Despite being the largest country within Europe, Ukraine remains something of a mystery to many, which is why in the summer of 2019 I decided to drive a gas-guzzling 2000 km across the entire continent from my home in France to check it out.
In other words, I started my road trip in the second largest wholly European country in the far west, and ended it in the largest wholly European country in the far east. This would become the fifty-third sovereign territory I’d set foot in, and one that borders Asia.
At three times the size of the UK, only the transcontinental Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkey are larger.
One of the most surprising if not actually disturbing things about Kyiv is that Chernobyl — site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster — is only two hours away: a poorly maintained atomic reactor a mere 120 minutes’ drive from the country’s capital. I know, right. Anyway, I wrote extensively about my utterly fascinating and thought-provoking day trip at the time.
From Uzhhorod I flew early morning of the 4th September 2019 into Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport with Авиакомпания Сибирь — otherwise known as JSC Siberia Airlines, Russia’s largest ‘domestic’ carrier.
Freakily, the very same airport also welcomed home 35 Ukrainian detainees, freed by ‘Mother‘ Russia that afternoon in a long awaited prisoner swap that dates back to February 2014, and the illegal annexation and invasion of Ukraine territory such as Crimea by the despot cannibal Vladimir Putin, though you can call him Vlad the Invader for short.
In other words, this autocratic asshole has been masterminding the piecemeal invasion of Ukraine for as long as I’ve not been living in my homeland.
With my journo’s cap always on, I remember asking the natives if it was safe where we were, and if they were fearful of war with ‘Mother Russia’.
“No, that’s all in the east,” was the usual reply. “Ukraine is a big country.”
Indeed, until a few days ago there was no visible sign it has been at war with Russian invaders for unless you were in those breakaway republics, areas I decided not to explore.
It’s all terribly sad what has transpired because for me the thing I like most about Ukraine are the people. It’s one of the poorest countries in Europe yet its inhabitants are generally very friendly, fun-loving sorts, especially in the vibrant 1400-year-old capital Kyiv: it’s a brilliant city that has something for everyone, because against a backdrop of grand, imposing architecture I found a joyous party atmosphere where, despite the pain of economic woes and the monster in Moscow bitter and resentful of the country’s very existence, I found Ukrainians determined to have a good time no matter what.
I bet there’s a little less of that vibe today.
And so it seems timely to post a pictorial of the city’s focal point, Independence Square, and I hope and pray this progressive, pro-European, peace-loving country survives the warmongering antics of its bully boy neighbours.
There are some bad, bad people on the right.
At least Herr Trump was booted out. But such is Putin’s vice-like grip on non-democratic power that he could conceivably be around for another decade and a half.
When are the politicians of the world going to understand that the majority of us wish to live in peace. Instead of referenda on joining or leaving institutions that have helped keep the peace in European member states for over half a century, why don’t the elected representatives grant the populace a say in whether their country goes to war?
Lastly, in case you were wondering, Kiev is the recognised transliteration of the name of the city in Russian, and also the old Ukrainian name which has been used for centuries (by the likes of national hero, Taras Shevchenko, no less), right back to the times of Kievan Rus.
Kyiv meanwhile is the transliteration of the modern Ukrainian name of the city and the official name as far as all legal and political issues are concerned. Following the dissolution of the USSR and the establishment of an independent Ukraine in 1991, there was a move by many Ukrainians to favour Kyiv as it symbolised a departure from all things Russian, and indeed Kyiv is now used by the UN and many other official bodies as the correct name.
Just don’t mention the Chicken Kiev.
Cover image: an old gent plays piano on Khreshchatyk Street, 6 September 2019