Ukraine Winter

Ukraine: Buried By History, Lost In Translation

The competing sides, both globally and regionally, will never see Ukraine's reality the same way, so deep are the historical and cultural divides. Analysis from Kiev.

Kiev's Maidan Square on Feb. 24, 2014
Kiev's Maidan Square on Feb. 24, 2014
Piotr Smolar

KIEV — The undeniable truth about the existential crisis unfolding in Ukraine is that the two sides are unlikely ever to share the same reality, the same language. This is just as true for the internal sides between the western and eastern regions of Ukraine as it is for the global sides between the Western world and Russia, which are both fighting for influence in a country that has too long been a mere buffer zone.

Inside Ukraine, there are two opposing narratives, neither of which can be dismissed. First, there are the people of the Maidan protests, united around the memory of the “Celestial Hundred” martyrs, as they call the dissidents who were killed by police in Kiev. They believe they have a moral right, which came at a high cost, to participate in the country’s future.

The Maidan revolutionaries believe their uprising must bring about a cleansing among the administration and the elites, that there should be a clean break from a corrupt political system based on impunity and selective justice, evils that also existed during the 2004 Orange Revolution, but that were badly exacerbated by President Viktor Yanukovych and his predator clan.

Maidan is deeply attached to national sovereignty, and it fought against a regime, not for Europe. Still, for many being part of the European Union would represent a path to national emancipation, freedom from Ukraine’s Russian neighbor, and a way to push forward reforms that have been postponed for too long.

Maidan has a tendency to despise the “genetic code” of eastern Ukrainians, to borrow a popular term among them. They think of these people as immature, manipulated by Moscow, and intoxicated by local and Russian television networks.

This disdain can sometimes be found among the opposition leaders now in power. And it is depressing to realize that not one of them is capable of taking the high road and calling for the reconciliation of the two Ukraines: the one before and the one after Maidan.

The simplified presentation of Ukraine as two geographical blocs is partly true, but it also omits important elements and therefore fails to convey the complexity of Ukrainian society. Debates about the risk of separatism are based on the false assumption that people from the East prefer independence or Russia to their own country.

But we must accept that their fears of a cultural annexation to the nationalists in the West and of the loss of their history are real. That said, most of them still think of themselves as Ukrainian, in their own way. Would we ask a Texas conservative and a student from New York to feel American in the exact same way?

Some might find it inappropriate to keep statues of Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in this part of the country. And yet they are part of the urban landscape. Their toppling at the hands of people considered to be hostile is perceived as an act of aggression. Similarly, the Ukrainian Parliament’s decision after Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster to scrap a law that gave foreign languages a regional status sent a disastrous signal at a time when national unity should have been the golden thread in Kiev. They were the mother tongue of at least 10% of the population. Even though interim President Oleksandr Turchynov vetoed the bill, the damage was done.

Paranoia is poison

Another lack of understanding is dividing the Western world and Russia. Moscow feels it was duped on several occasions by the West’s double dealing and lies. These crises were about principles of auto-determination, interference and sovereignty. Of course, Kosovo in 1999 is one of them, and it served as an excuse for Russia to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two separatist Georgian provinces. The conflicts in Iraq, seen by Moscow as an “imperialistic American war,” and Libya complete the list. In Libya, Russia had not agreed to topple Muammar Gaddafi but only to protect the population of Benghazi.

Russian diplomacy learned its lesson: no more gratuitous and friendly gestures towards the West. Besides, “colored revolutions” are Moscow’s obsessions. The political elite is convinced that these uprisings were in fact orchestrated by “foreign agents” such as the CIA, the U.S. Department of State, multi-billionaire George Soros or those pesky Europeans and their anthem on the rights of rights.

For Moscow, these rights are like Play-Doh, shaped to best suit the circumstances. They are waved when Russia claims to come to the rescue of the Russians and Russian-speaking citizens of Crimea. They never existed in Chechnya. They were forgotten in the case of Syria, where the evidence of massacres committed by President Bashar al-Assad's regime was overlooked.

Vladimir Putin’s September 2013 op-ed published in The New York Times, in which he lectured the United States about avoiding a military intervention in Syria, makes for head-spinning reading. “No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage,” the Russian President wrote. “This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.”

The consequence of this double-speak is serious, even if the darkest hypothesis — that of open war and a divided Ukraine — doesn’t come true. Even as they develop a very pragmatic analysis of the forces at play in the current crisis (a very weak Ukrainian power, the United States weakened by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a powerless European Union in terms of defense), Russian leaders are retreating in a high tower. They are isolating themselves in a paranoia that eventually ends up dooming any regime, even as they claim to be an alternative to a degenerate Western world.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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