I have wanted to write a post about my visit to Ukraine, but have been uncertain where to begin or how to frame it. I am afraid that I will interpret something wrong. Even now, I am not sure what to write. When I told fellow travelers that I had been to Ukraine, I was often met with a reaction that it is unsafe to travel there. Many travelers feel that they would avoid going there and expressed fear of the country’s situation. So, I thought I would write about my short experience there and my perceptions of the country (as well as some lessons learned.).
I was attracted to Ukraine because I wanted to visit Chernobyl and because I was planning to go to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, and Sweden with BusAbout. I wanted to go to a country near these countries as I was already planning on going to the region. As such, I chose Ukraine and Belarus, as I have never been to these countries and they were near my bus tour with Bus About. I was also interested in Ukraine out of a general interest in communist history and Slavic cultures. With that said, I considered safety issues and figured that because fighting in the country has been in eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that it was probably relatively safe to travel to Kiev. This assumption was based on the notion that fighting had not spread beyond these regions over the course of a year (since Crimea was annexed). Furthermore, the State Department’s website has not posted any travel warnings for regions outside of those near the border with Russia (at the time of my booking). Finally, other travelers to Ukraine have not reported war specific issues while travelling in western Ukraine. The main complaint of other travelers (at least in a survey of blogs) are problems with crime, corruption, or police.
It is hard to make complete sense out of the conflict and really, I only dimly understand it. The conflict regions have Russians and Russian speaking Ukrainians, some of whom want to break away from Ukraine. Russia has supported separatist rebels, supplying them with weapons and troops. The region has experienced de-industrialization since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which has created Soviet nostalgia among some of the populace. This has been expressed through a pro-Russian and an anti-European Union orientation. The economic troubles are important to note, as the conflict began after the EuroMaidan protests which..if I understand them correctly were basically protests regarding an acceptance of a Russian bailout versus an EU bailout (again a Russian versus EU orientation), but also some issues of corruption. The ultra-nationalist, anti-Russian tone of the protests were worrisome to the Russian speaking easterners. Despite real economic, cultural, and historical concerns of people of this region, the conflict is fueled by Russian support. There are various narratives and debates about the conflict (such as is Russia imperialist? and are there two Ukraines?). I am afraid that I only have a basic understanding of the situation.
Safety and prejudice:
Although 7,000 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine, I did not feel particularly unsafe during my visit. Nevertheless, when I planned the trip I made sure that I only stayed a few days and only in Kiev in case the situation changed. Really, when I arrived I was more worried about tales of corruption and crime. There were various warnings about being taken advantage of by taxis or hassled by police. Of course, this can happen in many countries. Because my flight was changed at the last moment, I arrived in Kiev at 1am. This was a terrible start to the trip because I couldn’t use the Skybus or the Metro (as the metro closes after midnight). Thus, I was forced to take a taxi. There was a driver by a kiosk that said “taxi” or ground transport, so when he offered me a ride I assumed he was a legitimate driver. I agreed upon a price (which was expensive at 25 euros, but not beyond the averages that other travelers reported). However, when he brought me to his car, he was not a licensed taxi driver with a marked vehicle. I was quite paranoid from the reports of other travelers, but it was late and I took the risk. All the while, I imagined all the terrible things that could happen. I was so worked up about it, that I wouldn’t let him handle my bags and would not get out of the cab until I was 100% certain it was the hotel. Even then, I half expected him to change the price. Thankfully, I arrived at the hotel without incident. Even then, I expected the hotel to rip me off. The polite staff informed me that although I had prepaid I needed to pay a local tax. I was sure it was a scam. No, only my paranoia. The tax was less than a dollar. When I went to my room, I decided to relax and stop assuming that everyone was out to get me. Reading travel blogs had made me paranoid and prejudiced. Thus, a major lesson that I learned on the trip was not to let concerns for safety prejudice me against the people of the country. Honestly, everyone that I interacted with was polite, helpful, and generally nice. There is a stereotype that eastern European service industry workers are rude (that is, they have not yet conformed to the level of emotion work that their western counterparts do…i.e. service with a smile, the customer is always right, and many other dehumanizing acts of emotional and mental control.) For better or worse, this was not my experience.
My hotel was Hotel Ukraine, a monstrous building overlooking Maidan Square. I had a room on the 8th floor which over looked of the square. I liked the hotel. It was close to many sites and only cost $25 a night. Really, many things were very inexpensive. The wonderful museums that I visited were each under a dollar for admission. In this sense, Ukraine is an inexpensive place to visit for an American. As nice as this is for a budget minded traveler, it is awful for Ukrainians (as this would signify a decline in standards of living, with more expensive imports and a decline in wages). The currency was devaluated 40% in 2008 and was devalued again in 2014 to meet IMF requirements (for a floating currency?). As such, a dollar is worth about 22 hryvnia. I exchanged $20 and this lasted three days (with some currency leftover). Granted, I purchased food from a grocery store and my main expenses were metro rides and museum admissions.
Anyway, after some rest at my hotel, I set out to explore Kiev. Once again, I generally felt very safe. There were many soldiers out and about, as well as police. I also observed many Ukrainian flags along with makeshift memorials to the dead. These memorials were set up along the roads near Maidan Square and consisted of candles, flowers, and photographs. The flags, memorials, and movement of soldiers were the main indications that the country was involved in war. Another indication was a lack of tourists. I went to several tourist sites, such as the Cave Monastery, St. Sophia, a war museum, a famine monument, etc. There were Ukrainian tourists at these sites, but I did not note foreign tourists. Even on the metro, I never heard English or saw backpackers. While I am sure there were some tourists in Kiev, I do not recall hearing or seeing them. And, even though I was certainly not as fashionable or thin as Ukrainian women, I did not perceive that I was always pegged as a tourist either. For example, I have found that tourists are often communicated to in English first. This was not always the case. I was even asked by a woman (in Ukrainian) which metro stop we were at. I any event, although I often felt alone as a foreign tourist, I didn’t feel that I particularly stood out (that is I wasn’t harassed or bothered by street vendors or people selling things any more than anyone else).
Language was a slight problem. I studied Russian for two years but I am pretty rusty. Nevertheless, I could sometimes figure out signs or what people were saying to me (in Ukrainian). However, I felt like I had to pretend not to understand or that I could not reply in Russian. I was afraid that if I used any Russian it might be offensive or a sensitive issue. Ukrainian is not the same as Russian and I don’t speak any Ukrainian. So, while some words are the same or similar, there are obviously many words that are different. The language issue was not that big of a deal, but a minor challenge. It made me feel mute, as I might know how to respond in Russian, but I was afraid to speak. Now, my Russian skills are terrible anyway. I am not sure how much help it would have been. It was certainly better than knowing nothing. Of course, Ukrainian uses a few different Cyrillic letters. Nevertheless, it was a bit of a conundrum. For the most part, young people spoke English. The non-English speakers I encountered tended to be older women working at museums or as cashiers. As a travel tip to anyone considering going to Ukraine, a Ukrainian phrase book would have been helpful!
Despite warnings of crime and trouble with police, I did not encounter these problems. Because of a lack of tourists, there were not as many crowds as many popular tourist destinations. As such, there was always enough space around me and never a sense that there were pickpockets lurking about. And while tourists to Russia have sometimes complained of being stopped by police and made to show their passports, I feel that I was mostly ignored by police.
The only time that I felt uncertain about safety was when there was a large military parade on August 22nd. I saw hundreds of soldiers and heard loud patriotic music. There were crowds of people and some demonstrations of military equipment. I was baffled by the scene. I was uncertain if the scene meant that there was a ramping up of the war or if it was some sort of memorial for the people who died earlier in the week. I threaded through the crowd, took some photos, and wandered off to my hotel. The parade or gathering lasted for several hours. I found out later (by looking it up on the internet at my hotel) that Independence Day is on August 24th, so the parade was likely related to this. This eased my worries.
Once again, I felt safer in Kiev than in places such as Moscow or St. Petersburg. To contrast, when I visited Moscow in the past, I felt that the city was huge. I felt that the spread of the city to the size of the buildings are all designed to make a person feel small. There were crowds at tourist sites, along with beggars. Kiev, in contrast, felt smaller and less crowded. It felt less busy. At night, the city was darker and it seemed that fewer people were out. The roads were mostly empty. I am sure there is night life, but no one seemed to be lingering out that long. In fact, that was my first impression of the country. When I arrived at 1 am, I was surprised how dark the city was. Even Maidan square was dark. It seemed that everyone went to sleep early.
Russia is my frame of reference for Eastern Europe. I travelled there twice in college for a summer Russian program. So, whenever I travel to an eastern European country, I can’t help but compare it to Russia. With that said, there are of course some similarities owing to some shared history, religion, and culture. Kiev gave the impression of ancientness. Of course, it has been settled since at least the 5th century, so it is old! The cave monastery that I visited dated back to 1077. Parts of St. Sophia also date back to the 11th century. Anyone with an interest in Eastern Orthodox religion would be quite enthralled by the city. Unfortunately, as an atheist, I couldn’t fully appreciate it all. I felt awkward and out of place at sites where people were crying in awe and reverence. I also did not pack the appropriate clothes for these visits. As a word of advice, pack a long skirt and shawl if you wish to visit these places. I did not. But, even if I had, the temperature was about 95 degrees, so I probably wouldn’t have overdressed anyway.
Kiev also gave the impression of tragedy, though this may have more to do with my interests than the city itself. For instance, I made a point of visiting Babi Yar twice. However, other monuments to human loss are the famine monument, Holodomor museum, and Chernobyl museum. There are also day trips to Chernobyl itself (which can be read about in my previous post).
I enjoyed my short visit to Kiev and don’t regret going. It was interesting to be in the country. It was a unique opportunity to witness how the conflict there impacts people. There is an impression that despite the flags, patriotism, movement of soldiers, and memorials, people continue to live as normal (visiting museums, shopping, eating, socializing). Nevertheless, my taxi driver on the way back to Boryspil airport said that he hadn’t seen his family for a year because they live in the conflict areas. In the end, I am left wondering what it means to come and go. There are things that I will never really understand. In many ways, I am always that person standing at the monastery. Everyone is crying in awe and reverence. I don’t feel the same and can’t feel the same. I come and go as an outsider to things I don’t and can’t understand.