Category Archives: Ukraine

Ukraine: What’s Going On?

Although I don’t consider myself particularly interested in politics, the current mess in Ukraine is hard to miss. It seems that the powers that be, aren’t, and the powers that want to be, aren’t. And that leaves a whole bunch of people pissed off about their future.

The basic premise is that Ukraine wants to ally themselves more closely with the European Union than with Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union. Some bad memories remain of the treatment of Ukraine and its people by the Russians throughout the Soviet Union era, notably an attempt to completely wipe them out. As it stands, Ukraine has no government, its people are begging for outside help which, although tugs at the heart strings of many, isn’t being heeded.

A brief recap of what is going on in Ukraine:

  • President Yanukovych refuses to sign the paper work to move Ukraine in the direction of joining the European Union citing that the EU would ask for infeasible austerity reforms.
  • This sparks protestors to assemble at Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti and voice their displeasure with the choice. The protestors fear a return to Russian rule which brings with it memories of previous Russian meddling: the 2004 Orange Revolution which was brought on by Russian meddling in Ukrainian politics; and, even worse, memories of the genocides brought on by Russian central-government, specifically the 1932-33 Holodomor that starved millions of Ukrainians. Russia still does not recognize this event as a genocide. This assembly of protestors becomes known as “Euromaidan” or, simply, Maidan, named after the square where they have assembled.
  • The protestors keep protesting and Yanukovych won’t back down so he sends in the Berkut and other police forces to disperse the crowds. Much to his chagrin, violence erupts and the use of force just inflames the situation.
  • Former heavy weight boxing champion, Vladimir Klitschko, assumes the political “face” of the opposition. Calls for talks with Yanukovych.
  • The Ukrainian government somehow passes a bunch of laws that make it illegal to protest or gather in opposition to the government.
  • In mid-December, Yanukovych signs a deal with Russia agreeing to a $15 Billion bail out and cheaper natural gas. The protestors are infuriated.
  • Protestors begin storming government buildings and setting up resistance outposts. Western media begins to pick up on what’s going on and reports it more regularly. They begin to demand the resignation of the government full stop. As in, no coalition, no nothing, just GTFO.
  • The protests turn bloody as protestors are shot and killed by snipers.
  • The military refuses to pick sides.
  • Mykola Azarov, the prime minister of Ukraine, resigns and flees to Austria. No shit, the guy probably has a mark on his head from now on.
  • The 2014 Winter Olympics begin in Sochi, Russia, which Yanukovych attends. Putin has spent billions on these games and sees them as part of his legacy. The other part of that legacy being the construction of a Eurasian Customs Union that would see former Soviet Union countries rejoin Russia by way of economic and free trade agreements. Ukrainians aren’t buying it. Protests continue during the games and Ukraine is in the international spotlight. The Games end, some Western outlets consider it a failure considering the cost and problems encountered along the way.
  • Yanukovych tries to flee the country but the airport won’t let his plane leave without some more proper documentation. Go figure, Ukrainian bureaucracy stops him from leaving his own country. His house is raided and pictures are spread all over the internet of the opulence the guy lived in. Some rare books are recovered (and where are they now?) among other pricey items. In essence, Yanukovych has been disposed. He eventually makes his way to Russia by helicopter.
  • Julia Tymoshenko, a central figure in the 2004 Orange Revolution, is released from prison, but for some reason she begins heading to Russia to negotiate something. She states she’ll run in an election against Vladimir Klitschko.
  • A new government is formed while the military remains on the side lines. The Crimea erupts in a Ukrainian vs Russian battle, some stating they want to be part of Ukraine, others stating that the Crimea is properly a part of Russia. Armed guards take over the airport, then realize they got it all wrong, apologize, and leave. Meanwhile, Russian APCs and tanks make their way to the Ukrainian-Russian border. Putin hasn’t really said much about why they’re there, but people, in general, know why: to protect the Russian military base in the Crimea.

So, as it stands, Ukraine has no government and no real way of settling this revolution. The international community, although issuing harsh statements and saying that they won’t attend the G8 Summit in Sochi later this year, refuses to commit troops or equipment to defend Ukraine while Russia warns of outsider meddling. Western media points to how Russia dealt with Georgia so many years ago. Another comparison is between Germany and the Sudetenland region, during which Hitler declared himself an advocate of the ethnic Germans living in the region and then proceeded to occupy the area. That’s what it looks like Putin is doing to the Russians in the Ukrainian Crimea.

Is it East vs West? Ukrainian vs Russian? Russia vs the world? A return of the Soviet Union? It’s become apparent that the Ukrainian people do not want any sort of Russian-led union since that brings up a whole bunch of bad memories. Lenin statues were toppled all over the country, except in Kharkiv and the Crimea. No one really knows how this is going to be settled but it looks as if it’s going to take some time to resolve. Blood has been spilled in the name of freedom, something people don’t forget too easily.

If you’re looking for more information on what’s going on, subscribe to a few social media feeds on Facebook and Twitter:

  • Euromaidan on Facebook
  • Maidan Timeline on Wikipedia is updated regularly.
  • Twitter is home to quite a few feeds: Euromaidan, Radio Svoboda, Українська Правда  in addition to media outlets such as the BBC, CBC, Reuters, and the Associated Press.
  • Maidan also has its own website.
  • And, finally, there is at least one English teacher still teaching in Kharkiv, Ukraine, the city where I lived and taught for four months. She blogs at 8 Month in Ukraine (though it’s been a little longer than that).

Happy Ukrainian New Year!

Alright, so January 14th – ish is the New Year celebration for what I’ve known as “Ukrainian New Year’s”. The date, of course, is according to the Gregorian Calendar calendar, which is given to us thanks to Pope Gregory XIII way back in 1582.

Anyway, as kids growing up in the Ukrainian tradition, we’d visit the households of people we knew (usually grandparents, aunts and uncles) and some people we kids didn’t know (but our parents did) and sing a traditional Ukrainian New Year’s carol. It took some searching, but I was able to find the full song thanks to a friendly Ukrainian blogger. Here it is:

Сію, сію, посіваю.
З Новим роком вас вітаю.
Щоб сей рік було більше, ніж торік.[2]

На щастя, на здоров’я, на Новий рік!
Щоб уродило краще, ніж торік!
Коноплі під стелю, а льон по коліна,
Щоб у вас, хрещених, голова не боліла!

Сійся, родися жито-пшениця, всяка пашениця,
на новий рік, щоб краще родило як торік,
Коноплі під стелю, а льон по коліна,
Щоб у вас хрещених головка не боліла.
будьте здорові з Новим роком.

Сію, сію, засіваю,
Вашу хату не минаю,
З Новим роком йду до хати,
Щось вам маю віншувати:
Щоб діти всі здорові,
Їли кашу всі готові,
Щоб вам була з них потіха.
А нам грошей із пів міха!

А в полі-полі

Сам Господь ходив.
І Мати Божа ризи носила,
Ризи носила, Бога просила:
Уроди Боже жито-пшеницю,
Жито-пшеницю, усяку пашницю.
На щастя, на здоров’я, на Новий рік!

For those of you who don’t know Ukrainian (even mine’s a bit rusty) or simply too lazy to pop that into your local online translator, the song basically wishes the household a prosperous new year with abundant crops, good health, wealth and prosperity for all. As kids we’d go carolling with little shakers filled with wheat. And since we lived in the city (and the land was covered in snow), we’d pretend to sprinkle the house with wheat while singing the opening few lines, which basically mean “sowing sowing, what is sown, happy new year, that this year is better than last year.”

One last note, we actually didn’t celebrate Ukrainian New Year’s when we were growing up, opting instead to do our rounds on January 1st. I was always kind of jealous of the kids who took off from school both Ukrainian Christmas (January 7th) and New Year’s (January 14th) . Oh well.

Happy Ukrainian New Year!

Alright, so January 14th – ish is the New Year celebration for what I’ve known as “Ukrainian New Year’s”. The date, of course, is according to the Gregorian Calendar calendar, which is given to us thanks to Pope Gregory XIII way back in 1582.

Anyway, as kids growing up in the Ukrainian tradition, we’d visit the households of people we knew (usually grandparents, aunts and uncles) and some people we kids didn’t know (but our parents did) and sing a traditional Ukrainian New Year’s carol. It took some searching, but I was able to find the full song thanks to a friendly Ukrainian blogger. Here it is:

Сію, сію, посіваю.
З Новим роком вас вітаю.
Щоб сей рік було більше, ніж торік.[2]

На щастя, на здоров’я, на Новий рік!
Щоб уродило краще, ніж торік!
Коноплі під стелю, а льон по коліна,
Щоб у вас, хрещених, голова не боліла!

Сійся, родися жито-пшениця, всяка пашениця,
на новий рік, щоб краще родило як торік,
Коноплі під стелю, а льон по коліна,
Щоб у вас хрещених головка не боліла.
будьте здорові з Новим роком.

Сію, сію, засіваю,
Вашу хату не минаю,
З Новим роком йду до хати,
Щось вам маю віншувати:
Щоб діти всі здорові,
Їли кашу всі готові,
Щоб вам була з них потіха.
А нам грошей із пів міха!

А в полі-полі

Сам Господь ходив.
І Мати Божа ризи носила,
Ризи носила, Бога просила:
Уроди Боже жито-пшеницю,
Жито-пшеницю, усяку пашницю.
На щастя, на здоров’я, на Новий рік!

For those of you who don’t know Ukrainian (even mine’s a bit rusty) or simply too lazy to pop that into your local online translator, the song basically wishes the household a prosperous new year with abundant crops, good health, wealth and prosperity for all. As kids we’d go carolling with little shakers filled with wheat. And since we lived in the city (and the land was covered in snow), we’d pretend to sprinkle the house with wheat while singing the opening few lines, which basically mean “sowing sowing, what is sown, happy new year, that this year is better than last year.”

One last note, we actually didn’t celebrate Ukrainian New Year’s when we were growing up, opting instead to do our rounds on January 1st. I was always kind of jealous of the kids who took off from school both Ukrainian Christmas (January 7th) and New Year’s (January 14th) . Oh well.

Poland and Ukraine: The Homelands

Canada: Winnipeg, The Great Canadian Shield bus trip, Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto
Poland: Warsaw, Łódż, Bydgoszcz, Gdańsk, Sopot, Toruń, Poznań, Wrocław, Kraków, Auschwitz, Rzeszow, Lubaczow, Stare Brusno, Przemyśl
Ukraine: L’viv, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Poltava, Yeompil, Sokolivka

Although my trip to Poland and Ukraine was not as epic in terms of breadth as my Asian adventures, it was much more epic in terms of its personal meaning and maturation. I’ve added another 2 country stamps to my passport and a bunch more cities to my little Facebook travel map.

Polish FlagIt was an eye-opening experience to visit Poland and Ukraine. I can’t say I ever believed I’d go to Ukraine, nor Poland for that matter. The idea to go to Poland came as a result of meeting a very lovely Polish girl while travelling through southeast Asia in 2010. After hearing her talk about the country, the seed was planted to explore my ancestral homelands. And so, after 6 months in Canada, I ventured across the Atlantic ocean again and backpacked through Poland before doing a 4-month stint teaching ESL in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Visiting Ukraine was a shock to my system, however, and I’m still not sure I could formulate the reason why. I’d travelled before, I’d grown up in the Ukrainian-Canadian community and heard so much about the country, both good and bad. Several of my friends and family had gone there before me. But visiting the country myself was a shock. Thinking back, Ukraine isn’t as poor as folks make it out to be and despite numerous forums and message boards that boast horror stories of run-ins with the cops, nothing too major happened. The worst was brought upon me by overstaying my visa.

And now for the summary:

Canada

Greyhound busTaking the bus from Winnipeg on January 1st, we managed to hit a snowstorm as we crossed southern Ontario. During one stop for the night I managed to get myself into a little trouble thanks to a guy who fancied himself a fighter from “the other bus” that had left Winnipeg about 9 hours after we had. That left me with some busted glasses and my first story.

Finally making it to Ottawa, I stayed with family for Ukrainian Christmas and discussed my plans to go to Ukraine. I also had the chance to meet the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada. Although they gave me several contacts in Ukraine, I still felt the need to go exploring by myself.

Poland

Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Poland.On January 14th, I took off from Toronto to Warsaw, Poland since I’d heard that flying into the Boryspiel airport in Kyiv was extremely corrupt. I stayed in Poland for two months, immediately loving it. I was in Warsaw for a week before being persuaded to attend a crazy party in Łódż. While there, I auditioned for a Polish ice cream commercial… and failed.

After Łódż, I reconnected with the Polish girl who I had met in SE Asia in Bydgoscz and stayed there for a week. Her family was more than gracious in allowing me to stay in their apartment for such a lengthy period. We used Bydcity as a centre from which to explore Toruń, Gdańsk and Sopot. But Ukraine was calling.

Back to Warsaw I went and stayed for another 3 weeks contemplating getting a job there. Being a Canadian citizen, however, I thought it would be too difficult to get a EU work visa so I decided to leave. You might want to note that I didn’t try very hard to attain a work visa. It was Ukraine I wanted to go to. But before getting to Ukraine I had another little missions: finding an old cemetery in which a few of my ancestors are supposedly buried. But why go straight there when you can take the more adventurous and interesting route?

Poznan Goat ClockI took the train over to Poznań for a few days but there wasn’t much there other than an embarrassing run-in with the cops. I stayed for the great goat clock spectacle then boarded a train for Wrocław.

Wrocław was a neat city and it was there I met a former travel agent while we were both drunk and stumbling home at 5 in the morning. She gave me her number and we agreed to meet up later that day. She acted as my tour guide the entire weekend, showing me points of interest, facts about the city, and she even brought home made chocolate cake. She recommended I go to Kraków before Ukraine and, once in Ukraine, if I stayed in Lviv, she’d come and visit me.

Krakow Rynek at night.So off to Kraków I went. A much renowned city, Kraków was used by the Germans both as a ghetto for the Jews and a hang out for German officers. Steeped in history and untouched by the bomb-fucking that Warsaw got, Kraków is a picturesque city overrun by tourists and students. Kraków also serves as the base of operations to visit Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mines. I contemplated settling down and signing up for Polish lessons here. It was close to Ukraine, architecturally interesting, and I was beginning to run low on cash. But no, I had in mind to find a cemetery first (I don’t know why I didn’t think I couldn’t find it after getting a job.)

Rzeszow street at night Taking the train into Rzeszow, another picturesque city, I met up with a couple of hard-drinking Poles who introduced me to the daze-inducing Spirytus. After I recovered from that little adventure, I changed my mind and thought it would be possible to find Stare Brusno by bus. It would take longer, but be much cheaper than renting a car. Boy, that was a mistake.

The cemetery, located among the ruins of an old town called Stare Brusno, was about two hours outside of Rzeszow and the easiest way to get there would be to rent a car. My first attempt at trying to find Stare Brusno was to take a bus from Rzeszow to neighbouring Lubaczow whence I would take another bus to Stare Brusno. But while in Lubaczow, looking at the map and considering the infrequency of the bus schedule, I opted to return to Rzeszow and rent a car… my first time driving outside of Canada!

Back I went to Rzeszow to rent a car. Preparing for my solo roadtrip I brought some food and my recently purchased Behemoth and Lanki Lan Cds. The Great Steven Sirski Polish Solo Road Trip In Search of A Cemetery in Southeastern Poland had begun! (We are now in talks to make it into a feature length movie. Xaxaxa!)

Well, after a few wrong turns and sporadic blizzard-like conditions, I found the cemetery nestled amongst a forest, resting peacefully, stilted in time, sheltered from the rest of the world developing around it.

Snowy crosses in Stare BrusnoAnd such peace there was in Stare Brusno! Isolated cemeteries are very quiet and peaceful, but not in a frightening way. I noted that many of the tombstones had faded or been washed out. As a history graduate, you take note of these types of things. I also wondered who would care for such an old cemetery? Kinda makes you put life in perspective. I would find out later that there is a book being written about Stare Brusno and its inhabitants. If you’re interested, I can send you the contact details.

Goal accomplished, I had no more reason to stay in Poland unless I got a job. I debated the idea for another day but I knew where my heart wanted to go: Ukraine, my ancestral homeland, the country I’d heard so much about.

Ukraine

L'viv train station at night.I decided to go to Lviv. My cousin had been there two years prior and knew some folks who could help me get settled. Lviv it was.

Crossing the border into Ukraine wasn’t such a big deal, though the train station in Rzeszow wouldn’t sell me a ticket through to Ukraine. Instead, I took the train to Przemyśl and then had to find a bus that would take me over the border only to get in at 11 pm. I remember thinking just how unreal the entire situation was. I was finally visiting Ukraine!

What a rush it was! 11 pm. Lviv. I was in my ancestral homeland. If Stare Brusno was memorable, the fact that I was now in the country my grandparents came from was simply astounding. Hopping into a cab, I got a lift to the Kosmonaut Hostel near Shevchenko Park. This would be my base of operations while in L’viv. I was too excited to sleep and, after checking in, immediately went out for a walk in my new city. I didn’t stay out too long as I was wary of the cops and other thugs out at that time of night (it was a university district after all!)

I would spend a week getting drunk in Lviv – what would my grandparents think??? – sampling many types of vodka, experiencing the club scene and investigating the cafe culture before I would secure a job in Kharkiv on the other side of the country.

St Michael'sSo it was off to Kyiv on an overnight train to get trained for a few days before I was back on the night train again to Kharkiv. I would revisit Kyiv and spend a few days there taking in the sights, noting the split in the country that happens from West to East.

Stepping off of the train in Kharkiv, I simply had no idea what to expect. Nothing. For all the stories out there, all the blog posts, all the alcohol I’d consumed, nothing could prepare me for how I was going to react staying long term in Ukraine. I told my family back home I wouldn’t return until I was fluent in Ukrainian. Well, things didn’t turn out that way.

I stayed in Kharkiv for four months teaching ESL, touring around the city, sampling many types of horilka, making acquaintances with many of my students, and befriending a very nice lady in the neighbourhood. I spent Easter in Kharkiv and almost survived the full 5-hour church marathon, but retired an hour and a half shy of the finish mark. We went back for the blessing.

Kharkiv LeninTo be honest, I wanted to quit teaching in Kharkiv a week after being there. I didn’t like it but my boss talked me into staying. Not only would it make her life easier since the term was already starting (and she was pregnant), but she was sure that my view would change if I gave Kharkiv a chance.

She was partially correct. My view of Ukraine changed but my discomfort in Kharkiv didn’t. Not having the proper work visa was one problem, the other was the fact that I wanted to study Ukrainian and in my mind I could only study Ukrainian in L’viv. I wasn’t very happy about settling for a primarily Russian-speaking city with architecture that paled in comparison to L’viv.

I gave notice I would be leaving after my second semester. I just wanted to go. Not only that, a couple of my cousins were getting married in Canada and I wanted to attend the weddings. I didn’t want to be that cousin who disappeared from the wedding photos because of some reason like “he was busy working in a country he didn’t want to be in.”

Ukrainian village houseI made my way back through Ukraine on train (again), finally met my extended family in Ukraine and visited their village. Not only that, the friends I made in L’viv took me to see their home in the village as well. Such a difference between Ukrainian city and village life! By now I had less than a week to get back to Canada for my cousin’s wedding.

I said my goodbyes then made my way through the Polish-Ukrainian border, through Przemyśl and up to Warsaw. I flew back to Toronto in time to snag another bus from Toronto to Winnipeg. I got back just in time to attend the first wedding.

Back to Canada

Mission accomplished. I’ve been to Ukraine. I’ve seen the graves of my ancestors. I’ve walked on the land they called home. I’ve studied and learned a bit of Ukrainian and Russian. I’ve learned much more about Ukraine and Poland and those lessons are much more vivid as a result of being there myself. And now, after being out of the country for over seven months, I want to go back.

But not just yet. I have over adventures in mind and, really, I need to make more money before I head back to Ukraine so I’m not so broke the next time. Sure, Ukraine is cheap, but it’s not a good place to be if you don’t have much money (just ask the people who live there!)

For now, I’ll take the pictures and the writings and be content with the fact that at least I’ve visited my ancestral homeland. As for my Ukrainian, well, I’ll have to find a way to keep that alive while out of the country.

Przemyśl and Warsaw, Poland: A Return to… Civilization(?!)

Przemysl at night.
Przemysl at night.

And so after four months in Ukraine, I wanted to make my way back home for a cousin’s wedding to happen in July. After enduring yet another 23-hour train ride from Kharkiv to Lviv to visit my Ukrainian family, I took the bus from Lviv to Sheheni, on the Ukrainian-Poland border. I had overstayed my visa by a month and was anticipating some trouble at the border. I intended to renew it when I went to Lviv two months prior but I just never did.

The border guards were nice about it. “You overstayed, go see my boss.” So off I went to a little room where a mid-20s female border guard explained what I did wrong, scanned my passport, got me to sign a document stating that I knew what I was doing and under no duress, paid a fine ($65), and then walked across the border to Poland. Not so bad as I’d heard worse stories. In the grand scheme of things it didn’t really matter too much but next time I visit Ukraine I’ll be sure to renew my visa anyway.

Hopping an inter-city bus I made my way to Przemyśl.

Przemyśl is a nice little town. I saw some signs for ESL schools and seriously thought about posting up shop there, or at least coming back at some point. I spent the day wandering around the ornate streets and visited several churches.

Przemsyl street during the day.
Przemsyl street during the day.
Przemysl pink building.
Przemysl pink building.
Franciscan Church interior.
Franciscan Church interior.
Greek Orthodox Church Interior.
Greek Orthodox Church Interior.
Catholic Church interior.
Catholic Church interior.
Przemysl street at night.
Przemysl street at night.

Przemysl sunsetI’d like to note the change between Ukraine and Poland is vast. First, it was difficult for me to switch back into Polish after speaking surzyk for the last four months. I tried to remember the Polish words I was taught but often Ukrainian or Russian came out instead. Further, life itself seemed different in Poland compared to Ukraine. As more than one ESL teacher I met told me, Ukraine offers more excitement compared to the Western world. In a word, Poland, Canada and other such Western countries were, simply “boring”. Both sets of women are extremely gorgeous, but the Polish seem to be a little more conservative in their manner of dress. Gone were the six-inch heels and visible underwear! The cost of things is noticeable as the Polish zloty is valued considerably more than the Ukrainian hryvnia. The cost difference is best realized by the Ukrainian babas (grandmothers) who offer Ukrainian horilka (vodka) and cigarettes on the Polish side of the border. Had I not been going back to Canada I would’ve bought a few bottles.

Speaking of bringing things across the border, the most notable difference between Ukraine and Poland – for me at least – was that there was no general distrust the law, unless you are breaking it. By way of contrast, in Ukraine, no one, absolutely no one would suggest you talk to a police officer unless there was no one else around. The cops in Poland, however, were very nice (which I can sadly tell you from experience.)

And with that, I hopped yet another late night bus back to Warsaw. The bus trip wouldn’t be without it’s uniqueness, such as a drunk man serenading another elderly lady. Four hours later I arrived in Warsaw. Again, the difference between Warsaw in winter and summer was huge. In winter Warsaw had such charm and colour. In summer? It looked like any other western city. I don’t hold it against Poland, however, as I had just come from a developing country. I was surprised to find myself agreeing with my former co-worker who had described the West as “boring”! It’s kinda shocking to go from a developed country into a developing country, especially when they’re right beside each other. How can it be that these things happen?

I took another walk around Warsaw to enjoy the last of my stay in my homelands. Another chapter, another trip, was closing. Although I was glad to leave Ukraine at the time, as time passes I miss the country more every day. I’m excited for the future for both Poland and Ukraine and truly hope that things will improve for both peoples.

So, after visiting my homelands I could only wonder, what next?

Warsaw in summertime.
Warsaw in summertime.