With one 11-story building to its name, the People’s Republic of Donetsk is the smallest country in the world. It must also be the most bureaucratic.
When I first arrived in Donetsk (the city) a Russian journalist who has been stuck covering this place since May 9 advised me and my photographer Max Avdeev to go and get accredited with Donetsk (the people’s republic). The PRD has been in existence for just over a month and is fighting for its survival. But it is also rigorously accrediting journalists.
To get into the country—which is basically just the seized Soviet-era building that once housed the Donetsk city administration—Max and I had to get through a series of checkpoints set up in the adjacent square, now piled high with tires, barbed wire, and signs decrying fascism, Kiev, America, the E.U., and, weirdly, Poland. At each of the three checkpoints, Max showed his Russian press card and I showed my New Republic business card to an endless series of sun-burned, black-fingernailed men in Adidas track pants.
I should’ve known how things were going to go given that the stairwell of the Republic is plastered with signs cautioning people not to walk around, in any circumstance, without a propusk, which is basically an adult hall pass required pretty much anywhere where the Soviet Union ever had any presence. People passing us on the stairwell all had them, either pinned to their breasts or dangling from their necks on lanyards. We did not.
At the door to the fifth floor, where the press center is located, we had to show ID again to an 18-year-old in fatigues who sat sprawled on a black leather office chair watching what looked like a Russian remake of “Married With Children.” Like everyone else, he tried to find a reason to give us a hard time about the authenticity of our papers, but eventually let us through to see Claudia, who, we were told, was in charge of the press center.
In the press center, we found four gray, doughy men in post-Soviet polyester and a mint-green leather sectional, but no Claudia. In a minute, she blew in, lanyard with propusk around her neck, juggling cell phones and a note book, and looking every bit the busy, important press secretary of a busy and important country.
“Sergei will do it,” she said and whirled out the door.
Sergei, a 28-year-old itinerant IT worker with bare feet, looked at Max’s Russian press card and my business card. The latter he found puzzling.
“Where’s the stamp?” he asked, turning it over.
I explained there’s no stamp.
“Do you have an official letter from your boss with all your information?”
“You need an official letter detailing the purpose of your visit.”
I didn’t have one, I said.
“I can’t accredit you without a letter.”
I told him I could get one in electronic format.
“It needs a stamp,” he told me.
American editors don’t have stamps, Max explained.
While I thought of how to get around this, Sergei looked at Max’s Russian press card, which, of course, had a stamp, and began to process his accreditation request. One man in a pink shirt sat smoking on the leather couch. Another listened to music and made a bracelet out of paper clips. Another, tubbier and sweatier than the rest, periodically read out a headline from his computer. Max and I waited.
At that point Claudia burst into the room again. Sergei asked her what to do about me.
“No, a letter isn’t good enough anymore. It was fine last week, but the guys on the tenth floor”—the security team’s floor, which is known as the NKVD—“said you have to have a press card.”
“I don’t have a press card,” I said. “Is there any way around it?”
“No, only a press card. Those are the rules. I mean, I could write out apropusk for you but the guys on the tenth floor won’t stamp it and I’ll get in huge trouble,” Claudia huffed. “I’m sorry, those are the rules.” She shook her head as if to indicate that the rules were paramount and the punishment severe and swift, and that there was nothing that she, a mortal woman, could do about any of it.
When she left, I appealed again to Sergei, who was similarly prostrate before the rules, similarly scared of being punished (by Claudia). At this point Max, a Russian, had an idea.
“But look, she has all these visas in her passport issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry that say she is a journalist.”
“I don’t know. Let me call.”
When he got off the phone, he said, “You have to ask the guys up on the tenth floor.” We had to go up there anyway to get an official stamp on Max’s accreditation.
“So can you guys help put us in touch with some of the heads of the People’s Republic?” Max asked. “We just wanted to talk to some people and take some portraits.”
Sergei leaned back in his ratty office chair and shook his head. “Oh, no, no, no. We don’t have time for that.”
“You’re journalists,” said the man with the paper clip bracelet. “We won’t go catching your fish for you.”
Max tried to ask the same thing of a young woman who had just rushed in, a propusk pinned to her chest. She had just been named a deputy press secretary.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s talk the day after tomorrow after I know what powers I have and what powers I don’t have.”
On the tenth floor, we were greeted by a gang of hoodlums in track pants and beat up pointy leather shoes. One of them lazily pounded a black truncheon into black biker gloves. Another had one propped behind his neck. One young man in a blue t-shirt with ears like an Indian elephant had a Kalashnikov slung across his stomach.
“We need our accreditation stamped,” Max said.
We were told to wait for Yulia and sat around chatting to the hoodlums, who found a Russian and American a curious sight.
“Did you hear that Obama ran away?” said a man with a buzzcut, a blue tooth, and the eyes of a man who knows his way around the city’s alleys.
“What?” I said.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “He fled the White House and took a helicopter to his ranch in Texas.”
“You haven’t heard?”
“And you call yourself a journalist,” he smirked. “You don’t even know anything.”
People kept arriving and flashing their propuski.
Yulia, a tall woman in a short black dress and tall black heels, came out. It was unclear who she was—the Republic’s chief press secretary?—but she wasn’t sure she could stamp Max’s accreditation without the permission of her boss, Alexander Sergeevich. She too feared the possibility of punishment.
We waited for Alexander Sergeevich.
When he came out to talk to us, he wasn’t sure about Max either. Alexander Sergeevich, who, by his accent and appearance, was clearly not from Donetsk but from Russia, lay into Max. He demanded to see his boarding pass stubs, the stamps in his passport showing when and where he had entered Ukraine. He scrutinized his Russian press card, issued by the online Russian publication Slon.
“What is Slon?”
“It’s an online publication.”
“Where is Slon?”
“Where is Slon registered?”
“What is the address of the site where Slon, Incorporated is registered?”
“What about you?” he turned to me, and I showed him my passport and all its Russian press visas.
“You were at the Olympics?” he said, giving me a terrifying look.
“Whom did you root for?”
“Russia and the U.S.,” I lied.
“Good answer,” he said. “Very diplomatic. Okay. We’ll accredit you.”
Back down to the press center on the fifth floor.
“No one told me anything,” Sergei said when we told him that the tenth floor had given its blessing.
He called the tenth floor, which proved unhelpful.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. He was off to the tenth floor.
The round, sweaty man, whose name turned out to be Vasily, sat down next to us.
“You’re from America?”
“Is it true that, in America, the people who lost their houses in the housing crisis live in tents outside the cities?”
“Have you been to Detroit?”
“Is it true that Detroit is totally destroyed?”
“I don’t think it’s doing too well, no…”
“Have you ever been to Las Vegas?”
His next question was interrupted by Sergei, who had gotten permission on the tenth floor.
“Okay,” he said, “give me your card.” He began to process my accreditation request.
“I like America,” Vasily said. “It’s the biggest self-proclaimed country in the world. And you know how to raise good patriots. Americans are very patriotic.”
Journalists from the Economist and Le Figaro arrived and deferentially asked about the accreditation process. They too were told to wait. The Frenchman plunked down on the sectional, hung a cigar from his lip and lit it. The Brit bowed out, vowing to return later.
“All done,” Sergei said, finally taking out the paper from the grimy printer. He had me sign it and sent me up to the tenth floor, where Max and I waited again with the hoodlums. As we waited for our stamp, the door flung open and a man in a blue suit ran past us, followed by a wave of people, mostly men, weapons drawn and huffing after the long trek up the Republic’s stairs. The hoodlums started to yell at them to leave their weapons at the desk, and the men started to yell something else at the hoodlums. I don’t remember who yelled what; I was totally frozen in the presence of more weaponry than I’d ever seen in my life.
When everyone was patted down, it became clear that the man in the blue suit was Denis Pushilin, the head of the council of the Donetsk People’s Republic and once the local representative of MMM, Russia’s biggest pyramid scheme for the people. Everyone else was his security.
We went back to waiting. Yulia came out, skeptically examined the accreditation paper from the fifth floor, and disappeared with it. The main thug, a red head with a long, naughty face challenged Max when he said we had just flown into Donetsk that morning.
“You just said you had taken the train!”
“Yeah, your story doesn’t add up!” another hoodlum yelled.
“We flew, we flew,” I said. “Didn’t you see him showing Alexander Sergeevich his boarding pass stubs?”
“Let me see your accreditation,” the redhead demanded.
Max turned it over. The redhead examined it carefully.
“Aha!” he shouted. “Why isn’t this field filled in? You didn’t fill this out! Your accreditation is invalid!”
Max and I looked at each other, helpless, but Yulia’s return saved us. She had stamped my accreditation and sent us on our way after saying that she too couldn’t really help us with press-related matters. She too was too busy.
It had all taken well over two hours, but we’d gotten to see the sights of the Donetsk People’s Republic, which says it wants to join Russia. By the time we got outside, though, I realized it doesn’t need to. It’s already Russia, through and through.