In Ukraine you can do anything

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February 3rd 2010
Published: March 15th 2010
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"I'm not surprised," a Muscovite friend says on hearing that my visa provision agency has a personal contact in the Russian Embassy in Kiev who has guaranteed me a visa despite the fact that that the London Embassy, due to a mistake I made on the application form, refused me twice and told me not to reapply. "In Ukraine you can do anything."

By this I take it she means that Ukraine is slightly more corrupt, its laws slightly more flexible than Russia. And living in Moscow this is somehow the impression I have gathered: that Ukraine is dirtier, more dangerous and more "Soviet" than Russia. Whether or not I have heard any Russians use these exact words I cannot recall but they certainly did before I went to Belarus. In both cases it reflects a certain type of Muscovite's distrust, disdain and fear of former-USSR countries and almost anywhere in Russia outside of Moscow or St. Petersburg.

As with Belarus, on visiting Ukraine my impression is that these pre-conceived ideas have little to do with reality.


I plod out of Kiev airport into the minus 14 Centigrade evening on Wednesday January 27th, five weeks after leaving Russia. The air is chilly after England but mercifully warm compared to Moscow where the temperature is apparently hovering around minus 25, the stage where being outside becomes unbearable no matter how well you wrap up.

I see a minute white bus, almost describable as a minivan, filthy from the sludgy brown mess that passes for snow and sits everywhere on the roads and pavements of large cities for months on end during winter in this part of the world. Standing next to it a middle-aged lady in an outlandish fake leopard skin coat of the type that you will only see any number of people wearing in countries of the former USSR is shouting out for passengers to the town centre. Funny that I refer to her as a 'middle-aged lady" - most women her age in Russia would win the description 'babushka' from me but in this case the weight gain, (deceptive) frailty and hardened face that would warrant it have yet to set in.

I sling my bag in, sit down and close the rather flimsy door in what turns out to be a vain attempt to shut out the cold. After ten minutes I realise I have no way of calling my couchsurfing host Andrey so I leap out and ask the leopard-skin lady if I have time to go and buy a Ukrainian SIM card in the airport.

"Yes yes of course, my dear, go ahead," she says in Russian, then, switching to almost unintelligible English, "now... ten minute!" I am impressed: during 18 months in Moscow I do not think I have ever met a woman doing this job, and no one (man or woman) doing it who could speak any English or make an effort to be polite and helpful.

The 'ten minute' is not quite true and we are waiting another half hour before the bus has filled up and pulls out of the station to trundle down the mercifully traffic and ice-free highway towards the town centre past mountains of snow that have been scraped off the road's surface and piled up on either side.
I alight near the train station. I head inside the station, expecting to find the way to the Metro signposted. Shortly after entering, however, I spot an internet cafe and it strikes me that I cannot remember Andrey's address so I go in to get it from my email. The guy at the counter tells me in extremely good English to use whichever computer I want.

The profusion of internet cafes in Kiev has really struck me. There was one in the airport, we passed one on the bus and there is one here. In Moscow I do not know the location of a single one. If they do exist then they certainly never advertise their presence with big colourful signs outside their doors like here.

Ten minutes later I am out of the train station having found out that it is in fact not connected to the metro. I stumble and slide along the pavement covered in inches-thick ice, as I do so seeing several people around me having anything ranging from a minor slip to a near fall. Soon I am inside the metro and purchasing several plastic tokens before descending to the platform. Although smaller and less splendid than the Moscow metro halls it is still aesthetically pleasing. The train arrives seconds after me. It's design is identical to that of the Moscow metro trains as is its cracked and faded blue exterior, brown floor, brown seating and beige walls. Only the language of the various adverts and notices differs.

I exit the metro at Nivki station in the suburbs to find it surrounded by a familiar huddle of shawarma stands, flower shops and kiosks, but to my surprise there is also... guess what... an internet cafe! I buy a shawarma from a friendly and polite old man before hopping on a bus to Vinograd, somewhere in the outskirts of Kiev.

I exit at the second-last stop. Amid all the identical tower blocks and buildings with exactly the same number as one another - 30/20 A, 30/20 B, 30/20 C - finding Andrey's flat takes me several phone calls and forty minutes of struggling and skidding along icy pavements with my 20kg backpack, negotiating my way around snow drifts and trying to stay as far from packs of stray dogs as possible. It is now midnight and by the time I arrive my face is so frozen that I cannot move my jaw with the speed required to properly form words. I only find the building thanks to a helpful taxi driver who points me in the right direction when he probably could have taken me for a ride without my noticing.

"You look cold," says Natasha, Andrey's housemate, after letting me in. Andrey himself is at a friend's house and will not be back tonight. "Would you like a cup of tea?"

"That'd be nice, thanks," I say. My face has yet to warm up, my jaw to loosen itself, and I sound like I have a mental disability.

After the initial small talk our chat, as so often happens with couchsurfers, gets onto the subject of travel. "I'm planning a round-the-world trip to Germany, Siberia, China, Mongolia, Mexico then down to the bottom of South America," she tells me.

"What are you going to do there, just travel?"

"Well at the moment we're trying to get sponsorship to organise an art exhibition at each destination." I am fascinated. In eighteen months spent in Russia the people I have met who would even consider such a trip can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Granted, I have never couchsurfed with a Russian host in Russia and members of this organisation, by its very nature, are likely to be more open-minded than the general population in any country.

Natasha has to work the next morning so after the tea we say goodnight. On my way to my mattress on the floor of Andrey's room I suddenly think to ask her about the results of the recent first round of the country's presidential elections.

"Yanukovych won and Timochenko was a close second. Yushchenko is completely out. But Yanukovych will win the next round."

Back in 2004 Yanukovych won the elections too. Amid claims of corruption and voter intimidation what became known as the Orange Revolution took place; protests and strikes took place nationwide and eventually the election results were annulled. In the re-vote, closely monitored by international observers, Yushchenko won and became president. He has since often been praised for his democratic instincts.

At least, unlike in Russia, there are opposition parties that can actually win. At least people do not just sit back and accept corruption and authoritarianism as unavoidable. But then again the new president Yanukovych, a former gang member who twice served time in jail for robbery, assault and causing mild degree bodily injuries and whose party is often referred to as neo-Soviet, is pro-Putin, pro-the Russian dictator who views the collapse of the USSR as a "disaster." One wonders whether this is another step in the reuniting of the former Soviet Union in the same way that America is currently building its own economic empire and global sphere of influence, countries owing allegiance and money to a central power without actually being termed colonies.

I wake up earlier than Natasha as I have to be at the visa agency as early as possible. I go to the bathroom and switch on the taps. Even after a few minutes of waiting the water is still cold. I start hunting for any potential switch that might be for turning on the hot water. Ten minutes later I am resigning myself to taking a freezing cold shower when I remember a story about someone living in a Krushchyovka, one of the super-cheap, no frills five-storey buildings that sprung up all over the USSR in vast numbers in the 1960s, many of which were predicted a 25-year life time but are still inhabited today. This person, apparently, had to turn on the tap in the kitchen to make water come out of the one in the bathroom. This gives me the idea of trying the cold tap in the shower and, sure enough, hot water comes out.

Outside, waiting for the bus amid the snow drifts and black sludge that sloshes around everywhere, I phone the Kiev office of my visa agency. As it rings a young woman wearing high heels crashes to the ground on the ice a few feet away and is helped up by two men standing nearby. On my other side I hear two youths laughing together and jokingly practising their English; it is a scene that I will see repeated more than once today and tomorrow, roughly as many times as I have seen it in 18 months in Moscow.

"Allo?" I hear on the other end of the line.

"Hello, can I speak to Xenia please?"

It turns out that Xenia, the manager and the only one who speaks a word of English, is busy and I must call back in ten minutes. To get to the area where I know their office is it takes me an hour or so of bus riding, metro travel, slipping and sliding on iced-over pavements, splashing through filthy sludge and trudging through snow so dirtied it looks exactly like sand. During the journey I call back every ten minutes and am told by a humourless female voice every time to call back in ten minutes.

"Ok, OK," I say down the phone while standing around and shivering, having arrived at the metro station nearest their office. The underpass and the pavement are lined by babushki selling almost everything imaginable, hardened old battle axes who can sit outside in this weather for hours on end. None of them are even wearing fur coats. "I'm outside the metro now, can you just give me directions to your office?"

"Does Xenia know you're coming?" Says the voice on the other end.

"Yes, of course she does," I answer.

The woman rattles off directions at a speed that my shakey Russian listening skills cannot quite grasp.

"Sorry, could you say that again, please?" I ask. Again she rattles them off.

"So..." I begin but then realise she has hung up on me. I feel that irritation building up that often appears after I receive a dose of truly awful Soviet-era customer service.

"Listen," I said after redialling, "just speak slowly and tell me how to get there." This time I get the majority of what she says, although I am further annoyed by the fact that she can barely conceal her impatience at having to deal with a foreigner and will not slow down even a jot to make allowances for it. Ten minutes later I am in the grimey, peeling-walled corridor outside the visa agency, shaking the snow from my coat and hat.

Sitting down in Xenia's office I fill out the application form. As usual there are countless unclear questions, others that simply can't be answered and yet more that provide a box smaller than a finger joint for filling in vast amounts of information such as every country you have visited in the last ten years along with dates. For about a third of the boxes I have to ask Xenia for advise. "Oh, don't worry, it's not important," she says almost without exception. It seems an extraordinarily blase attitude to me after my experiences at the super-strict London Embassy, particularly when dealing with someone who has been told not to apply for a Russian visa again. Nevertheless I ask her if she is sure, she tells me yes and I take her word on it. She tells me to come back in five hours to pick up the visa. 'A Russian visa in five hours?' I think to myself. 'Surely not, anywhere in the world.' It goes against everything I know about Russian bureaucracy and everything I have experienced during my previous six visa applications.

I decide I will leave tourist siteseeing for tomorrow and spend the next five hours exploring Kiev at random, attempting with what little time is available to see the ordinary, perhaps even residential parts of town. I am well-equipped for it: military grade thermal underwear, woollen socks, fleece and coat, rabbit-fur Russian hat with flaps that can be tied down over your ears and under your chin, the best boots and gloves money can buy. I take the metro to the central station, my one point of reference in the whole city, and stomp off into the snow.

Near the station I come to the top of a flight of metal stairs that leads down to a street on a level below that on which I currently find myself. On the other side of the lower street is a pretty pink Tsarist-era building. Behind it not far in the distance rises the disproportionately tall chimney of a factory belching pollution into the air. Between the two there seems to be a small area of what I can only describe as industrial wasteland, an snow-covered area of land the size of a football field with no buildings but various bits of rusting junk lying around. To the left of the factory is an ugly, unmistakably Soviet red brick building with barred windows. Further to the left is a huge corrugated-iron warehouse, its perhaps-once-bright multicoloured walls now faded, dirty, bent and dented. I walk down the steps to the two perpendicular streets below lined with stalls, men and women less well-wrapped than I am standing in front of them and calling out to the crowds of passers-by shuffling past. I walk to the end of one street and exit the market through a tiny square crammed with vehicles, persumably those of the stallholders, Ladas and minivans spattered with the dirt that clings to all but the largest streets and will disappear with the coming of spring.

I cross a huge bridge that passes over the rail tracks and two enormous raised pipelines stretching off towards the factory. I walk uphill for half an hour until I come to a square. The snow has been shoveled to the sides in huge piles so I walk across it with ease past a line of fur trees towards a large grey statue of the Virgin Mary standing a hundred metres in front of a large grey government building. On the base of the statue is written something in Ukrainian. I cannot quite work it out, the language is much more different from Russian than I had previously thought, but it is something along the lines of a commemoration to those who died fighting the Nazis. I am reminded of the country's bitter history: the two wars, Stalin's purges and the famine caused by Soviet collectivisation claimed a quarter of the country's population. A fact even more bitter occurs to me: take the two world wars away and, despite the millions of Ukrainians killed in them, the total number of those lost during this period would still be almost a quarter of the population.

The monument and the government building are bland and ugly but I take a photo anyway before moving to the other side of the square. There a small spot of beauty hides behind rows of leafless trees: on the other side of a park two feet deep in snow, past partially-buried children's slides and climbing
frames, sits a tiny white-walled Orthodox church, its dome of shining gold and its turret bluer than the bluest of summer skies.

Almost incredulously I pick up my visa at 4pm then head to Independence Square to meet up with Travelblog's own Vinovat Sudarynya, aka Jonathan Campion, a Brit living and working in Ukraine. Despite my earlier confidence that my cold-weather gear would allow me to stay outside for as long as I wanted, I have been out for hours now and cannot bear it any more. I sit in a small snack bar in a pedestrian underpass, eat a pirozhok (meat-filled pastry) and drink a plastic glass of beer.

Jon arrives and we drink a beer in a coffee house before boarding a bus, its floor awash with melted muddy snow brought in on people's boots, to his flat a few stops away. We buy a pizza and a few more beers. Jon introduces me to his girlfriend, Nastya. We compare experiences of and thoughts about Moscow and Kiev, Russians and Ukrainians, the infuriations and the pleasures of life in the former USSR. I like them both from the offset; they strike me as kind, straightforward, interesting people.

"So how come you're living in Kiev?" I ask him.

"Well, I lived in St. Petersburg and Yaroslavl during my year abroad while studying Russian at university. I had some bad experiences there and found people quite unfriendly in Yaroslavl, so after university I decided to work in the Ukraine instead of Russia. People here are much friendlier. I met Nastya and the rest is history."

Although I have always found Russians to be extremely friendly and welcoming, particularly outside Moscow but also in the capital, strangely I have heard bad stories about unfriendly locals in Yaroslavl from another Brit who lived there. And I cannot help but agree, based on my few encounters here with shopkeepers, pedestrians, bus drivers, etc, that your average man on the street in Kiev is friendlier and politer than in Moscow.

"Where are you staying in Kiev?" he asks me.

"Nivki," I reply. He seems a little bit shocked.

"It's not a nice area?" I ask.

"Well at least it's not Vinograd," he replies.

"Actually it is Vinograd, I take a bus there from Nivki metro."

It turns out he once got beaten up there by friends of an ex-landlady.

I leave around 11pm. I need to get the last metro and they need to wake up for work. We arrange to go out for drinks tomorrow night. Back at Nivki I wait twenty minutes for the bus with an impatient crowd, hands buried in their pockets, stamping from one foot to the other, the breath of every man and woman hanging in the air in front of them for seeral seconds. The bus does not come and I am freezing so I decide to hail what in Moscow we call a "gypsy cab", an unmarked, unlicensed car, often driven by a chancer who is on his way somewhere else but for a fee will take you where you need to go. The driver of this one turns out to be a woman, something which in Moscow I have not encountered in any of the hundreds of gypsy cabs I have taken. I get in the back, negotiate a price and settle down for the ride.

"Where are you from?" she asks me in reasonable English. I am impressed. No gypsy cab driver in Moscow has ever been able to say more than 'hello' or 'how are you?' to me in English and those have been on extremely rare occasions.

I tell her.

"Ah, England," she continues in my language, "I hear they're having a strange winter this year. It's global warming you know, the Gulf Stream is being disrupted."

The conversation meanders from one unlikely subject to another and when I exit she thanks me profusely for having talked to her.


The next morning is the first time I have a chance to talk to Andrey.

"I'm just taking a break from work," he tells me, "to think about life, try to answer a few questions about myself. Once I've done that I'm going to go traveling. I think it's better to travel when you already know who you are rather than trying to find yourself while traveling."

"Do you have many couchsurfers?" I ask him.

"Quite a few. I have one very crazy, very interesting British guy who comes here every three months from Moscow to get a new Russian visa. I'll have to tell him about the agency that got you your visa because when he does it it takes him two weeks. He's not like you, saving up money to travel, he's just working and working to save up for his family, his future family, his theoretical family. But he's in his thirties already and he doesn't seem to meet many people. When he comes here he just sits in my flat all day for two weeks!"

I find myself liking Andrey, liking the fact that he opens his home to people he has never met and finds interest even in a person like the one he described. As I leave his house on the morning of my last day in Kiev he invites me to stay with him next time I need a new Russian visa.

I drop off my backpack in left luggage at the train station, meet up with Jon for a bite to eat on his lunchbreak then, with two or three hours of daylight left to me, begin to follow a route on my map that will take me to the three sites that sound the most interesting.

First I wander through a tiny door in the bottom of an enormous white and blue bell tower that leads into the walled grounds of the Sofiyskiy Cathedral, a magnificently awe-inspiring structure built in the eleventh century when the city was the capital of Kievan Rus as a burial place for its rulers. It's whitewashed walls and turrets tower over fifty metres above me, their colour mirrored in the undisturbed snow that blankets almost every inch of ground within the walls. The green and golden domes that sit atop them are staggering; ever since I first came to Russia, the almost outlandish bright colours used in church architecture, along with the onion domes reminiscent of countries further east, has never failed to create a strong impression on me.

Next I walk a kilometre or so to the Mikhailovskiy Monastery. On the way, while I am standing on a street corner studying my map, a Ukrainian woman stops to ask me in perfect English whether I need any help. On entering the grounds I see that if the Cathedral was impressive then the monastery, built shortly afterwards, is nothing short of breath-taking. The enormous structure's walls are a perfect sky blue and its domes, the first ever in Kievan Rus to be gilded gold, twinkle at me in a passing moment of sunshine. Drab, plain-coloured English churches and cathedrals really cannot compare.

I take the metro a couple of stops north and walk for twenty minutes until I find myself walking along a ridge below which snow-covered slopes stretch downwards towards the forested banks of the river. In the distance I can see the sparkling golden domes of the Lavra, the monastery that Muscovites often refer to as Kiev's must-see site. I quicken my pace as I head towards it; the daylight is dimming and I want to be able to take some semi-decent photos.

The Lavra outdoes both the Cathedral and the Monastery. Not only are the domes gilded, the walls, doors, windows, everything is covered in frescoes, gold, beautiful patterns; I am by no means an architecture buff but I can tell that this is something quite special. I spend twenty minutes or so wandering the grounds, the undulating waves of snow drifts amid the sparse trees lapping the walls of several different structures, each, even the tiniest pavillion, no less exquisite or intricate in its decoration than the last.

Later that evening, after a meal and drinks with Jon, Nastya and her friend Valya in an Irish-style pub somewhere in Central Kiev, I board the train for Moscow. As I lay out my train-issue mattress, pilow and sheets on the brown plastic bed in the enormous common carriage while waiting for the train to depart a skinny, shaven-headed, thirty-something drunk totters up to me and begins drawling something unintelligible in a hushed voice into my ear. I just shake my head several times but when this does not deter him I deicide to walk out of the door and have a cigarette outside. When I get back in he is gone.

I go to sleep fairly quickly and am woken up a few hours later by harsh cries of "Retards! Retards!" The train has stopped so I assume we are at a station. Sure enough the door to the common carriage swings open and several militsia men storm in, one of them turning back as he does so to yell, "retards!" at someone again. They start asking for people's documents; clearly we have arrived at the border with Russia. As I fumble in my pockets the skinny drunk from earlier staggers up to the militsia men, now wearing nothing other than a pair of pyjama bottoms. I, along with others around me, watch interestedly, sensing trouble.

The drunk begins mumbling incomprehensibly. "What the hell are you saying?" one of the militsia men yells at him, only to be greeted with more slurred and jumbled nonsense. The militsia man grabs him by his shoulders and slams him up against the wall. "Where are you located?" he shouts. This is the best translation I can give of the word he used but it leaves some ambiguity as to whether he is asking about the drunk's permanent residence or his bed in this carriage.

Although even I can make out the drunk's slurred response of "Russia," somehow the militsia man misses it and, still pinning him against the wall, nearly screams at him, "Where are you located?"

The drunk, now sensing that he might be in some serious trouble, manages to get some of the slur out of his voice and put enough energy into it to give a self-pitying wail of "Russia!"

"I mean in this carriage, you imbecile!"

"Back there!" cries the drunk now almost on the verge of tears and waving his hand at the other end of the carriage, away from his tormentor. The furious militsia man pulls him away from the wall and, using all his strength, throws him down the corridor.

Naturally my foreign passport causes confusion and whereas everyone else's is given back to them after being studied for several seconds, mine is taken away to be handed over for someone in authority to look at and make a decision on. I almost have to hold my breath for several minutes but eventually it comes back with no further questions or problems.

Next some dog handlers are brought on and walk up and down the carriage asking everyone to bring out their bags to be sniffed at. Then a portly militsia man who seems as though he might have more of a sense of humour than the others strolls past everyone asking whether they have anything to declare.

"Two bottles of vodka and a kilo of lard," says the young woman next to me.

"Two bottles of vodka and a kilo of lard," says the babushka opposite me. The portly militsia man gives a wry grin.

"Two bottles of vodka and a kilo of lard," says the forty-something woman on my other side. The man grins again before asking me the same question. I say I have nothing and he asks to look inside my bag.

All goes well in the common carriage and soon we have made the crossing. After almost six weeks of involuntary absence and against all the odds I am back in Russia.

For anyone interested in more blogs on Ukraine and elsewhere check out John Campion's blog at:

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16th March 2010

Великолепное описание Киева.
Readers: lest I be accused of something dishonest, Nastya from this blog is Ana from mine! Great blog Ed, you really do Ukraine justice. I think it's your best set of photos as well. Jon

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