Month: October 2009

How the wall fell …and what it left behind

For anyone interested in ‘Eastern Europe’, politics or simply understanding Europe today, Radio 4 this week produced a facinating piece of radio bringing together some of the most influential actors in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

You can listen to it here
and visit the site here

What followed was a reunification in Europe that’s left millions of us with a safer, more free and more prosperous continent. It removed all the obstacles to travel and allowed me to live, work, travel, study and enjoy endless hospitality in all-bar-none of the former Soviet countries.

I had nothing to do with the events in 1989, I was 11, but sitting here in Kiev listening to another round of explosive fireworks (presumably another political pop concert) I have a real sense of mixed emotions.

Yes, Europe is more free and more fair but there is still a long way to go. As an EU citizen I can live work and travel in Ukraine without a problem but that privilege is not returned. The freedom granted to Hungarian, Polish and Romanian citizens means nothing to anyone in Russia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. The Iron curtain may not exist and the Belin wall may have fallen but, we should be clear about one thing – an ‘Invisible Shield’ rose in its place and still leaves Europe divided.

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“You have travelled to a country where you will not be able to make calls or send text messages”

This was the first message I recieved at the airport. It’s not very welcoming but it probably explains why Tesco mobile are so cheap. However, Marias smiley face waiting for me at the airport made up for that and the last two weeks of Ukrainian life have been good.

I spent a week in Kiev, a few days in Krivoy Rog and then the rest of the time back in Kiev. I have a place to stay, almost found a job (and then lost if just as quickly) and have learnt about 5 new words in Russian …all rude of course.

“Fuelling the current karaoke boom is the county’s unashamed obsession with celebrity glitz”

The description given in Wizz Airs in-flight booklet couldn’t be more true. In Kiev, you’re never far from a level of glitz, kitsch and glamour that hasn’t been seen in Oxford since 1970 actually, it’s probably never been achieved at home.

OK, your also not far from levels of poverty that you wont find in Oxford but, the contrast between the fat, rich ‘new Ukrainians’ who slink about in their gangster style 4x4s with blacked out windows (probably some of the ugliest creatures on this planet) and everyone else just adds to the intrigue of this place.

I’ve seen a few funny sights in Kiev over the last two weeks (more about these later) but, a few universals here are black jackets and pointy black shoes for guys and legs for girls. As my friend Agi pointed out the other day, this place is ‘all about legs’. If they’re not modestly covered by a short mini-skirt, they are vacuum-packed in leggings tight jeans and balanced on top of excessively high heels. Of course, I’m not complaining but although being a short-arse I could do without all the heels. Actually, talking of shoes, they also appear to form part of the Ukrainian social greeting culture. A Canadian friend of mine Jonathan highlighted this when I arrived and its been amusing me ever since. It happens when you walk passed a stranger in the street and they notice you. People look, then look at your shoes and then look at you face again. I mean, it could be that my shoes are just not black or long enough but I think it’s just normal. The ‘Ukrainian shoe-gaze’.

Now, about the weird stuff…

Shooting guns. I’ve never done this with a hangover in Oxford and I decided to pass on the chance to do it in Kiev also but, I did stand and watch Jonathan pumping rounds from a large Magnum and an array of other hand-guns. The whole thing was a little too surreal for my first week but I guess I should get used to this…

Chicken feet. I’ve no idea why but someone left 5 or 6 Chicken legs on our wall.

Red Rain. OK, maybe it’s just red mud but it rained for two days in Krivoy Rog and the whole city was awash with red water. I guess it has something to do with the cities metallurgy and mining but it’s quite unique.

Leopard skin patterns …on almost anything. My Ukrainian friends deny this but I’ve seen it. It’s here and it’s everywhere.

Crazy Babuskas. I’ve met a lot of these but our neighbour was one of the best.
She nearly broke the doorbell, let herself in without asking and started asking all kinds of crazy questions like ‘How much you pay for this flat?’ etc. The best thing she said though was when she was complaining about having no tools (long story) and she stormed though grumbling and muttering about ‘Ukrainian life’. It’s become our catch phrase here in Kiev.

…and that’s just the start. So, I’ll try and keep this updated with discoveries as I discover them.

Well, that’s all for now – I’m off to the ‘Kiev cinema’ to see a Slovene film called ‘Slovene girl’ …a story of a Slovene student who turns to prostitution to pay for her studies. I can’t escape Slovenia even when I’m here!


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Political Pop Concerts…

some pre-election pop and ‘Yulia worship’ in Kiev…

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…U-what? U-where?

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In Andrey Kurkov’s 1996 novel ‘Death and the Penguin’ Misha (the penguin) is adopted from the Zoo in Kiev because it can no longer afford to keep him.
Living with his owner in a Kiev apartment block, Misha Penguin is used to symbolize Ukraine itself (and probably most other ex-soviet states) and while Misha is lonely and a little sad (after the breakup of the USSR) Mr Pidpaly (the Penguinologist) explains how ‘penguins’ are:

Penguins “are quick to distinguish mood – in people and other animals, of course. Apart from that they’re very unforgiving. They’ve also a good memory for anything good. But their psychology, you understand, is far more complex than, say, a dog or a cat’s. They’re more intelligent, more secretive; capable of concealing feelings and affections.”

hmm, secretive Ukrainians who conceal their feelings – I’ll have to be careful. However, at least, if I fail to learn Cyrillic and fail to master Russian and fail to write my MA thesis – at least I can learn Penguinology.

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A Short History of Ukrainians in English.

In just six days time I’m off to live, love, laugh and limbo-dance like a Ukrainian and so, I’ve been on a Ukrainian fact-finding mission.

This is what I found…

Meaning ‘borderland’ Ukraine is home to 46 million people and has only existed as an independent country since the early 1990’s. However, it all started way-back in the day, a long long time ago, in a crazy town called Kiev.

Existing since the 6th century, Kiev was (like many English towns) created by Scandinavian Vikings and during the 10th century the state of ‘Kievan Rus’ became the largest and most powerful in Europe. It was run by a dude or ‘crown prince’ called Vladimir Volodymyr (Vlad the great) who is widely regarded as the founding farther of Ukraine and was responsible for converting everyone to Orthodox Christianity. Apparently, he didn’t like Paganism anymore so he set about finding a replacement (I love the way religions work) and he found Christianity. Mr Volodymyr chose Orthodox Christianity because he liked booze and pork (so Islam was no good) and he liked women and indulgence too so Judaism and Catholicism were out of the question. Actually, Vlad was dam good at indulgence and had about 800 concubines and numerous wives.

Anyway, he baptised the whole city (in the Dnieper river) with his new religion and the eastern Slavs have been stuck with it ever since.

Things in Kievan Rus were pretty cool until 1240 when the Mongolians came on their little horses and destroyed everything.

Kiev was rebuilt but, in the following centuries Ukrainian land was controlled by its powerful neighbours: the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (yes, little Lithuania used to be powerful), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Muscovite Russia and finally the Russian Empire.

Of course, there are many political explanations for these foreign occupations but what most history books don’t tell you is – the Polish and Lithuanians were mostly there for the Rusalkas. That is, the green-eyed fish-women, who lived at the bottom of rivers. In the middle of the night, they would walk out to the bank, dance in meadows, ask questions and tickle men to death! …the Polish just love to be tickled!

Ukraine has two main languages (Ukrainian and Russian) and both use the Cyrillic alphabet. Ukrainian is predominant in Kiev and the west of the country and Russian in the east. I don’t understand either (or Cyrillic) so both are equally confusing for me but, I believe that, like in the UK – the minority (in this case Ukrainian) will speak both and the Russian majority will mostly speak just Russian.

Ukrainian nationalism has a long and, well, unsuccessful history but the Ukrainian language and literature did flourish in the 19th century when the smooth-talking ladies-man Taras Shevchenko captured the national spirit in his poems and writings.

Unfortunately though, whilst benefiting from Ukrainian land (and mythical creatures) Ukraine’s foreign landlords haven’t always been good. To be honest, they have almost never been good and the Ukrainians have been subjected to a long history of serfdom, terror, exploitation and massacre. The worst by far, being Starlin’s forced collectivisation or Holodomor (1932–33) which resulted in the starvation of about 6 million Ukrainians – yes, that’s a horrific six million deaths in one year. The Nazis had their turn in 1941 where Babi Yar in Kiev was witness to the murder of more than 33,000 Jews over the course of a five day period.

Actually, go back a decade or so and the British and French also drew blood in Ukraine having a successful pop at the Russians in the Crimean War. We won but, if you fancy a laugh and you’re not familiar with the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ then read here. It’s magnificent but, it’s not war.

Sadly, Ukraine also became infamous in 1986 when the ill-fated Chernobyl nuclear reactor blew up during testing, dumping large amounts of radioactive stuff on it’s northern neighbours. The explosion and the subsequent handling or mishandling of events by the communist authorities highlighted how rotten and corrupt the entire Soviet system had become. It was, in many ways, the start of the end for the USSR.

Alas, Ukraine didn’t do too well from this break-up either or the IMF/World Bank sponsored ‘shock therapy’ capitalism that followed and the country lost 60 percent of its GDP from 1991 to 1999. Recovery picked-up between 2004 and 2007 only to be scuppered with the onset of the recent financial crisis.

So, Ukraine isn’t a rich country but, what they lack in money – they more than make up for in unhappiness. As you can see here (or here) Happiness surveys usually place Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus somewhere close to ‘grumpy’. However, experience tells me, that if you travel anywhere in Europe further south or east of Slovenia, you’ll find any number of people who despair at the state of their nation (with the possible exception of Albania and Turkey where nationalism often blinds reality) and can people be as pessimistic as the most ardent Daily Mail readers. However, I wouldn’t pay too much attention to these surveys, Ukrainians can be happy too – I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

…and anyway, statistics are only half the story and life in Ukraine doesn’t stop! In 2004, in the same year as its Orange revolution, Ukraine surely reached its proudest moment in history winning Eurovision with a song called ‘Wild Dance’. It’s probably because of this (and maybe the Crimea) that, in 2007 Ukraine was ranked the 8th most visited country in the world!

Where does a country go from here?

Answer: It gets itself a Bearder! That’s what…

‘Ian the Great’ …hmmmm, I like this title

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