putin is a thug. The evidence was everywhere.

    I woke up one Ohio morning to the news that a prominent member of the Russian political opposition, Boris Nemtsov, had been assassinated in the night. Nemtsov had a long history of activism: protesting the use of nuclear power after Chernobyl, the war in Chechnya, and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But tonight—this night—he was not protesting, just strolling arm-in-arm with his Ukrainian girlfriend across Moscow’s most picturesque bridge. (Is a bridge also a battlefield?) The couple was strolling in the heart of the city, shadowed by the state’s red towers, when—six shots, four hits, one to the heart. A drive-by and a standard-issue Makarov pistol. Killer unknown.

    When the bullet struck Nemtsov’s heart, you could practically throw a stone at the Kremlin, which is like keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. When the bullet struck, most of the closed circuit cameras in the area were shut down for maintenance. Only one grainy piece of footage has been released, and at the very moment of impact, a city snowplow drives in front of the lens. There is a black market for dead dissenters.

    The murder happened two days before a planned protest against the Russian war in Ukraine was to be held; Nemtsov was one of its organizers. He now lays buried in the dirt at Troyekurovskoye Cemetery, not far from Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Indeed, the evidence is everywhere, I think. It is the rot they walk on.

    In Ohio I also started watching the American television show House of Cards, about a pair of married politicians, Claire and Francis Underwood, and their ability to manipulate everyone and everything around them. Played by Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey, the Underwoods hold a simple ethic: power above all.

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    The couple’s political gains are predicated upon a dizzying arrangement of lies, bribes, and threats, and though it may be tempting to read the series as a grand analogy for the Bushes, the Clintons, or the Trumps, Francis and Claire seem rather to spotlight the most vile qualities our imaginations can conjure up for each of those powerful pairs. (These days, I am disturbed, too, at just how good Kevin Spacey was at channeling a predatory character.) Without spoiling the plot, it should surprise no one that their rule requires and justifies violence. There is much blood on the Underwoods’ hands. It is a House of Rot.

    By Season 3, the rotten core of the Underwood administration feels so certain to me that I am startled by the introduction of Viktor Petrov, the President of Russia and a barely veiled Vladimir Putin character. Like Putin, the fictional Petrov served abroad as a KGB agent prior to becoming president, and his rule is a brutal reflection of it. The episode “Chapter 29” has guest appearances by Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, the real-life women of Pussy Riot. Their presence acts as a sort of shorthand, reminding viewers of real-life human rights abuses in Putin’s Russia.

    Played by Lars Mikkelson, Viktor Petrov is perfectly gross. He is gross enough to plant an unwanted kiss on Claire Underwood’s mouth in front of her husband and a room full of dignitaries during a state dinner. It is sexual assault and a political power play rolled into one. Petrov’s transgression feels so vile and Claire’s response so in line with what our culture demands of victims: quiet, even-tempered reproach, not a shard of selfpity, all while wearing a very flattering dress.

    Hers is, of course, an impossible position. In that moment, I find myself sympathizing wholly and completely with the Underwoods. In that moment, I love Claire.

    Toward the end of the episode, Francis and Claire are chatting before bed and she airs her concerns about an alliance with President Petrov. Francis is frustrated at the prospect of his policy plans falling through and moves to exit the darkened bedroom. But before Francis can close the doors behind him, Claire gets the final word on Petrov.

    Francis, he’s a thug, she says. Smart, but he’s still a thug. Don’t cower to him. In that moment, I love Claire and do not remember the rot at all.


    It is early October in Ohio, the only season when the sky here looks like an ocean, endless, drowning blue. Most other months, it is cloudy.

    What do you want to do for your birthday? my new boyfriend asks. His name is Christopher and he is like that: the kind of man who will carry a child across a river. The kind of man who instinctively knows when there’s a child who needs carrying. He is from Ohio and very patient when I complain about how much I hate the weather here.

    I have not thought much about my birthday this year, except for the fact that it is also a death day. On October 7th, 2006, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya returned to her Moscow apartment building after grocery shopping. She stepped into the elevator, and behind her a man dressed in black. (Is an elevator also a war?) Four shots, one to the head, and a standard-issue Makarov pistol. The assassin left her crumpled on the ground like a pile of dead, wet leaves, a heap of rotten leaves.

    I recall my students and coworkers in Ukraine, how during the winter revolution, they took their bodies to the center of the capital.

    Anna was a critic of the Kremlin’s war in Chechnya. It is an old story. (In fact, Boris Nemtsov attended Anna’s funeral, accompanying her body toward its final dirt at Troyekurovskoye, not knowing—though, perhaps, also knowing—that soon it would be his dirt as well.) This year, October 7th, 2016, is the tenth anniversary of her murder.

    I have not thought about my birthday, but I have been thinking a lot about Anna. I have been reading her books and articles about the Russian government’s violence in Chechnya, and I pretend we are having conversations, like an interview in reverse:

    What did you see in Chechnya?
    A young woman called Sina is having a seizure.
    What happened?
    Mass poisonings at schools in the Shelkovsk region.
    How is she doing?
    Her brother unclenches her teeth with a spoon.
    And now?
    The girl is now bent in an impossible arch, her heels touching the back of her head.

    When I read Anna’s words, I cry. I begin to think that my birthday only matters because it leaves me feeling convicted. She is a much better writer than I could ever hope to be. She is dead, and I am alive.

    I want to do something for Anna, I tell Chris. That’s what I want this year.


    It is early October 2016 and we cannot turn off our news feeds. The first woman and the first reality TV star are running against each other for president of the United States. It is spectacle like I have never seen. On my birthday, the Washington Post will release a recording of presidential candidate Donald Trump in a private conversation. I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her, he says. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything. Surely, I think, anyone who cares about the wellbeing of women cannot support this man.

    Earlier in the campaign, a name I recognized from the river emerged once again: Paul Manafort. Trump hired Manafort in March to manage the convention and later promoted him to campaign chairman. The man who had advised Yanukovych through years of bumbling despotism—through the betrayal at Vilnius, through the switched bullet barrels, the sniper fire, the hundred dead on Maidan—was now advising the Republican presidential nominee.

    When news of Manafort’s vast sums of laundered Ukrainian income broke in August, Manafort officially resigned from Trump’s campaign, though his resignation does little to ease my concern about his involvement in the first place. Once drawn, I cannot shake the parallel between Yanukovych and Trump.

    I am disturbed, too, at the things Trump says about Vladimir Putin, which do not reflect what seems to be the official party stance on the Russian president’s thuggery. Trump says that Putin is doing a great job and that in terms of leadership he is getting an ‘A.’ He shrugs off accusations that Putin is responsible for the murder of journalists. Have you been able to prove that? Do you know the names of the reporters that he’s killed?

    He also vacillates wildly on the very state of their relationship, saying nine times publicly that he and Putin have met or spoken (that, in fact, they got along great!), and later denying any contact was made. I have never met Putin . . . I don’t know who Putin is.

    These facts terrify me. I feel as if I am looking backward and forward at once, as if history is on loop. I recall my students and coworkers in Ukraine, how during the winter revolution, they took their bodies to the center of the capital. They took their down feather coats and their scarves and their bodies, and this was meaningful—their bodies at the heart of the city. In response, the Ukrainian president fled in his helicopter. He ran away to Russia.

    I am angry that Anna is dead, and I am angry that Trump is a candidate, and I am angry that Vladimir Putin and I share a birthday: October 7th. I ask Chris if we can protest in downtown Columbus, Ohio, on that day, if we can make some sort of small demonstration to tell people about Anna Politkovskaya because isn’t it a shame that people don’t know her? Plus this is a swing state! Maybe we can reason with them . . . It is an odd birthday request, but Chris doesn’t act like it. He returns from a nearby print shop with a picket sign of Anna Politkovskaya’s face and another of Putin holding a baby Trump, made in the style of a classic Soviet propaganda poster originally featuring Joseph Stalin. The flag baby Trump waves is communist red, the color of new cars, and the background is blue as a river.


    Excerpt from Sonya Bilocerkowycz’s On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine, used by permission of Mad Creek Books, an imprint of The Ohio State University Press.

    Sonya Bilocerkowycz
    Sonya Bilocerkowycz
    Sonya Bilocerkowycz is the author of On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine (2019) and a 2022 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow.

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