mpressions of Ukraine


June 6 - June 30, 2002

Note: We have tried to use the Ukrainian spelling (or rather, transliteration) for the names of people and places in Ukraine. Sometimes, however, as with Kiev, the Russian version has become a kind of standard and so we have used it instead.

Ukrainian Flag

My first impression of Ukraine was not a happy one and was provided by the bus that we took from Sucheava, Romania to Chernivtsi, Ukraine. The bus was in very poor shape. It had obviously never had air-conditioning and the seats and other fixtures and fittings had definitely seen better days. My immediate thought was "God, I hope the hotels aren't like this". Unfortunately, some of them were. I had had some experience of communist countries as a student in the late 60's and by all accounts Ukraine, unlike the Eastern European satellites, had travelled the least distance, economically speaking, from its communist days. Before arrival I had hoped for better, but was, as you can see, disappointed. Gerry was unphased by such trifling details and instead was excited to be finally going to Ukraine, his mother's homeland. His focus was entirely on what was to be seen outside the bus.

To step back a little, we had been riding buses pretty constantly for the previous three months. In Turkey the small local buses, called dolmus in Turkish, were often crowded but always clean and fairly new. It seemed that the driver owned or leased the bus, or at least had a vested interest in its condition because they were inevitably well-cared for. Long-distance buses were always brand-new, sleek, modern, air-conditioned coaches. They were certainly newer and in better condition than the coaches we frequently ride in Britain. Long distance buses in Bulgaria were clearly older, but still comfortable and well-kept. In Romania for the most part we had travelled by train so had little information about buses, but we had seen Romanian buses around and they looked to be in better shape than Bulgarian buses, if not quite up to Turkish standards Imagine therefore our feelings when we boarded the rusty tub that I would have said couldn't be started except that I knew it had come from Chernivtsi that morning.

Boarding the Bus to Chernivtsi

Boarding the bus I was too uncertain of my ancient rusty Russian to want to open my mouth. But at the border the women from our bus who gathered around us and started asking questions as we stood waiting to cross the border were so surprised that I could speak any Russian, that they easily forgave me all my mistakes.

These women were very interesting. Very Russian-looking in terms of their body shape — the typical Babushka look — they were in their forties and coming back home to Ukraine after a monthly trip to Romania to sell hand-made wedding dresses. When asked why they crossed the border to sell their wares, they replied that it was because the Romanians were richer and so could afford to pay more for the dresses. One woman in particular named Stella took a shine to us and watched over us like a mother hen as we went through passport and customs checks. Kindness from strangers became a hallmark of our trip to Ukraine. She helped us through "money inspection," the only one we ever experienced at a border. We had to empty every pocket and every pocket-book for the Ukrainian inspector.

Jan and Stella, the wedding dress maker
Jan and Stella, the wedding dress maker

Once across the border, as we rode along and edged out of territory that not so long ago was Romanian, its characteristic painted village houses were gradually replaced by Ukrainian village homes decorated with tile or painted stucco. Some of the Ukrainian homes were built from whole logs, reminiscent of those built by the pioneers to the United States. The first surprise therefore was how well-kept these village homes were and how prosperous they looked, each with its small holding abundant with early summer vegetables. Almost all of the homes were built around a courtyard with storage barn and maybe a pig-sty or other animal house making up the other two sides.

Between villages were great expanses of grain growing; in France one can easily walk from village to village; not here, they are so far apart. The countryside looked rich and fertile as befits what was known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. The land was gently rolling initially but as we moved north flattened more and more. There was little evidence of mechanization and yet the fields seemed so big, that it looked as though the collective farms had still not been dismantled. We were happy to see that Ukraine also had a stork population. Having encountered them first in Turkey, we always looked out for light or telephone poles supporting stork nests and sometimes saw the heads of the young peeking out over the edge of the nest.

Ukrainian Farm Country

By contrast to the countryside and its villages, the small towns just looked drab. As we drove through them, and often into them for brief exchange of passengers, we passed decaying concrete bus stops, decaying concrete apartment blocks, and in the ground floors, drab-looking shops. Every small town had at least one huge, empty, communist-style breadshop. Brief glimpses inside the door showed a minimal stock. We wondered if there were other shops with better variety but doubted it. Private cars were less numerous than in Romania and less new, but they did exist.

Our first night in Ukraine was at the Bukovina Hotel in Chernivtsi. While not great, it had once been modern and still was, just, acceptable. From there it was very much down hill to the grimness of the Pivdenny Boog Hotel in Vinnitsa, which was simply over priced for what can only be described as a dump. We entered into negative territory.with minimal comfort at the Korosten Hotel in Korosten, with its en-suite bathroom bereft of running hot water. At least the staff in Korosten was very friendly, unlike at the Pivdenny Boog. It is only fair to say, though, that Chernivtsi and Korosten are far off the beaten track and that Vinnitsa did have some better places which we missed because we arrived late in the day and in the rain and took the first thing offered.

Korosten, a small city about 150 km north northwest of Kiev, is the biggest Ukrainian town anywhere near the Belarus border. We went there from Kiev on a two-day excursion to try to find the birthplace of Gerry's mother. It truly was our introduction to the modern Ukrainian economy. At the Korosten Hotel after I had looked at the room to make sure it had minimum bathroom facilities, which fortunately and surprisingly were en-suite, I asked the normal question one asks in such places: "What time is the hot water on?" The Bukovina, for example, had hot water only early morning and evening. Imagine my horror when the clerk replied, "There is no hot water." Nonplussed, I asked rather stupidly, "In the entire hotel?". Her answer shocked me even more: "In the entire town!" After some discussion it appeared that there had not been hot running water in the town for two years or more.

I had mixed emotions two days later when I had this conversation confirmed — I didn't really trust my Russian comprehension — in the nearby provincial capital of Zhitomir. This city of 300,000 suffers from the same problem. As explained to us, the gas company that runs the local power station also owns hot water pipes that run to every building in the city. Three years ago, suffering from an inability to collect its debts — people were just too poor to pay — the company could no longer afford to heat the hot water and so turned it off. We did see stores selling instant hot water heaters, but none of the people that we talked to could afford to buy one. They were heating water on the stove for their weekly baths, just like my mother used to do for us fifty years ago. Astonishing, perhaps, but it helps explain why so many older Ukrainians and anyone trying to live on a government salary or stipend are unhappy with the new capitalist regime and long to go back to the old Soviet days.

Kiev Architecture

K iev (like Lviv and even some smaller cities) has an amazing stock of 19th century office and residential buildings with an art nouveau flavor to them, a good number of which were being restored and refurbished. The restored offices buildings are the new prestige locations. The apartment blocks were not only beautiful to look at on the outside, but also lovely to live in with high (12-ft.) ceilings, attractive decorative moldings, practical double windows for the bitterly cold winters, and rooms in which you could easily swing at least a dozen cats.

Staying in private apartments is quite the thing to do in Kiev; they substitute for the sadly missing small family pension found in other countries. Perhaps as the economy liberalizes even more, they will turn into pensions. We were most happy to be accommodated in two different apartments during our two stays in Kiev. For us they were far better value for money than the overpriced old communist hotel stock or the exorbitant European or American new arrivals. We had not known how good a value they were before our arrival in Kiev but we knew we wanted one.

In a web search we found Sergei and his web-site offering apartments in Kiev. We sent him email hardly expecting a reply, but within the day he replied with a mobile telephone number for us to use to contact him on our arrival in Kiev. When we did finally meet him, we were shocked to find ourselves confronted by a very self-assured 23-year old, already driving his very own (although not very new) car. The small apartment he found us was very nice and very well located just off the central Independence Square, almost above the McDonalds. All mod cons included satellite TV in English, French, German, and Russian. What more could we ask? After going to Narodichi we came back to a bigger and better place just up the street.

Lviv Opera House

Our last week in Ukraine was almost redemptive because in Lviv (Lvov in Russian; Lemberg, as the Austrian colonial masters called it, in German) we enjoyed the old-world comfort of the St. George Hotel. It was so charming: the gorgeous 19th century facade had recently been repainted in a lovely pale pink and white. The inside had solid wooden floors with deep-pile carpets and wonderfully elegant double-loop staircases to carry you up those wonderfully deep floors. True, we did not get our en-suite bathroom, but we felt it was a small price to pay in exchange for the very spacious room and terrific breakfast. Served on the stiffest starched white tablecloths you have ever seen, breakfast consisted of a glass of fruit nectar -- much too thick and delicious to be called mere juice — a plate of cold cuts accompanied by dark bread and butter and jam, and finally the hot plate which changed every day. We had blintzes filled with cream cheese and topped with jam, knishes with cream and jam, scrambled egg and bacon. Yummy! Would it be too chauvinistic to think service -- staff really were friendly — and comfort was available because the city was Polish until Stalin grabbed it and they now wanted to attract rich Poles? 

When we got to Lviv, Gerry suggested that I expedite bargaining over hotel prices, by specifying a maximum price of $30 right away. In local currency, that converted to approximately 150 Griven. When I walked into the lobby of the St. George, I was sure that this place must cost more than Gr.150. But, staying with the strategy, I boldly walked up to the reception desk and asked in my best rehearsed Russian, "Do you have a double room for up to Gr.150." I almost fell through the floor when she responded, "I have double rooms for Gr.157." I looked at the room and the bathroom across and down the hall and decided I liked it; but I also decided I should look at the other three hotels that were marked on our map within a ten-minute radius of the St. George. The first was a four-star hotel that cost US$150, rather than Gr.150. The second was arguably the most curious hotel. It was very old and run-down, but had the tiniest elevator I have ever seen, squeezed into the center of the stairwell. Its most expensive rooms were Gr.60 and were pretty grim. The last one was the backpacker hotel recommended by Lonely Planet. It too was cheaper than the St. George, had en-suite bathrooms with running hot and cold water, but was also decidedly run-down and communist in atmosphere (i.e. unfriendly staff). Choosing the St. George was really a no-brainer. I should also add that at this stage I did not know that the price included breakfast. We learned that after we had checked in.

There are great contrasts within a city like Kiev and between large, developing cities, again like Kiev, and those still off the development path. Some of the inhabitants of Kiev and the other cities we saw were clearly church-mouse poor, barely subsisting on monthly pensions of $30-$40 (our budget for a night in a hotel). The nouveau riche were in evidence driving fancy cars, carrying the inevitable mobile phone, and partaking in the most elegant of surroundings of the best food Europe has to offer often at prices not much below European prices. There were plenty of cafes and bistros; we went to a play based on the life of Edith Piaf; entry would have cost a poorer person a day's wages. Bare midriffs were common, died hair not infrequent, high heels an absolute must to set off the bias-cut skirts that all the girls were wearing. Coming as we had from a rather conservative Turkey, eastern Europe was an eye-opener. The entrepreneurial spirit was alive and well, and for us personified by Sergei among Ukrainians and among foreigners by a beefy Turk who had come to set up a mobile phone business and a rabbi who had come from Brooklyn to revivify the Jewish community.

Sunday at Kiev Cathedral

We were vastly impressed by the numberless churches, rich with baroque and rococo decoration — such a denial of the communist ethic — now busy with restoration. Some are reconstructions of buildings destroyed by the communists in the 1920s and 1930s as they strove to control the country and wipe out centers of resistance based on the church. Today, they are often the brightest and finest buildings around and frequently packed with churchgoers, signing the cross, genuflecting, kissing icons, kneeling on marble floors, who are mostly women swathed in headscarves. The orthodox churches in particular have an air of mystery, with their black-frocked and bearded priests chanting in deep baritones, the services dominated by the crowned and bejewelled grey-bearded metropolitans dressed in richly brocaded and gilded episcopal garments. Day after day we would find new heights of artistic endeavor.

Ukrainian Artist

Unlike in other countries, tourists, tour groups, and tour buses are hardly present. We found just one place in Kiev, just outside the St.Andrew's church, where there were shoulder-to-shoulder stalls selling to the tourists. In today's China your can't avoid them. In Israel and Turkey you can't walk by without being grabbed. But here, this single street came as a mild shock when we did find it. It was all very low key and that is probably why we did buy a few treasures. One was a hand-painted box sold to us by the artist herself, who patiently and lovingly explained her techniques and her training in traditional oil painting.

The statuary in the many city parks we visited are suitably schizophrenic. On the one hand, the ugly square-edged statues of Soviet realism like the Rodina Mat statue overlooking the river Dniester that commemorates Russian-Ukrainian friendship. On the other, the newly-erected statues of romantic heroes of a new-found nationalism, kings and princes, poets and politicians. Monuments to the victims of fascism now exist side by side with monuments to the victims of Communism: the memorial of Babi Yar and the Kiev Synagogue, rising from the ashes.

The "high culture" artistic life is still alive, even if not quite so subsidized as it was in Soviet days. Now rock and other formerly disapproved alternatives are easily available and draw a clientele that would have gone to concerts and operas. In Kiev we did make it to a concert in a lovely greek-revival concert hall. Unfortunately we had failed to understand it was a reprise of new music, not to our taste, and we left at the interval. The Opera is an attractive building, seen by us only from the outside, since we failed to understand that the season was not over; only when one evening we saw people going in did we realize our mistake. We had better luck in Lviv. There, a miniature Vienna opera house sits at the end of a long, grassy mall that begins just outside the St.George Hotel. Inside is a very ornate room that was like an old-fashioned version of Rudaki Hall, our old haunt in Tehran. Our night there we heard "The Barber of Seville" and liked it.

Traditional Log House in Narodichi

We didn't see all of Ukraine; we were only in the western half, and of that saw only small parts. But one place was special for its family connections and history: Narodichi, a half-deserted village of log homes intermixed with more modern ones, many lying empty and decaying, abandoned in the aftermath of the nuclear reactor disaster at Chernobyl, its near neighbor 60 km to the east. Many of the original inhabitants of the village, including the last Jewish residents, have moved to the nearby city of Zhitomir, where the government after four years provided them with small apartments. Oddly enough, the last Jewish residents to leave Narodichi are probably distant relatives of Gerry, whose mother was born there and left as an infant. We met and talked with them and learned that they miss the village enormously and would like nothing more than to be able to turn back the clock and go back not only to life in their village but to life in Soviet Ukraine. While illness has made them leave, the continued poverty of the nation means that new people still arrive. The very poor, faced with little or no income and seeing free homes available, come to live, grow their crops, and graze their cows in the contaminated fields of this medium-level contamination area.

Now, we look forward to a return visit. We want to see the rest of the country, especially Odessa, another old center of Jewish culture. Sadly, by the time we do get back, it will probably have been discovered by all of those tourists that we saw in Prague.

Updated September 21, 2002