The original plan had been to go to Russia, but that cancelled. Political Tours then offered a week-plus in the Ukraine and I signed on. There were both internal concerns which led to changes in government, and external conflicts involving Russia, who had manipulated the separation of Crimea. Investigating whys and wherefores looked interesting, if not from Russia, then the Ukraine.
There were six participants: three Brits - a former NY Times correspondent who operated Political Tours, a mental health expert and
sometime consultant to the World Health organization and a former
banker and now researcher in the funding of terrorist/extremist groups -
a Belgium international lawyer, a South African doctor affiliated with
the tour company, and me, once active in US criminal justice system
and now a curious traveler. Our facilitator was a Russian specializing
in the Ukraine who had worked with CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and
researched/wrote Lonely Planet guides to Ukraine and Moscow.
Impressive travel companions.
Originally, we were to go to Kharkiv and Dnepropetrovsk but as they
were too close to conflict zones we settled for Kyiv and Odessa.
Coming into Kyiv, I was impressed by the conventional tidiness of an
urban middle/eastern European city. Excepting for tents,
barricades and motley military folk in the Central Square (Maidan),
there was little evidence of the recent uprising. An uprising that
certainly left its mark on the country. and led to a change in the
government. The time in Kyiv was divided by four nights i n Odessa, a
seaport city normally favored by tourists. Superficially, Odessa seemed
peaceful and over their upset - crowds in the streets and at the
cafes. Street musicians wailed away.
Both cities were interesting and safe places to wander about -
nineteenth century buildings, well kept. Cobblestone streets. Upscale
stores. A totally incongruous glass Hyatt Hotel in downtown Kyiv,
totally at odds with surrounding architecture, which, unfortunately,
was not trashed by demonstrators. Operating tram systems and, in Kyiv,
a efficient subway system. Museums, opera and ballet theatres. We did a lot of walking in both cities and used the Kyiv subway. Occasionally, a taxi.
Several months prior to my trip, there had been peaceful demonstrations
against the then government's actions vis a vis the West - not signing
on with the European Union - and a lurch toward Russia's big tent.
Crimea went to the Russians; agitation in the East led to rebellion
there. The Kyiv demonstration turned violent when the then government
sent in troops, leading to casualties. At which point the then
President, Viktor Yanukovych, found it wise to pack up his mistress and
take off. A subsequent election has brought in a new leader, trying to
to put the pieces together. But there is an endemic problem of
corruption - seemingly similar to Afghanistan - which could retard
progress as much, if not more so, than the Russian interference.
We met with at least twenty people, ranging
from journalists, activists, politicians, business people, academics,
diplomats,to a grade school principal. and a former collective farm
director. A varied bunch. Occasionally, I felt like a college freshman in a Ph.D seminar.
Kyiv is really a lovely place, with the glorious St Sophia Cathedral
complex the center of downtown. There are also several museums: we
visited the National Art Museum, which had the the loot from
Yanukovych's estate - expensive items he had acquired during his
stay(s) in office. At the end of our tour, we went to Mezhygorye, his
palatial estate - unbelievable opulence.. The extensive collection of
ill gotten gains: houses, auto collections, boat - all of which was
enjoyed by Ukrainians on a lovely weekend. And with a collection of
commercial enterprises by the ambitious.
It was enroute to Odessa that we stopped at our driver's village and
talked with a locall farmer, who thought the current President
understood agricultural needs better than past leaders. The nearby
school , wile basic, was being painted and refurbished; the principal
commented that parental alcoholism was a sometime problem.
At Odessa, we went out to the underused Port. Also viewed the office
building torched in the uprising. Normally, opposing sides in Odessa
managed to get along, to reach a modis operadi, but everything got out
of control, what with Molotov Cocktails being thrown and thirty dead.
Then there was the trip to the covered market, most vendors outgoing
but one who felt her thoughts about Ukraine, the EU and Russians were
nobody's business but her own!
Coming back from Odessa, we stopped at nuclear missile museum with
retired Army officers as docents. Besides seeing all sorts and sizes of
missile, into the silo we went. Three interesting bits: the docent
commented on the similarity between Russian and American equipment;
photos of Hiroshima/Nagaska concluded the museum tour; if Urkraine had
kept their nuclear weapons, Russia wouldn't have Crimea. (Note:
Ukraine gave up their nukes when the UK, the US and Russia agreed to the
Ukraine's territorial boundaries!)
While at the museum, I talked with a college Engliish professor from
Donets'k region who was on holiday with her husband and son. She was
most concerned about their future, her mother having advised her not to
return home. Later in Kyiv, we listened to a TV reporter review her
expperiece as a detainee in Donbass, not a pleasant experience.
Several of the individuals I met were memorable: the Kyiv University
professor, a Mowarked asprant to fighting forces, a former Ministry of
Defense guy now an Odessa blogger, an anti Maiden activist with legal
ambitions,and a Maiden leader who wants all public servants to be
vetted. Most memorable besides the English Professor, was a woman
working at the Hotel Urkaine who tried to help Maiden participants only
to be rebuffed by attackers; she ended up working while lobby became
an ER facility.
Conclusions: Urkraine has a hard row to hoe. It's a
complicated situation with no simple answers: that I learned during my
stay there. Like Afghanistan, there are many young enthusiastic people
willing to work for change, but it is a rough path ahead, what with an
entrenched bureaucracy. And
if that weren't enough to resolve, there are the Russians who do not
want too lose influence and keep agitating - successfully?
unsuccessfully? - where ever possible.
Food: Outstanding. Managed to sample all kinds of ethnic cuisine.
Accommodations: Excellent. The Kyiv hotel staff were good: I arrived
mid night and theyallowed me to crash on the couch until my room ws
ready later in the day, feeding me tea and a sandwich. A boutique
hotel, serving breakfast to order, in the room. Located in a courtyard,
walking distance to most meetings. The Odessa hotel was also very
cozy, with small rooms but a superb breakfast. Again, well located.
Cost: Tour: 5551.36 (inclusive of all meals). Airfare: 2105.70. Cat care: 380.