the Sauna Train of Ukraine, to Chernivtsi

With Anatolii and Katya - they might look cool but actually we were HOT

With Anatolii and Katya – they might look cool but actually we were melting HOT

So it’s 20 degrees outside, and 30 degrees inside, with no possibility of opening any windows. 4 bunks in our cabin, and the train rattles through the night on its 13 hour journey to Chernivtsi in western Ukraine.

Chai, served by each carriage’s conductor in glass mugs with decorative silver holders and matching teaspoons, provides welcome refreshment as we gently sweat.

I was invited to Katya’s home town to speak at the University where her father, Dr Vasyl Byalyuk, is Chair of the Dept of Translation.

pic of university building

Chernivtsi University – A UNESCO World Heritage site, built in 1860.

Sixty students of English (philology and translation) and teaching staff turned up to listen to my presentation about the value of culture, sharing the experience of how the arts have been a driver for regeneration and entrepreneurial activity in the UK’s North West.I talked too about stories – how my story and your story become, collectively, what represents us…our culture: a national identity woven from the warp and weft of individual and civic stories.

The evening before, the British Council had hosted a soirée designed to hear from some of the key players in Ukraine’s cultural scene about what they perceive to be the challenges facing them, and what they need from the British Council at this point in the country’s development.

pic of 12 people

Ukraine’s cultural leaders meet British Council’s team in Ukraine

“We need to make and show film, theatre, and art which promotes tolerance” said one. “We need you to support the education of our young film makers, choreographers, theatre makers by offering fast track ways in which curators and producers can learn skills which enable them to support our own artists from all disciplines” said another. “The British Council’s role in encouraging work which promotes diversity, and supporting artists to find ways to bring diverse communities together is crucial – given the increasing schism between eastern and western Ukraine” observed a third.

In a guidebook for Chernivtsi I read “From the City Hall balcony, magistrate employees once spoke to citizens in 3 languages (Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian) informing them about events in the world and the city. The capital of Bukovyna (the region of Ukraine which touches Romania and Moldova) was always distinguished by tolerance and a variety of cultures“.

That rich history is everywhere: Armenian Street, the House of Romanians, Turkish Square, the synagogues around the corner from Orthodox churches, the German Haus, the classicism of the architecture of the Austro-Hungarian empire next to modernist 1930’s civic buildings. The history of Bukovyna is one (another one) of occupation, assimilation…and tolerance. Today the pedestrianised Main St is full of prams and children, balloon sellers and girls in high heels, and in the nearby markets old women sell their pickles while old men sit smoking.

Deliciously random objects to sit side by side, in the Museum

Deliciously random objects to sit side by side, in the Museum

In the museum of the History and Ethnography of the Chernivtsi Region, rooms of objects are laid out in a wonderfully haphazard way – the taxidermist’s handiwork juxtaposed with traditional costume, next to a room of WW1 memorabilia, alongside some fascinating photos and masks from the Malanka carnival tradition still maintained in Bukovyna’s villages.

One of the students asked me about whether we in the UK are envious of the purity of some of Ukraine’s folk traditions…in our mixed up, mash up cultural melting pot, have we lost respect for “purity”?

I don’t think ‘pure’ traditions really exist – the folkloric aspects of western Ukrainian culture come to us from the weaving together of different influences. And culture that stagnates becomes irrelevant and we no longer care enough to fight for its survival.

The challenge facing Ukraine’s new cultural ministry remains – how much of its tiny resources are needed to preserve the past and how much should be spent on supporting artists to create new work, new films, new shows that speak to, and of, today’s fractured society? Art which might help people understand the immense shift that has taken place in Ukraine in the last 4 months.

A round table discussion with teaching staff, and a shameless promotional opportunity!

A round table discussion with teaching staff

The British Council in Ukraine is listening carefully to those who have proved their credibility in the artistic life of Ukraine by making things happen against all odds. It needs to be bold in its own approach, and in its encouragement and support of Ukraine’s artists, curators, producers, teachers and translators to be ambitious, despite the constant challenge of finding resources; and above all, it needs to continue to promote tolerance as a fundamental value.

 

And the bands play on…

Dakha Brakha at Sentrum in Kyiv

Dakha Brakha at Sentrum in Kyiv

Last week I got to see one of Ukraine’s most exciting cultural exports – DakhaBrakha, who play at music festivals all over the world. “Ethno-chaos” is how they describe their music; and their performance took us from intimate close harmony singing to riotously exuberant rhythms that left the sell out crowd at new music venue Sentrum stamping for more. With its roots in Ukrainian traditional song, mixed up with all sorts of African, Middle Eastern and techno influences, and an electric atmosphere – because they don’t play so often here now – it was a brilliant gig. The previous week I’d been to see O Children, a British band who hadn’t been put off coming to Ukraine by the unrest (unlike Kosheen, who cancelled recently) and whose commitment to playing in Kyiv was rewarded with a great response from the young crowd at another new music venue Yunist on Artema St.

I went back to Lviv at the weekend – to be a tourist, and hook up with John. Stuffed to its medieval brim with churches and restaurants and chocolate/coffee houses, it’s a delight to wander around. By chance, we had met Dr Igor H. an extremely knowledgeable tour guide, and he led us down tiny passageways, past bas-reliefs of men who didn’t pay enough attention to their partners, by bronze statues of painters and poets and Polish inventors, and into various baroque cathedrals and Jesuit churches…all the while telling the stories of Lviv’s history, when it was part of various empires – Austro-Hungarian, Polish, Swedish, Soviet, Nazi.

The Armenian Church was probably the most understated of all the places of worship, and had the most beautiful painting, with ghostly shapes picked out alongside the monks, but I lost almost all my photos so can’t share it – you’ll just have to make the trip to see it yourselves. The food was great – if occasionally overshadowed by the extravagance of the themed restaurants that Lviv prides itself on: like the extraordinary decor in Meat and Justice, where one sits next to various medieval torture contraptions, and the bill is delivered by an executioner with an axe!

Lviv Pharmacy

Lviv Pharmacy

Lviv is acknowledged to be the festival city of Ukraine – with something like 88 different festivals annually, which is taking its toll on the locals – but nonetheless, people were incredibly friendly and welcoming wherever we went. Stopping and opening a map elicits offers of help from passers by, and ending up in a traditional Ukrainian restaurant with no menu in English didn’t stop the waiter who spoke very little English from helping us choose a great lunch.

Podillya to Crimea

pic of lake and grotto

Sofiyivska Park in Uman, named after Sofia, a young Greek woman reputedly so beautiful she inspired her husband to build her this park in central Ukraine.

International Women’s Day is a significant celebration here – I’ve never seen so many people on the metro with flowers, we all got a day off work, and I made a trip to Uman (which happens to rhyme with Woman) by bus with an English teacher friend, Anastasiia.

Our destination was Sofiyivskii Park, created by a Polish aristocrat for his wife, Sofia, on her birthday in 1802. As a child, Sofia had been sold to a Polish Ambassador by her widowed mother; and was bought and sold throughout her life before she married Count Potocki.  She ended up having a tempestuous love affair with the Count’s stepson, which drove the Count to leave Uman, never to return. You can’t buy love, or at least you can’t buy everlasting love, even if you can make an everlastingly lovely park.

pic of lake

The Park was designed by architect Ludwig Metzel “to outshine any other park in Europe”, and it is indeed beautiful. We explored the gardens, grottoes and lakes; saw a red squirrel, warrior beatles, and a woodpecker; and found a man selling handmade wooden trinkets.

An impromptu celebration with rum
An impromptu celebration with rum!

His friends invited us to share rum and chocolate in the sunshine: so we drank 3 toasts – to Women in acknowledgement of International Women’s Day, to Ukraine, and to Love. You could almost hear the Polish Count turning in his grave!

060And from there to Vinnitsa – where we were greeted by a strangely lonely wedding dress on display in the bus station; and a day spent visiting the Museum of Nikolai Pirogov, an eminent surgeon whose home and pharmacy are now open to visitors.

Pirogov's MausoleumBut before the Museum, the Mausoleum – when he died aged 88, his wife had him embalmed, and we were taken into the cold marbled depths of this chapel to view the doctor’s body, now 130 years older, on display in a glass-topped coffin, surrounded by bouquets of plastic flowers.

Fishing in Vinnitsa

Fishing in Vinnitsa

Inside Pirogov’s home, we saw displayed the tools of this surgeon who had tried to mend the men wounded & shattered in the Crimean Wars of the mid nineteenth century. Outside the doctor’s estate today, men fished in the sunshine. I saw the first snowdrops, and my second red squirrel of the weekend; and all seemed peaceful.

But in Crimea now, in 2014, the Russian army is tightening its grip and the schism between Russia and Ukraine is widening.

I was actually supposed to be visiting Sevastopol in Crimea at the weekend, but the trip was called off because of the unstable and worsening position there. The referendum that’s been called for March 16 by the Crimean regional council is illegal, and the self-appointed leader of Crimea has no mandate to represent anyone. People who define themselves as Russian in Crimea number about 56%, (Ukrainians and Crimean Tartars make up about 34% of the region’s population) and it’s unlikely that even all of them want to become part of Russia…but the outcome of this week’s referendum will be rigged.

pic of waxworks

Waxworks of Dr Pirogov at work in his pharmacy

Most of the Crimean Tartars were deported by Stalin, but some have returned since the region became part of Ukraine. But since the arrival of Russian troops, many fear attack.

So do we face the prospect of another Crimean War? At least one colleague at the British Council thinks so and has left his job to respond to the call up by the Ukraine Army who are now training new conscripts for battle.

“Along the whole line of the Sevastopol bastions, which for so many months now had been seething with an unusually active life, had seen heroes released one by one into the arms of death, and had aroused the fear, hatred and latterly the admiration of the enemy forces, there was now not a soul to be seen. The whole place was laid waste, uncanny – but not quiet: the destruction was still continuing…….

Surging together and ebbing apart like the waves of the sea on this gloomy swell-rocked night, uneasily shuddering with all its massive volume, swaying out along the bridge and over on the North side by the bay, the Sevastopol force moved slowly in a dense, impenetrable crush away from the place where it had left behind so many brave men, the place that was entirely saturated in its blood; the place which for eleven months it had held against an enemy twice as powerful, and which it had now been instructed to abandon without a struggle.”

Leo Tolstoy, Sevastopol in August 1855

Chornobyl – lest we forget

photo of reactor number 4

the reactor encased in a concrete tomb, 28 years old and deteriorating

In April 1986 I was living in Finland and I remember the panic amongst the Finnish and Swedish authorities when massive levels of radiation started being picked up in the atmosphere… we were advised to stay indoors. The radioactivity wasn’t coming from within Scandinavia, but from the USSR. Visiting Chornobyl, just 80k north of Kyiv, 28 years later felt like a pilgrimage that I had to make, and I’m so glad I did.

the diving boards at the swimming pool in the Palace of Culture

the diving boards at the swimming pool in the Palace of Culture in Pripyat.

On the tour bus, we were shown a film that set the context – the model Soviet new town of Pripyat, built in 1970, and home to 47,000 citizens; the much older settlement of Chornobyl, surrounded by fertile land and forest known for its abundance of mushrooms; and Ukraine’s largest nuclear reactor. We drove through the outer exclusion zone, now home to 3000 workers, and were taken much closer to Reactor Number 4 than I’d imagined we’d go – here we witnessed the teams at work building the new sarcophogus which will roll into place, covering the disintegrating tomb that currently encases the still radioactive core.

pic of memorial

memorial to the 31 firefighters who died in the initial fire…many thousands more were to die later

The external decontamination operation has been massive and mainly successful – but the death toll was significantly higher than the 31 official deaths of the firefighters. Soldiers, who named themselves bio-robots, ended up doing the most hazardous work when the hastily fabricated clean-up machines failed due to irradiation; helicopter pilots, scientists, and other “liquidators” fighting to control the fate of the reactor, were the main victims at the time. Subsequently, 125,000 deaths have been directly attributed to the accident, and the incidence of thyroid cancer in children from the region numbers around 1 in 10.

Entertainment facilities in Pripyat included a ferris wheel and dodgem cars...

Entertainment facilities in Pripyat included a ferris wheel and dodgem cars…

In Pripyat, we walked around a ghost town that is being inexorably reclaimed by nature. From the lines of cots in the kindergarten to the empty diving boards of the swimming pool, from the supermarket with its signs for sugar, bread, and tea to the billboards in the Palace of Culture lying ready for the 1986 May Day celebrations, everything is pretty much as it was when the town was evacuated….too late to prevent contamination, finally the entire population was removed in 3 hours, on the understanding that they would return within 3 days. The scale of the Soviet authorities denial/cover up was described as criminal by our young guide, but there was also great heroism shown by the men involved in the clean up. Chornobyl remains the world’s worst nuclear disaster and many people are still living with its consequences.

the secondary school, eerily silent, and the playground a hot spot for radiation

the secondary school, eerily silent, its playground still a hot spot for radiation

In the UK, we are considering more investment in nuclear as a clean alternative – clean until something goes wrong, at which point the consequences of playing with nuclear fission are so extraordinarily massive as to convince me that this will be the way humans destroy themselves and the planet. Visiting Chornobyl now is a poignant and unsettling experience which I would recommend to anyone interested in the alternative energy debate.

through the school window, emptiness

through the school window, nature gradually reclaims its territory