DISCUSSED: Buddha, The Devil, Stealing Elevator Shaft Equipment, Broken Noses, Contemplative Smoking vs. Strategy Smoking, Coal, Byzantine Morality, Crime and Punishment, Nikolai Gogol

It’s a blustery Tuesday morning in mid-January, one week into the Ukrainian New Year. The plainclothes team of Oleg, Vanya, and Vova are sitting in their unheated office on Mercanskii Street. They are chain-smoking, fogging up the bare, icy room with blue clouds, using their counterfeit Marlboros to plot out the day’s appointments.

They are known out on the street as the Third Reich, and they like that name.

Out the dim window, Dneprodzerzhinsk, population 350,000, spreads itself across both banks of the Dnieper River like a big mistake nobody has owned up to yet. Known for its tough cops, the city was named after Felix Dzerzhinksky, the feared director of the Soviet secret police, what became the KGB. Life expectancy here—after seventy years of Communism and fifteen more of the nameless and confused philosophy that came after it—pirate capitalism?—is said to be 56.5 years for males.

Whatever it is, it’s falling, and falling fast.

Today the team’s beat will cover the residential east side, the left bank of the river, a shabby neighborhood of 100,000. The men take their time, they know what they are doing. Their “customers” are just getting home now from a long night, some of them. One cop holds up his cigarette and examines it speculatively. The other rubs his military-style cropped scalp. The third smiles at nothing, a Buddha of the North, and silently stubs out his smoke on a cracked soap dish.

“Let’s go,” he says. It’s Oleg, the good-looking one.

The one the hard boys on the street call chort—the devil.

Should they visit the heroin dealer first? Or the B and E ring on the Mir square? At some point they will want to look in on their two teenage prostitutes, Zenia and Yulia—both sisters’ babies are sick and malnourished. They will have to take the kids away if the mommies are doing heavy drugs. This is their technical specialty: underage criminals.

The young men slowly get to their feet and put on their snappy black leather coats. Maybe they will begin with the TV-booster ring; the dope dealer will be sleeping until noon. Logistics are everything on this job; the paramount concern is to save gas. Plainclothes cops in Dneprodzerzhinsk must pay for their cars, their gas, ballpoint pens, and office paper—even their own handguns.

“All you get is a chair when you join up,” says Vanya. “A wooden chair, that’s it. The rest you must supply yourself.”

From The Human Is an Atom That Won’t Be Split: Ukraine from Below, a collaborative project, which was awarded the 2006 Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Larry Frolick is the author of three books of literary journalism, including Grand Centaur Station: Unruly Living with the New Nomads of Central Asia (2004), on the terror-theory of history. He won the 2006 Alexander Ross Award as Canada’s best new magazine journalist, and lives on a peach farm in Niagara when not on assignment.

Photojournalist Donald Weber lives in Toronto and Kyiv, where his work on Ukraine’s postatomic suffering won a 2006 World Press Photo Award, honorable mention. Previously, he was an architect with Rem Koolhaas’s OMA in the Netherlands. He is represented by the Polaris Agency in New York.

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