Kyiv 2014

My trip to a post-revolutionary Ukraine

Afterward (final thoughts)

A girl on the Maidan with Euromaidan (and Hello Kitty) paraphernalia, the Independence Monument behind her

After Russia annexed Crimea, many thought and hoped Russia had gotten all it wanted. Crimea would serve the same purpose as Transnistria and South Ossetia, somewhere where Russian control would prevent the de jure ruling country from joining NATO or the EU. No military alliance could accept a country that came pre-invaded. And the one instance of the EU accepting such a country — Cyprus, under the hope that it would encourage settlement of its frozen conflict — not only failed to settle anything, but came just before Cyprus' economic collapse. The Black Sea Fleet was now well within Russian-controlled territory. The Ukrainian government was weakened and embarrassed. Surely that would be enough. After all, no other region was Russian in the way that Crimea was, nor was any as autonomous.

But, as we know, it didn't end. The same things we saw in Crimea started happening in the eastern part of the country. In May 2014, the Acting President of Ukraine admitted that the country had lost control of the east and only then began to push back militarily. In the east, two Ukrainian helicopters were shot down by the heavily-armed "protesters," followed much later by even greater tragedies. And even Odesa, a somewhat pro-Russian city in the southwest rather than the east, has seen significant violence, dozens dead from a fire set during rival demonstrations.

Odesa was one place I would have liked to have visited, had I had someone to travel with. My great-grandparents are from there, and most folks who travel there have a positive opinion of this seaside city. However, there's always room to disagree: In Krakow, I met an American tourist who found the city to be full of "slush" in March, dreary and just not that enjoyable. So maybe it's best I didn't go that time of year, though the coming months' events made it even worse.

Lviv is another city whose visitors have varying opinions. Lonely Planet touts it as similar to Krakow, but undiscovered, and thus lacking the tourist crowds I saw in Krakow even during mid-week in mid-March. Those crowds of tourists — many speaking English — were quite a contrast to Kyiv, in which I heard only Russian and Ukrainian. Michael Totten, though, in Where the West Ends, found Lviv to be devoid not only of tourists specifically, but of economy in general. When he was there, he saw little sign of people going about their business, or even of business at all. The old city did not rival those elsewhere in Europe. Maybe someday, had I gone, I could've said I was in Lviv before Lviv was fashionable, but the cancelation of my planned trip there might not have been such a bad thing. It ultimately gave me more time in Kyiv and Poland.

People who see Kyiv also have different points of view on that city. As I previously stated, some see the Euromaidan protest as being an atmosphere akin to World War II, while I saw it more as a very, very serious protest, albeit not so serious as to lack joy and humor amid the determination and mourning. As for Kyiv itself, those travelers who came to it after spending time elsewhere in Ukraine and/or in Russia saw contrasts I, coming from San Francisco via Amsterdam, did not. More than one journalistic tourist has noted the affluence of the city, the high-priced fashions, the thriving boutiques, the luxury cars, etc. In spite of Ukraine's economic state and the relative equality of income, many folks there have money — albeit rapidly depreciating money — to spend. (Soon after I left, the currency went from 10 to the dollar to 12, after having been at 8 only months earlier. A year after the revolution, it peaked at 33.5, before settling soon thereafter in the low 20s.) Some of this apparent affluence might be that even those of modest means are willing to spend a week's wages on something special to wear, an exchange most Americans would balk at.

Kyiv has the appearance of a major European city, with beautiful architecture and attractions. Totten reported that it was similar to Moscow and St. Petersburg, but nicer. The apartment blocks were fixed up enough to look European rather than communist, even though the interior apartments may have each had an almost comical number of locks. This was most certainly not how things were during the Cold War, when my parents found little to love about what was then just another dreary communist city. They were surprised to hear about its current state, as described by Totten.

But Totten also reminded his readers that the problem with Kyiv is that it is surrounded by Ukraine, a state with an abysmal Soviet infrastructure — some of the world's worst roads and factories that range from decrepit to abandoned. There is a misconception that the eastern provinces (and Crimea) are poor, but, in fact, they are rich compared to the western part. What is instead true is that the infrastructure in the east is an economic drain on the Ukrainian government in the sense that the government needs to subsidize it heavily. (Washington DC is a useful illustration of how the part of a country in most need of subsidy can also be its most prosperous.) Ukraine would not be better without the east; Russian speakers — and especially ethnic Russians — would be a marginalized minority, and the most productive part of the country would be gone. It would also be a huge disruption for those areas and the country they became a part of (presumably Russia). That country would have to pour money into any new territory, though that's usually the case for conquered territory; conquerable land is rarely turnkey.

As for me, I did eventually find work in Palo Alto in late April. Just prior to starting, I received a letter in the mail with "California State Parks" in place of a return address. Enclosed was a single piece of paper, torn from a yellow legal pad, with a typewritten line glued to it, a website whose name I feel no need to publicize. Googling, it appeared to be a site cited by several white supremacist websites. The person whose views were being propagated claimed to have converted to Orthodox Christianity, and the site blamed Jews for lots of different things, including the Euromaidan-sparked 2014 Ukrainian revolution. Russia might try to garner sympathy by falsely portraying the protesters and the transitional government as uniformly anti-Semitic, but it seems like Russia's side has plenty of anti-Semites, as was reported in the news in the days that followed. In any event, it was a bit unnerving to receive this. I assume they got my name and postal address by finding this website. Though I did not post that information on any of the pages, I didn't hide it either. That someone would go through the trouble of finding the information for the purposes of spreading anti-Semitic material, though, was also unnerving. That is a feeling, though, that might be as appropriate as any to come away with from a Ukrainian adventure circa 2014.

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