I admit, it’s a weird trip. Who wants to go to Ukraine? But Chernobyl is haunting, Odessa mysterious, the Russians have invaded, a tenuous democracy is taking hold, and the future of the country is still unfolding. It’s the only place I’ve seen an old peasant woman taking a cow for a morning walk.
We began by hiking Germany’s second highest mountain and ended exploring a country that doesn’t really exist: Transnistria. It’s the only place on earth that uses the hammer and sickle on its (plastic) currency. Utterly fascinating.
Ukraine is like the unfortunate chubby middle child sandwiched between the paranoid, brutish older brother (Russia) and the younger, smarter brother who is a cunning, persistent meddler who thinks he knows what is best for you (Germany).
I am sympathetic to Ukraine because I like the underdog fighting the large, oppressive state (Putin’s Russia) for its freedom.
Ukraine has always been vulnerable to enemy attack because it has no protective borders (i.e. rivers) to keep enemies from sweeping across its wide plains filled with rich, black soil so fertile it is called the breadbasket to the world, producing two harvests per year. Jeff would love being a farmer here.
And it is this one natural asset—their soil—that has led, ironically, to their repeated victimization.
When the Communist Bolsheviks instituted communal farming in Russia in 1919, it led to widespread food shortages. It failed miserably, because land was taken from the most successful farmers who were very efficient and broken up into communal blocks where no one was responsible for his individual portion. Food production plummeted. Now the soldiers and common people of Russia were beginning to starve.
But Lenin never concluded his system didn’t work. Instead, Lenin concluded that its methods were not sufficiently harsh enough! Go Communism! Enter Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin, who I consider worse than Hitler in many ways (and far more murderous). Stalin sent death squads into Ukraine to forcibly confiscate any and all grain and livestock from everyday Ukrainians.
The famine got so bad that officials who found Ukrainians alive would spit at them, “How are you still alive? You should be dead now.” It was an efficient way to keep Ukraine from revolting—after all, it’s hard to fight when you are starving to death.
People became accustomed to walking by people who had simply dropped dead on the streets.
Neighbors told on each other for scraps of bread. This broke down trust in neighborhoods. In addition to banning the Ukrainian language (soviet soldiers and secret police shot anyone heard using their native tongue), customs, religion and traditions, the soviets took away their humanity. They no longer had a say over their own land or churches or relationships. 200,000 people were arrested.
In the end, Stalin purposefully starved 4 million Ukrainians between 1931-1934 while blaming it on the Ukrainian peasants. He then had all archives and records of the famine destroyed.
To our shame, Roosevelt never addressed the famine and HOLODMOR, the extermination by starvation, because he wanted Stalin’s help against Hitler. Even the New York Times proclaimed:
“There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.”
~ Walter Duranty, New York Times, 1933
Alas, the Nazis came in and committed two more atrocities. The Germans saw Ukraine as the only way to feed their entire army and people, given the British blockade. This meant that Ukrainians would not be fed. The established Nazi goal was for 40 million to “die out” so Germans could live.
The Nazis then began slaughtering Jews right in public. 2/3 of Ukrainian Jews, a total of 1,000,000 men, women and children, were murdered. The Ukrainians who had survived Stalin had now exchanged one dictator for another. Now they are in another fight because Russia has invaded Eastern Ukraine.
This is the country into which we came by train, because the border control can take up to five hours by car or bus. That’s because when you go from Poland to Ukraine, you are going from the EU and western civilization to a country not really supported by the west—countries like Germany don’t feel like Ukraine’s large, poor population is worthy of protection in NATO.
Our first stop is in the western city of Lviv before hiking the highest mountain in Ukraine. Then it’s on to the capital and cradle of the 2014 Revolution in Kiev, from whence we will tour Chernobyl. We finish in the Black Sea resort of Odessa and then take a strange tour of Transnistria. I hope you enjoy the journey!
Day 1: We Love Lviv
The market square is one of the best in Europe. There are musical performers all over, of high quality. Violin. Guitar. Saxophone. Singers.
We’ve got a cool apartment in the center of everything for $53. And we get to hear live music for free right out our window. The old staircase creaks as you climb it. Rich with character. And Uber works perfectly here–less than $3 for the 20-minute ride from the train station to our apartment.
There are hip restaurants and coffee shops on bustling side streets. Very few cops. Clean. Orderly. And they hate Russians out here. Another plus. This is the cradle of Ukrainian independence.
One of the fun parts of walking is seeing everyday life and how different cultures do things. Here they use a tow truck called an EVACUATOR (EBAKYATOP in Cyrillic) to actually hoist the car onto the flatbed using chains. This guy talked his way out of it, probably with a little cash.
You still see the communist era buses and trolleys here. And ancient soviet cars you had to wait 15 years to get!
Communism was not only a physical prison (you couldn’t actually leave any state within the USSR without permission). It was a mental and spiritual prison where freedom and God were replaced by the worship of Lenin. He’s just creepy.
Day 2 in Lviv: Why Some People Never Smiled for 60 Years
You’re twelve and you look out the window of your home on this street. In fact, this very home at this address in Lviv.
You see your mom walking home. There’s a yellow star on the sleeve of her coat. All of a sudden, two men enter the scene, grab your mother, and drag her away.
What do you do? You stand there helpless as you watch your mother being taken away, knowing intuitively you’ll never see her again. How does that alter your life?
That happened. At this very spot. I had read the girl’s memoir, found this address, and walked here today by myself just to try to experience the feeling myself. But I really can’t. It’s inexplicable.
My biggest challenge today was that our toilet won’t flush and we have to find other places to go. Or it’s a little warm. Or my feet still hurt from hiking. That’s it. Nothing significant.
Leon Buchholz was another boy from here had a happy childhood in Lviv playing outside with friends of mixed languages, religions, and cultures in what was a typical experience for those in the Austrian Hapsburg Empire that ruled for almost 1,000 years. But when that Empire crumbled after WWI (as we have seen when the dictator of Yugoslavia fell in the 1990’s, unleashing war crimes between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians), the patchwork of humanity tore apart.
It’s 1922. Anti-Jewish pogroms are beginning to gain a foothold here in Lviv. It’s a city that’s been controlled by Poland, Austria, Germany, and Russia, and will ultimately change hands 8 times between 1918 and 1945.
Like many Polish Jews in Lviv, Leon Buchholz packs up his new wife, Rita, leaves his extended family behind, and escapes to Vienna. There, he scrapes and claws, eventually establishing himself as the proprietor of a dry goods business. They are happy times. Old photographs show him smiling with new friends.
He belongs to a club whose house cleaner is a woman named Paula Hitler. Several years later, her famous brother Adolph is greeted heartily and happily by the Austrians (who have never been held to account for the fact that the top Nazi leadership and SS men hailed from Austria). Soon, he and his wife and newborn baby are forced to wear yellow stars on their clothing. And then Leon is told by the police that he must leave the country.
“You, Jew, are not welcome here.”
He heads to Paris just as Hitler is sweeping into France, which willingly hands over their 78,000 Jews in return for favor from the German leadership. While his wife is left behind, a Christian missionary smuggles his daughter out of Vienna, to be kept in a safe house north of Paris.
Can you imagine losing everything you own, having it all taken away from you? And then being told to go to a foreign country, without your wife and child, where you know not a single soul? This was the everyday experience of everyday people not long ago.
The little girl spends four years separated from her parents until WWII ends, and American soldiers take Leon and his wife to find their daughter. There is joy. Until Leon learns that every single one of his brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and parents in Lviv has been executed in the extermination camps by the Nazis. And this explains why this old man never talked, never smiled for the last 60 years of his life. How do you recover from that? What is it like for survivors below to have to identify your son or mother or brother who has been killed for no reason?
This is partly why I wanted to come to Lviv, to actually find where Leon had lived as a boy. I try to imagine if Campus Hills had been invaded by three different foreign countries, if my three brothers and mother and Uncle Bob, and Bryce and Angela and Keith and Angela had all been brutally murdered. Do you live with survivor’s guilt? Does smiling make you seem callous?
This is his home.
We should end on a positive note. The missionary was later put in an internment camp in France, overseen by the Gestapo. The Jews would put on performances for the Germans. “They really liked one song, but we hadn’t included the lyrics: ‘Long life to the people of Israel! Israel will live forever!’ We sang in Hebrew so they didn’t understand. The whole front row, including the Nazis, stood and applauded.”
Tonight, Casey and I enjoyed an excellent dinner overlooking one of the main squares where excellent street performers showed off their talents.
Afterward, we ventured into an unmarked bar where an old man with a fake machine gun mans the door. You knock. He answers.
In order to enter, you must say, “Slava, Ukraini,” which means Glory to Ukraine. It is the nationalist (independent) Ukrainian slogan, which is reciprocated by “Glory to the Heroes.” Meaning the heroes of Ukrainian independence both past and present.
In many ways, this is like 1774 or 1776 to Ukrainians. They are deciding whether to seek the comfort of alliance with Britain (Russia) or become the United States of America (free Ukraine) as our Founders did. I think they know that Russia is not their biggest enemy–their own internal corruption is. This is a T-shirt sold at one of their most famous bars. It’s a prevalent feeling.
So you enter. Immediately, the old man says, “No Russian.” We respond with “F* Russia.” He then gives Casey a shot of Vodka and then I down mine. I don’t think the shot glasses are sanitary, but you hope the alcohol kills the germs.
So you dive underground and it’s really cool, filled with little rooms and caves and Ukrainian independence uniforms, pictures, history etc. Every staff member greets you with Slava Ukraini.
Day 3: Hiking Hoverla, Ukraine’s Highest Mountain
60% of Ukrainians live below the poverty line. So why don’t you see any homeless people or people begging for money?
I posed this question to our driver during this three day adventure into the Carpathian Mountain region of Ukraine. This was the hardest part of the trip to plan–no reliable buses or trains with good schedules to this part of the country. I probably spent 20 hours looking at different options until my search paid off and I found Roman, a nerdy (pot, kettle I know) 31-year-old who just started his taxi business.
Today we left Vorokhta at 6am and arrived at Hoverla Mountain Park at 7:30. The trip should take 35 minutes but the roads are indescribably bad. Worse than Costa Rica. Like third world in some ways.
When we got to the park, we had to get go inside this large, gruff man’s Park Ranger office. It was cold and dark. No lights on. Like they can’t afford it or something. He sat at a spartan little desk and wrote our names in a log book like they would have done in America in the 1950’s. It’s just hard to believe and you feel like you’re in a Twilight Zone episode.
It then took another hour of literally crawling up heavily rutted gravel roads for five miles to the start of the hike. This was harder than the actual hike!
So let’s start putting the pieces together. Although this is a very poor country, there are no real homeless because there’s always a place to stay, like an abandoned home or one that was never finished (common). Or you’re taken in by family or friends. (It is an affront to your mother to live on your own unless you are married. Besides why pay the extra rent?).
You don’t beg because you’re a Ukrainian and that’s beneath you. You may scavenge for food, but you’d never impose or ask someone. Plus food isn’t the issue. It’s quite amazing to see that just about everyone grows their own food, even if it’s a tiny patch of land. This is their heritage, they’ve got the rich black soil, and they remember Stalin’s famine. Never again.
And here’s what hit me. Casey asked Roman why Ukrainians don’t complain to their government about the roads. “We are a patient people. We are accustomed to suffering.” Bingo.
“At least I’m not starving to death.” This seems to be the philosophy in a sense. It could be worse and we’ve never known better. These are people who suffered under the Soviets and whose freedom is new and just beginning to take hold.
They are just learning how to build a democracy and become entrepreneurial. You can see that in how they move and treat customers. Still a ways to go.
And still in other small ways as well. It made us angry that there was trash all along the trail today. Broken glass even. Bottles and styrofoam containers. Not everywhere like in Kosovo, but it’s pretty bad. If you tried leaving even a tiny wrapper on a mountain in Germany or Switzerland, you’d be collectively shamed. I think it points to a lack of hope and self-respect in a sense. Especially when that was taken from you for generations.
At dinner tonight, Roman told us about his father. He’d always had a job under the communists. But after the system broke down, he was out of work. He became depressed. He started to drink. And never stopped. That’s endemic in the older population and not dissimilar to depressed Americans turning to opioids.
So Roman is trying to break that generational pattern and be the first in his family to thrive under capitalism. Okay maybe not thrive. More than survive. But it will likely be his future child or grandchild who really has the skills and mindset and initiative to break out.
He lives in a nice city and says rent is $125 a month. So as an American you think, I could kill it here! But the jobs and earning potential just aren’t there. So many people go to Poland or even Hungary.
Ironically, the most dangerous part of the day was actually after we got home from hiking. Casey and I decided to explore the village this afternoon when a vicious lightning storm caught us in the open. We had been looking at this cool, ancient wooden church unique to this region when thunder and lightning hit hard.
We climbed up a hill because we were hungry and walked along the train tracks to a restaurant. But the storm had washed part of our sidewalk down the hill. They just don’t have the basics covered. It’s sad because it’s a physically beautiful country, but too difficult for most tourists to navigate comfortably.
I’m glad we ventured down here. The hike alone was worth it, not to mention fantastic food for next to nothing. Love to all!
Day 4: Walking A Cow in Vorokhta, Ukraine
Day 5: Kamianets Castle & Commandeering the Car
First a few observations about Ukraine before it gets ugly. The food here is fantastic. The vegetables are very fresh and they make great stews. They make an amazing salad with walnut sauce and feta cheese that I got repeatedly. The pizza is excellent. The desserts look great are okay, but need a little work. I think dessert is a recent luxury after literally just trying to survive. The bread is surprisingly disappointing here–my assumption is that it was a necessary commodity for survival. Learning more subtle forms of bread-making will perhaps come in time.
So I’ll be perfectly honest. We wanted to kidnap our driver, gag him, and throw him in the trunk so that my son could drive us through these horrific Ukrainian roads. Roman is a “nice guy,” he helped us find an awesome Georgian restaurant on our first day driving through his hometown of Ivano-Frankisvk, and it would have been extremely difficult to make it to the Carpathians and Kamianets-Podilsky without him driving. Now the rant.
Roman cannot drive well. Virtually no Ukrainians do. They seem to not understand the concept of anticipation–so when you see an 18-wheeler stopped in the right lane ahead while you are driving 100kph, you speed up if you are Ukrainian, wait til the last minute, then slam your brakes and veer quickly left. In fact, that’s what you do all the time. You don’t glide in and out of lanes, you tailgate, hit the brakes hard, and move violently across the road. This is on roads that look like the RAF or Luftwaffe pulled a Dresden on their land and they never fixed it. So you have cars and trucks veering literally across the entire road to avoid tire-damaging, deep-rutted potholes. Who would buy a nice car here even if you could afford it? That’s why you see so many holdover soviet cars from the 70’s and 80’s.
But at least you have these gorgeous, colorful orthodox churches in virtually every little village, no matter how poor. Now add this. Roman didn’t have a father who instilled confidence in him. He’s tentative. He even commented on how he admires the confidence Casey has in crossing the street. He talks non-stop about pointless things, mentioning something on the side of the road that obligate you to respond or acknowledge. He plays his wife’s music CD, part of which is okay, but most of which would draw the ire of Simon Cowell within seconds for being both high-pitched and off pitch. He is a Jehova’s Witness, and no offense, but they are f****** weird and I have no doubt cults like that prey on guys like Roman. He keeps talking about being a Jehova’s Witness and how they don’t believe in earthly authority figures, so it’s taking all my restraint to now point out the fact that he has joined an organization (okay, cult) whose male authority figures dictate how their members can think and who they can associate with. And that they prey on people like Roman.
It takes forever to get anywhere. You average about 30mph even on highways. You’ve got the horse-drawn carriages with entire families and a haystack on top clogging part of the road. Better to just clip the horse than go around far enough!
When we checked in after a long day with him in Vorokhta, he pulled out his phone to show us pictures of his previous trips that we didn’t want to see. We have tried to be gracious. But today it finally reached a climax. We were on a two-lane road (oh, most country roads don’t even have painted stripes and no roads actually drain well after it rains, something the Romans figured out 2,000 years ago). Roman went to pass and it was clear as day a collision was forthcoming. Without thinking, Casey and I both yelled, “No!”
I had to explain that no westerner would ever hire him to drive if he put their lives in jeopardy. I think he wanted to show off how he could drive in a manly way. But he was constantly calling other drivers “strange men” for just doing what normal drivers do. Just so odd himself. We’re parked and another car has its blinker on, waiting for us to back out. We tell Roman because we like to be courteous, but he says, “I don’t want to move.” He had the outward trappings of being a spiritual dude, but inwardly he was kind of a selfish little prick. Apologies for that, but it was a huge part of this trip. Casey and I texted each other for hours (I was up front, Casey in the back) and his comments were hilarious.
So we got into Kamianets-Podilsky late in the afternoon. The address to our apartment was off by a block and to be fair, if Roman had not been there, we may never have found it. Just the sickly cats and old cars in the alleyway. A scary start.
Confession: I so wanted to come here, almost solely because of the cool pictures of the castle here. Plus it seemed like an interesting medieval town to explore while working our way to Kiev. I found it disappointing, but we had a good time for two reasons.
First, when we arrived, the weather said huge thunderstorms were on the way. Casey and I told Roman we were going to run out and see the castle, then come back. But we decided to ditch him because we were horrified by the murderous thoughts in our hearts (yes, our problem). So we didn’t really ditch him, but we made it hard for him to join us. As it turned out, it never rained!
Second, we had an awesome meal and good time walking around the town. The castle is kinda cool, but it’s a tourist attraction so we climbed above and behind it for some cool views. Like most castles, it was important because it protected an important medieval trade route.
We popped into this little restaurant and proceeded to order way too much food. It was so good and less than $20 for all of this plus drinks. Then we decided to go for a long walk to walk off the food and avoid going home :). We intentionally veered off the path to walk through residential areas and eventually found this Greek Orthodox Church. As Casey approached to open the door, loud alarms went off so we slowly walked away, realizing we we looked like suspicious Americans.
The food eventually caught up with me, but we were an hour’s walk from the hotel. I’m trying not to be graphic, but these are real things that happen when you are traveling. It was bad and I was struggling. But here’s partly why I love my son. One, he gets it. And two, while walking back into town, we ended up following a young girl with a short skirt and skimpy clothes on. As we were about to climb up a steep set of stone stairs, Casey said, “Let’s go ahead of her so she doesn’t feel vulnerable.” Our son is a gentleman.
I walked confidently back through our restaurant and knew what was coming. The men’s room was taken. I didn’t hesitate. Since my personal pronoun is now “US” and gender is arbitrary, I assumed going into the women’s bathroom would be okay.
The sentiment to be part of the west, of NATO and the EU, is here. It just may take another generation or two. We sat on some park benches and people watched before slinking back to our room at around 10pm. Roman was asleep in his room (part of hiring him was paying his expenses so I rented two-bedroom apartments), it was hot and humid, so I attempted to sleep in the downstairs living room with a fan on. I love being positive, but this wasn’t the most memorable day or place we have visited. But at least we didn’t commit murder. Physically. Love to all, even to Roman.
Day 6 in Kiev: Soviet Era Lingers over Ukraine
You can still see the vestiges of communism and soviet influence throughout Ukraine. Some of it is obvious. Like these soviet made cars. We were surprised that about 1/3 of the cars on the road in small cities are from the late 80’s. Casey and I want to buy one!
Ronald Reagan told great soviet jokes. The bureaucrat told his lucky comrade he’d been approved to get a car in 10 years. The citizen asked if he could pick it up in the afternoon ten years from now. Why does it matter, asked the bureaucrat? “Because the plumber is coming that morning.”
You roll into little towns and the welcome signs are holdovers. They’ve just been painted blue and yellow, the proud colors of an independent Ukraine. You also see a tank on display. It was a symbol of soviet power. And the USSR thrived on symbols and the illusion of power.
The roads and driving are so bad here I think I’d rather be flying!
In the 1950s, a plan circulated to build two monuments of Lenin and Stalin. They were to be over two football fields high! Projection of the illusion of power.
Kiev’s Bloody “Facebook” Revolution
In 2014, the President of Ukraine reneged on his promise to form closer ties with the European Union, which would ultimately bring more freedom and prosperity associated with the west. He was turning back toward Putin and Russia.
A protestor posted on Facebook, “Come on, let’s be serious…’likes’ don’t count.” Meaning, you can’t just press LIKE on this post, you have to take action. And action Ukrainian citizens took, braving brutally cold winter weather and government sniper’s bullets to demand the resignation of the President and restoration of the 2004 Constitution limiting the powers of the President.
Students and people of all ages took to the Maidan or Independence Square, where our apartment is. Government troops responded by using stun grenades, tear gas, truncheons, and rubber bullets on everyday citizens.
The crowds grew and grew. People organized themselves to provide fires, food, and friendship on brutally cold winter nights spent outside. And then all hell broke loose as government snipers on the buildings in this square where we are staying began picking off citizens—kids, old men, even women. The bloodshed mounted with over 100 ordinary people killed in 48 hours.
Rather than being deterred, citizens said it galvanized them. “If I give up now, I will be betraying my neighbor’s blood.” “If he died for the cause, how can I go home now?”
A critical mass had made a decision: they would die there if need be.
Several of the books I have read about various independence movements have said the same thing. Independence cannot come from the outside intervention of a country like ours. It must come from within, when the local people are so tired of living under a corrupt regime, they finally risk their own lives for freedom.
People from Lviv came. Even the Polish came, though these two peoples had ethnically cleansed each other after WWII. They stood in what they called “the solidarity of the shaken, those who understand.”
A Maidan protester said that “this experience of such enormous human solidarity and shared sacrifice becomes more important than my individual self…the fear of death disappears…and there appears the conviction that because you are ready to die for me, I am ready to die for you.”
Older people remember the famine, that Stalin and the Soviets starved 4 million of their neighbors to death. They remember because those people are missing from their family tree, a real absence even now.
Social media allowed a transparency and immediacy unimaginable even a few years earlier. People all over the world could watch Ukrainian citizens being shot to death in real time. Everyone had a camera and it was possible to throw a rock with one hand and film with the other.
When a young paramedic typed on her phone, “I am dying,” her Twitter message traveled the globe in minutes. It made her a real person, robbing death of its intimacy.
The Maidan revolution represented a huge threat to Russia. After all, if Ukraine becomes too European, if it achieves anything resembling integration into the West, then Russians might ask, “Why not us?” And if courageous people took communion in front of armed troops, who could stop them?
And that’s what happened here just five years ago in 2014. And why I wanted to come here.
It’s kind of like watching people giving birth to a new country. We were lamenting that more people don’t speak English, which is a sign of advancement. Until I realized that until recently they couldn’t even speak Ukrainian freely.
Today, you see moving memorials everywhere and a terrific summary of the Revolution in the main square.
Today this is a happy, bustling square. There are street performers and fountains set to music with restaurants everywhere. Just no ice cream vendors for some reason!
At midnight last night it was still loud and busy. Our apartment has three balconies overlooking this same Revolution Square. For now it is peaceful.
Day 7: The Ugly Side of Kiev (with Beautiful Pictures)
“If among freedom and bread, people choose bread, eventually they lose everything, including this bread. If they choose freedom, they will be able to grow their own bread that nobody will take away from them.”
~ Stepan Bandera, leader of Ukrainian Resistance Movement from the 1930’s
Today, we hired a local girl, Alinka (24), to take us on a special tour of both the ugly and beautiful parts of Kiev as they exist side by side in any city. She’s a strong-willed, quick-witted, sarcastic and perceptive girl who listens patiently to her parents’ advice and then quietly does the opposite. Like the feminine, Ukrainian version of Casey!
We spent three hours waking and talking through local neighborhoods way off the beaten path we’d never see otherwise. Very insightful, very fun conversation. And again, thankfully, beautiful weather. (I’ve included a blog post of hers below my signature below because it’s interesting insight into what the country has been through).
So here are some things we learned, interspersed with photos of the city. Alinka once worked as a translator corresponding with old American and Australian guys, unaware that the Ukrainian brides they wanted to buy couldn’t speak English. When the old guys visited, translators had to accompany them on dates to interpret…until the guys started falling in love with the translators! That job didn’t last long!
It’s fascinating to me how a nation builds itself from scratch. Alinka’s cousins are visiting from Ireland. They are urging her to move over there. And why not? You make four times as much money and have all the comforts of an advanced culture without all the struggles.
This is what’s known as the “brain drain.” A developing country’s most ambitious and brightest, the very people you want to form the foundation of your new society, often take their talents where they are appreciated and valued most.
That’s why building a country takes generations. Sometimes these people come back or are drawn back once the societal infrastructure is built.
There is a generational divide. Alinka’s parents were raised in the communist era, when you were told where to go and what to do and where to live for your entire life. It provided a certain stability.
So they do not understand why Alinka is not married yet, isn’t using her degree, changes her interests, and travels abroad so much. That generation will have to die off to unleash successive generations with the DNA to embrace the new world.
Voters here are restless. They overthrew the Russian-supported leaders back in the 2014 Revolution, but now they are demanding change more quickly than it can happen.
(Found this butterfly in the cemetery where plague victims are buried. It’s next to the transmission tower the Soviets used to block their citizens from hearing western media).
The previous President made progress, like getting rid of the cumbersome visa process that made it difficult for Ukrainians to simply visit Western Europe (this is huge because it exposes people to the “right way” to build your society). But he didn’t do enough so they got impatient and threw him out. Surprisingly, Alinka didn’t do so. She knows this is going to take a long time. Ironically, Russia taking Crimea from them and invading the eastern part of the country has galvanized the resistance to Russia even more.
It’s a big city and we are realizing we prefer the charm of smaller towns and villages more. But we had a great experience today riding the tram with locals, stopping by hip craft beer joints, poking our head into places we shouldn’t and climbing up into a pigeon loft without getting pooped on.
I think there are more stunning (not massive or elegant or imposing) churches here than anywhere I have been. The colors are so bright and they are topped with gold domes that sparkle in the sunlight.
Some weird little things here. Coffee shops don’t open before 9am. I guess they don’t get up and rush to work! Customer service is still spotty. You’ll ask for something on the menu and it just won’t be available. Happens a lot. We had an old Ukrainian lady pull us in off the street tonight to sit at her outdoor cafe–she buttered us up, knowing we are Americans. Food doesn’t come out at the same time always–I was almost done with my dinner tonight before Casey got his.
But it’s okay because we share! Off to Chernobyl tomorrow morning so we’re calling it a night here. Be sure to read Alinka’s insightful post below.
During last 5 years since the 2014 Revolution, the world finally got to know what is Ukraine and where is Ukraine. People stopped asking: is it part of Russia? They started visiting my country more and more.
Millions of Ukrainians got a chance to forget humiliating visits to get a visa, and got a chance to see the world.
The world got to know about us. The world put sanctions on aggressor Russia that invaded us.
I opened the world for my parents who could not do it because of the USSR Iron Curtain before.
Our church, after more than 300 years of Russian slavery, got independence.
In 2014, 75% of media were in Russian (and Russian propaganda was screaming how much we have to protect Russian language). We started to protect ours, Ukrainian, instead. We started to have independent, public-sponsored media.
I started trusting police. I call police more often than an average German citizen.
We started medicine reforms.
We created a strong army. A lot of soldiers died while protecting our country from Russian aggression.
We’ve done a lot. A lot has not been done but could be.
Stepan Bandera, the leader of Ukrainian resistance movement said: “If among freedom and bread, people choose bread, eventually they lose everything, including this bread. If they choose freedom, they will be able to grow their own bread that nobody will take away from them.”
I feel sorry that after so many years of Russian empire occupation, of USSR occupation, of Stalin’s genocide in 1932-33, of deportation in 1944 and then in 1970s, after occupation and war in 2014, most of Ukrainians decided to choose the betraying enemy’s bread.
Day 8: Visiting Chernobyl
You have a happy family with little children in the idyllic “atomic city” of Pripyat, Ukraine. Your husband works at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant. (Then and now).
You are privileged with wide flower-lined streets, the Soviet Union’s first supermarket, swimming pools, a cinema and a close knit community of 50,000 all bound by one common element: Chernobyl. It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon. You walk your baby in a stroller while your other children frolic on the playground.
Unaware that radioactive dust and debris is contaminating the air, leaves, and water around you. Unaware because the Communist Party and KGB have cut communications with the outside world. Unaware because the Soviet Union can’t allow the truth to shatter the illusion of power their rule is dependent on. You still go to the local theater for plays and performances. This was a beautiful cultural arts center built in 1959.
Two days later, a voice on the radio announces that “an unpleasant’ accident has occurred. There is no need to panic, but as a precaution, a mandatory evacuation is ordered. It will only be temporary, you are assured.
So you pack a few things and dutifully board one of the 1,000 buses in a caravan that will scatter families all across the countryside.
You leave your home. Your school. Your toys. Your food. Your life. Your city. Unaware you will never be allowed back. It is that city we entered today, past multiple military checkpoints. It is like taking a snapshot of a soviet city in 1986. It’s like time stood still here.
The pictures are from abandoned classrooms, kindergartens, an amusement park due to open five days after the accident, a cafe, and abandoned homes in the surrounding villages. You can walk right through the old towns and into actual homes being reclaimed by nature and the woods. It’s creepy.
Why did all this happen? A few miles away, human error combined with a severely flawed Soviet-era reactor design at Chernobyl triggered several explosions that blew off the heavy steel and concrete lid of the reactor. The resulting fireball spewed more radioactive material into the air than from the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As 50,000 residents fled, the Soviet government tried to hide the disaster, with Gorbachev threatening to fire (i.e. send to Siberia) anyone who would stop the planned May Day Parade in Kiev, 35 miles south. Propaganda was more important than the health of the kids and families breathing in the toxic air.
Swedish monitoring stations reported abnormally high levels of wind-transported radioactivity and pressed for an explanation. The Soviet government finally admitted there had been an accident at Chernobyl. It is the only accident in the history of commercial nuclear power to cause fatalities from radiation.
Thirty-one people died within a few weeks of the accident from the initial steam explosion, exposure to radiation and thermal burns, and one due to cardiac arrest. (First soviet supermarket below with shipping carts, then and now).
20,000 children in this town we visited as well as neighboring Belarus were stricken with thyroid cancer. Radioactive iodine released from the reactor was deposited in pastures eaten by cows, whose milk was then ingested by children. This was further exacerbated by a general iodine deficiency in the local diet causing more of the radioactive iodine to be accumulated in the thyroid.
There is debate over health effects on the clean-up workers forced to go into the toxic area. What is not contested is the high rates of suicide, alcohol abuse and apathy among those close to the plant.
Winds carried the radioactivity as far as France and Italy. Millions of acres of forest and farmland were contaminated, as were hundreds of thousands of people who remained in contaminated (but not evacuated) areas. Livestock were born deformed.
The radioactive reactor was finally enclosed in this massive sarcophagus (think coffin). It took seven years to build and over a billion dollars.
The Soviets created a circle-shaped exclusion zone, which you can only access with special permits. We were allowed in because we paid for a tour.
Apparently, we were exposed to less radiation than we were on our flight over here. We had to wear long pants and long sleeve short to cover our skin. I think the nasty bathrooms posed a greater health threat!
There’s a reason why it’s technically illegal to enter any building in Pripyat. There are hotspots that are off the charts — so “hot” in fact that if the average person were to stand in that spot for 30 minutes, they’d be rendered infertile.
Particularly bad is the Pripyat hospital where the people with radiation sickness were treated. You are warned not to even walk by the piles of bandages in there or even get close to the famous Ferris Wheel. We did. The readings weren’t that bad. And it’s a super cool spot because this amusement park never opened.
ABOUT THE TOUR
Know when and how this idea originated? About 12 years ago, Chernobyl was featured in Casey’s Call of Duty 2 video game (which originally inspired him to visit Normandy). He’s said for years that he wanted to visit Chernobyl. I always dismissed him. “There’s no way we are going THAT far just to get radiation poisoning.” Flash forward a decade and now I’m the one asking him to go!
We had booked this tour way before the HBO Series, “Chernobyl” debuted. But what great timing. Everyone over here is talking about it. The Russians are upset, of course, and planning their own movie with the premise that the CIA caused the disaster. (Cool memorial to the first responders).
We met the tour van (20 people) a thirty second walk from our apartment at 8am. You watch two outstanding movies and documentaries on the drive two hours north. Notice all the rivers that converge here and run across Ukraine to the Black Sea—they got lucky radioactive material didn’t poison water for 250 million people!
There are multiple checkpoints coming and going to check your radiator level. If you venture off the approved path and get too much radiation, they will confiscate your clothes! The tour guide and others have Geiger counters to constantly measure the radiation level. When we got back this evening, we immediately put our clothes in the washing machine. I think we’re okay.
Casey and I have a thing for old Soviet relics and such. They are preserved here just as life was in 1986 with the only Lenin statue left in Ukraine and the hammer and sickle everywhere.
I think the creepiest part was the kindergarten and nursery school with the cribs and cute, innocent cubbies juxtaposed against the cruelty of having so many families uprooted with no notice. Seeing the little shoes left behind just kind of gets me.
You look at these abandoned apartment buildings. And each apartment meant a family who often lost everything.
I was surprised that we got within about 50 yards of Nuclear Reactor 4, which blew up.
The stainless steel covering is an engineering feat beyond description. It was too dangerous to build it above the smoldering reactor so they had to construct it a few football fields away over seven years, then slide it over top of the reactor to create a perfect fit. Really mesmerizing to be that close. And radiation levels this close were actually really low because of decontamination efforts.
The amusement park was fascinating. It was supposed to be a huge celebration of the town’s achievement. And yet no one ever rode on these rides.
We drove through the red forest, so named because the initial radiation burst turned the trees red. They are still red, although everything else is green around the rest of the town.
So you’re standing there looking at a place that used to be bustling with people. And it’s still there, exactly as it was in 1986, just covered by trees and grass. Kind of eerie.
You go to a cafe with beautiful murals and these vending machines still there. In Soviet times, you’d put a quarter in the machine and drink out of the glass provided, then rinse it for the next person to use. Go communism.
Ukraine has a way to go with its service. Our tour guide just wasn’t qualified or professional. In many respects, we knew more than her! And it was telling that I was the only one on the bus who was even alive when the Chernobyl disaster happened. But it was a once in a lifetime experience far from home and timely since the HBO series CHERNOBYL has been hugely influential all over the world.
Contrasting Ukraine with Western Europe
Casey and I were just commenting on how we are enjoying the 6 1/2 hour bus ride from Kiev to Odessa when the new driver skidded to avoid colliding with an 18-wheeler. Yeah, this big bus skidded.
At least 5 seconds earlier, I had sat back and gasped, noticing another semi stopped in the right lane. Any reasonable driver would have known to slow down. Apparently God did not grant Ukrainians anticipatory vision or skills. “****!”
Notice how close Odessa is to Russia’s Naval base in Sevastopol. We will be at the north end of the Black Sea, opposite Istanbul.
Ukraine wants to join the west so I thought I’d share some biased and even prejudiced observations.
By the way, this bus is surprisingly nice. Good AC, free WIFI, a tiny toilet, and because I booked 3 months early (I know!) I got us seats upfront so we have more legroom, a view out the front window (to impending collisions) and an ability to commandeer the bus if necessary! Which it may be shortly with our sausage-eating driver (compared to our texting driver earlier). But hey, they are working on the roads here wahoo!
We just stopped en route at a cute little family style place. We got a surprisingly good panini and huge Snickers bar (popular here) for $3 and then sipped on a beer we’ve had since the mountains.
So let’s begin with this, Ukraine. Besides fixing your roads, fix your bathrooms. You still have to use this for #2.
And get this. You pay the understandably miserable lady 12 cents and then grab your toilet paper right then before you even get to the stall. This would present all kinds of problems for a Martin. So don’t laugh that I carry my own.
In Western Europe, it’s a pain to pay 50 cents to use the bathroom but the benefit is that money pays someone to keep it clean and smelling nice. Apparently that’s still a foreign concept here. It all smells like urine.
I completely understand Ukrainians’ pride in their own language and alphabet. I am not advocating taking that away. It’s just that westerners associate the Cyrillic alphabet with Slavs. And Slav is where we get the word slave. It connotes a backward civilization. If they really wanted to join the west, they could radically depart from their heritage just by changing their alphabet. That won’t happen and I realize it’s an awful thing to say, but westerners would feel at home. I finally understand this is yogurt!
There is not an energetic work ethic here yet. You don’t see people busting it like you do in Slovenia or other entrepreneurial societies. The tour guides probably haven’t been exposed yet to higher standards so they don’t have a comparison.
This also relates to their mindset. Their national slogan has always been, “Ukraine isn’t dead yet.” It’s a suffering and survival spirit. That will take time to change.
Oh the pizza here is fantastic. And potatoes of any kind. Vegetables are fresh. They go a little light on meat portions. You can’t complain because meals are a third of our price. But I am disappointed by the bread and desserts. Just not nearly as good as I would have thought. Maybe they’ve spent their lives just having enough hardy bread to survive that they haven’t learned the finer recipes.
Coffee shops aren’t open until 9am. Where is the enterprising entrepreneur who opens at 7am and cleans up with tourists? On the tour yesterday, people had ordered little Dosimeters to measure radiation. I had never been offered that online. Worse, the tour guide could have said they are available now for $5 or $10 and made an incremental $50 easily.
McDonald’s doesn’t even open until 7:30. Casey ate breakfast there to find a little stability. I find it through the Billa grocery store I loved in Bulgaria and peanut butter!
Men here wear jeans shorts as fashionable clothes. I’d be single if I wore them at home :). You see lots of men hanging out with no shirt on. All the women are dressed smartly. They look put together. Fashionable. Without being gaudy or revealing. Oh, except for the old peasant women!
There are apparently no rules on the road. Yet pedestrians will stand at a corner like good Germans waiting for the green light to walk even when there is no traffic. That’s why I identify as Polish here—they just walk when ready.
It’s not filthy here like in Kosovo. It’s not disorderly like Istanbul. But they do leave trash on the streets and trash receptacles are routinely overflowing. Fix the roads and clean up your trash. A good fresh start.
I don’t think they are accustomed yet to a lot of Americans because even we haven’t met any! They kind of look at you wearily. This will change. All these things will change. In time.
So this is funny. The bus driver keeps turning around, looking at me, and complaining about all the other drivers, gesticulating with his hands and shaking his head. I am trying to commiserate, but don’t know Ukrainian so I’m gesticulating as well and uttering English cuss words under my breath. We are bonding here and he hasn’t figured out that I’m an American. I think he just likes feeling heard 🙂
It made the rest of the trip fun. When we got into the bus station, we used Uber to get to our apartment. It would have been a forty-minute walk. The price? $2.40. The downside? Being hurtled through the streets with Joey Buttofucco from Jersey Shore. Capri sweats and wife beater. And no seat belts. We were happy to walk the city afterward!
Alas, we are finally in Odessa! I’d be curious to come back in 5 and 10 years to see what happens in Ukraine. It’s a beautiful country and we are happy we have experienced all of this so far. Love to all.
Day 9 in Mysterious Odessa: Black Sea, Black Death
I found Odessa to be intriguing after reading a long history of the city. This email is long, but hopefully interesting, and encapsulates 400 pages and 200 years of history in one email 🙂
I’ve interspersed pictures of this city on the Black Sea. A couple quick observations. There’s a lot more color here, in every way. It’s much more Russian so we’re back to saying “spaseba” for thank you. And I hid my Putin toilet paper. For some reason, I felt very joyful here. Loved our apartment and simply exploring the city. (Entrance to our cool old apartment building.)
Odessa sits on the north end of the Black Sea, opposite Istanbul to the south. Note Sevastopol and the Crimean Peninsula recently annexed by Russia. I will tell the brief history of Odessa in three parts.
I. 1794: Built from Scratch
So what do you get when a strong-willed, German-born Russian Empress, her one-eyed lover, a Spanish sailor, an exiled French aristocrat on the run, and a British count walk into a bar? Odessa, of course!
Unlike most of the cities we visit, there are no ancient ruins here. Odessa was literally started from scratch by Russian Empress Catherine the Great, a badass woman who had the guts to take on the Ottoman Turks for dominance of the Black Sea…about the same time as our own Revolution here.
She named Odessa with the feminine “a” at the end to reflect her role as the most powerful woman in the world as part of “New Russia,” just as “New York” was an Amsterdam colony and “New England” a British.
In those days, warriors would sell their services to up and coming rulers in return for glory and potential riches. Founder of the American Nay John Paul Jones did so, but was found to be petulant, incompetent and apparently a rapist. But during the war with the Ottomans, a mercenary fighter from Naples, Spain named Jose de Ribas showed great cunning and was chosen to build this new jewel of Catherine’s southern possessions in 1794. He modeled the city after his beautiful hometown of Naples and is considered the Father of Odessa.
But the emergence of the city as a powerhouse port is credited to a French aristocrat on the run named duc de Richelieu. A friend of Marie Antoinette, he narrowly escaped the guillotine so favored by the good people of the French Revolution. He brought organizational zeal to the city enabling famers to spread their grain as the breadbasket of the world, while creating quarantine procedures to stamp out spread of the Black Plague carried on ships. And since plagues were usually blamed on Jews, he also prevented attacks on Jews.
He was succeeded by the Russian military hero Vorontsov, whose Polish wife’s affair with the great Russian writer Alexander Pushkin inspired some of the finest poems in the Russian language. Affairs were common and even expected then—Pushkin made the mistake of making his public, humiliating General Vorontsov, resulting in his banishment to stop a locust plague.
People from all over the world go into a bar together in Odessa. What comes out? The Black Plague and revolutionary ideas, the defining product of this melting pot in the 1800’s.Odessa became a free port, meaning that there were no additional taxes extracted from those doing trade. The result? It became one of the busiest ports in the world. Amazing how that happens.
This brought traders and sailors and merchants from all over the world into this thriving little city, bringing wealth and the seamier side of life. Here Ukrainian peasants brought their black-soil grains to Jewish middlemen who shipped their wares all around the world. It was the home of mischievous tricksters and swindlers, thieves, and the restless creators of literature and art. It was a place people could hide.
There are miles of underground tunnels as hideouts for truant school children, prostitutes, political agitators and partisan guerrillas. It was an underworld, but the entire city itself became an underworld.
Think of Al Capone’s Chicago in the Roaring 20’s, with a cacophony of Yiddish, Greek, Italian and Russian voices.
Everyone seemed to get along in this melting pot. Until they couldn’t. The city had a tendency to tip with deadly regularity over the precipice of self-destruction, always teetering somewhere between success and suicide. And that’s where we find ourselves as we head into the 20th century.
III. 1900’s: Anti-Semitism and Bolshevism.
A Nazi, a Romanian, and 30,000 Jews walk into a bar in Odessa. What do you have when they walk out? A Nazi and a Romanian. Because they ruthlessly murdered a third of the population.
The diaspora of Jews all over Europe (kicked out of one country after another for centuries) ironically lead them to have connections and a common link along the major trade routes between Europe and the Black Sea. While Jews were targeted and viewed as competitors to Christian businessman in other empires (which restricted them), they were welcomed in Odessa and became the engine of the city’s economic life.
(Tomatoes and mozzarella cream with basil oil and crispy burnt arugula absolutely fantastic. From a pub!)
But Odessa was home of the first pogroms (violent outpourings) against Jews in Russia. This may be why it is the home of Zionism, the movement to give Jews a physical homeland. Zionist Founder Vladimir Jabotinsky championed this cause, though he foresaw correctly that Arabs and Jews would never be able to live side by side. Israel in many ways began in Odessa.
So did Bolshevism and the spread of Communism. Here on these iconic Potemkin steps above was shot one of the most significant propaganda films ever, by the Bolsheviks, who showed the Nazis how to shape public opinion via film. It showed a baby in a stroller skidding helplessly down the stairs, victim of the inglorious Tsarist bastards the Red Commies overthrew.
The filmmaker, Eisenstein, pioneered the use of film to evoke audience feelings through calculated techniques and angles, subjugating truth to emotion. A generation of Russians “saw” the birthplace of communist Russia through this film.
When the Nazis finally overran the Soviets, they tasked the Romanians with administering the city. The Romanians, as we will see on our next stop, were all too willing to please their Nazi masters. The Romanians shot or burned 30,000 Jewish children and adults over the course of three days in October, 1941. Over 100,000 Ukrainian Jews were murdered.
I was excited to come here and see this city that’s had a ton of history and different influences from all over the globe. It’s also just on the other side of the Black Sea from Russia’s main fleet in Sevastopol, and only 250 miles from the Crimean Peninsula that Russia illegally annexed 5 years ago. Russian forces and those supporting Russian separatists have been fighting in Eastern Ukraine for the past three years. That’s about 400 miles from here.
Casey was skeptical about coming here so I hope Odessa wins him over. He had his first American style burger and fries of the trip here. Plus they give you black latex gloves so you don’t get juice all over your hands. Weird and funny!
Day 10: Ukraine Is at War with Russia 240 Miles From Here (Odessa)
It’s only 240 miles from here in Odessa, but this is a holiday city where people escape the cities to be at the beach. And go out to eat. We learned a ton today from a super interesting tour guide (age 45?) who grew up in Moscow and Odessa. Just tons of fascinating insight. It’s such a bright and colorful city.
Ukraine is kinda screwed. The Russians don’t want to help them. They just want to keep the country destabilized to keep western (civilized, free) culture and armies as far from Russian soil as possible. Plus destabilization means foreigners won’t invest their money here so everything is on hold. We saw beautiful old buildings like the one below for sale at cheap prices, but investors want stability lest a new government simply confiscate their property. (I asked the tour guide if she could sneak us in there–a British lady said, “Typical American. You think you can do anything.” I took it as a compliment!)
Meanwhile, western European countries aren’t thrilled with the prospect of financially supporting millions of poor, backward Ukrainians. Nor are they interested in militarily challenging the threatening bear that is Russia, partly because Russia supplies much of Europe’s oil. Ahhh, always follow the money. We strolled into colorful courtyards that are the hub of daily life here–apartments and homes are built so people share a common courtyard and life together. I think it was also so communist informant neighbors could spy on each other.
The western part of the country (Lviv, Kiev) is fiercely independent and nationalist, wanting an independent Ukraine with ties to the prosperity of Western Europe.
Now they are in another fight as Putin and Russia have annexed the Crimea and invaded Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine is in a no-man’s land, caught between modernity and Russia.The fight is still going on to get rid of the Moscow-backed rebels in the east, and the corruption in their own government. Ukrainians just replaced their government with a comedian who played a President on TV. They want change.
We happened upon a street fair with old time games like throwing darts at balloons. Street vendors sell hard ice cream in crumbling cones. They haven’t quite gotten it yet! But there are pony rides right in the middle of the street. Which means little girls throwing tantrums in the middle of the street when parents say no!
I really enjoy it here. I think it’s partly because we are staying in an old neighborhood in a working class part of town, away from the tourist zone. This is the not-so-promising door to our building.
When you walk in, you are greeted by this. Look at the woodwork around the doors, the vintage railings, the plasterwork, and the colors. It’s partly why I booked this place!
Last night at 10:45, the power went off. Everything except a blinding emergency light which is worse than darkness! It came back on later and may have been a normal shutdown to conserve energy here. We have a cool loft with great AC, except when you lose power! Casey sleeps in the bed upstairs and I take the sofa.
I love this kind of place because you walk out the door into a real neighborhood and experience life like locals. That’s why I like
I also like apartments because I can go to the store to get my own breakfast, and then sit on the balcony enjoying my food overlooking our communal courtyard, laundry appearing on lines overnight.
So the Russians invade. Life goes on. This has always been a tumultuous city and I suspect it shall continue to be.
Final Thoughts on Ukraine
Ukraine is a naturally beautiful country with a good variety of mountains, lakes/sea, countryside and cities. It has an interesting history and one that’s still being written.
This is probably the first country we’ve been to before it’s really developed. Even Bulgaria is well on its way. But Ukraine is like a toddler to me, in need of some training and guidance. It wobbles while it takes uneasy steps and hits his head on the corners of tables. Ultimately as with people and countries, its future is not dependent on what others do, but how it responds and acts.
Here’s a perfect example. There is a Gastro Bar we really loved here. When you enter, even if you’re a local, you don’t get greeted with a smile or welcoming gesture. They haven’t learned to be customer-centric. Even in grocery stores, the people stocking shelves won’t move even if you’re clearly hovering and want something. You feel like a bother. That’s everywhere. And people tend to just butt in line!
So we order a burger. The response is simply, “No” with a flat expression and no explanation. Happens a lot. So you say, “Chicken.” Just odd. (But the food we have actually received is phenomenal).
So you see six tables occupied by customers and yet there are two waiters and extra staff. In France and Germany, one waiter will handle at least 15 tables and never stop moving. I wonder if this is a holdover from communism, in which they simply created useless jobs so everyone had one. I’d cut one waiter, pay the working one 35% more, and train her to be welcoming. It’s like they don’t know how to make money.
We ended up ordering four things and three were among the most tasty dishes I’ve had anywhere in the world.
Beside the charred sweet potato we had the other day, this is grilled avocado with pine nuts and Bruschetta with mozzarella cream, avocado and charred tomatoes. Out of the world flavor and so creative and imaginative.
But the marketing is awful. The food is upscale and yet they market it as an American style pub. Casey initially ordered the burger they apparently don’t have because it says the grilled chicken comes with “Tom yum frosting.” What the heck is that? That sounds horrid and I don’t know what it is. Who is going to order that? Turns out it’s a barbecue-chipotle glaze and delicious!
I think Ukrainian service will ultimately get better as their citizens travel to Slovenia and western countries to see how business is done. There are simple things we take for granted.
I don’t think I could recommend that others visit Ukraine yet. There are still too many other places where you can have similar experiences with much less hassle.
I’m glad we came and experienced different cities, the mountains, and the seaside.
After our tour yesterday, we took an Uber (only $3.00 for a 20-minute drive when it’s sunny and 90!) to a local beach. I figured I’d wash the radioactivity from Chernobyl off in whatever chemicals are floating in the Black Sea! I need to get a speedo for my European swimming adventures, I guess.
The “beaches” are mainly concrete and packed like the Jersey Shore. A guy walks along selling beer. People are happy. The water isn’t exactly clear and there was some gunk, but it was perfectly cool and now I’ve been swimming in the Black Sea wahoo!
On to Transnistria! Love to all.
We Visited A Country That Doesn’t Exist: Transnistria
My guess is you have never heard of Transnistria. That’s because it is a country that really doesn’t exist. No country on the planet actually recognizes they exist as a sovereign state. Not even Russia!
It’s a weird place, a thin strip of land wedged between Moldova and Ukraine. Historically, 2/3 of Moldovans are descended from Romanians. Back when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, this tiny region of Moldova filled with ethnic Russians didn’t want to stop living the soviet dream, kind of like Bernie!
They declared independence from Moldova (aligned with Romania) and fought a civil war that ended in a ceasefire two years later in 1992. Thirty years later, it’s like being in the old USSR. Like the Russians, they build moving war monuments.
The Transnistrian government is the only one in the world that still uses the Soviet hammer and sickle on its flag, passports, currency and postage stamps.
Since their currency is only recognized in Transnistria, you cannot exchange their rubles outside the country or send a postcard home using their stamps. Their “coins” are plastic and look like guitar picks!
Their passport is useless. Monuments to and pictures of Lenin are everywhere. This is their Parliament building.
Transnistria has had a reputation for illegal arms trading over porous borders for the last three decades. In the past, you were warned that their KGB would crack down on you if snapped pictures of their municipal buildings. Border crossings can be tricky–since no one officially recognizes them as a country. Bribes used to be customary. But we didn’t experience any problems as they are trying to be more tourist friendly. You get a registration card allowing you to stay in the country for 24 hours. If you stay longer, you have to register with the local police.
Not wanting to be interrogated by the KGB wearing hammer and sickle badges, we hired a local guide named Dmitri to bring us from Odessa to the capital of Tiraspol. He’s an interesting guy who grew up here, but has lived and worked abroad. His perspective is fascinating.
So the first thing I notice is that Transnistria appears kind of western, aside from the soviet icons. There’s a big banner over the road with a friendly guy pitching phone service. Seems modern and friendly to me.
Dmitri proudly proclaims that they have strong industry (cotton refiners that supply Williams Sonoma) and technical expertise, owing to soviet acclaim for scientific proficiency. He thinks they have a better chance at economic success by partnering with an eastern alliance of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, etc. because then they don’t have to “cave in” to western demands.
It appears to be relatively prosperous so I’m kinda buying it. He claims they have only one communist in Parliament and that their ideology isn’t reflective of the soviet relics we see everywhere (and signs like the below with the happy soviet family).
But as we walk and drive around, I notice the name Sheriff on everything. Which is odd, because that’s such a wild west American name. It’s on their modern soccer stadium, grocery stores, gasoline stations. So I google it and learn that Sheriff Corporation, run by an ex-KGB oligarch, monopolizes and largely controls every aspect of life in Tiraspol. Hmmmm.
I later learn that Sheriff Corporation owes its fortune to illegal trade in cigarettes, alcohol, and food made possible by the poorly regulated border with Ukraine. But since the 2014 Revolution, Ukraine has clamped down on the border and illicit trade through Odessa. And Moldova signed a pact allowing it to have beneficial trading terms with the EU.
Russia provides nominal support, free natural gas for heating in the winter, and a military “peacekeeping” presence, but they have never formally acknowledged the break-away republic as legitimate (and they won’t because that would give legitimacy to the two breakaway republics from Russia!). So Transnistria is being squeezed now between east and west.
We walk the town and come to the farmer’s market. The people are warm and friendly, offering samples of different kinds of cheeses, meat, and sausage. For some reason, the meat market doesn’t smell nasty like it normally does elsewhere. We pop into a couple cafes for coffee and homemade pie. Everyone seems friendly and one cafe owner gives us those coins to keep.
We stop in a little park where Lenin welcomes you again. Dmitri brings a historian out to relate stories of the past. She is kind and eager for us to learn their story.
We stop at a flea market. It’s interesting because this was supposed to be such a bizarre place, but then you meet the people and they are no different than us. Except they are very warm and friendly, perhaps intrigued by the foreigners. Actually warmer than people we met in Ukraine. An old guy sells us some cool soviet medals and as I go to shake his hand, he does that warm handshake with two hands on mine.
By the way, we also found that on our trip to Russia two years ago, we found the everyday people to be very warm and kind. So you may not agree with their ideology or leaders, but you can appreciate the connection with people.
Dmitri is fascinating and provides a completely different perspective than any we’ve read online. He is rabidly pro-Transnistrian independence, but anti-Ukraine independence. It is a little uncomfortable at moments, given that we just came from drinking shots to Ukrainian independence.
He takes us to the Bender Fortress, site of a key battle in their history because of its location above the Dnieper River. It is impressive, but we are hungry.
So we pull up to an old soviet canteen, the kind of place blue collar workers would have gone for lunch. When I was a kid, seeing CCCP (USSR) on Red Army tanks and hockey jerseys invoked some measure of dread, the sign of an imperious, evil empire. And there it is.
You walk in and the architecture and murals are so vintage soviet, somewhat reminiscent of the subway stations in Russia.
We open the door and you may as well be in Moscow circa 1962, complete with the large lady in red scooping food from a ladle on to your plate.
The food looks pretty horrible, kind of Russian chic drab. The peppers stuffed with rice and meat are excellent. And while not as good as mine, the meatballs are surprisingly delicious.
But mostly it is cool being surrounded by Lenin and old USSR stuff, the scary stuff of my childhood.
It has been a fascinating experience few people ever take advantage of because it’s so scary sounding. But in the end, I think we connected with people we’d normally never get to meet and learned a different perspective, which is invaluable. Plus we leave with a passport stamp and currency no one one the planet even recognizes!
We unload our luggage from Dmitri’s car and get into a small car with Sergei for what turns out to be a scary, miserable, 8-hour drive to Brasov, Romania that should put us in by around 10. A few minutes in, he holds up his phone with google translator asking, “Can my wife come with us?” I think for a second and say, “Da,” which is Russian for yes.
Turns out she’s a lifesaver, even from the backseat. Sergei drives a tad better with her in the car, uses his seatbelt, and she lightens the mood. Plus he doesn’t text and drive when she’s with us.
Peace out from sitting in sweltering sun at the Romanian customs control for an hour. Based on the picture above, it looks like Romania could be a surprisingly beautiful place to visit. Read about our 7 days in Romania here. Love to all!