Shining Light into Darkness

photo of two people

Sophie and Mike volunteered to make the Star and the Moon which led the procession

In 1982 artists from the UK’s leading celebratory arts company, Welfare State International, went to Japan, in a visit supported by the British Council. Inspired by the lanterns of willow and tissue made by Japanese artists, they brought back the idea, began experimenting with ways of applying a simple technique to ambitious poetic visions, and shared their knowledge widely. Hundreds of thousands of people around the UK have made lanterns and carried them in processions since; and Walk the Plank’s contribution to the XVII Commonwealth Games Closing Ceremony in Manchester (2002) – borne directly out of WSI’s legacy in so many ways – gave lanterns a new global TV profile.

Young Learners aged 14-16 made more than 100 lanterns

Young Learners aged 14-16 made more than 100 lanterns

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.           Dr Martin Luther King

 Aware that 2014 is the eightieth anniversary of the British Council’s work in 110 countries around the world, and wanting to mark the end of my time in Ukraine, a lantern procession seemed the right thing to do.

My faith in the appetite of Young Learners to participate in making and carrying their own lanterns was proven when one hundred of them signed up to take part in workshops led by artist Helen Davies (Walk the Plank).

With the support of their English teachers and staff at every level, we unleashed a riot of glue, tissue paper and masking tape in the main Customer Service area of the British Council’s Kyiv office. This visibility was key to the success of the project – and the willingness of the British Council’s team to accommodate the artist’s needs, and the hubbub of 20 youths getting stuck in every evening, was admirable.

Tissue paper, willow and glue everywhere

Tissue paper, willow and glue everywhere

Staff brought their own children to make lanterns on a Sunday afternoon, Helen took her lantern-making kit to satellite teaching locations in Kyiv’s suburbs, and by the end of the workshop programme, more than 100 lanterns were hanging from every ceiling of the office (as storage space is limited).

Procession passes the church on Andriivsky Uzviz

Procession passes the church on Andriivsky Uzviz

Musicians from Ukrainian street band Toporkestra joined the procession, which was led up the hill of Andriivsky Uzviz by the dancing star and moon, to the park where our young people broke into an exuberant conga before the giant birthday cake was cut, and valiantly distributed to [almost] everyone who took part.

I hope that the images of those teenagers – their faces alight with smiles – offer an alternative and more optimistic picture of Ukraine than we are currently seeing on the news, as the fragile grasp of the new government slips under the pressure of (pro-)Russian provocation. A friend, when asked by a colleague from the British Council in Russia, described her feelings thus: “…. since you asked about how I am feeling about the situation in general – well, to be honest, we all feel very traumatised. The general feeling is being concerned and threatened by a possible invasion from another country that has amassed a considerable army on our borders. Also to have a chunk of our country suddenly taken away when we were at our weakest. This is all very hard to live with, but we are trying. Dum spiro spero.”

One of the lanterns ended up at the Maidan in Kyiv...

One of the lanterns ended up at the Maidan in Kyiv…

Under pressure, and with resilience, the British Council Ukraine’s staff – who I now feel I can also call my friends – continue to do an amazing job of trying to build trust, and create the conditions for better co-operation between countries… by working with artists, those involved in education, and those who want to learn English.

We all try to do what we can. I hope that writing about my time in Ukraine over the past six months has offered some insights that have been valuable. There’s much that I haven’t yet covered, so I may continue to add stuff, but this post is written from the UK as I have handed back the keys to my ant-friendly flat in Kyiv, used up all my blue metro tokens, and waved goodbye to Ukraine for the timebeing. I will be back soon.

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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

Sauntering in a new city


pic of graffiti & church
“I must walk more with free sense”, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal

“It is as bad to study stars and clouds as flowers and stones. I must let my senses wander as my thoughts, my eyes see without seeing.

What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye.” 

I’ve been tempering my wide-eyed tourist gaze with some “drifting” – walking without having a destination in mind in order to savour the mundane ordinary spaces in between the obvious tourist hotspots – taking time to let the poetry of this place rise to the surface.  

pic of busI’ve been meandering down strange alleyways, looking up to see the lie of the sky as well as down at the lie of the land, and peering through gaps in fences.

pic of gap in fence

This ‘sauntering’ helps me absorb the multiplicity of layers of history & geography & politics that old cities are built of: in this respect Kyiv feels like Lahore – both have been places of trading and passing through, of siege and conquest and occupation since ancient times. As someone who’s easily distracted, my solo journeys over the years have often had a quality of meandering to them: following my nose, or my ears, rather than a map, has led me down some intriguing paths… and though they’ve usually started as solitary pleasure they rarely end that way.

I discovered artist/walker Phil Smith’s wonderful website http://www.mythogeography.com/  where he explains the concept:                        “ By whatever means are necessary, it is the struggle of the differences against the big sameness (dressed in oh so many colours, of course). And those means may be entrepreneurial, may be trespass, may be poetic, may be effete, may be abject, may be disarming, may be perilous, may be made at a cost, may be invisible, may be best unspoken of for the time being, may be both naïve in hope and canny in practice. 

Phil is also the author of the Counter Tourism handbook – which you’ll be able to obtain if you follow that link above – “Beneath the simple sounding stories in the Visitor Guides and behind the locked gates marked Private there lies a multitude of inconvenient stories, hilarities, wonders, extremes and outrages…”