If Ukraine was a relationship status update, it would surely be ‘it’s complicated.’ My thoughts on Ukraine after spending 3 months there.
There’s an elderly woman I know who lives off a small government pension, begins Iryna when we ask her about the military-looking tent.
She hardly has any money, and yet every week she comes to donate almost all of it to the military. She grows vegetables in her garden and sells the vegetables for money to live off. The government pension she receives? She donates almost all of it.
We’re standing in the large, public square near the foot of Svobody Ave., the grand-boulevard-like thoroughfare that runs through central Lviv, crowned by the Opera House. Ukrainians are coming and going, posing in traditional clothing and streetwear for photos taken in front of the monument honouring Taras Shevchenko — Ukraine’s master poet and father of Ukrainian literature — and the accompanying 12-meter stela wave symbolizing Ukraine’s cultural revival.
Iryna is our guide on our tour with Green Tour Ukraine, and we’ve unwittingly shifted the conversation from standard tour chat to modern Ukrainian politics…just by asking about the tent that stands behind us.
To our left, photographs show the faces of the Ukrainian soldiers that have been killed in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia: row after row of faces, with names and details of their deaths written below. In the centre, a man stands under the tent, talking to passers-by about the cause. And to the right, there’s a military car — it looks like a station wagon painted in camouflage — that appears to have seen some action.
During the three months we spent in Ukraine, we were approached countless times by people selling blue and yellow rubber wrist bands and asking for money. And it’s just now — in this moment with Iryna, near the end of our Ukraine visit, as she explains how Ukrainians have to donate their own money to the military, just to keep it afloat — that I begin to catch a cloudy glimpse of what’s happening here.
After decades of corruption and foreign interference, Ukrainians have had enough. They’re starting to pick up the pieces and demand change, for better or for worse.
From Euromaidan to Crimea
By way of warning, in case you’re looking to this post for facts and insightful arguments, I don’t really understand the intricacies of recent Ukrainian history and politics, and am but a casual observer.
That said, after spending three months in the country, talking to locals and reading analyses written by people far smarter than me, it’s pretty clear that something is happening there.
And because travelling and writing are the vehicles through which I best understand the world, and best make sense of my own thoughts, here I am.
If you’re looking for anything more than a personal opinion piece filled with muddled thoughts and observations, and a realization that after more than a decade of travel I am still woefully naive and optimistic-to-a-fault about the world, you should move along. But if you’re interested in what I think about Ukraine after spending a bit of time there, you’ve come to the right place.
Let’s start with my very simplistic take on the last three years…one I think will sound pretty familiar to most Canadians, Brits and Americans.
In 2013/14, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych — backed by Russia — refused to sign an association agreement with the EU that many Ukrainians, especially young people, saw as a lifeline for their country. Ukrainians erupted in anger at his 11th hour back-peddling, and the world watched as Kyiv descended into temporary chaos, with those of us in ‘the west’ cheering on what seemed to be average Ukrainians and young people rising up to take control of their country.
When the dust of the Euromaidan was still settling, Yanukovych fled to Russia, and Russia declared there had been a coup d’état, using it as pre-text for incursions into Crimea.
Russia = bad. Ukrainian self-determination = good. End of story, right?
On Civil Society and Nationalism
As the war in Crimea and the east began, Euro-oriented Ukrainians realized their national nightmare was just beginning. It quickly became clear that decades of Russia-backed and corrupt governments had, in fact, systematically dismantled Ukraine’s military.
The tent in Lviv, the bracelet sellers in Kyiv? They were all raising money for Ukraine’s military, trying to buy boots for troops fighting in Crimea and Donetsk.
Coming from where we do in the world, this was honestly a complete mind-f**k for both of us. It’s beyond comprehension that a modern European country would have to look to its citizens to fund its self defence.
As an eternal optimist, this was at first glance both mind-blowing and heartening: seeing everyday people banding together to re-claim and re-build civil society and its institutions? Amazing, right?
But here’s the thing. As a Canadian, when someone talks about ‘the military,’ I automatically assume they’re referring to the institution: the national defence forces, organised, led and funded by the government.
In Ukraine, however, that’s not a given. Here, the war in the east is being fought by the military, yes, but at their side are voluntary freedom fighters, many of whom are ultra-right-wing nationalists, and some of whom are neo-Nazi white nationalists.
That narrative about the average Ukrainian rising up to fight interventionism by the big evil empire? That’s the whitewashed version of the story. We began to see things are more complicated than that.
Drinking Beer at the Hiding Place
Slava Ukraini, we say to the guard, downing the shot of honey vodka he offers while he delivers the only acceptable response, Heroyam Slava.
Glory to Ukraine. Glory to its Heroes.
Password given and welcome shot drunk, we duck to walk down the stone staircase into a basement that looks like a kitschy bunker and find a table.
As always, Kryivka, which means ‘hiding place,’ is jam-packed with locals and tourists drinking beer and sharing simple, Ukrainian comfort food. And as always, it has the atmosphere of kitschy, lighthearted fun.
If you were to go to Kryivka without doing much digging, it’d be easy to mistake if for a quirky and harmless marketing gimmick to get customers in the door, and keep them drinking longer. And while Kryivka is certainly quirky, it’s far from harmless.
A bit of context: this part of Ukraine is fiercely pro-Ukraine and anti-Russian. Vladimir Putin toilet paper (wipe your butt with his face!) and doormats (wipe your shoes on his face!) are top sellers, and a local craft brewery sells ‘Putin is a Dickhead’ brand beer.
Kryivka, owned by the same group that gave us the Putin beer, is in fact themed after the extremely controversial WWII nationalist Stepan Bandera and his band of hero freedom fighters / genocidal war-criminals, depending on your perspective.
The bunker, the food, the theatrics of password and response…it’s all part of the theatre and hero-worship of a man reviled internationally for his role in massacring Poles and Jews in WWII, but who gets mixed reviews in Ukraine. While parts of the country vilify him, in the west he’s seen more favourably, as a hero of Ukrainian independence by many.
Here in Lviv, we’re learning that patriotism borders on (and frequently spills unabashedly into) nationalism, anti-Soviet/Russian sentiment runs blood-boilingly high, and some define the future of Ukraine along ethnocentric lines, with no room for minorities.
But there are bright spots.
A Municipal Protest
After Kryivka, we walk back up to Rynok Square, the heart of historical Lviv. Kryivka happens to be directly adjacent to City Hall, and when we reach street level, one of the first things we see is the protest camp that’s sprung up over the past couple of weeks. A group of about 30 people have set-up tents and signs in front of city hall, ostensibly protesting the current mayor.
When we ask locals about it, they’re skeptical. It is quite possibly fake, they tell us. Paid protestors bankrolled by the opposition candidate.
This post has taken me weeks to write, because every time I’ve picked up the proverbial pen to write, I’ve gotten pulled down a rabbit hole of research, controversy, and general WTF, is this for real? disbelief. And this is a perfect example.
Lviv’s current mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, is widely liked by Lvivians and by Ukrainians across the country – he’s the most popular politician in all of Ukraine. He’s also a political outsider who, so far, appears to be above the corruption that threatens to tear the country apart.
And the elite seem to be taking notice. A vocal critic of President Poroshenko’s unwillingness to tackle corruption in a meaningful way, Sadovyi *seems* to now be a target.
The secret service is leading investigations into his dealings, his home was shot at in 2015, grenades have been thrown into his courtyard, and the fake protests – some which may have been funded by Russia – continue.
It’s a freaking John Grisham movie, but in real life.
Despite all this, Sadovyi appears to be exactly the kind of politician Lviv and Ukraine want and deserve. He rose to power by organising citizens into volunteer groups to fix the things ignored by the government, and tangibly strengthened civil society.
That ‘do it ourselves’ attitude that spurs the retiree to donate her pension, or the volunteer fighters to go to the east, for better or for worse? We saw it again and again in Lviv.
Winter on Fire and a Night Out in Frankfurt
The one thing this post hasn’t touched on is interventionism on the other side of the world. And to illustrate the point, I’ll tell you about a night out in Frankfurt, the Friday after we left Lviv.
We’d been in Frankfurt for the Frankfurt Buchmesse, one of the biggest publishing industry trade shows in the world, to shill our books to international publishers and distributors (nudge, nudge, cough, cough…buy our books on Amazon.
On the last night of the Fair, when all the business was done, we ran into our Airbnb host in the Bornheim district and agreed to his last minute invitation for beers with his friends.
Anytime non-Americans meet these days, they want to talk about the upcoming US election (we mostly avoid speaking about it with Americans, because Americans are pretty divided on it. Europeans and Canadians, for the most part, are more uniform in their not-so-secret hopes that a certain candidate will prevail). As we got into politics, our time in Ukraine crossed over, and I got a nugget of insight from our host.
According to him, Germans are widely pissed at the US for what they see as poking the Russian bear in Ukraine.
Which brings me to the documentary, Winter on Fire (it’s on Netflix currently), which you should absolutely watch, but you should also absolutely read The Heartbreaking Irony of ‘Winter on Fire’.
Ultimately, the story I remember from 2013-2014, sitting in Scotland watching in horror as Russia invaded Ukraine, was a simplistic one of soundbites and (admittedly hilarious, albeit inflammatory) tweets. Not one of neo-Nazi agitators and western interventionism.
And Lviv, with its postcard-worthy UNESCO World Heritage old town, vibrant cultural life, loads of restaurants and cafés to choose from (include rather quirky ones), and prices that are beyond affordable…on the surface it seems like there’s nothing not to like.
But just beneath the surface, tensions run high. After three months in the country, it certainly seems as though there’s some shady business being done by all interested parties. And it doesn’t feel like a stretch to interpret Ukraine as being at at a dangerous tipping point, and to wonder what exactly the future holds for Europe’s largest country and hottest political flashpoint.
There are kernels of truth everywhere, but it’s hard to make sense of it and to tell what’s what. Especially as an outsider.
What Is the Point of All This?
The best kind of travel is the kind that causes you to change and grow, and ultimately, that’s what this post is about…a reflection in bits and pieces from our time in Ukraine.
I know this life we lead is really freaking strange. We find places to call home, temporarily, and we learn about the countries and cultures as best we can, without really changing our routines and lives as we go. We come to understand more than we would if we visited for a day or a few, but ultimately, we often leave without really understanding.
The first time this hit me we were in Oaxaca, Mexico, where we’d been based for 3 or 4 months. We were in the central market, buying coffee from our coffee guy — the best in Oaxaca — and were walking down one of the long exterior halls toward the pedestrian old centre, where we were going to grab a bite to eat.
There in the corner, I noticed a typist/writer sitting behind in a glass booth, with an indigenous woman — a customer — standing and waiting for the typist to fill out some paperwork on her behalf. As we walked I began to process what I’d seen: in a state where roughly 42% of the indigenous population are non-Spanish monolinguals (2005 census), the typist existed for people who needed to fill out forms — for school, for the government, for services, etc. — but were either illiterate, or spoke an alien tongue.
Here we were — digital nomads travelling the world with thousands of dollars of technology, able to earn money from wherever we went in the most insane, post-modern way by making travel coloring books and guides — living in the same place where, by necessity of demand, a typist service existed for those whose tongue was alien in their own land, and who were illiterate in the language they needed to access government services, start a business, or just generally thrive.
I felt like an interloper there, and in many ways I felt the same way in Ukraine. We went there not really knowing what to expect, and we left not fully understanding what’s going on there, but packing with us a new sense of general unease for the future.
If you go to Ukraine, I hope this post encourages you to do a bit of research, and to see below the surface of all that is shiny in that country right now. In Kyiv, you can spend your entire time in hipster cafes and beer spots. Liviv looks lovely and vibrant, and in many ways it is.
It’s great. Seriously. You should go.
But also know that the tension runs quite shallow beneath the surface, and not all is as it appears. Go to Kryivka if you must, but know it’s representative of the worst part of Eastern European ethno-nationlism and the extreme right, and the man who it is themed around has been internationally condemned as a war criminal. Know that the “Jewish themed” restaurant At the Golden Rose, owned by the same people as Kryivka, sits in a city where the Jewish population went from over 100,000 to less than 1,000 over night (See this PRI article – How About Some Anti-Semitism With That Dish?).
And know there’s a tonne of propaganda in and about Ukraine, from all sides, and you’re unlikely to really understand the real story.
We sure didn’t.