Join NPR's London Correspondent Ari Shapiro Monday, April 21, at 2 p.m. Eastern Time, for a live Facebook chat about his reporting in Ukraine.
I arrived in Kiev a little more than two weeks ago, planning to report a series of features on the echoes of the winter's revolution — from the Maidan protests, to the change in government, to Russia's annexation of Crimea.
That's not how I ended up spending my time.
Demonstrators in the east took over government buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk, demanding closer ties with Russia. A week later, the separatists expanded their footprint to nearly a dozen cities. Kiev accused Moscow of orchestrating the upheaval as a pretext to invade. The Ukrainian army mobilized an "anti-terror operation" to take back the occupied buildings. The country now seems to be on the brink of civil war.
I spent most of the last two weeks traveling around Eastern Ukraine, speaking with locals and militants across the region. Now that I'm back at my home base in London, here are six things I took away from the experience.
1. Signs Of Russia
When I flew east from Kiev to Donetsk on April 8, I was determined to find out whether Russia was orchestrating the protests, as the West claimed. Everyone had opinions and theories, but I couldn't find much evidence either way. One demonstrator occupying the security services building in Luhansk told me, "If we were funded by Russia, we'd have food. We're starving in here."
Everything changed that weekend, when organized militants took over government buildings across Eastern Ukraine. These separatists were professional, highly coordinated and heavily armed. Locals in several cities told me that the militants spoke with foreign accents and couldn't find their way around town. A video showed a uniformed man in the town of Horlivka introducing himself to police as an officer in the Russian military. The next day, a spokesman for the rebels told me that the man had disappeared, nobody knew who he was, and "he probably escaped in back, through the fence." After four years covering the White House, I'm used to spokespeople spinning me, but that claim actually made me laugh out loud.
2. Locals Who Sympathize With Moscow
My interviews in Kiev were usually in Ukrainian. In the east, people invariably spoke Russian to me (Well, to my invaluable translator, Zhenia Afanasiev). Moscow wouldn't be able to pull off an operation like this in the Western cities of Odessa and Lviv, where people align more with Europe than Russia. This certainly wouldn't fly in Kiev. But eastern Ukraine has deep linguistic, cultural and historical ties to Russia. There is a grassroots independence movement here that has existed for years.
So despite the presence of Russians, many of the protesters actually are local, and their demands are genuine. This makes the Ukrainian government's mission very complicated. If the military starts retaking occupied government buildings by force, Ukrainian protesters may die. "I realize how strange it sounds," a woman in Kramatorsk incredulously told me, "but I am trying to protect our town from our army." The situation is explosive, and the threat of civil war is real. Russia may be stoking the flames, but to riff on the immortal words of Billy Joel, they didn't start the fire.
3. Cops With Divided Loyalties
I had a beer with a member of the Donetsk police force one night. He told me that his mother calls him every day and says, "If they order you to open fire on the people in Donetsk, don't do it!" He tells her, "I won't, Mom." Last month, he was frustrated to learn that because of border tensions, he couldn't go to his sister-in-law's wedding in Russia. "These are our friends and family," he told me. "Why should there be border tensions?"
That identification with the separatists is common among law enforcement here. Besides, Ukrainian cops are paid about $5 a day. In Russia, the salary is around $50 a day. Suddenly, being part of Russia doesn't seem so bad. Is it any wonder that six hungry, dirty, sleep-deprived Ukrainian tank drivers in Kramatorsk were willing to fly the Russian flag in exchange for a little food, water and nice conversation?
4. Daily Life
When we arrived in Kramatorsk, the first thing we saw was a welcome sign that had been painted the colors of the Russian flag. The second thing we saw was a Ukrainian military jet zooming low over the city, followed by a camouflage helicopter buzzing the rooftops. Then we saw elderly women carrying groceries, students wearing backpacks and professionals on their lunch break from work. Even with a dozen Ukrainian tanks parked on the outskirts of the city, life for most people continued as normal.
In the city of Donetsk, just a few blocks from the occupied administrative building, street musicians played Adele. A young man sold pony rides to kids. A separatist sympathizer admitted to me that "only about 10 percent of the people who live here really understand what's happening." But he said that has always been the way. "The minority decides the fate of the majority."
5. Bad-Ass Grannies
Some of the toughest militants I met in the last two weeks were women over the age of 65. This generation grew up in the shadow of World War II. They spent their adult years under communism. As pensioners, they now survive on around $100 a month. One woman in Donetsk had a full set of gold teeth, top and bottom. When she told me she was ready to die for Russia, I believed her. A woman in Luhansk told me that every day she prays for God to make her city part of Russia, and every day she asks the militants to give her a weapon. Luckily for everyone, the militants tell her no.
When photos showed a roadblock in Slovyansk guarded by old women in headscarves, rumors started to fly that the grandmothers had been paid to stand there. That's entirely plausible. But it's also wholly believable that these babushkas were the first to volunteer for the front lines.
I must add that I also met one babushka who I wanted to take home with me. Lida Vasilivna, 80, of Perevalsk, was planting tomatoes and onions when I met her. She is the happiest woman I've ever met, even though her town resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland. When I asked if I could take her picture, she told me she was waving to everyone in America.
6. Differences With Crimea
The West accuses Russia of trying to repeat the Crimea scenario, where Russia quickly staged an independence referendum and then annexed the peninsula from Ukraine. But there are important differences.
Crimea already housed a Russian military base, so Russian troops didn't have to invade. They lived among the people of Crimea. In Eastern Ukraine, Russian troops have gathered by the thousands just over the border. In order for the Russian military to enter this region in large numbers, they will have to cross that border.
Another key difference is public sentiment. The International Republican Institute recently asked 1,200 Ukrainians, "Do you support the decision of the Russian Federation to send its army to protect Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine?" In Eastern Ukraine, 61 percent answered "no." Only 24 percent answered "yes." (15 percent were undecided or refused to answer.)
A pro-union rally in Donetsk Thursday night attracted more than a thousand demonstrators to counter the separatists' message. A similar rally in Crimea was a bust. Everyone was too afraid to show up. "It happened in Crimea because people were apathetic," a man named Genady Baglikov told me at the rally in Donetsk.
Yes, there are many Russian sympathizers here, but lots of people I spoke to in the east also told me that they are ready to fight back against the separatists. "It's like a raping of my country," one woman in Horlivka told me. "I'm ready to take a weapon [into] my hands."
Goodness, how delicious, eating goober peas!
It lacks the stirring power of the Battle Cry of Freedom. It's not as enduring as When Johnny Comes Marching Home. As far as Civil War songs go, it certainly ain't no John Brown's Body. But Johnny Cash could make anything sound good:
Gouber pea. Ground nut. Ground pea. Earth-nut. Pindar nut. Ground bean. The peanut had a legion of names before the war; today, only "goober" reminds us of that tasty, unpretentious legume's long travels.
(Before we go any further, let's be clear: the peanut is not a nut. It's related to beans and peas, and marked by the distinct oddity that after fertilization it pushes itself underground to mature. If we were going to give Arachis hypogaea an English-sounding name, "ground pea" makes perfect sense - and, as Johnny Cash notes, for some older Southerners that was the name. Alas, accuracy lost that linguistic battle. But just for the record: A peanut is a legume.)
Peanuts were brought to America by way of the Atlantic slave trade. Remember the triangular trade patterns you might have learned about in high school? Finished goods to Africa, slaves to the Americas, raw materials to Europe, repeat.
Reality, of course, was a little more complicated. As ships criss-crossed the Atlantic, many New World items were sold to Africans — including the peanut.
The plant was native to central South America, and spread throughout that continent in the precolonial era. It made it as far north as the Aztec empire, where it was known as the ground cocoa bean, or tl?lcacahuatl. (One Spanish word for peanut: cacahuate.) And it thrived in Brazil, where it was called manobi or mandubi and was readily adopted by Portuguese settlers. (Portuguese for peanut: amendoim).
Spanish galleons and Portuguese traders brought this sturdy crop back across the Atlantic, but it didn't really catch on in Europe (Europeans still aren't really peanut fans, to American farmers' chagrin.) British colonies in America also didn't appreciate the plant; Andrew Smith notes in Peanut that early colonial references to "ground-nuts" were to an unrelated tuber.
In Africa and Asia, however, peanuts were a hit. In West and Central Africa, particularly, they became a staple crop, adopted by communities who appreciated the plant's resilience and quickly worked it into their cuisine.
And when Africans were enslaved by the millions, they brought peanuts with them.
So a crop native to South America was picked up by Spanish and Portuguese traders, brought to Africa and raised locally, and carried on slave ships to what's now the U.S. — a very roundabout way to travel a few thousand miles north. On that final leg of the trip, peanuts brought with them their most recent names — nguba, in Kongo and Kimbundu (named for the resemblance to a kidney); mpinda, in Kongo. These inspired some of the first English words for the true peanut: "goober" and "pindar."
A Peanut By Any Other Name Would Be As Unappreciated
In the 19th century, peanuts were grown by slaves for their own sustenance, or else fed to hogs; white Americans didn't regard them as good eating. The subtext of "Eating Goober Peas" is that Confederate soldiers were really struggling when that's all they had for sustenance.
That might be why, for many years, the kinds of Americans who wrote in books and newspapers didn't bother to pick a standardized name for the plant. "The ground pea of the South, or as it is sometimes called, the gouber or pindar pea," said one patent application in 1848. "The earthnut, groundnut, goober, pindar or peanut" is how the Department of Agriculture phrased it. An 1884 guide referred to the "mandubi, pea-nut, monkey nut."
Amid this swirl of synonyms, the triumph of "peanut" was far from guaranteed. "Pindar" had a head start — the Oxford English Dictionary lists a first reference in 1684, predating "peanut" by more than a century. "Earth nut" was a serious contender:
But by the 20th century, "peanut" had won, despite its horticultural confusion.
And as the peanut went from being an unappreciated slave food to a multimillion-dollar crop the other words fell out of use. "Pindar" lingers in only a few corners of the South. Earth-nut, ground-pea and other variants are all but gone.
But "goober"? Goober hangs on. Throughout the South, you might eat goober pie, goober cake or plain old roadside goobers, freshly boiled. And then, of course, there was Andy Griffith's Goober Pyle: Gomer Pyle's cousin, the good-hearted, dim-witted gas station attendant who really, truly did not have a gift for impressions.
And when applied to people — Goober Pyle or otherwise — the word retains a little of the food's old bad reputation. Peanuts might be respectable now, but goobers are hardly high-brow. A goober's a doofus, a goofball, a few legumes shy of a full meal. You might say it with affection — "What a goober!" — but it's never praise.
Earlier this week, the FBI posted a video on their website. It's a 25-minute movie called Game of Pawns, based on the true story of Glenn Shriver, an American college student who was recruited as a spy by the Chinese government.
According to the FBI's website, the film is aimed at college students about to study abroad themselves. The message is obvious: Don't be a spy. The rationale is that a dramatic movie will capture young people's attention better than public service announcements or PowerPoint.
In recent years, the FBI has been making movies to get their message across — both to the general public and their own agents. In fact, the FBI spends between $500,000 and $800,000 each year on videos for training and development.
"They really demand accuracy," says Sean Paul Murphy, the film's screenwriter. He tells NPR's Arun Rath "they want something that is as close to reality as possible."
When it came to actually writing the script, Murphy says FBI agents were far easier to work with than Hollywood types.
"Generally, everybody's on the same page, and you're not being pulled in different directions by people's egos. On this, everyone was pulling in the same direction."
Murphy has written movies for two other FBI films. Betrayed, his first film, is about an inside threat in the intelligence community. His other film, called Company Man, is about selling trade secrets to foreign powers. Both are short, dramatic narratives that emphasize the importance of national security.
In the week since its release, Game of Pawns has generated a lot of Internet ire and snark. Critics call it cheesy and cliche.
"I think it actually has very decent production values," Murphy says. "Some people were complaining about cliche dialogue, and some of the things they cited as examples were things that Glenn had actually said in the interviews."
Shriver himself cooperated extensively with the FBI in the making of Game of Pawns. Murphy says Shriver was pleased with the final result.
"He didn't like the way his father was presented," Murphy says, "but other than that, he had no complaint that I'm aware of."
Jordi Savall has made a career of reviving ancient music. Whatever the age of the songs, though, he doesn't play them as museum-piece recreations, preserved in isolation. Savall takes great pleasure in smashing together music from different times and different cultures.
At his concerts, it's difficult to predict what might happen — or who might show up. There might be musicians from Afghanistan or Africa onstage; those same musicians might perform an medieval French song or a Jewish lullaby.
His latest project, Bal-Kan: Honey and Blood, requires no such mashup of regions. Instead, he delves deeply into the music of the Balkans and uncovers a truly incredible variety.
Of Blood, Beauty And Belief
Savall says his fascination with the Balkans stems from the period when the region was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks were the first to give the region the name "Balkan," shortly after conquering it in the 15th century. As for what exactly that name means, well, dispute persists.
Not surprisingly, Jordi Savall prefers the poetic version: a combination of two words, "Bal" and "Kan." He explains, "'Bal' means in Turkish 'honey,' and 'kan' 'blood.' [The Turks] found a beautiful country, but they found also a very strong population who resist in a very exceptional way. And they tell that this is the country of the honey and blood."
Savall says the Ottomans gave locals a certain degree of independence, tolerating religious and cultural differences. Because it was essentially a place where East meets West, the Balkans were extraordinarily diverse. The region was home to more than 20 distinct ethnic groups, including Jewish refugees expelled from Spain. This gave rise to many styles of music, all of which could be played freely.
Out of the Balkans came music untouched by the Renaissance or the Baroque period. Despite its diversity, or perhaps because of it, the Balkans were a place outside of time — where songs may be a thousand years old and yet still swing like jazz. And as he studied the modern-day Balkans, Savall noticed how many cultural traditions remained, while in other places they had succumbed to globalization.
He says of the project: "It's a way to reflect this extremely big diversity of ways to sing, to play music — to believe also. And this is, I think, for me it's one of the most exciting projects that happened in the last 20 years."
The Musician's Language
It's a project that's too big to contain on one record. The three CDs of Bal-Kan come in a small book fit for the coffee table, filled with essays on the music, art culture and history of the region, along with photos and art reproductions.
His last several projects have been issued this way. It's all part of a master plan by Savall: In this day of downloads, he's trying to revive the idea of a record album as a thing to be held and experienced.
"This is something you can take your time to read, to listen," he says. "I think it's also important to bring to the music all the elements to understand the music — to know about the history, about the political situation. What are these societies? What are these people? What they represent in our world today, no?"
And it's impossible to shy away from the political history. The 20th century saw a lot of bloodshed in the Balkans. The different cultures don't mix as well anymore.
Remarkably, the inspiration for this Balkan project came from a performance in memory of the victims of the siege in Sarajevo. For that concert, Savall had assembled a potentially volatile blend of ethnicities. He lists them: "Serbian musicians, Bosnian musicians, Armenian musicians, Turkish musicians, Sephardic musicians, Christian musicians. It was clear to see in the ambience was a certain electricity. People was happy to be there, but many of these people had never played together."
But he says that after only a few hours of rehearsal, the atmosphere had completely changed. Between the different ethnicities, above the different melodies, a universal language took hold — a language common to all musicians.
"What makes one a musician is having sympathy to another musician," he says. "It's when he understands the other musician, has the same language as he has, the same sensitivity, the same virtuosity. Then it's a respect. And then it's creating something fantastic."