Posts Tagged ‘Ukraine’

Politicians and Partisans

Politicians and Partisans

March 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

Don’t let anyone tell you that political history is boring, at least not if they’re referring to Ukraine. The leading figures of Ukraine in the twentieth century were Tsarists or Communists, but among them were also Democrats, Republicans, Revolutionaries, Anarchists, Partisans, and Conservatives. They include the Jew, Leon Trotsky, who whimsically assumed the surname of his jailer; Lazar “Iron Man” Kaganovich, the most ruthless executioner of Stalin’s policy who admired the literary works of Ukrainian nationalists; The “Butcher of Ukraine” Nikita Khrushchev, who often visited Taras Shevchenko’s grave; and Leonid Brezhnev, who used tax receipts from the sale of vodka to fund his invasion of Afghanistan and inadvertently created a condition between socialism and communism called alcoholism.

Even those who recorded history provide colour. Mykhailo Hrushevsky died in suspicious circumstances in 1934. His daughter and his nephew died in the gulags and his brother died whilst in exile in Kazakhstan. All of them were historians.

Excerpt:

Kaganovich, who earned the nickname “Iron Lazar” for his personal loyalty to Stalin, died at the age of ninety-six years, and he was one of the few people present at both the creation and the fall of the Soviet Union.

His survival is remarkable given that, by 1953, he had become Deputy Premier (and the last remaining Jew in the hierarchy), and had executed Stalin’s wishes unreservedly, including orchestrating the artificial famine in the 1930s. Despite his lack of a formal education — he worked at a shoe factory in his youth — at the age of just thirty-two years he was leader of the Ukrainian Republic and rigorously implemented a strict policy of Russification (though he spoke fluent Ukrainian) and purged many officials as “Ukrainian Nationalists.”

It was Kaganovich who was responsible for employing jug-eared Nikita Khrushchev. Like his mentor, Khrushchev had very little formal education, but his loquaciousness, bluntness, and folksy humour endeared him to Kaganovich and others, including Stalin. Khrushchev drank prodigious quantities of yorsh (a potent mixture of beer and vodka), and played the Ukrainian flute. Stalin would occasionally demean Khrushchev by ordering him to perform the hopak, the traditional solitary dance of the Ukrainian peasant.

In Shevchenko Land

In Shevchenko Land

March 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

Nowadays Ukrainian writers can write about anything, but not so long ago that was an unrealistic hope. Blogging has replaced the underground press (Samizdat). Twenty years ago a dissident novel had the power to disrupt communism, but today it is the journalist that can bring down the government. The novelist and the novel have lost their power. In In Shevchenko Land I go on a bus journey through central Ukraine, in the company of a lively and spirited Librarian (yes, I know those words are not often seen in conjunction), to discover the heritage of literary greats such as Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko and Lesya Ukrainka.  I confront the confusing identities of Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gogol (who in Moscow can accept that Gogol is not Russian?) and take a peep at just how Russian was the “Russian” Avant–Garde.

Excerpt:

The police had searched the coffin for sabres and rifles but the real weapons Shevchenko left behind — his words — were unconquerable and mighty. During his lifetime his work was reviewed in the Russian, French, Spanish, and Italian press, and he was mentioned for the first time in the English-speaking world in a magazine edited by Charles Dickens. By the end of the twentieth century, his work had been translated into more than one hundred languages.

By mid-afternoon we arrived in Kaniv and there was a mood of anticipation in the bus. We climbed the hill, a gentle stroll of an hour or so. Until 1918 a simple Celtic cross had stood on his tomb, but in 1939 — with the Soviet re-branding of Shevchenko complete — the famous sculptor Matvei Manizer designed a series of granite steps leading to a seven-metre pedestal on which stands a figure of Shevchenko bowing his recalcitrant head in thought.

On top of the hill the mood was one of unbridled joy. Small groups of pilgrims dotted the site: some were singing gaily, others gathered around as someone recited verse, and others simply admired the breathtaking view of the river. A strong breeze was blowing. Shevchenko always had a deep concern for Ukraine’s future, but he would have gladdened to learn that a hundred and thirty years after his death an even stronger breeze had blown away the shackles from his Cossack maiden.

Taking the Medicine

Taking the Medicine

March 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

Most people can’t name a Ukrainian famous in the field of medicine.  And yet, this is a sphere in which they have excelled. The conundrum is in part explained by the persecution of doctors – being recognised internationally was not a prescription for good health – or simply that their ideas were stolen. Others emigrated and assumed a new nationality.

In Taking the Medicine I support a sick friend inside a city hospital whilst he undergoes a minor operation, and reflect on healthier times for the Ukrainian health service. The issue is not one of a lack of doctors or facilities, but medical competence and the quality of facilities. The body of the chapter (pun intended) looks at blood, cholera, antibiotics, X-rays, surgery, organ transplants, and reflexology and conditioning. But we’ll need another second appointment if we’re to cover magnetic spin resonance, skin transplants and the polyhedral chisel for skull trephination.

Excerpt:

Though most of the world refers to X-rays as “Roentgen waves” after the name of the German physicist and Nobel Prize winner, X-rays were discovered seven years earlier than Roentgen’s claim in 1887 by a Ukrainian named Ivan Pulyui.

Pulyui’s story is quite common for Ukraine. He was an outstanding scientist whose diverse achievements included the construction of Europe’s first alternating current power plant and the translation of the Old Testament into Ukrainian. Yet the 1983 Encyclopaedia of Ukraine, compiled under the censorship of the Soviet Union, makes no reference to him.

“Why do you call this the Roentgen Kabinet?” I asked the technician after he had positioned Mikhail next to the vintage machine. Holding a lead curtain in front of his sex organ, Mikhail looked like a bandy-legged Daliesque bullfighter.

“Breath in, hold it,” the technician barked as he peered out from above a green mask and pressed the button to emit the radiation.

“You don’t know who invented the X-ray?” he said as he looked at me incredulously.

Though the three of us discussed the history of X-rays for the next ten minutes, the technician gave no ground. He was the expert, Mikhail was clearly suffering from the late stages of dementia, and I was a foreign novice. Roentgen discovered X-rays. Period.

Religious Wars

Religious Wars

March 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

 

In Religious Wars I look at how Christianity was adopted in Ukraine, the cult of atheism and Foucault’s Pendulum, and the KGB infiltration of the church. A review of death, cemeteries and crematoria allows me to tell the fascinating story of the embalming of Lenin, and the glorious city of Lviv – which has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status – gives up some of her secrets as I tour a half dozen of the city’s cathedrals and churches. There really is no better place to experience a microcosm of Ukrainian religious life than the city of Lviv, meaning “City of the Lion,” located only seventy-five kilometres from the European Union border. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities of Europe, and it owes its visual appearance more to Vienna, Budapest, and Prague than to Moscow or Kyiv.

Excerpt:

After World War II, the Dominion Cathedral in Lviv — the most grandiose baroque building in the city — was chosen as the site for a Museum of Atheism and for Foucault’s Pendulum; the only other such museum in the Soviet Union being St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg.

The Dominican church was completed over the period 1747–1865 and the monastic order adopted the emblem of a dog lying on a book with a burning torch in its jaws, a sculptured version of which can be seen on the magnificent façade. Their purpose in building the church was to convey in stone the values which give life a purpose, including strength, beauty, and harmony. As you turn the corner into the small square housing the church, it does, indeed, take your breath away with its grandeur. The builders have managed to express something in stone that words can not convey.

“Foucault’s Pendulum was suspended just there,” said Victor, a theologian from the Catholic University in Lviv, who was also my guide for the day, as he pointed to a spot in the cupola’s heart, which was in dire need of restoration more than 40 metres above our heads.

Viktor had an eccentricity of appearance; black cassock, unruly hair, and a coloured backpack. He drew an imaginary wire towards the ground with a finger. Beneath the dome, eighteen restored statues of saints, made of linden wood and clad in gold, looked down upon us.

Sex and the Soviets

Sex and the Soviets

March 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

Putting together this chapter – Sex and the Soviets - was one of the funniest and most frustrating pieces of the jig saw.  The ground covered includes the role of women, why women chose prostitution, Masochism, abortion, pornography, childbirth and sex stings. The major part is an eye-opening discussion with two prostitutes; a mother and her daughter. I called perhaps a dozen girls-I won’t go into how I came to have so many phone numbers-trying to get some of them to talk to me about their life as a prostitute. Most wanted nothing to do with me, a smaller number simply didn’t believe I only wanted to talk and tried to lead me on, and finally I found Larisa and her daughter.

Whatever your view of the morality of their work, I don’t think you can read their story without agreeing that together they are a winning team.

Excerpt:

Perhaps I’ve read too many books or seen too many films, but I just had to ask if Larissa ever spied on the men she had sex with.

“Only once do I recall something comical happening to a girlfriend,” she said as crease lines appeared on her face. “She was in middle of it — it was a new client — when the door burst open, a man entered, switched on the lights, and took some pictures. Their faces must have shown such surprise.” Remembering this, she rocked with laugher. “Needless to say, she never saw that client again.”

Most commonly, it seems, this sort of client was working for an embassy or was a politician, and the photos were taken as a future “insurance policy.” The information sat in a file somewhere until the important man needed to be coerced in some way. Genuine examples are difficult to come by, but one case involved a plain, vulnerable but intelligent Ukrainian girl, Nora Korzhenko. It is narrated in her book, I Spied for Stalin, and in her husband’s response, a book called A Spy Called Swallow. The books tell the story of Soviet spy, Nora Korzhenko, who in 1942 was assigned to seduce British Embassy naval attache, John Murray and to encourage him to work for the Soviet Union. The young and impressionable Korzhenko (code named “Swallow”) fails to complete her assignment and the two fall in love and flee Moscow for a new life together in England.

At The Coal Face

At The Coal Face

March 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

If there was ever a good time to work in a coal mine in Ukraine it was probably in the 1960s and 1970s. Coal miners were among the highest paid workers and had good benefits including priority allocation of an apartment and early retirement. There were accidents, of course, but there was camaraderie between the men that is lacking today. In At the Coal Face I socialise with a group of miners in a bar in the city of Donetsk. (Given the amount of alcohol I consumed, the chapter would never have been written without my trusty voice recorder.) I uncover the unusual provenance of the city, the rise of heroes (and heroines) of labour, the decline to the “year without meat,” pit disasters and the emergence of a new group of pit owners. Football and oil exploration make guest appearances.

Excerpt:

I entered the bar a few minutes early and was greeted by broken linoleum, nicotine-stained wallpaper, and glaucous windows. It was not my choice of establishment, but a typical working class bar that served vodka and beer from six in the morning. I had agreed to meet three miners, a father and son, and a retired miner who was now part of the editorial team for a miners’ newspaper. Benches lined the perimeter of the room, but there were no chairs at the metal tables, which stood chest high and were supported by welded piping. I ordered a beer at the bar and took it to a free table.

The barman would have been hung drawn and quartered in any miners’ club back home for serving the short measure that he gave me, only slightly more than two-thirds of a glass. But in Ukraine I’d grown to accept it and I certainly wasn’t going to argue. Ukrainian friends smile and joke when I complain about beer measures; they just don’t seem to understand the gravity of the matter.

As I waited for the miners to arrive and the froth to settle, I couldn’t help but contemplate that this town was once the industrial heartland of the Soviet Union. It provided the coal to smelt the iron ore, and to produce the metal that was used in the tanks, missiles, aircraft, ships, and submarines that threatened the West for so many years. Yet, this town was built by a stocky, and by all accounts, amiable Welshman called John Hughes.

Bits, Bytes, Trits, and Trytes

Bits, Bytes, Trits, and Trytes

February 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

Ukrainian markets are awash with pirated computer software and some say that Ukraine is the centre of excellence of hacking. Neither paint Ukraine in a particularly good light, but both are founded on the country’s heritage of leadership in computer technology development.  In Bits, Bytes, Trits, and Trytes I visit the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences to learn the story of the development of continental Europe’s first computer and about some of the world’s most most advanced computer technology.  It’s a remarkable story that start’s in Kyiv, under conditions of utmost secrecy, and ends in the most unlikely of places, a nun’s bedroom.

And in case you think that the technology innovation of Ukrainians died along with the Cold War, we take a look at who made the first mobile telephone call, the computer disk and scanner. And, yes, I think you’ve guessed already.

Excerpt:

If not for the war, Lebedev would have completed his computer even earlier, and his wife recalled the dark wartime evenings when her husband would sit in the bathroom, lit by an oil lamp, and scribble the 1s and 0s of the binary operations. The basic elements were complete by 1948, and two years later his “Small Electronic Calculating Machine” (called MESM) was operational. Many of the original design documents are kept at the National Academy of Sciences and scribbled on the front cover are the words, “To be kept forever.”

At the time there were only two similar working machines in the world, both in England: Maurice Wilkes’ EDSAC, and a machine called the Manchester BABY developed by Frederick Williams and Tom Kilburn. In fact, Lebedev’s machine was superior because it performed several calculations simultaneously (what we now call “parallel processing”), whereas the EDSAC and BABY employed a sequential method of calculation. By reading US journals the Ukrainians had learned of the world’s first computer, ENIAC, completed in 1946, but it was not programmable.

Touring Crimea

Touring Crimea

February 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter: 

Touring Crimea is first and foremost a celebration of a region.  Its rich and tumultuous history spans millennia, from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts and their heroic quest for the Golden Fleece to the controversial decision to allow the Russian Black Sea Fleet to maintain a navel base in Sevastopol. Using the resort town of Simeiz as a base, I offer a packed itinerary that takes in both the coast and the interior. Travelling westwards I visit the ancient city of Chersonesos, and then on to Sevastopol, the site of so much devastation during the Crimean War and during World War II.  Inland, I visit the palace of Bakhchiserai and the “Fountain of Tears,” immortalised by Pushkin’s poem, and then head skywards to rugged mountains and sacred caves. Trekking eastwards places of interest jostle shoulder to shoulder: Livadia, Yalta, Nikita Botanical Gardens, the Massandra winery, and further a field the champagne cellars of Novy Svet and the breathtaking scenery of Karadag.

Excerpt:

Wine making in Crimea is thousands of years old, as proved by the wine remnants that have been found in Greek amphora from Chersonesos. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Cossacks of Tsimlanskoe (nowadays, the label name of one of Ukraine’s cheap sweet sparkling champagne wines) had mastered the manufacture of sparkling wines as evidenced by Pushkin’s reference in Eugene Onegin. Though this significantly predates the efforts of the French monk Dom Perignon, the first documented sparkling wine production in Ukraine was recorded in Sudak in 1799. Soon after, all along the Crimean coast, rich merchants and aristocracy were producing sparkling wines.

The Crimean War temporarily halted progress by destroying vines, wineries, and precious research notes, but after the war Golitsyn took up the challenge of improving wine quality. He experimented with hundreds of grape varieties before selecting the Pinot Franc, Pinot Gris, Aligote, and Chardonnay grapes for his champagne, which are more climate tolerant than those preferred by French vintners.

Golitsyn constructed wine cellars that extend deep into the Koba-Kaya mountain in Novy Svet, one of Crimea’s most idyllic towns, The winery still produces eleven types of champagne and is open to the public, though even on a summer’s day you’d be advised to carry a sweater with you if you wish to linger in the cellars where the temperature is a constant 11° Celsius.

Whirlybirds and Witches

Whirlybirds and Witches

February 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

The science of flight and Ukraine have had a love affair for more than a century. Many will already be familiar with the names of Sikorsky and Antonov, whose agile helicopters and big birds, respectively, have served us equally in peace time and war.

Fewer will be familiar with other ingredients that I weave into the story of Whirlybirds and Witches. They include the remarkable people who conquered aircraft spin, designers who were decades ahead of their time, and pilots you would not want to encounter in a dog fight.  Only a few, perhaps, are aware of the remarkable role played by Ukrainian women in this story of flight. In war time, women pilots harried the occupying German troops invoking constant restlessness and in peacetime they broke numerous flight records. They clearly provoked something in Stalin; he is rumoured to have been the lover of one woman pilot, and he was the pallbearer to another.

Excerpt:

Undaunted by the experience, Valentina followed her father’s footsteps and went on to become the country’s first woman instructor, teaching hundreds of men to fly at Tula Institute.

Valentina’s co-pilot, Polina Osipenko, shared a similar ambition but had a very different upbringing. Osipenko was head of a chicken farm near Kyiv when she fell in love with a military pilot working at the Kacha Flight School. She enrolled at the school and started out by working in the canteen making breakfast for the pilots, but before long had inveigled her way into the pilot training programme. She excelled at training and was transferred to Kharkiv where she married Alexander Osipenko, who later became a famous general and Hero of the Soviet Union.

Over the next three years, in flying with fellow navigator and pilot, Russian-born Maria Raskova, Grizodubova and Osipenko set several new women’s distance world records and were awarded The Order of Lenin. (Nowadays, it seems somewhat quaint to be awarded a medal for making a four-hour flight, but then it had all sorts of implications for military supremacy.) The three women enjoyed working together, and with Stalin’s support — it is thought that Raskova may have been his mistress — they embarked on a flight across the Soviet Union.

Zoos, Science, and Evolution

Zoos, Science, and Evolution

February 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

In a country where people had little exposure to the outside world and virtually no access to travel, a zoo guidebook served as a travel guide for a journey to distant lands. For children a zoo was a magic carpet to imaginary places. And odd though it might seem few stories capture the sense of hope that lived in people’s hearts during the dark days of World War II as the story of how Ukrainians cared for their zoo animals. In Zoos, Science, and Evolution I take a guided tour of Kharkiv zoo, review the writing of the bad-boy of modern Ukrainian literature, and investigate the bad-boy of modern science who oversaw the destruction of classical genetics and created what some call the biggest scandal of twentieth century science.

Excerpt:

We agreed on a route around the zoo and Sergei continued to offer his ideas. “Odd though it may seem, the zoo is one of the few cultural establishments that survived the Soviet period relatively unchanged. There were some extreme cases in which individual animals were regards as “bourgeois” and so were not allowed, but generally the authorities encouraged zoos.”

I toyed with the idea for a few moments, wondering if perhaps the penguin, with its dinner jacket-like attire, was considered “bourgeois.”

“Theatres were forced to change their repertoires, circus clowns were forced to change their acts, and galleries and museums were forced to change their exhibits, but zoos exist today in very much the same way they did a hundred years ago.”

“But is the zoo concept still relevant today, particularly when the conditions for the animals are so poor?” I pressed.

He was a quiet-spoken man, but now he spoke with an authoritative voice. “You can’t expect to understand our culture without having endured our history.” He chose carefully a verb that suggested prolonged pain and hardship. 

We agreed on a route around the zoo and Sergei continued to offer his ideas. “Odd though it may seem, the zoo is one of the few cultural establishments that survived the Soviet period relatively unchanged. There were some extreme cases in which individual animals were regards as “bourgeois” and so were not allowed, but generally the authorities encouraged zoos.”

I toyed with the idea for a few moments, wondering if perhaps the penguin, with its dinner jacket-like attire, was considered “bourgeois.”

“Theatres were forced to change their repertoires, circus clowns were forced to change their acts, and galleries and museums were forced to change their exhibits, but zoos exist today in very much the same way they did a hundred years ago.”

“But is the zoo concept still relevant today, particularly when the conditions for the animals are so poor?” I pressed.

He was a quiet-spoken man, but now he spoke with an authoritative voice. “You can’t expect to understand our culture without having endured our history.” He chose carefully a verb that suggested prolonged pain and hardship.

The Chief Designer

The Chief Designer

February 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

I’ve heard cynics say that the only areas where the Soviet Union outshone the USA were space exploration and ballet, and that in the first it was only temporarily.  That’s an unfair assessment.  In many of the space disciplines, Ukrainians have dominated their field since the mid-nineteenth century – you might say they were light-years ahead. In The Chief Designer I visit Odesa-the city of humour-and the Odesa Observatory to learn how the Ukrainian designer of Sputnik built on the ideas of his predecessors to first put a machine, and shortly after, a dog in space. Few at the time realised that decisions taken on the spur of the moment would upset the world superpower balance within a matter of months. Before leaving Odesa I investigate the story of the local man who provided the inspiration for the fictional character of “James Bond.”

Excerpt:

On October 4, 1957, Sputnik became the first manmade object to reach orbit. Though Sputnik was not visible from Earth, the casing of the R-7 booster travelling behind it could be seen. Korolev dearly wanted the world to hear the “beep, beep, beep” of his satellite. The signal, which continued for twenty-two days, could be picked up on an ordinary radio and millions around the world tuned into it. If the irritating “beep” wasn’t bad enough for the Americans, they also had to recognise that it was flying directly over North America and, thus, American sky had been violated.

We stopped by a fountain. Stanislav was elated and he groomed his beard; evidently the story was a source of pride and joy for him.

As we know now, Korolev’s tiny sphere shook America’s assumptions of its own superiority and sent some hard-to-believe messages. If the Soviet Union could deliver missiles to America, then winning a war with them would be practically impossible.

Presidents and the People

Presidents and the People

February 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

It’s hard not to be disappointed at the lack of progress that Ukraine has made in the last twenty years towards a better economy and greater social justice. The expectation was that Ukraine – as the most industrialized and resource-rich country of the former Soviet Union – would be the first to emerge from the rubble of Communism. In Presidents and the People I see this view for what it was: plain wrong. Ukraine was not starting from where everyone thought.

Faced with internal corruption and incompetence, the determination of Russia to return Ukraine to its jurisdiction and the West’s growing ambivalence towards its eastern neighbour, Ukraine has been a political circus. In Presidents and the People I follow the path since independence and look at the expectations of the people, and just what has been achieved, what hasn’t, and what the future holds.

Excerpt:

By most accounts Kuchma started off reasonably well. He brought into positions of influence some of his friends from Dnipropetrovsk, but others did not change, including Viktor Yushchenko, who was head of the National Bank. Having used the coinage of intruders for a millennium — the grosh of Poland and Lithuania, the thalers, ducats, and florins of their western neighbours, and since the eighteenth century, the Russian rouble — it was his responsibility to reintroduce the currency of Kyivan Rus, the Hryvnia (pronounced Grivna).

As it happened, all the former Soviet states introduced a new national currency much sooner than Ukraine, where a lack of local expertise combined with the obfuscation of politicians caused significant delay. With inflation raging, but without the power to print roubles (which was the prerogative of Moscow), Ukraine was forced to adopt a transition currency called the coupon-karbovanets, a sort of monopoly money that bore the brunt of the budget deficit, hyperinflation, and currency devaluation. By the mid-1990s when one million coupon-karbovanets was worth approximately four dollars, Ukraine could rightly say that every citizen was a millionaire.

“I knew I was rich,” remarked one friend. “I would reach across to the gas stove, light a coupon and use it to light my cigarette.”

Back Page Blurb

Back Page Blurb

February 16, 2010  |  Comments Off

Largely unknown to outsiders, Ukraine is the largest country entirely within Europe and the richest in natural resources. For centuries considered to be part of Russia, and until recently part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has always been deprived of her own voice.

Among the Ukrainians provides that voice. It is a journey to Ukraine’s cities and regions — by rail, road, and river — to meet ordinary people who offer extraordinary insights into their lives. Here, you’ll experience the purgatory of the bathhouse and the pleasures of the prostitute’s bedroom. You’ll encounter life at the coalface and in the decrepit hospitals, tour rat-infested submarine facilities and taste wines from the cellars of the Tsars.

Along the way you’ll unearth the country’s rich history. Among the many men and women you’ll encounter are those who discovered X-rays and antibiotics, put the first man in space, won the most Olympic medals, designed continental Europe’s first computer and the world’s first helicopter, and wrote some of the best prose. You will even meet the man who provided the inspiration for the fictional character, “James Bond.”

Bursting with anecdotes and information not found elsewhere Among the Ukrainians offers a unique insight into a nation under construction. It is your guide to Russia’s little brother: a barely known land with a big history and a big heart.