Gonzo in Ukraine – part one: travel prejudices

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The flight from Heathrow to Boryspil should have been an indication of what to expect. I shared it with a group of Ukrainian students returning from a school-trip. iPads, beats headphones and the latest trainers made me assume that these were the offspring of Ukraine’s ruling class. They behaved just like any teenager in the “West”: in equal part plainly enjoying themselves and making their best effort not to show it too much. At sixteen, being happy isn’t cool. You’re supposed to have outgrown infantile bliss.

The kid next to me listened to Hip Hop as he wrote in his notebook, in elegant cyrillic cursive. He half ate his BA boxed lunch, leaving his desert mostly untouched, reminding me of the time when I used to have to share mine. I wasn’t judgemental but it did clash with the image I had of the country I was about to visit. Was Ukraine a land of such abundance that a free lunch didn’t matter? I couldn’t really blame him though and the ravenous speed at which I went through mine, probably told him much about me too. 

The rest of the passengers was a mix of business types and pensioners on holiday. Nearly all had a bottle of scotch in a duty-free bag and all travelled in good humour. I had read somewhere that in the “East”, smiling for no reason either made you look simple or suspicious but these people shared easy grins with each other and with me too. They all wore smart yet comfortable clothes, ideal for travel and I was glad to see that none had descended to the level of sweat-pants or flip-flops, a sartorial crime most often committed by their old enemy, the travelling American.

One of them stood out though. In an ill-fitting, thick suit, unbothered by the beads of sweat coursing down his inscrutable face, this was a man used to discomfort, possibly finding some merit in being able to withstand it, unflinching. Had we been 30 years earlier, he would have been the KGB minder travelling with the delegation, holding onto everyone’s passport, making sure none asked for asylum.

I must admit to have something of a fetish for the Soviet Union, which is easily developed in my line of work. Archive material exposes you to those images on a daily basis: the parades, the speeches, the propaganda. You watch those dramatic scenes of industrial and technological prowesses, all made possible by the unshakable will of the people and you understand the attraction, the lure that got people like Philby and Burgess to defect. But you also know of the repression, the purges, mass deportations and forced famines; so you know enough not to be deluded, just enough to feel bad about your fetish.

Anyway, I digress. After all, I wasn’t travelling to Soviet Union but to Ukraine. I expected it still bore a few scars from the fall but this was now a free, independent country; one looking westward, I was told. A troubled country admittedly, which had lost an entire region to  foreign and separatist forces but one where the people had succeeded in overthrowing a corrupt government to replace it with… well, we shall get to that. For now, I was going there to take stock of a new Kiev. I was on my way to meet a film-crew making a documentary focused on young Ukrainian creatives. We wanted to find out what had changed for them since the Maidan protests, what their work was about and most importantly, if they were free to express themselves.

We had made a short-film on the anniversary of the Maidan but it had mostly been shot in London. This was my chance to get some first-hand experience, see things for myself. I had obviously kept abreast of developments in Ukraine but all information was heavily politicised. The war in the east, the frontline of rising tension between the “West” and Russia, a country plagued by a collapsing infrastructure and a corrupt political class: that seemed true enough but surely life doesn’t end when the proverbial shit hits the fan. I had heard Kiev described as the new Berlin, a boiling pot of culture and entrepreneurial spirit, a Mecca for hipsters and venture capitalists alike. It had to be good, right? If not, I guess we always had sightseeing and the nightlife to fall back on.

The flight went smoothly and soberly, eight o’clock in the morning being too early for a drink, even for the most hardened traveller. In any case, I had been told to be on my best behaviour. This was  work after all and I expected the stoic Ukrainians not to suffer drunken fools gladly. After three hours, the business-men, pensioners, students, KGB man and myself were anxious to stretch our legs. The plane landed. The adults applauded.

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