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.
“Ukraine is no longer a desperate beggar girl. A new emerging dignity can be felt everywhere – the dignity of a young and courageous nation confident of its future”
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. The whole of Khreshchatik, Kiev’s main thoroughfare, would get pedestrianised at weekends, with children playing in all ten of its empty traffic lanes.
The city appeared safe, calm and relaxed, with the only reminders of the ongoing war in Donbass to be found in newspapers and in fresh memorial plates on some of the buildings. People were reluctant to talk about the war, just taking it in their stride, as if still refusing to believe that their largely Russian-speaking nation had seen a large chunk of its territory annexed.
The biggest change, however, has befallen the Ukrainians themselves. I had always been of the opinion that it would take several generations to shake off that haunted Soviet look from peoples’ faces, that peculiar I-am-waiting-to-be-hurt expression which I used to call ‘the seal of oppression’. In 2016 Kiev, it is all but gone: its residents appear confident and relaxed – a westernised, if not quite ‘western’ crowd in westernised, if not quite ‘western’ streets, dotted with ‘Censorship is banned by law’ posters and banners promoting human rights. It was indeed a ‘brave new world’ born out of war, hypocrisy and centuries of oppression.
Ukraine is no longer a desperate beggar girl. A new emerging dignity can be felt everywhere – the dignity of a young and courageous nation confident of its future. ‘It is Maidan that gave us this new confidence,’ a Kiev friend told me. ‘We believe that everything will be okay, that somehow we’ll survive.’
“As a travel writer, I have always believed that one can tell a lot about the state of a nation by simply mingling with morning commuters in city streets”
‘From Moscow’s perspective, it is vital to prove that our people can’t prevail over corruption, can’t determine their own future and can’t prosper without bowing to a foreign leader. But in Kiev we are proving every day that the Kremlin is wrong,’ my namesake Vitali Klitschko, former world boxing champion and now the Mayor of Kiev, stated recently.
Of course, a flying visit is not enough to make far-reaching conclusions. The country is still awash with problems; the government is weak, the economy is erratic, and corruption is rife. But as a travel writer, I have always believed that one can tell a lot about the state of a nation by simply mingling with morning commuters in city streets.
As I was leaving Kiev from the newly refurbished Zhuliany airport, waiting for my British passport to be stamped at the border control, I looked up: the overhead mirror – a hiccup of Soviet times – was still there. But it seems to have become much, much smaller...
This was published in the January 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.