Magazine article Geographical

Ukraine's New Dignity

Magazine article Geographical

Ukraine's New Dignity

Article excerpt

IN 1994, WHILE living in London, a Channel 4 documentary gave me the opportunity to briefly return to Ukraine, my newly-independent, long-suffering motherland that I had originally left in 1978.

That was my very first glimpse of it as a separate country, no longer a province of the Soviet Empire where one could go to prison just for uttering the words 'independence' or 'Ukrainian passport' or for displaying a blue-and-yellow flag. I will never forget how two of my friends were expelled from the University of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, simply for speaking Ukrainian to each other. They were accused of 'Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism'. What was so nationalistic, let alone 'bourgeois', about speaking their own language in their own country? Only God, or possibly Brezhnev, knew.

In 1994, my mother country seemed desperate, impoverished and confused. An oblong dusty mirror--part and parcel of every Soviet immigration point--hung above my head in the narrow passage of the Kiev airport passport control. The purpose of that overhead mirror had been a mystery. Was it designed to allow the border guard to scrutinise the crown of your head for signs of a toupee, or help him intercept your dissident thoughts? Or was its purpose to make every visitor feel like a trespasser?

One scene has been firmly imprinted in my memory from that visit: a beggar girl, no more than seven-years-old, sitting on the ground in Kiev's newly renamed Independence (formerly October Revolution) Square--the same square where 100 protesters, the so-called 'heavenly hundred', would perish during the Maidan uprising 20 years later in 2014. Since coins had become victims of hyperinflation and no longer in use, passers-by tossed Ukrainian coupons, a kind of temporary currency, at the girl and she was half-submerged underneath those rumpled confetti-like pieces, not worth the paper they were printed on. In more poetical moments, I thought then that the beggar girl could be the young independent Ukraine reincarnated.

Now, in 2016 after another 22 years of absence, I have returned once more and in the process have experienced a shock from which I am still reeling. My native country, or at least its capital Kiev, has become a different place. Having half-expected to find a bedraggled war-torn city, I was stunned by its impeccably clean streets and countless bars, coffee-shops and restaurants full of locals; by its shady boulevards and parks where, just like in my childhood, young families promenaded of an evening while older folks were engrossed in seemingly endless chess games on benches under acacia trees. …

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