11 October 2012
Ukraine has won
its freedom. But
freedom from what?
We sat on the tarmac at Heathrow for about 30 minutes, edging forward towards the runway every so often. This would be par for the course in the evening, but on 10 September the congestion had already started by 9am. Goodness knows what it must have been like later that day.
I don't know whether Boris Johnson ever flies out of Heathrow. Perhaps he is happy to be stuck in a queue for the runway – better that, he no doubt thinks, than a third runway. I beg to differ. For a start, the waste of fuel and, doubtless, the pollution caused by having countless planes' engines running on the ground is deplorable.
We arrived at Kyiv's (Kiev's) splendid new airport, called – presumably with no sense of irony – Borispol (Boris's town). I wonder what Bojo thinks the new estuary airport (currently a mere figment) should be called? The name Boris Town has already been taken, in Kyiv, but I am sure there are variants that the fertile imagination can conjure up.
I had anticipated a Russian-style wait in a long queue at immigration. Instead, there was indeed a long queue, but it kept moving briskly and we were through immigration in about 10 minutes. Heathrow: compare and contrast. Then there was customs. An x-ray machine stood in the middle of the hall, and obedient souls heaved their luggage into it. We saw one or two people simply walk round it, so we did the same, without let or hindrance. Our small group was gathered together and we were off to the MS Fidelio on the River Dnieper, in central Kyiv. As it turned out, a construction project was under way and the area adjacent to the ship was similar to the area of the tramworks in Edinburgh.
On the way to the ship, our guide told us a few things about Ukraine. It gained its freedom in 1991. Ah, freedom. Is that not something to which we should all aspire? But freedom from what? In Ukraine's case, we were told in historical films shown on the ship, it meant the unity of the Ukrainian people, parts of which had been ruled at different times by Russians, Austrians, Turks, Lithuanians and Poles, and thus freedom from the suppression of their language and culture that that had entailed. It meant that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church could preach and proselytise openly.
And in the 20th century it meant freedom from man-made famine of the kind inflicted upon its mainly rural population first by Lenin's reds after the revolution of 1917 and then by Stalin's operatives in the years 1930-33. Later, the leading light among these operatives in Ukraine would be Nikita Khrushchev, with the young Leonid Brezhnev also among them.
There are not too many parallels there for Scottish nationalists to draw. One that is less than attractive is that the Ukrainian population was 52 million in 1991 but is now 47 million. Apparently, a lot of ethnic Russians left after independence was achieved. Industry stagnated and pensions were rendered worthless by rampant inflation caused by printing excess paper money. The sad babushkas selling small items on Ukraine's badly maintained urban pavements are testimony to that. I bought some peanuts from one of them and was rewarded with a long story that I had no way of comprehending.
The language issue has been a fraught one in the past. Independent Ukraine proudly adopted as its official language its own version of Cyrillic (or, as one of my fellow passengers had it, acrylic) script, reintroducing one letter of the alphabet – sounding like 'g' as in 'go' – that had been abolished under Russification in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Russian letter 'g' is sounded almost like an 'h'. The Russian and Ukrainian languages are very similar and most people who know one of them understand the other. They are probably more similar than are Spanish and Italian. Recently, President Yanukovich has approved a law giving Russian the status of an official language. I was told that his appointee as prime minister, an ethnic Russian, speaks little and halting Ukrainian.
Language is, however, scarcely an inflammatory issue now, although the suppression of Ukrainian in the past was a source of much resentment. Not only are there many native Russian speakers, mainly in the east and south of the country, but many patriotic Ukrainians speak Russian in their own homes. My attempts with the Ukrainian 'diakuyu' for 'thank you' were greeted with good-natured tolerance, but most of those who thanked me said 'spassiba', the Russian version.
Still, the Ukrainian 'budlaska' ('please') was widely used as the equivalent of an expression that is an automatic reaction for Americans but is little used in Britain: 'you're welcome'. It is one aspect of the boorishness of much of British society that we have no equivalent to the 'bitte', 'prego', 'nada', 'alstublieft' of some of our European neighbours, and 'budlaska' in Ukraine. I may be the only person who finds a mumbled 'uh huh' an inadequate and irritating substitute, on those occasions where there is one at all.
Kyiv is a gracious city, a fitting capital city for a substantial nation. There are signs of Soviet brutalist architecture, but there has also been much restoration since 1991, not least of churches that were in Soviet times seized for mundane secular purposes – used as bicycle or tractor sheds, or turned into museums of atheism – or simply blown-up in Stalin's time. One of our number wanted to buy a cloth with a picture of Stalin on it to remind her that she was lucky not to have experienced his dictatorship, but she desisted.
The most important church is that of St Sophia, originally modelled on Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The Byzantine heritage is strongly cherished, although to the original Byzantine style little gold onion domes were later added to churches in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine. One of the most pleasing aspects of the city is its spacious squares, framed by churches and other restored buildings, some of them in elegant crescents dating from the 18th or early 19th centuries. Much of the rebuilding was necessitated by the devastation inflicted on Ukraine by German forces in 1941 and after. Our guide told me that explaining this kind of thing to the many German tourists was a 'sensitive' business.
Another city that we visited was Kherson, near the Black Sea, a favourite retreat of Catherine the Great that was founded, on her orders, by her lover, Potemkin. We were able to join in the celebrations for the anniversary of Kherson's foundation on 15 September 1778. Families were out in the sun, buying balloons on long strings or eating candy floss.
There were rows of stalls along the pedestrian precinct of Suvorova, named after a hero of the Russian war against Napoleon in 1812, one of them with tiny puppies and half a dozen tabby and tabby and white kittens in a rather small cage. There was something about the typewritten sheets of paper on top of the stall that made me ask whether they were from an animal rescue centre, and the schoolgirl whose mother urged her to answer my questions said that they were. I hope they were able to find good homes. Ukrainians appear to be cat lovers: we saw quite a number of svelte and confident cats that were clearly well cared for.
What we did not see was ethnic diversity, beyond the perpetual divide between Russians and Ukrainians. The Ukrainians whom we saw, in both town and country, were very Caucasian. In Dnepropetrovsk I noticed one family of clearly south Asian provenance, and that was all. So where did the racism come from that was reported in our media around the time of the football European cup earlier this year? Is it a prejudice against an 'other' that is a construct rather than a sentiment deriving from experience?
I did not find the answer. But then neither did I encounter any of the 'skinheads' who are deemed responsible for racist abuse and attacks. The individual Ukrainians whom I encountered were relaxed, courteous and helpful. Some might argue that that was because I, too, am Caucasian.
Tuesday: Part II of Jill Stephenson's journey
Jill Stephenson is former professor of modern German history at the University of Edinburgh