20.07.2012 - 27.08.2012
When I traveled overland through Central Asia (or ‘The Stans’) last year I realized I’d been to all but 4 of the former SSRs and so this trip was very much about visiting the last few and getting a sense of closure from not so much ‘that part of the world’ but the general Soviet cultural legacy in its different locations. The area I’m traveling from Moldova to Lithuania is very much Eastern Europe but I think the general phrase Eastern Europe needs a bit of clarification. Since the beginning of the Cold War it’s meant anything East of the Iron curtain but the term is now surely out of date for many of the countries that were ‘behind the curtain’. In literal terms geographically the likes of Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia are Central Europe and culturally they’ve moved on a long way from Soviet times- maybe a phrase like Danubian Europe would better connect them to their cultural near neighbors such as Austria. For the countries of the former Soviet Union though the accuracy in applying the term is much harder to call and viewing the cultural positionings of the four countries I visited was definitely one of the core features of the trip.
My trip began in one of Europe’s ‘lesser known’ and one of its least visited countries- Moldova. I’d wanted to visit there ever since reading Tony Hawks amusingly offbeat and very British adventure Playing the Moldovans at Tennis in the late ‘90s but my experiences were slightly less bleak than the way the book portrayed the country. There was glorious sunshine every day and temperatures were consistently in the mid 30s, it’s the most rural country in Europe with the landscape vastly different to the Soviet stereotype of belching chimneys and blackened miners- i.e. no hammers but plenty of sickles.
Whilst it’s quietly pleasant for a few days, as with most countries that have few tourists there’s not a huge amount to do there although the undoubted tourist highlight was going on a woozy tour of a vineyard- the country is sometimes described as having the best value wines in the world and certainly being asked to pay just over a Euro for a lovely bottle of red is definitely a fond memory.
In many ways it almost doesn’t feel like a full country, and with the Transnistrian issue it almost literally isn’t. Moldovans speak Romanian and the national identity is very weak being largely invented by the Russians during Communist times; with no real industrial economy it felt more like an agricultural region of a bigger country (e.g. the Soviet Union) and its future looks uncertain to say the least. In the last few years Albania has overtaken it to leave it as the poorest country in Europe and more than a quarter of the population have left to find work elsewhere in Europe since independence. What’s hampering the country even further was my next stop of the breakaway republic of Transnistria.
It’s a de jure part of Moldova but is one of the group of 10 or so breakaway countries (like Kosovo, Abkhazia etc.) in the world which run themselves totally independently with their own government, army etc. I was quite nervous crossing the border as it’s notorious for foreigners to get hit for bribes by the police but things went agreeably smoothly on both entering and leaving the country. The region is on the East bank of the Dniestr river and refused to join Moldova at independence in 1991; as with elsewhere in the USSR ethnic Russians had been moved into the region en masse and despite being part of the Moldovan SSR, with pictures of Vladimir Putin up everywhere their loyalty is clearly to the Great Bear rather than independent Moldova. Again there’s almost nothing to do in terms of activities and culturally it felt very much like an agricultural region of Russia. It’s famously corrupt and in recent years arguably its main claim to fame has been the success of its football team FC Sheriff who play in an incredible stadium… but is essentially a front for a mafia mogul who runs virtually every business of note in the tiny country. The dispute does neither the very poor Moldovans nor Transnistrians any favours, they fight now and again but there’s plenty of Russian troops to keep the peace and it’s the constant bickering between the two sides which is really halting their development. The vast majority of the power supply is produced in Transnistria but they ask Moldovans such high prices that Moldova retaliates by blocking other trade and with their aging populations, relatively isolated locations and limited economic activity it’s difficult to see how either side can move forward. Furthermore because of the dispute it means the EU is unwilling to open negotiations for Moldovan membership or supply much aid and ultimately the poverty (certainly by European standards) of the area and the lack of upward mobility meant I was pretty pleased to get to Ukraine- where things are very different.
The BBC previews of Ukraine before the European Championships were little short of disgraceful, rather than making any attempt to describe the country’s history, culture or even tourist attractions it focused on nothing else but its football hooligans with a hyperbolic commentary from Sol Campbell over the top. Despite the undoubted problems the country has with its football fans this is clearly a minority and its only one small aspect of this large country; quite what the BBCs motivations were in doing this I don’t know. In conversations with me a couple of Ukrainians lambasted the BBC over it, angrily questioning the negativity towards them and highlighting the hypocrisy of the British media as they cogently pointed out it was the England captain who was in court over a racism charge and England has a more famous hooliganism reputation than any other country in Europe. Parts of the Ukrainian media blamed the fewer than expected visitors for the tournament on this negative publicity but I think hosting half the games in the remote Eastern and non-tourist friendly cities Kharkiv and Donetsk probably had more to do with it. So, based on those documentaries and reports people could have a negative view of Ukraine, which considering the Euros were their big chance to sell themselves to the world doesn’t seem remotely fair.
(Definitely not ‘The’) Ukraine is the largest country in Europe (discounting Russia) and one of the pleasures of traveling around is seeing the differences in landscapes and cultures of the different regions. To begin with I spent my time on the Black Sea in the gorgeous city of Odessa, scene of the Potemkin incident and great beaches. Aside from the boulevards full of ex-sailors playing chess and gorgeous coastal setting probably the most memorable part of the city are the inhabitants themselves; an extroverted, cosmopolitan lot who are utterly self-assured in their status as the chicest city in the USSR. Whilst the raffish mafia types add an air of menace, the city’s legendarily beautiful women lighten the tone massively and it was no surprise to find it’s the centre of Ukraines massive bridal mail order business. It’s been going on a long time, predominantly with American men and from their point of view you can easily see what they’re getting with the image obsessed Ukrainian women (Mila Kunis is their current standard bearer) but I couldn’t work out why the trade still goes on now. Since the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the government changed Ukraine has been doing very well economically. For several years it was posting annual growth of 6%+ and whilst that’s slowed down recently, the quality of life in the big cities at least is catching up with its Central European neighbors so I’m not sure how marrying a bloke twice their age from Indianapolis will see a massive improvement in their quality of life.
The Ukrainian flag is a blue half symbolizing the sky above a yellow half symbolizing the corn fields that are a constant feature of the landscape for much of the country, but my next area to visit was the Crimean peninsula way down on the Black Sea which has a very different landscape to the rest of the country and is also heavily contested between Ukraine and Russia. The coastline is utterly stunning, composed of sheer mountain cliffs rising 1500m straight up from the sea, bizarre rock formations and plateaus covered in Cypress and Juniper trees create an environment not dissimilar to the Mediterranean. There are some fantastic national parks to hike in and explore and on top of that it has a rich history from various eras: the old Tartar khanate, the Crimean war and more recently the Yalta conference. It forms the Western part of the old Russian Riviera which stretched all the way round to Abkhazia and Georgia and even now at this time of year is rammed with lower middle class Russian holidaymakers.
One of the things I was curious to see in Ukraine was how the Euros had affected traveling there as a tourist and the answer came in extremes. In Kiev and Lviv where games were hosted, the government has clearly spent a lot of money on new signs and information booths, all in English and incredibly easy to use- getting around and doing things was effortless. In contrast I actually found the Crimean tourist attractions immensely disappointing due to the lack of facilities/information for non-Russian speakers. Aside from Russians there are few overseas visitors to the area and they tend to do things on guided tours, consequently the museums at the Livadia Palace in Yalta where the conference took place and the Crimean war museum near Balaclava are poor to say the very least with minimal information offered with no background, context or analysis of the very important events that had taken place. The Valley of Death where the Charge of the Light Brigade (now a vineyard) took place in particular had absolutely nothing to indicate this with the viewpoint overlooking it now home to a WWII diorama for no apparent reason. Much better was the nuclear submarine factory in Balaclava near Sevastopol which is fascinating to walk round the endless gloomy corridors and the super sized bits of machinery tunneled underneath a mountain right on the coast. This area has only been opened to the outside world for about 15 years (you needed a special permit previously) as it was here that the Soviet navy had its headquarters but in post-independence Ukraine is proving to be one of the biggest problems for the fledgling state.
In many ways Ukraine was the ‘poster boy’ of the USSR, the propaganda images of hearty farmers in the cornfields and stakhonovite miners from the East of the country smilingly working for the common good was the image Stalin et al liked to portray but it masked the reality on the ground. Much of the country is covered in a loam soil which makes it one of the most fertile parts of Europe and it’s no surprise that it became known as the breadbasket of the USSR. However, whilst Ukrainian products were sold in Paris and Rome to demonstrate the strength of the Soviet economy, during the early 1930s none of the food was being released to locals as Stalin ordered the deliberate starvation of the population in order to head off any nationalist intentions to break free of the Soviet yoke. An estimated 3-5million died of starvation between 1932-33 and all over the country there are memorials to the dead in Europes ‘forgotten genocide’. Vladimir Putin recently refused to accept any accusations of genocide from Ukraine and unsurprisingly it’s a contentious issue between the 2 countries. The other major way Stalin tried to head off Ukrainian nationalism (or indeed any other independence movements across the USSR) was to move large numbers of Russian immigrants into the country and it’s this that is causing problems now. There’s currently an election campaign underway and the 2 main parties are loosely based round ethnicity; the main ‘Ukrainian party’ is led by the glamorous hero of the Orange Revolution Yulia Tymoschenko and looks defiantly West wanting to join the EU and NATO and have much greater integration with the rest of Europe based around a Ukrainian identity. However, Russian is marginally the most widely spoken language and where Russians form a majority in the East of the country and in the Crimea, political tensions are highest. Backed by Moscow, several times the Crimea has threatened to secede and the governments response was to kick out the Russian navy. Russia responded by hiking up gas prices 500%, this left Ukraine temporarily paralyzed as gas is its main source of power so a deal was agreed to allow the Russians to stay until 2042 though it’s quite clearly only a stop gap solution. As the biggest ‘other SSR’ and a split population, Ukraine is clearly the biggest prize in the ongoing proxy war between Russia and the West for influence in former Soviet states The current leader is the Russian speaking but neutral leaning Viktor Yanukovych and whilst he’s been something of a stabilizing force for the country he’s also put Tymoschenko in jail for a contentious corruption charge (which meant virtually all top European politicians boycotted the Euros) and until a more harmonious relationship between the 2 communities is worked out its future economic and political ambitions will continue to be argued about.
The idea that Soviet cities are grey, unpleasant places full of concrete has largely been untrue in my experience and the capital Kiev was no exception. Aside from the lovely riverside setting it boasts an underground cave system that is eerily lit up to reveal the mummified remains of dozens of monks in glass coffins, you don’t see anything more than hands and feet but it’s still an odd sight in the middle of the city. Elsewhere underground it has one of the deepest metros in the world (it doubled as an A-bomb shelter), escalators are much faster than usual but journeys still take up to 8 minutes and people just sit down and wait.
However, also nuclear fusion related by far the most memorable thing I did in Kiev or the entire trip for that matter was a tour of Chernobyl; the Lonely Planet lists it as ‘the worlds weirdest day trip’ though I don’t think that’s been true for a while as it’s been opened up in the last few years and whilst expensive at $160 for the day it’s nonetheless an incredible experience. You have to apply in advance to get security clearance and have to wear full sleeves and closed shoes to stop your skin touching any affected material, they even give you a protective mask when you arrive. However, over 25 years since the accident the risks are pretty small, even 50m away from reactor No. 4 where the reaction happened the guides Geiger counter only gave a reading of about 4 or 5 millirems per hour (14 and up is harmful to humans) although in the forest we did see 25+ ratings as soil retains the radiation better. There are 2 exclusion zones of 10km and 30km and there are far more people around both of them than you might think. Chernobyl itself now has around 4,000 people living there and thanks to a massive grant from the EU a French company are building several sarcophagi over the spent reactors. There’s also a big firefighters unit, probably the most dangerous legacy of the disaster left is the risk of a massive forest fire spreading contaminated air around and having seen a massive one in Crimea which they were fighting for 3 days I can see why they’re quite paranoid about it in this part of the world. Workers work 15 days on, then spend 2 weeks out but there are plans to repopulate the 30km zone in the next 5 years or so. Whilst there were more people kicking around the site than I was hoping I still got a bit of a feel of the recent ‘classic film’ Chernobyl Diaries; whilst looking round the ruined city of Pripyat nearest to the reactors you can see the cinema and town hall etc. but best of all was the abandoned blocks of flats. I was in a very strange group of people in that no one else said a word for 7 hours so left them by climbing up to the higher floors. Everything of any value has long been looted and the buildings are now slowly falling apart, even in broad daylight entering the ruined apartments with the wind howling to find who knows what was still near terrifying and definitely the memory I’ll remember strongest from this strange and sad environment.
Whilst the accident happened in Ukraine due to the winds blowing the radiation North the country most affected by Chernobyl was my next stop Belarus. Getting the visa for Belarus brought back unpleasant memories of traveling in Central Asia as aside from the extortionate cost, you have to do needless paperwork and it takes a week. A lot of the guidebooks describe it like taking step back in time or as a Soviet time capsule but that’s definitely an exaggeration with the usual McDonalds et al on show. However, Belarus is most definitely an outlier within Europe- or perhaps that should be the pariah of the continent. Like all the ex-Soviet ‘Stans it’s run by a nasty dictator named Edward Lukashenko who’s run the country since 1994 with dire results. He imprisons thousands and tortures or executes almost anyone who disagrees with him; whilst the police presence is visibly nothing like as strong as Uzbekistan for example, it’s perhaps symbolic that the most high profile building in the capital Minsk is the giant KGB headquarters bang in the centre of town.
Even ignoring the human rights abuses the country is in economic trouble with its currency in near freefall dropping 100% in value in less than a year as Lukashenko has effectively turned his back on Europe and developed almost total dependence on Russia. As the name suggests (Belarus means white Russia) the two countries have a very similar heritage with Russian the dominant tongue and I can remember only a few pairs of countries with such similar cultures. Indeed in many ways it did feel essentially like a Russian satellite and everyone I spoke to was certain that a reunification with Russia is more likely than a democratic revolution, possibly within the next 5 years, they really don’t have a bright future with Lukashenko in charge.
There aren’t many sights to see and most of them revolve around World War II or the Great Patriotic War as it’s known around there. Towards the end of my GCSEs I lost interest in history as aside from the endless preaching (sorry ‘teaching’) about the Holocaust we just seemed to do loads of stuff about how Britain ‘won’ the war- traveling round this part of the world shows you who really did. Four times as many people died on the Eastern front than in the rest of the world combined with an area like Belarus perfectly illustrating that with over a quarter of the population dying and most of its major cities completely destroyed. As part of the Soviet legacy there’s no doubt they go overboard with huge memorials everywhere to the glorious dead, seemingly half the Russian language films and TV programs are set during the war yet at the same time they almost deliberately ignore the following 45 years of Communist rule. Nonetheless it’s an important part of the historical culture of the area and it’s interesting to see.
Despite the somewhat bleak view of the country I’ve painted I actually had a great time staying with a DJ and partying till the small hours every night enjoying the vodka and I left the country feeling a bit annoyed I couldn’t stay for longer as I was running out of time.
And I continued the partying in my final stop of Lithuania; I had my birthday weekend before I caught my flight and thanks to an old French friend and some very friendly locals absolutely smashed it up on the yummy microbrews. In contrast to Ukraine and especially Belarus, the atmosphere in Lithuania feels different as soon as you cross the border. Unlike most of the former Soviet republics the Russians didn’t move people into Lithuania so it’s ethnically homogeneous and doesn’t have any of the cultural and political issues that come with residual Russians. As the occupation museum housed in a former KGB prison in the capital Vilnius shows the Soviets committed some terrible atrocities in the country and the constant booing of the Russian basketball team in the Olympic match between the 2 sides reflected the lack of love felt towards Russians. The country became the first of the SSRs to declare independence in 1991 and since being admitted in 2004 the people appear to be avowedly pro EU with the young country looking determinedly westward for its future.
Like most Eastern bloc countries it initially struggled after independence but especially since joining the EU and the trade benefits it brings Lithuania economy has been booming to produce one of the best economic growth rates in Europe. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be making them happy though. Before I went there I knew Lithuanian people were famous for 2 things; one was the average height of the people- the reason why a 3.5m strong country is consistently ranked top 5 in the world basketball rankings, it’s also one of only a small number of places where I would regularly see women let alone men who were a couple of inches taller than me, but then the second one was the suicide rate. The world leader of that unwanted record it’s perhaps notable that many of the other higher placed countries are former Soviet states. Whilst to some extent that can be put down to the usual financial pressures and the like I think the widespread alcoholism is also a key contributor. I think traveling in former Soviet states is the only time I’ve felt somewhat guilty about drinking so much; I found it very easy to literally get into the spirit and join the locals in dropping shots of vodka at crazy times e.g. 10am and then carrying on with the rest of the day. However, I did this with the knowledge that it would only be for a short time whereas for men especially that really is their life. Aside from just how cheap it is (a bottle of vodka normally costs about $1-3) one of the main causes is the lack of mobility in large parts of the country. For example if you live in rural Russia, Ukraine or Belarus and do a normal job (and that can include things like doctors) you’ve little hope of earning more than maybe $200 a month with scant opportunity for increasing that. It’s a far cry from the flashy money of Moscow or Kiev and the social and financial gaps between core and periphery regions is one of the biggest problems the region faces. Aside from the suicide rates it brings other social problems such as a surplus of women (the men drink themselves to death by their mid to late-50s on average) and a generally unpleasant/unsafe feel to places as you weave in and out of the drunks. Whilst the likes of Belarus and Lithuania have banned drinking in public I think they may need a more aggressive taxation policy to curb the (male) populations addiction- hopefully leading to improvements in wellbeing indicators and also providing more state income.
Aside from the partying the end of the trip was agreeably relaxing, the Lithuanian capital Vilnius has the largest ‘old town’ in Europe and with its manageable size and interesting architecture it’s a very pleasant place to spend a few days. Although my highlight in Lithuania was definitely the Curonian Spit in the Baltic Sea, it’s the world’s 2nd longest at 100km and its ownership is split in half between Lithuania and the Russian exclave of Kalingrad. I rented a bike there and did the 50km ride from the mainland to the border and back again and it was a wonderful way to enjoy this part of the world. Whilst the word Baltic has become used as an adjective for cold weather the sun came out for me and cycling on the flat spit protected by the 60m high sand dunes was a cracking experience. There were various beaches to stop and swim at too and once again I realised quite how much fun cycling can be and what a great way it is to explore the world. It does feel good to have seen so much of the USSR and whilst I’m not going to be able to travel for a while now the heavens were kind to me and on my final bus to the airport provided a double rainbow to light up the sky- traveling is great.