“I have family and friends in the Crimea,” says Ludmilla, a tour guide based in Kiev, “and I used to go there twice a year. But now we don’t talk to each other. The authorities hate Ukraine and I won’t go there. I’m not going to use my passport to cross a border to go from Ukraine to Ukraine.”
Such are the tensions two years on from the Maidan Revolution in February 2014 which caused the Russian annexation of Crimea and the self-declared independence of the Donbass region, two provinces in the southeast of the country. Yet travel to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and on the surface, life continues as normal.
“Now we are told that we don’t have any more corruption,” says Alexei, a thirty-something driver living in the Ukrainian capital. “Yet all the prices have increased and everyone is poorer.”
He shrugs his shoulders in a ‘what can you do’ kind of way. The average salary in Kiev is €150 (VND3.8 million) a month. In the provinces it goes down to €50. This is a poor country.
Another person I meet, Kirill, gives me an alternative, quite unique story.
“I am the CEO of Donetsk Airport,” he says. He’s drunk and three hours away from flying to the Maldives. I even speak to his wife on the phone. “Can you get him home?” she asks me. She’s waiting to leave for another airport, Kiev Borispol, to fly off for their made-in-tropical-paradise holiday.
Yet Kirill can’t stop telling me his story.
“I was there when the Russians came with their guns,” he says. “So I just got out of the way and made sure I evacuated all my staff.”
Two years on he’s still CEO of the same airport, yet he has no airport and has had to find work for his 4,000 staff. He’s still on the government books.
“The stories I could tell you,” he says. “Next time you come to Kiev, call me.”
Tug of War
Such is Kiev. Once the third largest metropolis in the former Soviet Union — only Moscow and St. Petersburg were larger — behind everything you see and feel in this city, is the tug-of-war spectre between east and west, the aftermath of 2014.
Should Ukraine go with Europe and join the EU? Or should it dive headlong into the Russian-influenced Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an organisation founded in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union? It’s a story complicated by history and language. Russian civilization started in Kievan Rus, the mediaeval predecessor of Kiev. To this day, the Ukrainian and Russian languages are as similar as Swedish and Danish.
Those in the west of the country see their future with the EU, while those in the east prefer the other acronym, and those in between just want to get by in a country stifled by debt, crumbling infrastructure and high unemployment.
Despite these tensions, this ancient city maintains its pre-Bolshevik aura of architectural grandeur and religion; the Ukrainian Orthodox religion is everywhere. Put together with cobblestone streets in the city centre, lush green parks and some jaw-dropping architecture, it’s a beautiful place. Think of an eastern version of Paris or something akin to Budapest, and you’ll get an image of Kiev. At the same time it is a town obsessed by smoking, beer and foreign cuisine, although if you order the ‘beer plate’ with your drink, you’ll get more cured and smoked protein on a piece of porcelain than you’d normally eat in a month.
Conversation, Football and Nightlife
I spent four mid-summer nights in the city and one full day, traipsing its streets, descending its metro stations — they must be among the deepest in the world — and traversing its many hills. What struck me was the sophistication of this once-forgotten outpost of communism. Despite years of deprivation, Kiev has maintained its pride in itself and in its history.
It’s also a city of strip clubs, all-night drinking and behind-the-scenes debauchery. What struck me most was that people here like to talk, and when they’re drunk, sing.
On my first night I met Ivan, an aspiring young goalkeeper who was about to travel through Europe on his way to watching the Euro 2016 tournament in France. Suddenly I found myself caught up in an evening of beer and cider — a local speciality — spent with three of his friends as we went from one bar to the next. One friend was studying to be a lawyer, the second a doctor and the final one, I can’t remember his name or what he was doing, but he specialised in downing a pint of Guinness in under 10 seconds. He did it three times that night. Then the singing started. Everyone together in unison.
The second night I found myself in another bar talking to Kirill. His first question? “Are you here for the women?” I quickly showed him my wedding ring and his response was: “Oh, they won’t care about that.” We burst out laughing. But I’d already been asked this question once and by the time I took my taxi back to the airport on the final morning, the question had been broached four times.
Night three was spent with a group of Ukrainians watching their national team play Germany. The night before, Russia had earned an unlikely last-minute draw with England. They couldn’t stop talking about it, they were so disappointed. How could England not beat their nemesis? The town was busier for the England match than it was for the game against Germany. Such are the feelings of national pride in Ukraine.
On my final night I headed to an Irish pub for more football, this time a match between Ireland and Sweden. There had to be a lot of Irish supporters around tonight, I thought to myself. I was wrong. Half the pub was supporting Sweden, including the bar staff. Not an Irishman in sight.
Between the Cracks
In my short time in Kiev I only touched the surface. Yet I noticed some interesting details. Free Wifi is everywhere and it’s far faster than in a ‘developed’ country such as the UK.
This is a country obsessed by tickets. Taxi drivers give them to you. Museums give them to you. Street vendors give them to you as well. Yet on the metro you get coupons.
I was also struck how both the cathedrals and even the synagogue had banned photography once you got inside. Was this a religious thing, I thought to myself? Or was it something else? The motifs, the auburn and gold artwork, the shrines and mosaics of St. Sophia’s Cathedral are breathtaking. Show them to the world through photography and you will get more tourists. Yet, no, impossible. So instead I climbed the 208 steps to the top of the bell tower to take photos of the city from above. And what a city it is.
The final thing that surprised me was the local reaction to Chernobyl. This unique — and now largely safe radiation-wise — location could attract hundreds of thousands of tourists a year if they dealt with the negative public perception surrounding the radiation. Yet, in Kiev, people were oblivious to the potential sitting on their doorstep.
If you’re worried about safety, hidden tensions and war, don’t be. Kiev is a wonderful place to visit. It’s cheap, too. Vietnam cheap.
I flew with Ukranian International Airlines (flyuia.com) and both the flight and the service were more than adequate. Other major airlines serve Kiev including Turkish Airlines, British Airways and Air France.
Accommodation is phenomenally cheap. On my first night I stayed in a well-appointed, one-bedroom apartment just off Maidan Square for US$30 (VND675,000). After that I opted for Air BnB. Once again I stayed centrally and found myself paying US$20 a night.
If you like your beer, this is the place to go. Local beer in the centre of town starts at US$1 (VND22,500) a pint. Imported beer is also reasonable, weighing in at US$1.50 for a pint of excellent Czech Pilsner and rising to about US$3 for high-strength Belgian draft.