The Buena Vista Social v The Kremlin
The empty chairs at the empty tables in a journalists’ hangout in Kyiv are a tribute to the ultimate price paid for free expression
28 Mar 22

Photo: Reporters inside Kyiv’s Buena Vista Social Bar

There’s always a bar. In Kyiv, in 2022, it’s the Buena Vista Social bar, bang next to a Ukrainian police checkpoint which is both funny ha-ha and funny peculiar because there is a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol. Sssh. It’s a joyful shebeen, Cuban-themed, run by Maks, and you never quite know what’s available to drink and who’s going to be there. All the women have a past; all the men have no future. You get the vibe.

Early on in the war, a fellow regular was a big bloke with a thick moustache and a mane of bubbly, curly hair, often seen with his fixer, a Ukrainian freelancer. I never spoke to him but I clocked him as someone who had presence, who was an interesting character, who I had probably seen in Sarajevo or somewhere like that. He was Pierre “Zak” Zakrzewski, she Sasha Kuvshynova, and they were both killed on 14 March 2022 when their vehicle came under fire in Bucha – pronounced Butcher – to the northwest of Kyiv. British journalist Ben Hall was wounded in the same attack. They were working for Fox News, something Zak, 55, who had been brought up in Ireland, had mixed feelings about. But he knew the risks of war too well and made a decision that working for a big corporate was better risk-management than being freelance. His co-workers at Fox loved him, giving him an award as “Unsung Hero” after he helped get Afghan freelancers out of Kabul.

Sasha was 24, bold and fiercely smart. After her death, her dad said that she learnt to read at the age of three and picked up English from reading restaurant menus while on family holidays. She was a fanatical photographer with five stills cameras, had founded a music festival for up-and-coming jazz musicians, worked as a DJ and wrote poetry. She wanted to make movies.

If you don’t like free expression in a democracy, you blow up the TV tower. The Kremlin’s first journalist victim was Yevhenii Sakun, 49, a camera operator for Ukraine’s LIVE station, on 1 March. The Russian army sent in four missiles in the evening, killing a worker in the TV tower complex and four civilians. The next morning I saw the people from the morgue take away the bodies of a middle-aged man and a mother and her child with my own eyes.

The most dangerous area of Kyiv is the northwest suburbs, where the Russian army’s offensive, driving down through Chernobyl, has come closest to the capital. Reporters seeking human stories, of refugees fleeing with their dogs on a lead or their cat in a box, went repeatedly to Irpin. Fearing further Russian advance, the Ukrainian army flooded the river plains near the suburb and blew up the most southerly bridge, leaving people to pick their way across the skeleton remains. Once beyond that crossing, there is a second bridge. That’s where US film maker Brent Renaud, 50, originally from Little Rock and formerly of the New York Times, found himself, filming refugees running for their lives. Brent knew what he was doing, having filmed and reported man’s cruelty to man in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya: all the nice places.

At Irpin, at the second bridge, the Russian army shot him in the neck and he died of his wounds.

Oksana Baulina was one of those intensely brave Russians who were on Team Navalny before their champion was arrested on fake charges and the organisation broken up. Oksana, 43, was declared a “terrorist” by the Kremlin and had to flee Russia. She set up as a reporter and film maker in Poland and reported on the war. When Russian artillery smashed into a shopping centre in Podil, in the northwest of the city, she was killed.

To be honest with you I have done my best to avoid writing this piece for days now because it can only fill one with gloom to think of these brave truth-tellers sent early to their graves by the mobster in the Kremlin. But my pals and I in the Buena Vista are buoyed up the thought that we are in Ukraine exactly because Vladimir Putin does not want us to be here. And on that point, Mr Putin, do fuck off.

And the rum is good.

There is, also, the line from Tom Stoppard’s great play, Night And Day, which I quoted on Twitter while hurrying back from the bar just before – well, actually, just after curfew – had fallen. This, from memory, is how it goes, how the lover of the dead young journalist, played by Diana Rigg, killed on the frontline denounces the false romance of journalism, “it’s not worth the heart-break beauty queen or the crossword and it’s definitely not worth the leader.”

And the old hack, played by John Thaw, replies: “Yes, you’re right. But also the other thing. People do awful things to each other. But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark. Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light.”

RIP Zak, Sasha, Yevhenii, Brent and Oksana.

By John Sweeney

John Sweeney is a writer and journalist who has investigated Russian interference in the US elections and Scientology