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On the cover
¹7 (2014)
Tunnelling Towards Hope

28 February - 6 March 2014

Ukraine History

A Stronghold of Rulers and Rebels

With the recent death toll jumping to nearly 100 and 1,000 injured, Hrushevskoho Street, one of the strongholds of EuroMaidan’s three-month-long protests, made headlines around the globe. It was here, on 19 January the country’s stand against government corruption, abuse of power, and the violation of human rights turned from peaceful protest to all-out revolution. Having witnessed much over the years, Hrushevskoho is a street with a history, and not only care of recent days.


Ukraine Today
Acelebrity using their status and intelligence to influence public views and opinion is rarely seen in modern society, even less so in Ukraine. Here, the majority of celebs use their time, effort, and money to enhance or further their career rather than put their name to something that can do good for others. However, as EuroMaidan intensifies, some are making themselves heard – and they fall either side of the EuroMaidan divide.
It used to be that when rebellion and revolution occurred, the intellectual, creative, and spiritual elite would be front and centre.


Ukrainian Culture

When Walls Can Talk

People have been writing on walls since the dawn of civilisation, we call it graffiti, and ranges from simple written words to elaborate wall paintings. Sometimes it is merely the creator wanting to leave his or her mark; sometimes there is an underlying social or political reason. And it is due to the latter that graffiti has exploded across Kyiv in recent months. Anti dictator messages aside, we peel back a few layers of paint to look at graffiti in the city in general.



Most foreign readers will be more than familiar with the experience of trying to get to the bottom of something in Ukraine only to be met with numerous seemingly contradictory responses. So common is this phenomenon that one could be forgiven for thinking that the notion of incontrovertible truths was null and void in this part of the world. We saw a wonderful example of this last week when President Yushchenko declared that the nation’s prosecutors had all the evidence they needed to solve the case of his poisoning, only for the Prosecutor General himself to come out the very next day and say that this was not actually the case, and that the investigation is on-going (see page 54 for details). Clearly one of them is not telling the truth, but the issue was left unresolved to the confusion of everyone. This remarkable incident passed almost without comment in the local media, which says it all really. Nobody seemed in the least bit surprised to find the president so directly contradicted and apparently powerless. It is a situation that has become all too commonplace in post-Orange Ukraine. I doubt very much whether we will ever find out who poisoned Yushchenko, just as we will never learn who was behind the Gongadze slaying or the true nature of countless other Kuchma era crimes that lurk in the murky, inter-connected underworld of post-Soviet politics. The real question is how long this Cold War can continue before things come to a head. The president is now in open conflict with his government while ministries apparently ignore his decrees, so the unsolved poisoning is hardly a priority, nor was last week’s debacle a nadir, but if there was ever a man who needed to make some tough New Year’s resolutions, then that man is Viktor Yushchenko.

 Merry Christmas!
Peter Dickinson

Most readers probably missed the recent Champions League tie with Real Madrid. With the Spanish giants already through to the next round and Dynamo long since eliminated, it was hardly edge of the seat stuff. For the record Kyiv threw away a two-goal lead to draw the match, bringing to an end what has been an appalling campaign. In many ways a later press conference proved more interesting than the match itself, and served to illustrate one of the worst trends dogging today’s Ukraine. Facing an understandably hostile press pack under-fire trainer Demyanenko moaned that he’d told the team how to play time and again but they simply didn’t listen. What more could he do? In other words, it was one more classic example of the age-old Ukrainian refrain which you often hear when something goes wrong in this part of the world, namely, ‘It wasn’t my fault’. Rather than try and work out how to resolve problems, the instinct seems to be to cry ‘not my mistake’ as loud as possible. The speed with which many people in Kyiv rush to detach themselves from any responsibility in this manner is truly stunning, and highlights the lack of accountability that hampers so many aspects of the country’s development. Seeing the head coach and leader of the country’s top team doing just that was both ironic and tragic in its way. Here is a role model to millions of Ukrainians and a man who should be a leading example of team spirit and responsible management, but he chooses to excuse himself on national TV and effectively blame his colleagues. The real shame here is that it came as no big surprise, but it would be nice to see people taking responsibility for solving problems instead of disowning them.

Peter Dickinson,

The great London spy poisoning scandal rumbled on all last week, drawing the attention of the Western media and sparking a major debate about what is really going on in Putin’s Russia. The irony here is that after years of dubious behaviour peppered with quotes bemoaning the collapse of the Soviet empire, Putin should come in for his biggest media cross-examination for something as laughably innocuous as the alleged murder of an unknown and apparently unimportant KGB defector. That’s the West for you, I suppose. Openly show your support for the theft of a presidential election and they will display mild interest. Pass disgusting laws banning foreigners from working in certain sectors of the Russian economy and the outcry is negligible. Cut heating supplies to a neighbour in midwinter when the temperature is minus ten and you’ll only get a response in so far as European countries further down the line are effected. Send the police out on the hunt for ethnic Georgian schoolchildren and there is no reaction. Push through legislation making it all but impossible for most human rights groups to operate in Russia and it barely warrants a paragraph. Allow skinheads free reign throughout the land and you might get the odd letter to the editor. But suspicion of involvement in the poisoning of a self-appointed opposition figure right on the West’s doorstep? Hold the front page! Now all of a sudden the internet forums are alive with debate about Putin, the FSB, Russia, the return of the Cold War, America’s plans for world hegemony and so forth. It has been something of a deluge, and highly entertaining to watch from a Ukrainian vantage point. The impression so far is that the West seems to be living in utter delusion as to what Russia is all about. Let’s hope that the end result will be a better understanding of the forces at work in the former USSR, and the challenges facing pro-democracy movements in this part of the world. It may not be as glamorous as international espionage, but it effects the lives of rather more people. Cheers, Peter Dickinson, Editor

I was back home in London last week just in time to witness the media frenzy surrounding the latest Russian poisoning death (see page 46 for details). Every single newspaper front page was emblazoned with images of the ailing victim propped up in a hospital bed, while commentators queued up to discuss the Kremlin’s passion for poisoning and the implications for Britain’s relations with Putin’s Russia. My friends found the story, with its talk of betrayals, secret agents and international assassinations extremely exciting, coming as it did on the back of the latest James Bond release. What, they wondered, was the reaction in Russia and neighbouring Ukraine, where the most famous poisoning in modern times had taken place just two years ago? My answer, predictably, was ‘what reaction?’ While the international media has been having a field day with this tale of death and espionage, it has barely warranted a mention in the local press. In Russia this silence is understandable, but Ukraine’s media whitewash is harder to fathom. In the current political climate Russia-baiting is admittedly not a popular ploy, while no doubt many editors are cautious about being seen to side with ‘the foreigners’. Perhaps more worryingly, this lack of interest is also a reflection of the sad fact that Russian spies being murdered is simply not considered news here. It happens. In other words, it is about as surprising as snow in January and just as inevitable. Ignoring such uncomfortable truths was a specialty of the state’s pre-Orange era censorship, and while Ukraine’s media has made enormous progress since 2004 it remains in many ways restricted by the population it serves and their prevailing attitudes, often formulated during the Cold War.

Peter Dickinson,

The Ukrainian parliament bravely voted last week to postpone the vote on whether to recognise the terror famine of the 1930s as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. Yet again the country’s legislators approached a subject that lies at the very heart of Ukraine’s struggle with its troubled past, peered over the rim into the gaping abyss, and promptly ran away. It is easy enough to understand why; attitudes to the famine, like those relating to WWII, ties with Russia and the Soviet past in general are symptomatic of the utter lack of consensus as to what being Ukrainian should be all about. At one end of the spectrum you have nationalists who believe the famine was designed to destroy Ukraine as a nation, and at the other you have hard-line communists who refuse to admit that it was anything other than a ghastly natural disaster. The reality, namely that as the Soviet UNI0N’s agricultural stronghold Ukraine was doomed to suffer the brunt of the savagery as Stalin set about collectivising agriculture and breaking the resistance of the peasantry, gets lost amid a screaming match of accusation and denial. It is a great credit to the country that Ukraine is now finally honouring the millions of victims in something like a fitting manner, but it is tragic in its own way that rather than offering some form of closure the subject of the famine continues to divide contemporary Ukrainian society. Ultimately I’d have to question whether the slow, brutal murder of so many millions really needs to be bestowed with the increasingly politicised epithet of ‘genocide’ to render it the place in the world’s collective consciousness that the famine so clearly warrants. Calling it genocide simply gives an ethnic slant to this manmade monstrosity that is both historically dubious and socially divisive. It is perhaps a sign of the times that there should be a push for such keywords, but the human tragedy of the 1930s needs to be honoured, not exploited.

 Peter Dickinson,

The disappointments have come thick and fast since the euphoria of Maidan died away just under two years ago. We have had to suffer behind the scenes deals with the enemy, political betrayals, broken promises, shattered dreams, the return of the old guard, unrestrained corruption, and, worst of all, the price of sugar has gone up. In general it’s fair to say that things didn’t quite work out as everybody hoped they would during those incredible days when Ukrainians fought for democracy in the snow. At the time it seemed that the entire geopolitical landscape had shifted beneath our feet and the road to EU membership and the sunny uplands of Euro-prosperity lay wide open. In retrospect it is now fairly obvious that this ‘orange optimism’ was actually a powerful hallucinogenic. We simply got carried away, and the many millions of Ukrainians who said at the time that no good would come of it must be feeling rather pleased with themselves. The fact remains, though, that even without the benefit of orange-tinted spectacles Ukraine is a very different country today than it was under Kuchma. To mark the second anniversary of the Orange Revolution we’ve taken a look at all the ways in which Ukrainian society has changed in the past two years and found that the Orange Revolution has impacted on everything from people’s interest in politics to the books Kyivites read and way the news is presented on TV (see pages 22-25 for more). We can only speculate as to what the definitive historical verdict on the Orange Revolution will be, but I’d say that for the time being a functioning parliamentary democracy with a vocal opposition, an emerging free press, increased public participation in the political process and a renewed sense of national identity is a reasonable return.

Peter Dickinson,

What does the Soviet UNI0N mean to you? If pushed on the subject most foreigners would probably cite political oppression, drabness and consumer deficits, with the possible addition of bread queues, Big Brother censorship, and shoddy workmanship. In other words, it is not a place that has a very good reputation in the international arena. This is important because these negative assumptions continue to shape our attitudes towards and understanding of today’s former Soviet republics and the processes they are going through. They create a false impression which inevitably clouds any deeper appreciation of what motivates and drives people in the post-Soviet space. In my experience most former citizens of the Soviet UNI0N have a far more forgiving attitude, which is telling. For the vast majority of the population there remains a qualified fondness for the Soviet idyll, which, compared to the rough and tumble of post-Soviet capitalism now seems an innocent time of sing-alongs, summer camps, social security and shared community life, with everyone very much ‘in it together’. Even allowing for rose-tinted reminiscences, it is clear that there were many admirable aspects of the Soviet existence. No doubt you’d have a very different attitude if you were a nationalist or dissident, but of course most people weren’t. This week we’ve put together a Top Ten list of Soviet films that every expat should see (turn to page 26 for details), with the idea being that these films offer a taste of the real USSR, complete with satire lampooning the state, jokes about all the buildings looking the same, and so on. They are a window on the popular culture of a whole society that collapsed in 1991 and which many people still miss. If you are interested in understanding why people could vote for a man like Viktor Yanukovich, why they might regard Putin as a good leader or favour order over intangible civil liberties, and especially if your work involves supporting Ukraine’s integration into the wider world community, then these movies are literally essential viewing. Until people get beyond the idea of Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ they will continue to misunderstand the historic events shaping this part of the world and miss the opportunity of making a useful contribution.

Peter Dickinson,

It’s amazing the difference a few years can make. Last weekend’s Miss Europe 2006 beauty contest was slick, highly professional and star-studded, no doubt acting as another little boost to Ukraine’s international reputation. Back in 1997 when they attempted something on this scale in Ukraine for the first time, however, it ended in high farce and a mass walk-out amid allegations of late night abductions and atrocious facilities (see page 6 for details). At the time such suggestions of chaos and lawlessness were par for the course in a part of the world popularly known as ‘The Wild East’, but thankfully all that seems a long, long way off right now. In those days you used to see people carrying guns routinely and groups of hulking bodyguards were standard practice in Kyiv’s clubs and restaurants. It was not unheard of for bombs to go off in hotel foyers and under cars, while outspoken journalists were prone to disappear. Luckily that sort of thing seems to have gone distinctly out of fashion over the past few years. Recently I was having lunch in a trendy spot when a man walked in with a revolver holstered in his hip. I’m not exaggerating when I say that a number of fellow diners actually sniggered at him. Sure enough, the tough guy sat down and bashfully hid his weaponry away in the manner of a clumsy oaf who’s been scolded by his girlfriend for forgetting to turn his mobile phone off at the ballet. No doubt he was a provincial chap not long arrived in the capital. So although European integration seems as far off as ever it is nevertheless well worth noting that not everything in Kyiv stays the same.

Peter Dickinson,

It seems that you can’t go more than a week in this country without some regional council or other voting on the official status of the Russian language. Not content with the fact that for the majority of Ukrainians Russian is the de facto mother tongue, these folk seem determined to have the thing confirmed in writing as well. Personally I’ve never really been able to see what all the fuss is about. Ukrainian is a beautiful language and an important element of the national culture, but I don’t see the necessity of forcing Russian speakers to use it just to make a point. All in all it is a damned divisive issue and one which superficially separates people who are basically all in the same boat. One way out of this ‘Ukrainian or Russian’ mess would be to introduce a third element into the official language debates. I am talking, of course, about making English an official language in Ukraine. With thousands of linguistically inept expats here in Kyiv, we already have a significant English-language ethnic minority population, which, politically speaking, is a good starting position. Now all we need to do is pressure the authorities over at City Hall into accepting the need to produce everything tri-lingual, thus making the endless bureaucratic paper chases favoured by local pen pushers that little bit less of a nightmare. If English is a hit in Kyiv oblast, we could consider expanding the experiment. It would undoubtedly be a big pull with the international investment community, and give the country the biggest PR boost since the Orange Revolution. And most importantly, it might actually allow us to settle once and for all how Ukrainian names should be written in English and end the practice of adding endless Y’s, I’s and J’s all over the place!

Peter Dickinson,

There can’t have been many more welcome visitors to Kyiv in the past few years than the hordes of kilted Scottish football fans that descended on the Ukrainian capital last week for their country’s big EURO 2008 qualifier. No doubt many What’s On readers had a laugh or three with these jovial chaps during what was a memorable few days. A quick scan of the internet, however, creates a rather different impression, with story after story in the British press detailing how Scottish fans were set upon by gangs of marauding skinheads, leaving many injured and some hospitalised in unprovoked attacks. This may not have been the abiding memory of their time in Kyiv for the overwhelming majority of visiting Scots, but even so, the damage is done. Now when you mention Ukraine many people in the UK and elsewhere will automatically think of skinheads. Unfortunately that is probably exactly what these morons wanted to achieve. This is not totally new, of course; there is a worryingly xenophobic undercurrent in the Slavic heartlands which has seen outbreaks of racial violence in neighbouring Russia in recent years, and while Ukraine is by comparison a bastion of religious and ethnic tolerance right wing extremism remains a threat. It is one of the many unsung achievements of independent Ukraine that this diverse land of Tatar and Slav, Greek and Jew, Orthodox and Catholic, Hutsul and Ruthenian has managed to avoid ethnic conflict or Balkanisation over the past fifteen years, but the struggle goes on and with European integration seemingly on hold Ukraine’s perceived isolation could help breed extremism. I’m sure most Kyivites will be appalled at such a prospect, and hopefully they will let their feelings be known next time a group of skinheads think they can attack a foreigner in the street.

Peter Dickinson

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Ukraine Truth
Rights We Didn’t Know We Had

Throughout EuroMaidan much has been made of Ukrainians making a stand for their rights. What exactly those rights are were never clearly defined. Ukraine ratified the Univer­sal Declaration of Human Rights in 1952. The first article of the Declaration states all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, they are endowed with reason and conscience, and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. The ousted and overthrown Ukrainian government showed to the world they don’t understand the meaning of these words.

Kyiv Culture

Pulling Strings
Located on Hrushevskoho Street – the epicentre of EuroMaidan violence, home to battles, blazes and barricades – children’s favourite the Academic Puppet Theatre had to shut down in February. Nevertheless, it is getting ready to reopen this March with a renewed repertoire to bring some laughter back to a scene of tragedy. Operating (not manipulating) puppets is a subtle art that can make kids laugh and adults cry. What’s On meets Mykola Petrenko, art director of the Theatre, to learn more about those who pull the strings behind the show.


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