My Journey To The Ukraine

Article published on Dec. 29, 2009
community published
Article published on Dec. 29, 2009
It is a cool, clear morning on the Place de La Concorde. The bakeries around Paris are already open, some bars are welcoming the first customers of the day and a few cars are driving down the Champs-Elysees. It is June 1994 and I load my heavy sports bag into the luggage compartment of a bus parked next to the Obelisk. My destination is a town deep in Ukraine, a town called Gorlovka.
I am setting out on a journey of around 4000 kilometres with just eighty dollars in my pocket, a return bus ticket and a few addresses of friends where I can stay along the way. My travelling companions are mainly Ukrainian citizens who are returning home after visiting France and Globe-trotters like myself who want to discover the world on the other side of the old iron curtain. The Berlin Wall fell just five years ago and the countries who were cut off from Western Europe have not had a chance to catch up yet. I am twenty-five years old and participated in my first International report one year ago for the UNIDIR (United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research) I made a contribution about the Visegrad Triangle before it became a square ...........before the partition of Czechoslovakia.

We leave Paris heading in the direction of Germany and Poland, on a journey that should take us to the Ukrainian town of Lvov near the Polish frontier. We are spending the next twenty four hours on a bus where the space is shared between the passengers, the luggage and a stockpile of food meant to ensure our survival on this expedition. In Lvov, I have planned to spend a few days living with some local inhabitants before taking the train to Kiev where I will stay for a few more days before moving on to Donetsk and finally Gorlovka.

My road map is well prepared as I have organised my trip carefully with the help of friends at University. I want to get to know the landscape of this Europe that I have studied in books and on which I have written. This desire has been re-enforced by my work for UNIDIR and the winds of freedom that are blowing across our continent following the fall of “ The Wall”. When you are twenty five years old with a totally romantic view of the world, you cannot help but pack your bags and set out to “conquer the East”!

We cross Germany where the numerous U.S. military vehicles show that the time of the cold war is not far behind us. We arrive in the middle of the night at the Polish border where we are rudely ordered to show our passports and the customs officers are rough and cold like the comic book characters, Black and Mortimer. From my seat on the bus, I look out of the window and see dirty old buildings that make me feel like I am watching an old black and white movie from the 1940’s. The atmosphere is weird, out of this world. Once the border formalities are over and the customs officers gone, I fall asleep again. I eat a quick breakfast by the side of a Polish road staring at a hideous Stalin era building whose design and construction methods had to be a way of making only known in the USSR. We continue our journey to the Ukrainian frontier and as the landscape unfolds I listen dreamily to an old man narrating his experiences of the German occupation and the Soviet era. Finally we reach our destination, Lvov.

My first steps in Lvov are on a parking lot in a cold and neutral part of the town. My contact is waiting to take me on the first stage of my Ukrainian journey. This kind lady, her husband and baby son receive me into their home, an old but pretty apartment in the old part of the town. The joy they express at being able to offer me hospitality moves me and I discover that this is the usual hospitality shown by Eastern Europeans. Despite it being a time of financial hardship, we enjoy very happy times touring the city and sharing meals together. They do everything possible to ensure that I have a wonderful stay, even though life is very hard for this young family. This is the simple heroism of real people and will be repeated at every stage of my journey. As I tour the city I discover ancient Germanic architecture. I am in a place that has not changed since the beginning of the 20th Century, with impressions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, like scenes from old post cards. After a few days I say a goodbye to my hosts and continue east towards Kiev.

Clutching my ticket bought at the train station in the late afternoon, I find myself in a comfortable compartment reminiscent of old wagon cars from films by Michel Audiard, all varnished wood and seats dressed in brown imitation leather.

I realize that I am going to travel in the company of a very strong looking Ukrainian officer. During the first few minutes that I spend face to face with my travelling “companion” I experience a deep feeling of solitude. But we are in Eastern Europe and the rules of hospitality surface very quickly. The officer unpacks a bottle of vodka, some oranges, Ukrainian dry biscuits (that I never see again) all sorts of local delicacies and invites me to share in this delicious feast. At the end of some conversation and a bottle of vodka…I fall asleep taking great care to rest my head on my sports bag which contains my few precious dollars. This is not an environment which inspires trust!! After 14 long hours spent on the train crossing the vast Ukrainian plains, we arrive in Kiev.

At the station of this great capital someone is waiting to take me to the apartment where I will stay for a few days while I look around the city. My hostess is an elderly widow of a high ranking government official of the Soviet era. My tour guide is a beautiful woman called Svetlana with magnificent Slavic features, bright eyed, educated and extremely kind. She will show me around and make me love this beautiful city. We go together to the eleventh century Cathedral of Saint Sophia, a magnificent Byzantine structure, remodeled in the Ukrainian Baroque style in the 18th century. This religious building has five naves, five apses and thirteen cupolas (rare in Byzantine architecture). Inside you can see magnificent eleventh century frescoes and mosaics and a representation of the family of Yaroslav the Wise. The cathedral was the burial place of the first rulers of the Kievan Rus however the only tomb visible today is that of its founder, Yaroslav the Wise. This great Prince of Kiev was the father of Anne of Kiev who became Queen of France through her marriage to Henry I, king of France. Svetlana shows me the tomb of Yaroslav, which looks like the tomb of a giant. We also visit the monumental Great Gate of Kiev dear to the Russian composer Mussorgsky, a building rebuilt in its original location and identical to the original eleventh century structure. I am never to forget the impressive statue of Grand Prince Vladimir holding a huge cross situated majestically at the top of the banks of the river Dnieper. Looking down I see the river where he baptized the Rus people in 988. It was at that time that the story of a great European nation, Russia, began. My stay in Kiev lasts a few days before I move on to Donetsk and Gorlovka.

The train leaves Kiev in the late afternoon and my journey to Donetsk lasts seventeen hours, the slow speed of the train gives the impression that it will stop at any minute! I share the compartment with some local business people and the atmosphere is warm and friendly, making the trip a memorable one.

Upon arriving at Donetsk a car is waiting for me and takes me 40 kilometers north-east to the town of Gorlovka. I discover an industrial city with broad avenues lined with cold grey buildings. These housing blocks built in Soviet times reflect the rigid standardization of a totalitarian police state. Cubes placed next to other cubes creating a neighborhood and many such neighborhoods forming a city crisscrossed by wide avenues, leading to places decorated with huge statues of Lenin and various heroes of the Soviet Union. Gorlovka is one of these model cities which had a population of 325 000 at the time I was there and just 270 000 today. It is a historic mining town, situated in the heart of the Donbass coalfield. The city was born out of coal extraction but has other activities especially in the chemical sector with a huge chemical plant featuring on the urban landscape. I am given my own comfortable apartment to live in and enjoy the privilege of having a mature and very cultured professor from the French language department at the University acting as my guide. I meet several University professors and take questions from a class of students. I am invited to the graduation ceremony for newly qualified language teachers. During this unforgettable time I meet Julia, a Slavic beauty with overwhelming charm, who makes me hear the sound of gypsy violins………A student and her father take me to visit the monastery of Slavianogorsk which was a religious establishment during the 15th and 16th centuries. We leave the city by car in a south easterly direction driving for several hours through lush green plains and forests interspersed by small mountains. The monastery is situated on the side of a gorge through which flows a river. I notice that overlooking the gorge is a massive concrete statue dedicated to the heroes of the Soviet Union. I visit the monastery accompanied by a monk, attend a religious service and am invited to share a meal with the devotees living there. My stay in Gorlovka marks the end of my journey across the Ukraine and I must contemplate returning to Lvov and of course, Paris.

For my return trip I decide to take a plane as ticket prices for domestic flights are low. Upon arrival at Donetsk airport I see an old propeller plane and ask a fellow passenger if it is the one we are taking. Seeing my anxiety he reassures me that he is thrilled that it has propellers as it is safer than a jet plane. We load our bags ourselves into the belly of the plane and climb up a small metal ladder to take our seats in the “cabin”. During take-off my window starts to vibrate but everything calms down during the flight. We make a stop-over in Poltava, site of an important battle won by the army of Tsar Peter 1st of Russia, also referred to as Peter the Great, against the forces of Charles XII of Sweden. I had the time to see the arrival at this airport of an important Military official welcomed by officials and students or pioneers of the Great Era. The plane takes off for Lvov where I take the bus once again for Paris.

My journeys which are aimed at getting to know the Eastern part of Continental Europe continue with a visit to Russia in 1996 and its’ Capital Moscow. A visit to the Baltic states in 2003, Estonia, followed by Azerbaijan, Turkey……….

Olivier VEDRINE Professor IESEG School of Management, Catholic University of Lille Speaker of the European Union (TEAM-EUROPE France) Editor of European Union Foreign Affairs Journal (EUFAJ) Associate Research Fellow at the Chaire de recherche du Canada en politique étrangère et de défense canadiennes (PEDC) of UQAM (Université de Québec à Montréal) Responsible of the « Energy & Sustainable Development Management MBA » at IPAG Business School , double diploma with Khazar University at Baku President of the College Atlantic-Ural

PS: The internet link to view the report that I participated in for the UNIDIR, The transition of countries to a market economy. L. Pilandon March 1994

The link to access the introduction of the same report: