The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Revolution

EGO Magazine |


Since the celebrated Orange Revolution of last November, a joke has begun to circulate around Kiev’s increasingly skeptical intelligentsia. A group of medical students gathers around a famous doctor about to perform a delicate heart operation. When one asks about the doctor’s background, another interjects: “He’s a doctor of philology, but it doesn’t matter—he was at Maydan.” Maydan—the Independence Square in Kiev—was where hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised Ukrainians waved orange flags to protest the government of Leonid Kuchma, whose Russian-backed criminal apparatus tried to steal one election too many as international eyes looked on. For an all too brief period afterwards, President Viktor Yushchenko and his frostbitten supporters could do no wrong. Now, however, he finds himself the butt end of nepotistic jokes and faces defections from his own ranks after a number of deals to allow key Kuchma-era figures back into the fray.

This combination of high expectations followed by disillusionment should come as no surprise. After all, revolutions tell us much more about how broken a country is than about a society’s virtues. Yet even rising inflation cannot dampen the newfound civic spirit in Ukraine’s capital Kiev, a vibe quite unlike anything found in Slavic cousin Moscow. As this year’s host of that paramount event of European idealism, the Eurovision song competition, Ukraine dropped its visa requirement for six months—but officials confide that this gesture of goodwill towards the common European house it seeks to enter is permanent, making Ukraine a prime destination to witness Eastern Europe’s young and restless in action and discover both its Slavic treasures and Black Sea beaches.

I have no doubt that Europeans will in due course consider Kiev the thriving European metropolis it already is. My unofficial guide to the vibrant capital’s scene was Olga, a plucky 23-year old journalist representative of the cynical optimism which characterizes Ukrainians today, the majority of which are under twenty-five. We met at Shato, a split-level bar on the main drag Khreschyatik where the November demonstrations were staged over several days. Inside, the revolution was televised on flat-screens as DJs spun techo music. “Real revolutions begin not with elections, but when a political consciousness replaces apathy and fear,” she stated matter-of-factly, confident that her well-educated and resourceful compatriots were up to the task.

Khreschyatik is Kiev’s Champs Elysees, a contrast of pot-bellies and mini-skirts, tourist traps and underground dives. On Sundays it’s closed to traffic, with live bands and roller-bladers creating a carnival-like atmosphere. The boulevard’s daily significance as the site of Ukraine’s transformation continues, however. Protesting the country’s elite corruption on Khruchatyk has become both a cottage industry and an arms race, ranging from tent-cities and hunger-strikes to the occasional act of self-immolation.

Beyond the main streets of central Kiev, the vestiges of Soviet architecture are all the more apparent—even as they crumble. Though watching Ukrainians seize their future is socially exhilarating, some neighborhoods, particularly East of the Dnipro, can seem downright depressing. No matter what part of Kiev they live in, however, Ukrainians know that just being in Kiev—like Berlin in 1990—is to participate in a historic experiment to build a stable Slavic country out of the ruins of the Soviet Union.

Without Olga I may not have discovered the most subtle trademark of Ukraine’s unique civic culture: gypsy taxis. Day-to-day trust among Kievans is so taken for granted that anyone going your way will give you a lift for an agreed price. Olga, who was hit by a car in 1989 while running to see a Bollywood movie in her nearby hometown, now casually strolls out towards the middle of Khruchatyk and hitch-hikes to work, home and social engagements for just a few hyrvnias each way.

ukrainkiev_main7.jpgI walked up Khruchatyk to the Maydan, now a showplace for Kiev’s youth culture of constant socializing and Scandanavian levels of public displays of affection. A grunge band’s singer wailed through a microphone in front of McDonald’s, undoubtedly after a few too many beers from the makeshifts kiosks around the square. One vendor offered to exchange her whole inventory for a good man. Nearby is Kaffa (Provlok Shevchenka #3), a giraffe-themed café with an array of coffees to satisfy even the most demanding connoisseur.

The next morning I jogged up one of Kiev’s shaded inclines, passing dozens of Kievans practicing their favorite hobby of nurturing the cities vast greenery, towards Dynamo stadium, eponymous home to Ukraine’s pride and joy football club (many of whose members were executed by the Nazis during Kiev’s occupation for being too good). The national team has now qualified for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. A former Dynamo coach quipped that he wanted a “star team” and not a “team of stars,” a management philosophy at least one analyst has suggested the government take to heart. Indeed, despite having achieved near-martyr status as the charismatic Orange Revolution leader, President Yushchenko today seems unable to control—or even define—his government. Principled opposition has fallen well short of a governance transformation. The near total overlap of and daily shifting alliances among the oligarchic class and parliamentarians oddly resembles Pakistan. Meanwhile, much of the public believes that Yushchenko has checked-out, playing statesman overseas and promoting his Jesus-like image with the 11th commandment issued declaratively at the end of public speeches: “Don’t be afraid.” Outside of Kiev, many citizens need such reassurances. The price of sugar has shot up to near crisis levels, affected the production of Ukraine’s delicious jams. When asked what she would do to alleviate the masses’ suffering, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s derisively responded that while she likes sweet foods, she hasn’t eat them in a long time.

ukrainkiev_main4.jpgThe more I spoke to young people in Kiev, however, the stronger their sense of opportunity seemed to grow. Foreign companies are expanding their presence quickly, enhancing the professional culture. “Those of us who work for American-owned companies work really hard, but we want to learn a more efficient and democratic way of management,” Rostick Gavrilov told me. In addition to his work for an American PR firm, he offers his extremely competent services to any interested visitor (Just e-mail at: [email protected]). Because Ukraine’s technically oriented educational system survived the post-Communist collapse better than other sectors, the country is certain to become an important destination for high-tech industries. When an Intel executive recently traveled to Kiev to explore investment opportunities for computer and chip-making, he praised the country’s ideal location given its proximity to Eastern Europe and the Near East, two of the fastest growing markets for information technology products. It was perhaps the first time ever that someone has praised Ukraine’s geography, contested and conquered for centuries by Mongols, Russians, Poles and Germans!

Another example is the accommodation market. Sensing the dearth of quality, affordable hotels, rental agencies have sprung up offering modern, centrally located one and two-bedroom apartments for about Euro 60 per day, some even with broadband Internet connections. (I highly recommend Hotel Kyiv Luxe;

The growth of entrepreneurialism is always a positive sign, but in Ukraine it is also a clue to one of the country’s biggest hurdles in its quest to join the West. Entry into the WTO, over which a lengthy brawl recently broke out in the Rada (parliament), will require clamping down on Ukraine’s current niche in the global marketplace: pirated CDs and DVDs, widely available throughout Kiev (and particularly at Petrivka market). Though a political liability today, Ukraine’s thriving black market was under the Soviet rule the only glimmer of capitalism, forming the basis for its transition to a market economy. The vast underground bazaars, as sprawling as those above-ground, also offer clothing, particularly lingerie, of varying price and quality, and many other items essential for the beautiful urban Kievan. It’s a shame to spend so much time underground during the beautiful summer, I thought, but then again Ukraine is hardly known for mild winters. The other practical aspect of underground commerce literally hit me on the head, repeatedly and like clockwork: a daily afternoon shower to cool the stuffy, humid air.

After a filling dinner of traditional Ukrainian food at Taras (a restaurant resembling a hunting lodge in Taras Shevchenko Park), I set out with a friend to explore Kiev’s non-stop nightlife. Many bars are located around the bustling indoor produce market Bessarabs’ka, particularly inside the glistening Arena complex, Kiev’s impressive homage to capitalist chic. Startled as I walked past the next-door Bentley showroom, I did a double-take as I saw a reflection of that supreme symbol of decadent excess—the black Hummer—packed with young guys with far more robust cash-flow and muscles (only one of which were earned) than this author. An hour later I saw the Hummer again, appropriately parked in front of Decadence (on Shota Rustaveli), an upscale, Baroque-themed lounge recently started by the Carte Blanche chain. (So frequent are the openings and closings that it’s best to consult the hip Lithuanian series or local magazines such as the Kyiv Post for the latest spots.) The same neighborhood already boasts a Nobu restaurant, as sushi is the region’s surest sign of an active nouveau riche.

kiev_main2.jpgAnother late-night stroll with a member of Ukraine’s slowly returning diaspora took us along Kiev’s oldest street, Andriyivsky Uzviz, where we landed at the Fashion Café, a perfect spot for a late-night espresso or night-cap. At the top of a very steep cobblestone incline is the seven cupola St. Michael’s Monastary, with non-stop souvenir stalls on both sides of the street all the way down. At number 2b is the Museum of One Street. Even late at night, you can knock on the door and the proprietor, Alexei, can walk you through an exhibit of memorabilia of the neighborhood going back to the 4th century, from artisan wares to bourgeois table settings to White Army uniforms. What began as an under-funded commemorative project in 1988 is now almost cluttered with artifacts of Kiev’s rich history. Nearby in the house where Mikhail Bulgakov was born and where he wrote White Guard, a novel about the fate of Russians in Kiev after the 1917 Revolution.

We devoted the entire following afternoon to visiting Kiev’s two most famous monuments, located a few minutes’ drive south from downtown. Taking refuge from the Communist monoxide still spewing from old trucks, we entered the Pechersk-Lavra monastery through the Trinity Gate Church, where the musty scent of the Orthodox faith has outlasted the numerous political and economic systems imposed on Ukraine. Wandering inside the courtyards we appreciated the meticulously restored murals and friezes on churches built over eight centuries. We also took a candle-lit tour of the caves beneath, where for centuries monks lived, prayed, and were buried.

Less than a kilometer away is the Great Patriotic War Museum, whose centerpiece, the 62-meter titanium Rodina Mat (‘Defense of the Motherland’) statue is disturbingly noticeable on the horizon from any point in Kiev. Children clamored on the turrets of Soviet tanks, which they will be taught in school are not symbols of Soviet heroism, but foreign occupation.

Being illiterate for a week was the only downside to a lengthy stay in Kiev. Fortunately, as I wandered in search of an air-conditioned café to beat the afternoon heat on my last day in town, I came across a sign that read “Shanti” in my native Hindi. It turned out to be a lovely, if pricey, sushi lounge with free Wi-Fi (Besserabskaya 2, across from the TGI Friday’s).

Before leaving Kiev, I sought to make sense of how Ukraine is managing to stitch together its two schizophrenic halves, an East/West divide along the Dnipro River separating the industrial, Russia-oriented, Orthodox and paternalistic East from the more Catholic, European, and agricultural West. The blossoming free media and NGO groups throughout the country are making their best efforts to pull the country in one common direction, using every weapon in their arsenal from youth dialogue camps to flashy public opinion surveys. Journalists from Korrespondent, a weekly magazine modeled on America’s Newsweek, gets interviews with any top official and holds their feet to the fire, exposing political manipulation of Ukraine’s historical division while boosting accountability to the public. Vitaly Sych, the magazine’s editor, sees his role as contributing the “sustainability of the revolution’s sentiment” of building one country with a European future. Ukrainians are tuning in to the news and following politics like never before—and at double the rate of their Russian neighbors.

But they have a long way to go. While Yushchenko did indeed win the November election, he received under 10% of the vote in the East, which most visitors to Ukraine completely skip (perhaps because it doesn’t even earn a section in the Lonely Planet guide). Indeed, a popular joke asks, “What’s the matter with Kiev? It’s surrounded by Ukraine.” Yet visiting the charming town of L’viv, one can’t be blamed for taking the more convenient train connections westward. A formerly Polish city, L’viv is very much the Krakow of Ukraine. Here people sing, play chess, and debate in public squares; it is a street culture firmly entrenched in Mitteleuropa. West Ukrainians think of themselves as citizens rather than cogs in a giant machine.

For the visitor, the tangled knots of Soviet-era governance are most visible in the rail sector, where monopolist train stations prevent one from getting rail tickets between any other two cities, creating tremendously annoying hurdles during the high-season. With the help of the unfailingly efficient Janna at Eugenia Tours (E-mail: [email protected]), I finally managed a ticket to the Black Sea coast. Odessa is something of a Crimean Tangiers, a free-wheeling port built with heavy French influence and benefiting from tax-free status in the mid-nineteenth century. Russian is the overwhelming lingua fraca, yet there is a distinctive Asiatic vibe owing to its historical role as the gateway to the Near Eastern world: men greet with kisses, wear leather sandals, and carry shiny-buckled man-bags. Policemen in over-sized caps leisurely patrol the pathway in front of the highly recommended Londonskaya Hotel, just at the top of the Potemkin stairs made famous in Sergey Einsenstein’s 1925 film.

Unlike Polish-cultured L’viv or Russian-facing Donetsk, Odessa gazes south for its commercial survival, shipping Russian oil and Ukraine’s manufactured goods. Ferries depart daily to Istanbul and Varna in Bulgaria, but nearly 300 ships have been lost over the past decade owing to the collapse of the ship-building monopoly. Many potential routes are not yet profitable. Talking to people in Odessa one senses immediately that making money and flaunting it by screeching through town in late-model sport-SUVs is essential to happiness. Odessa boasts a disproportionate number of Ukraine’s millionaires, and as the head of the regional chamber of commerce told me, “Politicians come and go all the time; businessmen are the most important people here.”

The smartest move to enjoy swimming in the refreshingly crisp Black Sea is to stay on Lanzheron beach, and in particular at the Hotel Shalanda (Tel: +38 048 787 4552). Though reserving a room here is impossible without knowledge of Russian, it’s well worth the effort to enjoy the spacious rooms with large windows gazing out over the flat sea. Each day, hundreds of young, tanned and toned Ukrainians play volleyball on the beach and float along the shore in inner-tubes, then enjoy fresh fish and cold beer for dinner with sand under their feet.

ukrainkiev_main5.jpgAfter an overnight train-ride, clever theft of my cash in Simferopol, and sweep through Russian’s dilapidated Black Sea fleet in Sebastopol, I reached the Livadia Palace in Yalta, Tsar Nicholas II’s retreat and site of the February 1945 conference where the post-World War II division was codified—and thus an appropriate place for the European Strategy conference aimed at ensuring that Europe doesn’t close its doors to Ukraine. Throughout the discussions it was clear that Ukraine is very much the “borderland” its name signifies. European officials demand real results from governmental reforms, and Ukrainians expect greater incentives on visa restrictions and EU accession. The deputy prime minister has even suggested sending new maps to Brussels with Ukraine located squarely within the dense orbit of European institutions, a brazen act of nation-branding reminiscent of freshly-minted EU member Estonia.

Crimea is not only politically autonomous within Ukraine, it also has a somewhat tropical spirit best captured in Vassily Askyonov’s dissident novel The Island of Crimea. In the preface, he writes, “Every peninsula fancies itself an island. Conversely, there is no island that does not envy a peninsula. Every Russian schoolboy knows that Crimea is connected to mainland Russia by an isthmus, but not even every adult knows how flimsy an isthmus it is. When a Russian rides along it for the first time and sees it for its narrow, swampy self, he can’t quite suppress a seditious “what if.”” On Crimea one experiences a climate unknown in the rest of the country, and can enjoy hiking on enormous, craggy cliffs and seeing the occasional Orthodox church perched perilously on a rocky ledge. On the road back to Sebastopol, a stop at the site of Orthodoxy’s landing site, the ruins of Khersoness, is essential. Where Vladimir accepted Christianity, you can wander through the imperial past of Roman settlements and Byzantine columns and enjoy stunning sea views. Back towards Simferopol we stopped at the Bakhschisarai palace, from which the Tatar Khans, descendents of the same original horde led by Genghis Khan which conquered from Mongolaia westward to Moscow and the Balkans, ruled Russia for centuries. Appropriate for the Black Sea region, the garden palace’s minarets remind more of Anatolian mosques, yet don’t seem out of place on this unique Ukrainian peninsula.

“Yukies” are making great strides in reclaiming their identity. The next generation is learning their native tongue better than their parents as Russian gets relegated to the foreign language section of bookstores. Even Pushkin has gone from being a national to a foreign language poet! At the same time, Ukraine has made a decisive shift in allying its future with Europe, which over the next decade will run out of excuses to ignore giving it an accession agreement and eventual membership. With a population of almost fifty million, Ukraine will remain big, and much of it will still be poor—but it is certainly no longer too Soviet.

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