Everything is a bit scary before you arrive in Ukraine. In the queue for my flight from Vilnius airport, I read about taxi scams, corruption and organised crime. I start to prepare mentally for the apparent hypervigilance necessary for me to survive this Wild West outpost deep in the East. But once I arrive in Kiev, everything is suddenly pretty friendly and cool. I use an app to book a taxi with a driver whose only word of English is ‘music?’, after which he starts blaring Hark The Herald Angels Sing in our mid-August traffic jam. Later on that night, I help a woman carry a painting to her apartment. She seems thrilled that I am visiting Ukraine and proceeds to tell me all about the diverse architecture of Kiev and the crumbling magnificence of her hometown Odessa. I also meet a referee from the Ukrainian FA, who’s very happy to explain how much of a knob Mark Clattenburg is. My week gets even better when it turns out that my new friend’s musical reference point for me is East 17, which leads to some spectacular renditions of It’s Alright and Let It Rain.
The Croydon connection
Personally, I don’t experience any corruption or taxi scams. However, when I come into contact with Ukrainian organised crime, the gangster I meet seems just as friendly as your average Ukrainian non-criminal. Vladimir Kalashnikov (veracity of name: TBC) first comes onto my radar while I’m travelling on the train from Kiev to Odessa. When we stop in provincial central Ukraine, my two travelling friends from London get off for a frantic intake of nicotine. As they puff on their cigarettes, they get chatting to another passenger. He finds out that they’re from Croydon, which just so happens to be where his daughter is attending secondary school. Naturally, this means that my two mates become Mr Kalashnikov’s adoptive sons for the rest of the journey, which in turn means that all three of us are treated to his brandy facilitated banter. Before I continue, it’s worth pointing out that none of us know if Vladimir is gangster. But he pays for his daughter’s UK private education, owns a number of jewellery shops in Odessa and travels with the definition of a brick shithouse by his side. So yeah, the general Ukrainian consensus was that he probably has his fingers in a few blackmarket pies.
Vladimir Kalashnikov is a great storyteller. He starts off with the classic story of visiting Thailand with one of his boys and ending up heading towards a hospital because somebody got a bit too battered. Somewhere along the way, Vladimir met some Thai girls, who ended up giving him a blowjob. The reason we know that they gave him a blowjob is because Vladimir stands in the carriage among a Chinese family and shows us the necessary motions as he doesn’t have the necessary English words. A short interlude follows. During this, Mr Kalashnikov points at me and proclaims “your friend doesn’t like me.” Luckily, one of my mates speaks Russian and saves me from a trip to A&E by letting Vladimir know about my resting bitch face. After a few casual but slightly heavy back slaps, our Ukrainian friend continues with a new story, this time set in the Himalayas. After the laddishness of his previous story, we expect more of the same. However, Vladimir actually ends up describing how he got trapped in a blizzard for a few days after losing a friend on a trek and assuming he was dead. This resulted in the amputation of a few toes (and no fellatio).
Ukraine: Not just wars and borsch
I love the time that I spend in Ukraine, with its fascinating clash of old European grandeur, vast Soviet bleakness and contemporary emergent capitalism. Prior to visiting, the little knowledge I had of the country revolved around the war in the Donbass. In Kiev and Odessa, the war is both not there and completely there. Walking around the Maidan, it’s difficult to comprehend that this was the site of a civilian massacre 2 years ago….until you realise that the photos lining the street are memorials to the murdered. Likewise, the Ukrainians that I meet don’t tend to speak about the war….but if you switch on the TV, there’s a channel providing comprehensive coverage of the Donbass, interjected with breaks that cover other wars in Ukraine’s rich history.
My lasting image of Ukraine though is that of the people. Whether they were calmly threatening me with a quick bicep flex or comparing me to Brian Harvey, the Ukrainians I met all had an open warmth and inquisitiveness. We could do with more of this Eastern spirit in the UK.