Posts Tagged ‘Ukraine’

Ukraine: For Sale or Hire, Military Aircraft and Pilots

Ukraine: For Sale or Hire, Military Aircraft and Pilots

February 25, 2011  |  Comments Off

Three stories involving the Ukrainian military have caught my attention recently.

Less than a dozen of the diplomatic dispatches leaked by Wikileaks have mentioned Ukraine, but on the whole they make disturbing reading. The one bemusing note reveals that Muammar Gaddafi’s chief nurse is a young Ukrainian woman, described as, “A voluptuous blonde.”

The more serious claims are that Ukraine has been shipping weapons to Sudan which is on the US list of state sponsors of terror. Apparently, US diplomats showed their Ukrainian counterparts a copy of a contract that indicated the weapons were destined for Sudan. The Ukrainians responded that the shipments were sent to Kenya, questioned the authenticity of the contract and the paucity of evidence. When asked by the Ukrainians if the Americans had any better evidence, the American diplomats showed detailed satellite images of T-72 tanks being unloaded in Kenya, being put onto trains and transported across the border into Sudan. According to the dispatch issued by Wikileaks, “This led to a commotion on the Ukrainian side.”

Secondly, the newswires are buzzing with reports that Ukrainian pilots are flying the MiG flight jets that bombed demonstrators in Libya, and they are also piloting the Antonov aircraft which ferry military supplies around the country. The reports are denied by Ukrainian diplomats, but Today newspaper ( claimed that the pilots – some of whom hold senior positions in the Libyan military – receive $2000-$8000 per month. Such claims are echoes of those heard before. In the 2008 spat between Russia and Georgia it was claimed that Ukrainian gunners shot down Russian aircraft on behalf of Georgia. And a decade ago, in 2001, it was claimed that Ukrainian helicopter gunship pilots attacked Albanian rebels for the Macedonian government.

Finally, what caught my eye is that a lucky few can buy their own ex-Ukrainian air force MiG aircraft and strafe their local community at will. Reading the “For Sale” ads, you might come across a MiG-29 described as “Low mileage, one careful pilot, some pock-marks on bodywork, priced to sell at $6 million, must be speed junky with head for heights.” The MiG-29 is not for the weak-hearted and can achieve speeds of twice the speed of sound and can climb at 45,000 feet per minute. Earlier in the year, John Sessions, a private US citizen did just that: he took delivery after paying cash for the aircraft, and beating several national governments to the deal.*

None of this really comes as a surprise when you’re aware of the absorbing history of Ukrainian involvement in aircraft innovation and the story of intrepid Ukrainian pilots.

Less than four years after the Wright brothers made the world’s first flight in 1903, Ukrainians were developing state of the art aircraft. They are credited with hundreds of innovations, including being fathers of the strategy of aerial combat, being the first to control aircraft spin, being instrumental in parachute design and starting airmail services. And, all importantly, for putting a toilet on board an aircraft as early as 1914. Remember, at that time, even cars were few and far between.

You probably know Ukraine as the home of Sikorsky helicopters – he built the world’s first all metal aircraft – or Antonov aircraft – they built the world’s largest aircraft – but there is much more to the story than that. For more information, you can read an excerpt from the chapter “Whirlybirds and Witches” at and, of course, you can get the full story in Among the Ukrainians.


Ukraine Test Drive: Zaporozhets versus Aston Martin Vantage S

Ukraine Test Drive: Zaporozhets versus Aston Martin Vantage S

February 3, 2011  |  Comments Off

Driving through the nondescript industrial city of Zaporizhia, situated on the Dnipro River, that is famous for the production of the Zaporozhets motorcar— a sort of Soviet Beetle and the cheapest car they produced — I was reminded of a Ukrainian friend whose boyfriend owned one of the vehicles.

“My mother was insistent I should marry him on account of his politeness,” she recounted to me. “He always opened the car door for me. What my mother didn’t realise was that the workmanship was so poor; he was the only one who could do it! In all other things, he was a real rascal.”

The company started life in 1908 as a producer of combine harvesters and quickly became the largest in the world. But by the late 1950’s the production shifted to the relatively new market of motor cars, and in particular the small car. The Zaporozhets quickly became the dream of many Soviet men.

Nowadays, it is an everyday sight to see the pre-1994 Malysh (meaning ‘little one’), with its air-cooled 746cc V4 engine, trundling along the highways of Ukraine. The factory continues to operate and manufactures more than 100,000 cars per year.

In contrast, I read with interest last week that Aston Martin has officially opened the doors to its first dealership in Ukraine, in Kyiv. Eager customers can wait in line to order the latest V8 Vantage S, powered by a 4,700cc V8 engine. Though the dealership won’t discuss the price over the telephone – which made me think, “If I need to ask, I shouldn’t be asking” – the price in the UK is approximately £105,000 for the standard Coupe version.

Out of curiosity I made a comparison.

Now, all things being equal you would expect Aston Martin to operate in those countries where the richest customers live. Including Ukraine, they now operate in 41 countries worldwide. But, Ukraine ranks 135th in the world in GNI per capita (gross national income per capita).*

Taking it a step further, if we compare the GNI of the UK versus that of Ukraine, the Vantage S Coupe costs only 4 times the average annual income in the UK versus 43 times in Ukraine. By comparing disposable income the gap is considerably wider.

The reason, of course, is income inequality. And for those interested in learning more about this fascinating country, you can do no better than to read the chapter “Steamy Business” in my book Among the Ukrainians, where I make the case that Ukraine has more billionaires than Russia, and is second only to the USA.

Well, after an exhaustive comparison of the two cars, on paper at least, I think the Aston Martin is the better car. The Malysh has the disadvantage of coming in only a limited number of colours, but on Ukraine’s decrepit roads it should outlast the Aston Martin. Um? More thought necessary, I think…

*2009 Report, World Development Indicators database, World Bank, 15 December 2010

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Steamy Business

Is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko destined to become Ukraine’s Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

Is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko destined to become Ukraine’s Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

January 21, 2011  |  Comments Off

With each year that passes since the fall of Communism, one might hope that Ukrainian society (defined in its narrowest sense to include only the elite – after all who else matters?) should be converging in their thinking on what form the Ukrainian nation state should take. What will be its values, its history, and what will unite the country?

 Sadly, it doesn’t appear to be so, as the first news stories of 2011 relate.

 On New Year’s Day a statue of Joseph Stalin was blown up by Ukrainian nationalists, and shortly after a court annulled a decree to posthumously decorate a nationalist leader from western Ukraine whose insurgent army supported Germany for part of World War II. President Yanukovych failed to congratulate the 5 millions of the Greek Catholics who also celebrate Christmas on the same day as the Orthodox; they live predominantly in western Ukraine which is an opposition stronghold.  Then intellectuals signed a letter that urged Ukraine’s president to end political oppression of oppositionists, starting with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. (The former Deputy Minister of Transport and Communications, and Ukraine’s ex-Interior Minister are already facing criminal charges). And to top off a busy week, the leader of the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs was killed by an unidentified attacker as he left his house in Odessa.

 Almost a year after his election, the wily 4th president of Ukraine may well be moulding the country according to his own blue-print, and excluding any credible opposition.

Let me explain.

 In the period after World War II, it was common to believe that industrialisation, urbanisation, and the strong centralist Soviet policies would erode ethnic or national characteristics. Many Western historians, journalists, and writers also concluded incorrectly that the nationality issue had been solved. For example, in the mid-1980s, a few years after my first visit to the Soviet Union, Colin Thubron wrote his now famous classic, Among the Russians*, which is described by his publisher as “A vivid account of a journey he made by car from St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and the Baltic States south to Georgia and Armenia towards the end of the Brezhnev era.” Nowadays, it would be a considerable faut pas to refer to the locals of those countries as “Russians.” Each has a unique identity. And to give one example, the latest census data of Ukraine (2001) shows that more than one hundred and thirty nationalities and ethnic groups call Ukraine “home.”

 Neither of the first two presidents of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, were heroes of the people, and neither demonstrated loyalty to the idea of Ukraine as a nation above that of their own personal enrichment. To Ukraine’s credit, however, the transition from Communism was managed without the violence that has been a characteristic of other former Soviet states. And numerous challenges could have provided the tinder for a conflagration, but the Ukrainian skills of compromise, dogged determination, and expedient inaction enabled them to muddle through.

 As faithful sons of the communist system, it must have been difficult for those presidents to fully embrace the idea of a division of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, or to the concept of elections. Why a powerful person would base his livelihood on the outcome of an unpredictable event, such as an election, is an anathema to many Ukrainians who have grown up in a system where having power means shaping the outcome of events to your advantage. “Who wouldn’t fix the election,” they ask rhetorically, “if it was in their power?” But pushed by those in Ukraine who genuinely wanted a democratic system, and pulled by the lure of the European or American aid donations, the institutions of democracy did emerge. In reality, however, they had more form than function. 

 Then came along Viktor Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko. As personalities they were like chalk and cheese — Yushchenko, the articulate diplomat willing to compromise, and Tymoshenko, the determined, passionate popularist — but they found sufficient common ground on which to work together. As advocates of central and western Ukraine who leaned towards Europe rather than towards Russia, they appeared to represent a new option for voters.

 People realised that the presidential election of 2004 might, for the first time, offer a credible reformist opposition. The outcome of the “Orange Revolution” is, to use the cliché, history. With Yushchenko as the third president he brought in a younger team, less influenced by the values of the Soviet Union and with an average age of forty-eight years, compared with sixty-eight for the previous administration. This difference of a generation gave impetus to the idea that a fresh image of Ukraine might emerge.

 But, it was not to be. Social justice was a fundamental expectation of the Orange Revolution — that people should be equal before the law — but Yushchenko seemed to forget this promise rather quickly. Though the Supreme Court ruled that there had been massive electoral fraud, no senior figures were charged; in fact, they were promoted. His commitment to punish the killer and those who ordered the killing of the beheaded journalist, Georgiy Gongadze, came to nought; in part, because he allowed Kuchma’s Prosecutor General to remain in his post. Perhaps most incredulous of all is that Yushchenko’s would-be assassin – the person who disfigured his handsome face – remains free, and is suspected to be living a comfortable life in Moscow.

 Yushchenko behaved presidential from the start, and this was his downfall. He was top dog, but he rarely showed his teeth.  Instead of removing his opposition, or changing the game – the two main strategies for silencing the opposition in the game of post-Soviet politics, he traipsed around the world declaring that Ukraine was open for business.

 After 5-years of aligning first with Tymoshenko, and then with Yanukovych, all the while knowing of their indiscretions but doing little to stop them, Yushchenko was more compromised than a married man caught in bed with a lover. His weak strategy to unite the nation by looking to Ukraine’s past — to the defeats in battle and to the days of subjugation — for historical events around which to build a nation, failed.  Not surprisingly, given that different parts of the country have such different histories, it was seen as divisive and negative as anything done by previous presidents. His withdrawal from politics following his humiliating defeat in the 2010 election was no surprise.

 Yulia Tymoshenko also stood in opposition to Viktor Yanukovych in the 2010 elections and achieved a creditable result. Her desire to be president still burns brightly.  Her signature plaited hairstyle and stylish appearance may no longer carry the novelty they did in the Orange Revolution but her relative youth, and, by implication, long political shelf-life, means she is now the only credible opposition force in Ukrainian politics.

 Whether she is any more capable of forging a nation state out of Ukraine than President Yanukovych is doubtful, but the question I want to ask is, will she get the chance?

 The shrewd president is unlikely to make the mistake of his predecessor. Newspaper stories have reported numerous legal transgressions committed by Tymoshenko during her volatile political career, and a determined president, with the full force of the state’s organs at his disposal, should have little difficulty in catching her out.

 The challenge of caging the determined, passionate popularist must be considerable. It would attract international attention and, probably, approbation, but the delight in some circles of having a version of Mikhail Khodorkovsky languishing in a Ukrainian prison cell, with barely a mirror and a hairbrush to occupy the long days, must be tempting.

* I offer a hat tip to Mr. Thubron whose title provided the idea for the title of my own book, Among the Ukrainians.

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Presidents and the People

Tartar, Goodbye!

Tartar, Goodbye!

December 8, 2010  |  Comments Off

Yesterday, my wife’s father died. He was a Tartar. Stubborn, wily, and independent, he refused the medical assistance that would keep him alive but deprive him of his dignity. The last time we were in a restaurant together I asked him what he would like to drink, and he replied, “A bottle of vodka.” More than a decade earlier, shortly after meeting his daughter, I was informed that if I ever mistreated her, he would kill me. I never doubted this word of advice.

The original Tatars inhabited the Gobi desert and in the 13th century they were driven westwards by the advancing army of the grandson of Genghis Khan. In a series of bloody wars the hoard defeated the Kyivan state and the other main principalities of Vladimir-Moscow-Suzdal (which would later be called “Russia”). The Mongols banished free speech, conducted censuses of citizens five hundred years before they became widespread in Western Europe, and implemented a strict process of conscription and tax collection. It was a foretaste of the strong central government that has come to typify Russia until today.

Though it is barely recognized in Western Europe, the Mongol hoards were stopped in their tracks in Ukraine, and the flowering arts and cultures, that characterise the Western European lifestyle and which we take for granted, were spared debasement.

A Tartar stronghold was established in Crimea and between the 15th-18th centuries they were responsible for a process the Tartars called, ‘harvesting the steppe.’ After Africa, the second greatest source of slaves was from the lands that now constitute Ukraine. Some scholars estimate that more than three million people, predominantly Ukrainians, but also Russians, Belarusians, and Poles, were enslaved and the majority were exported via Kefe, the modern day town of Feodosiya.

During World War II the Crimean Tartars incurred the full extent of Stalin’s wrath. On the pretext that some Tartars had collaborated with the German forces, in May 1944, a month-long operation began to relocate the entire Tartar population. More than thirty-two thousand members of the police and security forces went from house to house and demanded the occupants leave within five minutes. They were taken to rail junctions and crammed into rail carriages to begin their eastward journey. Thousands died of suffocation or starvation during the journey and perhaps 40 percent of the survivors died in the first two years of resettlement, mostly woman and children.

My wife’s father was the child of a Tartar who survived Stalin’s wrath.

We shall bury him tomorrow according to tradition: wrapped in a carpet, in the seated position, facing eastwards. RIP.

Long Odds: Visa-Free Travel and the Winter Olypmics

Long Odds: Visa-Free Travel and the Winter Olypmics

June 9, 2010  |  Comments Off

Anyone visiting Paris from the United Kingdom will immediately notice the absence of chippies (the colloquial name by which the fast-food outlet, the fish and chip shop, is known in the UK). A visitor to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia will not find the Queen Victoria Arms public house on the city’s main thoroughfare King Fahd Road. For people visiting or relocating to a new country these things are more or less immediately obvious.

But some differences are less obvious. It took me quite a while to notice that there are no funeral parlours in Ukraine. Nor, incidently are there funeral cars. (For more on this intriguing absence you should read the chapter “Religious Wars” in Among the Ukrainians.) It would be a strange fellow, indeed, who on arriving in a new country asks his new friends, “I’m new here, where is your nearest funeral parlour.” And more recently I was struck by the absence of bookies, or betting shops. I’m not a gambling man, but perhaps I should have noticed sooner.  One might have expected such shops to exist given that Ukraine is so keen on football and that lotteries are common. Even horse racing has a history; most cities have a racing track, though most were abandoned a couple of decades ago.

Where is all this leading, you might be thinking. Well this week, President Yanukovych made two statements which immediately had wanting to place a bet against them happening. Don’t get me wrong, I would love them to happen; it’s just it doesn’t seem at all likely.

First, he announced that the paperwork making way for visa-free travel for Ukrainians to Schengen countries would be signed before the end of 2010. Secondly, he suggested that the Carpathian region could be a suitable venue to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Both events would be good news for Ukraine, in general, and nothing less than transformational for western Ukraine.

Visa-free travel would allow all Ukrainians freer access to western European countries, and the experience of seeing those democracies and systems would be a good thing. For western Ukraine, in particular, the freer movement of people across the western border—even if employment was prohibited—would open up many opportunities.

As for hosting the Winter Olympics in the poorest region of Ukraine, well, one only has to think of the inward investment required for the development of regional transport and tourist infrastructure to recognise it would have a huge impact.

So, why do I think both are unlikely?

Well, visa-free travel has been much talked about, but it proved impossible to achieve even under the presidency of the pro-European President Yushchenko. To say again, I hope to be proved wrong, but this sounds to me like a sop, and at some later stage we’ll hear that, “the conditions laid down by the Shengen countries were so onerous that no one could meet them” (or some such phrase). Let’s not overlook the reality that Russia wants Ukraine to be a barrier against the eastward movement of people, and it would object to the reciprocity of visa-free travel (people from Schengen countries visiting Ukraine). Ukraine was a barrier for the advancing armies of Napolean and Hitler, and Russia was resolute in its objection to Ukraine becoming a NATO country.  Russia “insists” on Ukraine being a buffer. (For more discussion on this idea read the chapter “Vikings and Cossacks” in Among the Ukrainians.)

As to the idea of the Carpathian region hosting the Winter Olympics, frankly, the idea is laughable to many Ukrainians. Somewhat akin to Bangladesh landing a man on the moon (and having visited that country half a dozen times, I feel I at least have a rudimentary understanding to their potential). Yes, Carpathia has some mountains and snow (and its beauty is outstanding), but it has little else. With limited tax receipts and no local oligarchs to fund the venture or to promote the concept in Kyiv, one wonders where the money and influence will come from. I doubt that anyone will invest until the venue is secured, and the Olympic Committee are unlikely to offer the carrot of hosting without some commitment to develop the region.  So, it appears a non-starter.

Finally, there is the intriguing link to UEFA 2012, the football championship to be hosted jointly by Ukraine and Poland. In an earlier blog, I commented on some of the uncertainties surrounding the success of UEFA 2012. For President Yanukovych to consider hosting the Winter Olympics before the success of UEFA 2012 is “in the bag” suggests either a supreme confidence about the football championship or he knows that talk of the Winter Olympics is, just that, talk.

In neighbouring Russia, the entire Sochi 2014 Olympic project is under threat even though it has received enormous support from Prime Minister Putin, who sees it as a reflection of his legacy. As I write it appears he might be about to appoint a well-known businessman (rumoured to be Vladimir Potanin) as head of the Olympic construction agency. So, if Russia struggles to meet the challenge, supported by the strong guidance of it leaders and the “guided investment” of its oligarchs, what chance Carpathia?

Book Review: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Book Review: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

June 9, 2010  |  Comments Off

There aren’t many pieces of modern fiction part-set in Ukraine and only a few of those address the issue of the Holodomor. But Child 44 scores on both counts. The premise of the book is that a murderer wants to draw attention to himself and so commits forty four heinous murders of children in Russia and Ukraine (in Kharkov, Gorlovka, Zaporoshy, Kramatorsk, and Kyiv).

According to the plot, almost nobody within the Soviet security apparatus can believe that these crimes are work of a single man, because that would imply a rejection of communist values and, therefore, a failure of the state.

The contention raises some issues not dissimilar to ones I raise in Among the Ukrainians. For example the sale of church candles was considered illegal in the Soviet Union, whereas prostitution was not. The line of thinking was that prostitution could not be made illegal because it could not exist (at least not permanently) in a utopian society (see the chapter, “Sex and the Soviets”).

Child 44 is an exciting read that is in—or certainly close to— the can’t put down category. Soviet society in the 1950’s has hardly been tapped by modern fiction writers and it offers a rich seam of material. In particularly it feeds the curiosity about what lay behind the iron curtain, and provides insights into the final years of Stalin’s control of society and of the transition to the Khrushchev era. The period is politically intriguing.

(I should point out that the plot is not original. In many aspects Child 44 follows closely the real life story of Ukrainian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered 53 women and children between 1978-1990.)

The pace of the storyline is fast and the sentences are terse and spartan, conjuring up the greyness and staidness of Soviet society in the 1950’s. The pay-off is that there is very little description of either people or places. Characters lack dimension. We never learn if the main character is tall or short, clean-shaven or hirsute, broadly built or thin, for example. Description is sparse to the point of being absent; the hero uses his gun on numerous occasions but we’re never told even basic information, such as what sort it is. Some critics have suggested that this style of writing—lacking dimension— is more akin to a film plot rather than a piece of fiction, and it is certainly true that shortly after the book’s publication the leading actors of a soon-to-appear film were being cast. Tom Rob Smith has not hidden the fact that he wanted the book to be made into a film; a key inspiration was the TV series 24.

The author’s descriptions of places and events are similarly sparse, to the point, even, of wondering if he has actually been to Russia. And he almost certainly didn’t have the final text read by a native Russian/Ukrainian or expert. The book is punctuated by errors, whether he’s referring to Lubyanka procedures, sausages, vetinary clinics, or Kolkhoz (collective farms). And on at least one occasion he has a character (Vasili) appearing in a city (Voualsk) that he could not physically get to in the time frame required by the plot. Most readers are not aware of these points of detail and so they cannot detract from the novel, and, as I said, it is an enjoyable, well-paced read.

The one thing I did find unsatisfactory—and where I can raise a point that I’ve not seen made anywhere else— concerns the central plot and should be relevant to all readers.

If the intention of the killer was to attract the attention of a man high up in the Soviet hierarchy, why did he kill only 4 of the forty four children in Moscow? The other forty children were killed hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from the capital, yet, the odds were overwhelming that this important man would work in Moscow. The centralised planning system of the Soviet Union would have meant that it would have been easier for the killer to get a job which involved commuting to Moscow than to any other city.

Add to this, as I mentioned earlier, that no one in Soviet society was likely to believe that these murders—across a geographical area larger than the size of France—were likely to be the work of a single man, the plot suddenly becomes very illogical.

On reflection, I can only think that author felt that using the Soviet Union’s geography, and the shenanigans of a chase around Russia, adds interest to the plot. For me the contorted plot is weaker as a result, and it doesn’t do full justice to the rich potential of the book’s setting – the 1950s in the Soviet Union.

Child 44 has sold more than one million copies and for a writer’s first book that is nothing short of incredible. Less than a 1% chance, I’m sure. So, I’m heartened that despite the errors in research and the weak plot the book has been so successful. My own meagre effort, Among the Ukrainians, also contains errors, and though it’s supported by a much more modest marketing budget, I now hold out the hope I can sell a reasonable fraction of Tom Rob Smith’s number of books sold.



June 2, 2010  |  Comments Off

To say that Ukrainians love their children more than other people love theirs, is a naïve thing to say. But there, I’ve said it. All because I can’t help thinking that there is something to it.

Certainly in Soviet times a newborn represented something beyond the state; a promise of a better future. It gave meaning to adult lives in a country where a man or woman’s potential was achieved rarely, and where other distractions such as foreign travel, or entertainment such as films, literature, and cinema were restricted.

Today, I’d like to share with you three stories of childbirth that I can confirm are true. They provide some insight into life in Ukraine and Russia.

The first concerns a woman who left Ukraine to give birth in Moscow in the belief that the facilities are better there. She signed a contract for several thousand dollars with the doctor who would deliver the child and who would pull together the team necessary for the delivery. Everything looked very professional.

Whilst the woman was in labour, just before the epidural was administered, the anaesthetist shocked the labouring woman by telling her that she wanted more money if she was to remain in the room. The woman agreed and, thankfully, everything went smoothly, and the delivery was successful. As is often the case in Russia the baby was tightly swaddled and separated from the mother for 24-hours. The mother was told that this procedure would give her time to recover her strength.

The second example is of a friend who gave birth in Ukraine. She chose carefully the hospital where she wanted to deliver, and consulted with, and was accepted by the head doctor. There was no discussion of the cost of the service, but it was unambiguous that the mother was expected to pay the people involved in the process, and for any equipment used (which her family purchased from the pharmacy situated in the foyer of the hospital.)

When labour started, she checked into the hospital, and the next day gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Mother and child were united moments after the baby was born. Before checking out, the mother paid all members of staff who had assisted in the process (including those who had cleaned the room) and she also paid for the room where she stayed for 48-hours.

The point that strikes me from these two anecdotes is a point I make in the chapter “Sex and the Soviets” in Among the Ukrainians: in Russia childbirth is seen primarily a population issue, whereas in Ukraine childbirth is a family issue. It’s a small but subtle difference. In the chapter I also look at how this influences the way in which women are seen in the two countries.

My third anecdote concerns a village family in Ukraine. The family’s younger daughter was 3-months pregnant, and so she got married with her boyfriend. When they learned the unborn child was a girl they were overjoyed. They wanted a girl very much. But it was more than that: the girl’s niece-the extended family shared the four room village house-was also pregnant with a girl.

As in second example, they found a doctor that would make the delivery, though their funds were more limited and, therefore, their choice of doctor was limited.

When labour contractions started the girl rushed to hospital, but it was soon evident that she was passing blood. The doctor ordered gas anaesthetic to be administered, whilst a Caesarean operation was performed. When the girl came round, she was told the baby had been born dead, and that she did not need to pay for the room, the doctors or any of the staff. She was given the baby wrapped in a blanket and she buried it in the village cemetery. She was given no explanation as to why the baby had died, and back in the village she received no counselling. Her niece’s healthy daughter is a daily reminder of a daughter she might have had.

A Sevastopol Bride for a Russian Suitor

A Sevastopol Bride for a Russian Suitor

May 25, 2010  |  Comments Off

Now that the tear gas has dispersed, the rotting eggs and urine have been cleaned from the Ukrainian Duma (yes, Russian TV showed footage purportedly from the Ukrainian Duma of a man urinating) I want to review the agreement to allow the Russians to continue to use the Sevastopol base. The 11-year engagement ended with marriage but not all the guests agreed the bride had chosen wisely.

Much has been written about the deal in the Ukrainian and Russian press, in particular. Was it a “sell-out” or an expediency that with hindsight will mark President Yanukovych as a shrewd politician?

Protagonists of the “sell-out” view, argue that the agreement is a violation of the Constitution and, no matter what its merits—if there any—it is plain wrong. It defers any possibility of Ukraine joining NATO until 2042. And even if this outcome was always Yanukovych’s intention, why did he do it so quickly after his election? Surely a President known for his pro-Russian viewpoint would have sought to normalise the relationship with Russia and, over time, punitive levies on goods such as gas would have been dropped as a matter of course. Probably without having to give up the family silver; after all, there are precious few pieces left.

Furthermore, critics argue, the Russians can pick on the most minor Ukrainian infringement—a missed payment would not surprise most observers—to renege on the deal, whereas ousting the Russian incumbents in Crimea will be nigh on impossible.

Or, perhaps, they speculate, Yanukovych sees himself as a good son of his upbringing righting Nikita Khrushchev’s “wrong.” In 1955, Khrushchev ceded Crimea from Russia to Ukraine as a “gift” for which he was later denied a state funeral, and suffered the indignity of not being buried in the Kremlin wall.

Those who err towards the view that it might prove to be a shrewd move invariably want to see an improving relationship between Russia and Ukraine. The Russians would never have left the Sevastopol base freely in 2017, they argue, so conflict has been avoided. They point out that a reason behind the Russia-Georgian war in late 2008 may have been to gain access to Sukhumi, the Black Sea capital of the disputed territory of Abkhazia in Georgia. Though Sukhumi is a far less ideal port than Sevastopol, it is clear that a resurgent Russia will have limited credibility without a Black Sea port to call its own. And they were determined to control at least one port. So, conflict on Ukrainian soil has been averted and lives have been spared.

Furthermore, the “shrewdies” argue, there’s the immediate economic benefit of the deal. Currently the Ukrainian Government subsidizes the cost of gas to her people and that adds to the budget deficit. The bold agreement—whereby the contractual gas price is reduced by 30% and Gazprom stops paying export duties to the Russian government, thereby putting the burden on the Russian budget—helps fill a substantial hole in Ukraine’s budget. It also looks good to people, like the IMF, who need to be humoured if they are to be encouraged to plough even more money into Ukraine.

So, there are supporters of both points of view. And whilst many people will see the issue as a difference of opinion between the pro-Russian Ukrainians of eastern and southern Ukraine versus the rest, I would caution against such a simplistic view. I’m left thinking, has anyone bothered to ask the Crimean Tartars what they think? And taking the idea further, whose was the bride of Sevastopol to give away?

Hosting UEFA 2012

Hosting UEFA 2012

May 13, 2010  |  Comments Off

Having had the chance to visit both the Metalist Stadium in Kharkiv and the Olympic Stadium in Kyiv (variously known as Red Stadium, Stalin Republican Stadium, Nikita Khrushchev Stadium) I have to say they are like chalk and cheese.

The Kharkiv stadium opened in December 2009 and looks ready to host the games. Don’t get me wrong there are significant problems still to tackle; regeneration of the surrounding area, completing the transport infrastructure (though the new airport terminal at Kharkiv looks to be progressing) and the provision of adequate accommodation. In Among the Ukrainians I comment about the apprehension people feel about a repetition of Eurovision 2005 which was hosted by Kyiv. On that occasion, visiting guests had to live in tarpaulin tents because of the lack of hotel rooms. It could still happen in Kharkiv, but the preparations are well underway.

The outlook for Kyiv, on the other hand, is far less rosy. The Olympic Stadium is way behind: major structural work is not finished and concrete is still being poured. Of course, a contingency was built into the development plan and, now that winter is over, work could speed up. But I hear, that as a precaution, there’s a contingency plan to move to a German stadium for the final.

I hope not. The UEFA 2010 slogan is “Creating History Together” and that’s not the sort of history that Ukraine needs. Come on Ukraine!

Passport to Nowhere

Passport to Nowhere

May 13, 2010  |  Comments Off

When my Ukrainian friends respond to news with a mixture of laughter, embarrassment, and disbelief, I know it’s worth taking note.

Recently there was just such a story on the evening news. The company responsible for the printing of Ukrainian international passports-a serious job that has national security implications-said that it could no longer continue to produce them since it was owed several million US$ for work performed in 2009. They had not been reimbursed a single kopek and could no longer pay their workers.

The spokesman for the company said that they regretted the action, and they recognised the disruption it would cause to people waiting for their passport to be issued, but they had exhausted all lines of communication with the relevant government department. Hundreds of passport applicants were affected: students wishing to study overseas, fiancés due to get married in foreign places, Ukrainians intent on seeing the Winter Olympics in Canada, and so on. Many had bought air tickets, enrolled on foreign study courses, and made other financial commitments. A smorgasbord of emotions, financial commitments, and worries about the future was a potential tinder box.

The spokesmen for the administration criticised the company for their lack of responsibility and insensitivity to their clients. But it was what followed that elicited the mixture of laughter, embarrassment, and mild disbelief of my friends. The administration spokesman said the printer had put the government in the embarrassing situation of having to appoint another printer, a task that would not be easy given the specialised nature of the work.

The obvious question is, what happened to the passport fees collected by the administration? But the story highlights the more deep seated issue, which is, why should companies invest in Ukraine when there is no confidence that they will be paid a return for that investment?

Reception in kyiv

Reception in kyiv

May 5, 2010  |  Comments Off

Though this blog won’t exclusively be about issues related to my book, it seems appropriate that the first post should be. On Thursday evening I had the pleasure of being invited to the British Ambassador’s residence in Kyiv (along with many other members of the British community in Ukraine) and I used the opportunity to give a copy of my book to Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador Leigh Turner. He was considerably more approachable and down to earth than the grand title might suggest.

I’ve met a number of British ambassadors, and to a man (yes, they were all men) they were all welcoming, engaging, and intelligent characters. In addition, several were entertaining: a rendition of the ballet Swan Lake on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre by an Ambassador in evening suit, sticks in my mind. The stage of the Bolshoi is unusual in that it is inclined. Whether the Ambassador underestimated this design feature or had a surfeit of alcohol, I do not know, but his attempt at a grand jeté (best described as a petit jeté on that occasion) bore the characteristics of a painful stumble.

British ambassadors do an invaluable job, of that I’m certain. It’s just when the conversation turns to the question of, “What do you do, exactly?” that the flow falters. Perhaps an ambassador’s job description is very brief—to protect British interests, or some such sentence—or extremely wordy, overseeing this, protecting that, engaging with so and so, and seeking to ensure, and so on. I have no idea. But whatever the job description says about entertaining (if it’s mentioned at all) the small, but perfectly formed team that constitutes the Kyiv Embassy staff did a fine job and I thank them.

With the book in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other, I chatted with as many of the attendees as I could, and the response to the book was overwhelming positive. There is so little that has been written about Ukraine that is contemporary, entertaining, eye-opening, and intelligent, that I think Among the Ukrainians really fills a niche.

Vikings and Cossacks

Vikings and Cossacks

March 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

Seeing a ship larger than a football field and higher than an apartment block docked in Kyiv is a reminder that the Dnipro is a mighty river. Recalling that Kyiv is a thousand kilometres from the Black Sea reinforces the fact.  In Vikings and Cossacks I look at the early history of Ukraine, the settlers from the Baltic who used the Dnipro as a trade route, and the controversy surrounding the origin of the words, Kyivan Rus, Russia, and Ukraine.

I sail down the river to the city of Zaporizhia and to the Cossack fortress on the Island of Khortytsia. There, I’m entertained by modern-day Cossacks and I hear about the first constitution ever written — preceding both the French and the American constitutions by seventy years. Amidst a lively display of Cossack horsemanship, music and dancing we discuss Cossack values and culture, and the true spirit of Ukraine.


We took seats overlooking the horse arena where Cossacks were practicing their acrobatics, and Stanislav explained why the Cossacks are such a strong symbol of Ukrainian identity.

“The Cossacks tried to establish a way of life that was distinct from the great powers of their day. They held prominence for more than four centuries, and, being descended from the indigenous people and those who passed through the steppe, they symbolize the multiethnic mix of modern Ukraine. They were free-spirited, self-reliant, and not prone to domination. They weren’t displaced people forced to live on the steppe, like some suggest, but they choose to live here because of its beauty and abundance. Nowadays people relate to their values of freedom, equality, and fraternity.”

Fifty metres ahead of us, the Cossack horses trotted slowly into the ring, their calm progress barely hiding the high mettle of their alert eyes, stretched ears, and tensed muscles. The Cossack riders started to rehearse a series of moves not unlike those of a break-dancer one might see on Kyiv’s main streets, falling to the ground, springing up, spinning on their back and shoulder blades. But whereas a break-dancer has the pavement as a platform, the Cossacks have wild animals beneath them.

Steamy Business

Steamy Business

March 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

If there is one image that encapsulates the realnost of post-Communist Ukraine it is that of the oligarch rising to prominence as a result of opportunism and thuggery, whilst the beleaguered proletariat are traumatised by change they cannot understand or control. In Steamy Business I venture into the male bastion of the bathhouse, or banya. This informal venue – host of many business decisions – was informally banned to government officials during the Yushchenko presidency. There, I take a longer view on the rise of the rich and uncover how people became secret millionaires under Communism, and how money, and the desire to flaunt it, was a driving force in bringing down the Soviet Union. We also take a look at where the Austrian economists, who feature so much in the debate about the world’s current economic problems, really came from.


I recalled that with hindsight it was now clear that Perestroika fed two contradictory demands that were its downfall. Civil society had hoped that it would bring greater democracy, whereas the rich thought it would legalize their privilege and enable them to live openly. The tension created by the open display of wealth quickly led to a rise in criminal violence and gangs that nowadays so epitomizes the post-Soviet republics.

Andrei continued, saying, “Most of those who became businessmen after World War II had been marginalised by the Communist Party. Perhaps they were Jews who were prevented from taking responsible positions in Government or others that didn’t have professional or academic standing. As the Soviet archives continue to be opened, legal cases are now coming to light of businessmen who amassed millions and were arrested, tried, and in some cases executed. In a society where everything was regulated, knowing that you had achieved something provided a tremendous inner freedom and defined who you were.”

“But how did they become rich?” I wondered.

At that moment one of the older men opened a hatch and threw water into the opening. The roar of steam being created temporarily drowned our voices and moments later a wall of heat hit my body, searing my skin. Surely this was how the universe had originally come into being, I thought.

A Medal at Any Cost

A Medal at Any Cost

March 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making of the Chapter:

Living in a society, such as the Soviet Union, where one’s role and behaviour was so tightly conscribed and where role models were largely determined by the authorities, meant that sport assumed a special place in people’s hearts.  People could choose to do sport or to watch, and who they chose as role models was beyond the reach of the authorities.

In A Medal at any Cost I spend a train journey in the company of a group of athletes (and the Provodnitsa who checks the tickets, tends the samovar, and generally keeps passengers in order).  We reflect on the importance of Ukraine to the Soviet Union’s Olympic results, relive great Olympic moments, disagree about the extent of cheating during the Games, and offer a cautious outlook on the European Cup 2012 (to be jointly hosted by Ukraine and Poland).


 “Bubka always chose a heavier and stiffer pole than his competitors, and his success lay in his unusually strong arms, fantastic acceleration over twenty-two strides, and technique for planting the pole. In a straight race he could run the hundred metres in 10.45 seconds; he was a natural athlete.”

He paused, recounting his feelings from twenty years earlier. “The wining jump was over in a few seconds. I held my breath as Bubka planted the pole beneath the bar, forcing it to bend. Pole and vaulter momentarily stopped before the pole whip-lashed him skyward and he twisted over the bar, set at 5.90 metres. He had won the gold medal and the stadium and households throughout the Soviet Union erupted! Soon afterwards he became the first man to clear six metres — for decades considered impossible — and is the only man to vault 6.14 outdoors.” He breathed deeply, contentedly, as if it were his own achievement.

Pole vault, with its practical origin as a means of crossing rivers, was the sort of sport the authorities wanted people to appreciate. It required speed, strength, precision, and intellect. In contrast to the javelin, discus, hammer, shot put, and so on, which are highly regulated, the pole can be of any length or material of the athlete’s choosing. The limits are set by what one can lift and its flexibility and strength. If it snaps (the athlete’s nightmare), there’s a good chance he’ll end up looking like a piece of shashlik on a skewer.

Feast or Famine

Feast or Famine

March 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

To hide the deaths of many millions of people for fifty years was quite an achievement. More justly, it was an appalling accomplishment which was only possible in a regime such as Communism, and, I should add, with the connivance of governments that choose to turn a blind eye.  But it happened in Ukraine and it is called the Holodomor.

Artists were so terrorised by the regime that it’s believed that only one painted image of the Holodomor exists. Painted by one of Ukraine’s most famous artists, the small canvas hangs in the Musee National d’Art Moderne in Paris. As an example of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, the Holodomor is one of the most shocking examples.

In Feast or Famine I visit a family of bread connoisseurs, as they establish a bakery in one of Kyiv’s swankier shopping malls, to learn all about this staple food and its cultural (and life-giving) importance in Ukraine.


Polina entered the small space clutching a couple of bags of loaves. Her narrow face was accentuated by her large and somber eyes that were seemingly without pupils.

“Here we go, let’s taste!” she said. Each day she was buying bread from nearby competitors for her father to try. He tore open one of the white loaves and buried his nose in its doughy cleavage.

“Additives!” He exclaimed. “Bread is more important than wine, and it appeals to the senses in the same way. Our wheat produces a hay yellow crumb, and is long in the mouth and rich. It has an intense scent of herbs and a slight acidity. Often the nose has notes of fennel and other herbs. You know, it’s particularly well suited to sourdough baking methods, where small differences in the wheat do not affect the end result, but this has been doctored, probably to increase shelf life.”

He frowned and broke off some crumbs, and examined them like a jeweller might inspect diamonds.