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29 December, 2014

Donetsk and Phantoms of Capitalism

People never really liked them. They would call them “capitalists” and “oligarchs” even if these “capitalists” owned no more than a chain of three stores or a small confectionary

People did not call them that out of envy, although the feeling was partly present too. They just didn’t trust these “capitalists”. Paradoxically, they had nothing in common with the nouveau riche who showed off their clout with expensive cars, covered their weakness with gloomy and muscular guards, and recovered their long-gone chances with young wives, happily living in the “power brings money” paradigm. This money came easily from cozy top offices and embezzled budgets, so it could be wasted as remorselessly.

The “capitalists” were different. Their money was earned with sweat and blood. They would never waste a penny. One factory owner, rumors had it, bought his first foreign-made car just two years ago. And he got a used one.

Another guy, the owner of a company with several hundreds of trucks, travels to work by public transport and shops at discount stores.

“You’d have to design a sophisticated scheme to talk them into buying a new apartment or building a house, and work on it for a year or two,” their wives lament.

These people never seemed warm, open and easy-going. Suspicious, laconic, too rational, very calm and cold as ice even when they are mad with rage. “You can’t wrench your heart on everything, it will fail at some point if you do. Don’t react to stress. Just learn to live without feeling pain. No pain at all… But you know, I’ve just realized recently that it’s all intertwined. Once you lose the ability to feel pain, you lose the ability to feel joy too,” one says.

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They seemed terrible, especially against the backdrop of officials who gained windfall profits easily and splurged on anything that shined, shuffled and moved. Boring, dull and gloomy, they actually studied how their business works: how greenhouses are built and tomatoes raised. How warm the greenhouse should be to grow arugula. What covers the floors in gyms. Is this some special material or can something cheaper be used. How the weight machines work with the body. How the equipment producing food film is designed. Where the stoves for bricks are sold and can they build one on their own.

Some had university degrees in engineering, physics or linguistics. Some dropped out of school after eight years. Some were brilliant intellectuals in high schools, and others could hardly utter two words in a sentence.

What they all knew was every detail of their business – from the smallest screws to the quality of paint on the office walls, from markers of commodity exchanges to long-term forecasts for interest rate fluctuations. They could speak of their dairy, paper, cucumbers, trucks, a restaurant or houses for hours. They thought of all this 24/7. They knew the names of the chef, head of the shift and the storekeeper, their characters, drinking problems, weddings and divorces. This was not an emotional bond, but pragmatic reasoning. Their profits depended on the quality of their employees’ work.

Money… The “capitalists” did not spend it: they invested it into business development. “Why do you need this? Why don’t you stop?” their friends wondered. How could they stop when they were doing the business of their life?

Business. Company. They would not say this proudly, even when they were alone. Yet, they truly enjoyed the growth and development of their cause.

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They were less interested in money. Starting with primitive motivations, such as getting out of poverty, making life easier for the children, leaving misery behind, the “capitalists” fell in love with their cause step by step. The joy of what they have done, built, produced and accumulated, transformed them into sexy men with shiny eyes from the dull and gloomy husbands. The wives could not get this. The employees often hated them for it, for their fault-finding, scrutiny, profound knowledge of all processes, and greediness. It was next to impossible to persuade such a boss to raise one’s salary.

Greediness would often win. Plenty of unemployed workforce allowed them to get rid of capricious employees quickly. When they dealt with unique professionals, however, they would pay and forgive anything.

 A few words on ethics

These Donetsk “capitalists” called a spade a spade. “Prove that you’re priceless, then ask for a salary,” they would say. This was painful to hear because we all think we are priceless. But this was sobering, too, motivating some to develop and others to dream of revenge, terrible and inevitable, that would make the “capitalists” lose everything. Who knew that it would come true one day?

Our businessmen were never brave or revolutionary, not in life at least. Conservative, prone to compromise and quietness that the money loves. They did not protest when they faced pressure and agreed to integrate “supervisors” first, and then representatives of the authorities into their management boards. They were not rebels. But they did endure everything toothlessly, too.

Their rule was to be friends with the useful people. This friendship was as distanced and restrained as possible. They would never get too close because it was not pragmatic and too expensive to be friends with top officials. That friendship required extra spending on entertainment and adventures for the horde of civil servants. The “capitalists” preferred small dozes. Although giving away a share of your business can hardly be considered a small doze.  

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They chose to simply pay if they had a choice between bribes and friendship. The smiles, handshakes and parties for the children did not make the “capitalists” any closer or friendlier to those from top offices.

“When he says that he’s a businessman and goes to work as an official, what kind of a businessman is he?” they thought. “If you can steal more at a government office than what you can earn from your business, we are doomed as society and country,” was their verdict. They dressed, ate and entertained themselves modestly. They wanted to stand out through this manifested difference that challenged the extravagance of the local “aristocrats”.

Time is money. Therefore, they did not accept being late to a meeting and waiting for someone, wasting time on reading fiction – only special books, sitting at restaurants, traveling and staying at five-star hotels (they preferred affordable hotels on business trips). They planned, calculated and booked airplane tickets six months in advance.  They would spend their vacations in places from which they could fly back whenever necessary. Turkey, Bulgaria, Crimea, Sloviansk, Berdyansk. Nothing too exotic or extravagant. They dictated the pace of the city. Their workday started at 8 a.m. for years, or at 9 a.m. at the latest. They would evaluate other cities by how hard-working those were. “They wake up too late there, and sleep too long here. The Germans and Chinese are the right people,” they would say.

Arrogant? No, pragmatic. That’s why Saturdays were family days but not days off. They worked until 3 p.m., then went home. On Sundays, they would drop by, check the production, control a plant or a restaurant, and go on with the day.

Their children are their top treasure. Therefore, they send them to the best theaters, ballet classes and opera schools, take them to premiers and exhibitions, pay for their football classes and educate them in schools in Ukrainian. English is a must. German, Chinese and Spanish – a bonus. Plus, regular sports for the child and himself. A sound mind in a sound body. They need strength, plenty of it.

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When their children grow up, they integrate them into work as couriers, copy typists, lab assistants, buyers of fertilizers, dishwashers and accountants. This starts on summer and winter breaks, then after university classes. They believe that the children should learn business at home, not abroad. International experience is helpful, of course, but only as a bonus.
Are they patriots? They wouldn’t say that of themselves. They would probably not think of themselves as patriots, too. They insist on being exclusively pragmatic. In practice, however, they do prove to be patriotic.

Where are they now?

They were the first robbed. The Family came and took away their business. It offered USD 1mn for the business that was worth USD 10mn. When the “capitalists” resisted, it would put them in jail and take the business for free. Some are still behind bars. Some are free – they have paid to get out, and headed to the Maidan immediately. Dull, boring, pragmatic and greedy, they lost the business of their life and went out to fight for it. Some still do. As volunteers on the frontline. They bought all the necessary equipment and weapons for their own money.  

Some took it to the streets in March and April in Eastern Ukraine, to rally in support of Ukraine’s unity. Small and medium businesses were the first to support the army. Anonymously, quietly, and systemically.

When their city was occupied, many survived tortures in the basements of the modern-day equivalent of NKVD. Some are still are in captivity. Their one-time employees who had been cherishing dreams of revenge for years broke into their houses and robbed them, humiliating their ex-bosses whom they could now make spit blood and beg for mercy, and get a ransom.

They left their city after the tortures in the basements. They left to forget and never return to the city they used to love, that eventually betrayed them.

Some left before the occupiers could take them to the torture basements. They have the capital and skills, so they can start it all from a blank page. Their children are their biggest treasure, so they should be learning to write and read, not fall on the ground covering their heads when the bomb is falling.
Some took their families elsewhere and stayed in the occupied territory. Some have dozens of employees, others have hundreds. They are responsible for these people. They are not going to raise their salaries, but they will still pay them. And there are old, weak and lonely people left in the city for whom they are now responsible, too.

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Not a single “capitalist” has joined the DNR puppets. They do not register their businesses anew in the occupied territory. Paying to the regime’s supervisors is one thing. Registering a business in an economic wasteland, a concentration camp whose leaders will soon find themselves at the Hague court is not pragmatic. They will rather pay their taxes to Ukraine. They will also donate to charity in the city and the army around it. Quietly and consistently.

Life goes on

Sometimes one of them joins us, volunteers. He scrutinizes the boxes, checks the equipment according to the list. He calculates something in his mind and smiles happily. “Money must be respected”.
He gets out of his car at the checkpoint of the Ukrainian army, greets the soldiers and says quietly: “Guys, don’t leave us. Don’t leave us, I beg you.”

“Of course, we won’t, grandpa!”

Grandpa is not even fifty yet.
Time stops in an occupied zone, but people age rapidly. He smiles and swallows a tear. The soldiers see it. “Don’t go back there, will you? To hell with it. What if someone reports on you? They will torture you to death,” they tell him.

“No way! I can’t leave it all. I still have things to do there. Gotta knock the Lenin down!”
They embrace him as if it is for the last time and can’t hold back tears. The tears don’t pour down the face, just swell in the eyes. Embarrassed, he turns away.
“See, you can feel pain already,” I say.
“Do you think I’ll be able to feel joy again, too?”
I think he will. He will be able to feel everything again. 


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