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Published: July 28th 2011
Actually I can, but I've wanted to use that title for a long time. This blog deserves the diametrically opposite title, "I can believe it's not Russia", but I thought that would be too obscure and not instantly recognisable as a reference to a certain brand of margarine. Anyway, the diametric opposition of this blog to its title at least links the two in some way.
I found myself in Lviv, a 24 hour train ride from Moscow, for a number of reasons too uninteresting to go into and with two weeks to kill. In many ways I felt nearer to home in this city: whereas in Moscow, or even Ukraine's capital Kiev, people in shops or on the street look at you as if you're a raving looney when you speak Russian with a foreign accent, here many people speak no Russian at all. You speak in Russian, they answer in Ukrainian, assuming you're from nearby Poland or the Baltics. Many of those who do know Russian refuse to speak it.
"We're closer to Madagascans than to Russians," told me Andre, a bicycle shop worker, in English. "Russians are colonial people. They ruined our country. Twentieth century was
future time everywhere in world but not here."
This sort of attitude is fairly predominant in Lviv, although how realistic it is I can't say. It was, after all, under the Soviet Union that Ukraine was industrialised.
Lviv's cobbled streets lined with old European style buildings, its open-air cafes, Catholic churches, lack of Soviet concrete and 80km distance from the Polish border make it about as un-Russian as possible. It really could be anywhere in Europe, a stark contrast to Ukraine's capital, Kiev, with its gleaming gold cupolas, Soviet apartment blocks and widespread Russian language.
On some levels corruption is more blatant here even than in Russia - Ukraine's president is an ex-gangster who has served two jail sentences - but on others it is less.
"Here it is not so easy to bribe your university," a student called Anton told me. "You have to do it very carefully, talking to lots of different people. My flatmate, for example, tried to but failed."
In Russia, by contrast, any university can be easily bribed, allowing even medical students to miss entire years of study. Degrees from less prestigious universities are even advertised in metro carriages.
"The average salary here is $200 a month," Anton told me.
"I lived in East Germany but came back to this sh*t hole, idiot that I was," a taxi driver told me.
As with Russia, a depressing number of pessimists complain about the place's poverty and their desire to get away. However, I hope people may also want to come from elsewhere: being one of the most beautiful cities I have visited, with good transport connections to Europe, RyanAir flights to Rzeszow nearby in Poland and massive reconstruction underway in preparation for Euro 2012, it may well soon become a popular tourist destination,
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