TRAVEL DIARY: UKRAINE, PART I

by Rob Harding

Yeah, it’s another one of these. Might as well. These days the local news is moving so fast, and so depressingly, that I’d rather talk about Eastern Europe’s most recent frozen conflict and a three-decade-old nuclear disaster zone.


Day 1: As we depart for the airport, my companion alerts me that the US has just dropped a massive bomb in Afghanistan and is now threatening to fight North Korea. This is fine…

LVIV

Lviv is one of Ukraine’s westernmost cities, furthest from the fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and the Crimean peninsula, on the eastern side of the country. As is apparently standard in Ukraine at the moment, there are soldiers everywhere. Most are apparently on leave and none are armed – even the police, unusual for the region. However, they’re still omnipresent, even hitting some of the same tourist attractions as we do in this small but pleasant city. Members of the Berkut militia, famed for their brutal intervention during the 2013 Euromaidan uprising, stand around the station, unarmed, in ludicrous blue-and-white camo gear.

Members of the Berkut militia, famed for their brutal intervention during the 2013 Euromaidan uprising, stand around the station, unarmed, in ludicrous blue-and-white camo gear.

In the main market square, a shack has been set up with blasting music, piles of spent mortar shells and hundreds of photographs and profiles, memorialising the dead of the Euromaidan and the war. It sits on its own. Most people ignore it.

Nationalism and war propaganda have taken hold in a curious way in Lviv – through tourism. The standard tat-ridden hole-in-the-wall shops and stalls sell anti-Putin and pro-Ukrainian merchandise (patriotic t-shirts, even) alongside woven rugs and wooden swords. I bought a doormat with Putin’s face on it, and I am informed it calls the Russian dictator something extremely unpleasant. I’m aware I might have just funded the Ukrainian nationalist far right, but since I did so to the tune of around £2 (the Ukrainian Hryvnia isn’t a particularly durable currency, and Ukraine is cheap), I can probably live with myself.

In one corner of the rather pretty central square is the Pravda Beer Theatre, which sells nationalist merchandise, including a Putin-branded beer that depicts the man naked (and poorly endowed) against a backdrop of Russian soldiers invading Ukraine. It’s not great beer, but the message ‘Putin Huilo’ (or ‘Putin is a dickhead’ (rough translation)) is everywhere. They also sell Trump Beer, a fine Imperial Mexican lager that goes down very smooth and made the customs officers laugh when we brought it through the airport.

He greets visitors with a machine gun, and offers a late-night shooting range (against Putin-shaped targets, of course).

Elsewhere, there’s a hidden WWII partisan-themed bar beneath the square, with a doorman who requires the password: ‘Slava Ukrayini!’. He greets visitors with a machine gun, and offers a late-night shooting range (against Putin-shaped targets, of course). The place is not quite as depressingly nationalist as the rumoured bar elsewhere in the city, run by the right-wing ultranationalist group Right Sector (Source: Russian. Treat with caution), but it speaks to a general trend.

Incidentally, if you’re visiting Lviv, I can say that both those bars pale in comparison to the Masoch bondage cafe (link SFW-ish). Both a celebration of Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s ideas and the ultimate extension of Ukrainian wait-staff rudeness (both national institutions), it serves excellent cocktails and reasonably decent beatings.

KIEV

The war is still a long way from Kiev, but it still has the trappings of a city at war. Soldiers are omnipresent, as, of course, are flags. The propaganda is muted, oddly confined to advertising billboards which would otherwise promote local restaurants and space exhibits at nearby museums. Nevertheless, it is there – mostly recruitment posters, occasionally featuring heroic soldiers standing alongside warriors from Ukraine’s past.

Below the People’s Friendship Arch, a soviet-era monument symbolising the friendship between Ukraine and the other Soviet nations (mainly Russia, of course), the inscriptions have been spray-painted out with the colours of the Ukrainian flag, and daubed with anti-Russian slogans. Shortly after we left, the arch began being painted in the colours of the rainbow for the upcoming Eurovision.

the situation is much more fluid towards the frontlines, where many are less inclined to take sides – or even actively resentful at being forced to choose

There’s an interesting display at the WWII memorial museum at the south end of town. We went there to climb the 62m statue of Mother Motherland (which only takes cash, if you’re wondering. Bring 200 UKH each, there are no cash machines), but found a new exhibit beneath it. The museum displays a number of tanks and armoured personnel carriers captured on the frontlines, along with what purports to be evidence that they belong to, or have been loaned from, the Russian Federation. Russia’s extensive involvement in the War in Donbass is hardly secret, but it’s startling to see physical proof, even if the technical details require verification.

( placard placed next to the vehicle shown in the header image )

The nationalism and anti-Russian sentiment on display in Kiev is more muted than in Lviv, but it’s still interesting to note that both are much more strongly pro-Ukrainian than many further East. Contacts note that the situation is much more fluid towards the frontlines, where many are less inclined to take sides – or even actively resentful at being forced to choose between Russian and Ukraine. One noted that the separatists may well have won the 2014 Donbass referendums even without the extensive rigging and intimidation of the opposition that took place – Eastern Ukraine feels much closer to Russia than Europe, and did not necessarily view the 2013 revolution favourably. Partly for this reason, the War in Donbass seems to have frozen, just as the wars in Transnistra, Abkhazia and others have done before them.

All image credit: Rob Harding


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