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A visit to Ukraine, when such things were possible

One new thing comes with entering Ukraine: a new alphabet. Ukrainian is written in Cyrillic like Russian, and although I can read it it’s slow going for me; so I am voraciously reading every sign in an effort to improve my skills. Particularly tricky are the “false friends”: letters that look the same in both Latin and Cyrillic but are pronounced differently e.g. P=R and H=N (Cyrillic first, then Latin). So for example to find an internet cafe you need to look out for a sign saying IHTEPHET.

But back to the present. It is not a secret that Ukraine is not a particularly popular tourist destination. Most people would be hard-pressed to name a famous Ukrainian landmark and the Ukrainian authorities are doing little to promote tourism to their country: most cities, not even the capital Kiev, do not have tourist information offices; there are few official tourism websites, fewer still that are in English; and next to no signs to indicate where you may find places of interest. Indeed, it seems as if the Ukrainians were absent at all the lessons at tourism school, from the “informing visitors” to “service culture” via “designing musea” (Ukrainians have heard of the concept of musea, but I doubt any of them have ever seen a real one, as they are usually woefully lacking in information or even some sort of theme or order). They did, however, attend the “milk them dry” lesson (perhaps several times even): souvenir stalls, invariably laden with icons and various other religious kitsch, irrespective of the theme of the actual museum, are more prominent than the actual exhibits you are there to see; there are generally several sections to musea, each requiring a separate entrance fee; and even once you have paid and found the museum, if you receive a call of nature then you will have to pay for that too. Nevertheless, for the curious traveller, willing to put in a bit of leg work and quite a few hours on ramshackle buses, then Ukraine has some of the most astonishing and frankly bewildering sights you are likely to find in a single country. Leaving L’viv I headed southeast towards the medieval town of Kamyenets Podilski, situated in an impossible bend in the Smotrych river canyon.

Kamyenets Castle, Ukraine

The (almost) impregnable town should be up there with other magical towns such as Cesky Krumlov, Carcassone and Cuenca, unfortunately its historical buildings are sorely neglected and new builds that do not fit the fabric of the town are sprouting up disregarding aesthetic or historical considerations. Nevertheless there is one building that I just loved. The Ottomans did manage to finally conquer the town and held it for 27 years before handing it back in a treaty. In that time they had converted one of the churches into a mosque and added a requisite minaret, which, under the terms of the treaty, was not allowed to be dismantled. The Poles kept their word and left the minaret standing, and instead stuck a giant, 3.5m high, golden statue of the Virgin on top of it. An odd sight indeed. Kamyenets lies in the heart of Podolia, a region of rolling hills and endless fields in central Ukraine that is the core of the chernozem (“black earth” – referring to the characteristically black soil which is among the most fertile in the world) land. It is also home to some pretty awful roads, which means that you don’t get very far in a day’s travelling.

Casting my net close to Kamyenets for something to see within a day’s ride and heading east I settled on Vinnytsa and Sharhorod. Both are pretty unremarkable towns (the latter more so and smaller than the former) except for a few peculiarities. Vinnytsa was the final home of the brilliant Russian doctor and surgeon Nikolay Pirogov (who is most famous for developing the art of field surgery during the Crimean War – sort of like Florence Nightingale, but better) where there is also a museum dedicated to his life and works. The museum is OK, it’s main interesting feature being that it hasn’t changed from Soviet times (Pirogov was a huge Soviet hero, despite the fact that he died almost 30 years before the October Revolution). To be honest that wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy and certainly wouldn’t warrant a stop if it weren’t for the fact that Pirogov himself is on display: embalmed, dapper and looking rather tanned for a 200 year-old. Morbid, perhaps; odd, certainly. To the south of Vinnytsa lies the provincial town of Sharhorod. It’s a rather unhappening place today, but back in the day was a prime example of the shtetl, a Jewish town in the Pale of Settlement (one of the few places where Jews were allowed to live and the birthplace of the ultra-orthodox Hasidic school of Judaism). There were hundreds of such towns dotted across what is now Ukraine, Belarus and Poland, but precious little remains of that time. Sharhorod is one of the exceptions as the giant old synagogue is still standing (today it is part of a truck depot) and Jewish gravestones still dot the hillside.

The Jewish theme continued into my next day when I travelled further east to the town of Uman’. In Ukraine it is famous for the Sofijivka Park, a vast, landscaped garden built in honour of Sofia Potocka, sold into slavery by her Greek parents, allegedly the most beautiful woman of her day, lover of innumerable men (most of them nobility) and probably a Russian spy. A sort of Enlightenment Mata-Hari. Not particularly Jewish you would say, and you would be right. But down the road from the park is the grave of one of Sofia’s contemporaries: Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. A hugely popular figure among Hasidic Jews (something like their Elvis) who come from far and wide to pray at his tomb. A particularly auspicious time to do so being during Jewish New Year, which was only 3 days away. The place was absolutely packed with thousands of bearded Blues Brothers wannabes. I hadn’t seen so many Hasidic Jews in one place before, not even at the Wailing Wall. The place was total chaos with sizeable Hasidic families carting their even more sizeable luggage around and jabbering animatedly at each other. Devotional hymns were blaring from loudspeakers at one stall whilst techno music, under a giant poster of (what I assumed to be) the man himself, competing from another, with young Jews flailing about, their tzitzis flying all over the place. For the normal residents of Uman’ Christmas comes early as they make the most of the influx of rich Jews (not a stereotype, but a description of relative wealth – most of the pilgrims are far wealthier than your average Ukrainian) and rent out their flats and try and sell anything they can as 25,000 people descend on the town. Of course the Hasidim try and “keep it in the family” and have bought up much of the town surrounding the tomb where most shop signs are in Hebrew only. I got to speaking with an elderly, jovial Jew who told me as I watched the proceedings with a little amazement, that I hadn’t seen anything yet, and that by Wednesday it would get “totally wild”.

My final oddity lay in a field some 100km south of Uman’. Here, in a reinforced concrete 40m hole in the ground lived an SS-24 ICBM (InterContinental Ballistic Missile) with 10 550kt nuclear warheads pointed straight at western Europe (for comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 15kt). Here was the potential for Armageddon on a global scale and one of the fulcrums of the Cold War. Now, for 5 euros you can pop down into the control bunker, 12 stories underground, and sit at the desk with your finger on the button that could have wiped out most of England. The Museum of Nuclear Missile Troops is easily one of my top 5 museums of all time (not that I have consciously made such a list, but if I did then I am sure that it would be there), and all the more thrilling to know that the people guiding you around were the people that used to man the base back then.

Much more by this author on his very excellent blog.

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