Sunday 13 March 2022

A visit to Ukraine in 2014


(One of the three or four best holidays of my life was a visit to Ukraine in 2014.)

I paid five lei (90p) for a shared taxi from Sapanta to Sighet, a distance of eight or nine miles and there met Kevin who had driven up from Bucharest. We crossed the Ukrainian border in half an hour.

Ukraine is enchanting and reminded me of the Romania I knew and loved in the Nineties. The Northern Maramures and the Ukrainian  Carpathians are as beautiful as anywhere I've ever been, included Bosnia, Switzerland or Transylvania. 

We started over the border and in a moment were in Solotvino, the birthplace of Robert Maxwell, the bouncing Czech, who in fact came from here - Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, which was in Czechoslovakia after being in Hungary and before being taken by the USSR.

Our second stop was Dilove, the centre of Europe, at least according to the Austrian imperial government. I remember when John Major became Prime Minister of England and said he wanted Britain to be at the heart of Europe Charles Moore pointed out that the centre of Europe was in fact some miles south-east of Vilnius. However there appears to be more than one suitor for this honour. I hope this one is the real one, outside the EU and in a neglected and forgotten country.

Statues of Bandera, a very interesting tragic figure of whom I want to know more, are seen in small towns along our way. People do not know about the war the Ukrainians fought against the Communists and the Poles during and for many years after the second world war. This war fought by Galicians often in conjunction with the Germans is what creates the hatred for Nazis and fascists in eastern Ukraine and which Vladimir Putin is trying, with only partial success, to exploit. We visited the charming house where Bandera grew up, son of a village priest, and the adjacent, uninteresting museum.

Like Romania, Ukraine does not have motorways, or not here, and so the journey is enjoyable and we see the country unfold. A poor country but a very good one.

Ivano Frankivsk was the town where we stopped for the first night. A pretty and very relaxing place, with the deep peace of a provincial town in a poor country. The buildings in the centre are Austrian and belle epoque and it is clear that the disappearance of the Austrian Hungarian Empire was a tragedy for everyone, even the beneficiaries. The reason the empire ceased to exist was Woodrow Wilson and his Fourteen Points, the triumph of Gladstonian liberalism. 

Wilson's direct descendants are the American cold warriors and George W. Bush. Wilsonianism is what helped overthrow the corrupt and authoritarian regime of Viktor Yanukovitch and now has landed us in the crisis we are in with Vladimir Putin. On this I cannot make up my mind. The Americans and the EU handled things stupidly because they are liberals and yet why should the Ukrainians not have the freedom and prosperity of Poland?

I love Ukraine where people seem like normal human beings, not clones and companymen. 

Of course Ivano Frankivsk is very Western, another lovely Hapsburg city built in the first age of globalisation. I pray the Russian invaders leave Ukraine but it seems Ukraine wins even if she loses, for she would lose her backward Russified provinces. 

In fact Russia will surely not annex those provinces because that would throw Ukraine forever into the arms of the Americans. But even without making this mistake, I think Russia will certainly lose.

I eat blinis nonstop but they don't call them blinis for geopolitical reasons.

We stay at the George in Lvov/Lviv/Lemburg. I like to find the oldest hotel in a city, the one that's a landmark, and hope it's mildly run to seed, shabby genteel. This one is exactly that, like the Londonskaya in Odessa or the Pera Palace in Constantinople before it was renovated and thereby ruined.

We have three nights in Lviv and plenty of time but we don't see nearly all that there is to be seen - the city has about sixty old churches and i think I saw fewer than ten.

I am enthralled by Lvov though it is almost too touristy, almost on the cusp. The Lonely Planet guide I carry with me printed in 2005 says it is is like Prague was before it was renovated and overran but since 2005 much has changed and tourism has increased by 40% since 2010. I imagine though that is fell back this summer. Now it feels like Cracow in the mid 1990s, somewhat touristy but yet retaining some innocence. 

It feels in places like the Austrian city it was in the 19th century. In other places it feels Italian, truly the Florence of the East that is its nickname. Sometimes it seems the Polish city it also was. 

Two restaurants were recommended to us. One is Kryjivka, a restaurant that would horrify Russians as it is a homage to the partisans who fought the Red Army and sometimes the Germans and Poles in the Second World War. It is underground and you have to know a password before you are allowed to enter. It is fun and full of pictures of Bandera. The food is fine.

Kryjivka is a different restaurant, by the way, from this one, which was accused of anti-Semitism.

The other restaurant we were recommended was House of Fairy Tales, where each floor of a four room house has the theme of a fairy tale. This seems to be very Ukrainian in its tweeness. I thought it looked enormous fun but my friend Kevin refused to eat there. He said the dwarves put him off. He felt they were being exploited. I find the Ukrainian sense of humour and fantasy delightful.

We went to the prison this morning where the NKVD murdered thousands of people before the Gestapo revealed the NKVD murders and then used it for their own political prisoners and murders. then it became NKVD and KGB again. A very searing experience. This was the organisation that Vladimir Putin wanted to join from early boyhood and which is now running Russia. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is now admired by people who should know better as a social conservative and Christian gentleman.


  1. USSR has changed its mind [also in Afg? - that is history I have not lived, so cannot quite know as well, not that this 'well' is much, ps.], not impossible for a gang of three (see @LahavHarkov).


    I find this distance between time lived, & the overheard too great fot just about any purpose [easthetics & praise to the dead excepted; often indispensible metaphor for any attempt of talking about today without imposing onto irreducible unknowns...]

    I have to run (yet again!). Always looking forward to coffee.

  2. Hope, against hope, it all can come back.

  3. You started in the north west of Ukraine, I found Odessa to be spectacular, really loved it. Way above my expectations, what a wonderful city with great people. It is so unfair to the Ukrainians what is happening to them. I must say that we Eastern Europeans are NOT surprised of what is happening, we've been blamed for being paranoid for years. Not looking paranoid now, are we?

  4. Some think NATO expansion was what led to the hostility which is the background to this criminal war. Others do not. Nobody knows.

    These words are from an interview on May 2nd, 1998 with George Kennan, then 94, the US diplomat who in his famous 8,000 word Long Telegram in February 1946 recommended his government to adopt the policy of containing Communist Russia.

    “I think it (NATO expansion) is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves.

    “We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was. I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.

    “Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.”

    1. NATO frequently reminded all that its function is 'deterrence' - fair enough. I am not unhappy to see that it is indeed 'indivisible' deterrence [it does it to its own].


      - digressing: from September, RU humor:

  5. Yes terribly unfair and yes Odessa is wonderful - I like it as much as St Petersburg or more. I love Kiev and Cernauti and Ivano-Frankivsk and am horrified to see they are going to be battlegrounds. Kiev and Ivano-Frankivsk already are.