Posts Tagged ‘Kirovograd’

Ukraine: cut off and thirsting for contact with the world

February 23, 2014

I first published this blog after a visit to Ukraine in April 2010

The roads are broken up with potholes, the pavements are full of ice, slush and mud, the buildings are Soviet and not much works. The students I am teaching can’t speak much English or any other foreign language. The Schengen visa system makes travel to western Europe difficult, and few can afford it.

I am in the Ukraine. It means “borderlands,” and that’s what it is. One of my students asks me anxiously: “Do you think we are European?” I say: “Of course you are.” She is relieved. She was not sure she qualified, but she definitely does want to be one of us.

Excluded as Ukrainians largely are from contact with the West, they have an uphill task joining the modern world. The Institute for Human Development “Ukraine” in Kirovograd, a sprawling provincial city, is doing its best by inviting foreign teachers, but its internet service usually goes off in mid-afternoon because the service provider rations its kilobytes.

Nobody speaks nostalgically of the old days, but there is little sense that the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union in 1990 was a turning point. Life did not change much. Now the oppressors are corrupt politicians, officials and businessmen. Individuals are unsure that they are empowered. Pessimism is the norm.

In the gloom of the fag end of an Eastern winter however shines the eternal Slav spirit – warm, hospitable and emotional. My journalism students snatch the western newspapers I have brought from my hand (the Swisscontact aid organisation has sent me). I give lessons in journalism, but what they really want to hear is how it is where I come from. They beam with pleasure that somebody has taken the trouble to come to them.

My hosts immerse me in culture. I eat bortsch and blinis with cottage cheese. Two of my students take me to a sauna, I buy a fur coat and I end up at the local beauty contest. I learn how to toast vodka: the first of the 39 traditional Ukrainian toasts is for good, the second for friends, the third for women, and after that nobody can remember any more.

After a couple of weeks, I am feeling quite at home.

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Ukraine: more Russian than you may think

February 23, 2014

I published this blog in April 2010 after spending two weeks teaching journalism in Kirovograd, in central Ukraine 

Most East European countries which left the Soviet embrace in 1990 felt they were regaining their independence. Not so the Ukraine, where the desire to differentiate itself from Russia is not so obvious.

It depends which part of the country you are in. In the west, there is a long separatist tradition. There, the Ukrainian language is widespread, and Polish words are used too, since Poland used to rule there.

In Kirovograd in the centre however, Ukrainian and Russian are used almost equally. A teacher at the Institute where I have been teaching journalism told me she spoke Ukrainian with her students and Russian with her friends. Further east in the Ukraine, Russian is even more common.

Kirovograd was founded in the 18th century by the Russian Empress Elizabeth as a fortress defending Russia against Tartars and Turks. Two Russian generals who defeated Napoleon came from its military academy. It was named first after Elizabeth, then after an early Soviet Communist, Zinoviev (a local boy), and then after another top Soviet Communist, Kirov. Trotsky also came from here.

Local guides don’t mention that Stalin had all three murdered. Somehow that does not help the townsfolk’s sense of identity.

So what to call the city now? An Orthodox priest tells me it should be Elizavetgrad again. One of my young students snorts in indignation: too old-fashioned. For lack of agreement, it stays Kirovograd. Three streets remain named after Lenin, Marx and Dzerzhinksy, the head of the Soviet Cheka secret police. For these too, nobody can come up with anything more suitable. It is hard to find historical references which are appropriate.

So what IS the Ukraine’s cultural identity, and how close does it want to be to Russia? This is a tough question for a young country and it deserves respect. It is not just a question of democratic Western Europe versus autocratic Russia. Many Ukrainians feel so close to Russia they do not even consider it “abroad.”

But the European Union of the West is likely to help the Ukraine to modernize itself much more effectively than Russia. There is not really a choice.


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