It’s lunchtime on Tuesday 5th June and a huge streak of lightning just lit up the sky across Podil, followed quickly by a huge crack of thunder and the sound of heavy rain on the rooftops and pavement. The sky is grey and the air is hot and sticky.
Its storm season in Ukraine, and while the weather is spectacular, it’s not doing much to lift the mood of the city.
To anyone arriving in Ukraine this week for the European football championships, the weather may confirm their worst suspicions that this is a country of doom and gloom.
They’ll soon realise they are wrong.
Despite the intensely negative press that Ukraine has been getting recently, this is not an unfriendly country. It is not an intolerant place, it is safe and it is a lot of fun.
I don’t write this as a naive idiot who’s ignorant to the darker side of life in Ukraine, or as someone who’s love for this country harbours any rejection of those ‘western ideals’ and human rights I enjoy as a British citizen. I write this as someone who, unlike 99% of those commenting on Ukraine, has actually lived here for two years and as someone who has travelled to all 49 European countries. Yes, even the picturesque San Marino (where, incidentally, they were proudly selling bottles of Hitler beer complete with a picture of the Führer).I know this continent better than most people and Ukraine is one of my favourite places to be.
But what about the dogs they killed? what about the profiteering hoteliers? what about the BBC stadiums of hate?Of course they are awful, they have disgraced Ukraine and they shouldn’t have happened, but what did UEFA expect? This is a poor country run by an incompetent and corrupt ‘elite’. Are we to believe that UEFA officials didn’t see the 1000s of stray dogs and the shortage of hotels when they awarded Ukraine the tournament? Are we to believe that UEFA officials said yes to Poland and Ukraine without ever attending a local football match at which, as the BBC has shown, you can find racism and anti-Semitism? Of course not.
Despite all the talk of ‘sport uniting people’ UEFA is a self-interested profit seeking monster. It deals almost exclusively with wealthy sponsors and cares little for the social or political rights of the citizens who are ‘lucky’ enough to host one of their prestigious tournaments. The same goes for FIFA. Football knew these were risks, but ‘the beautiful game’ is a grubby business. So are most other international sports competitions.Did Russia win the right to host the 2012 Winter Olympics or 2018 World Cup because of its fair treatment of journalists, its inclusive form of governance and its acceptance of homosexuality? I think not.
Is anyone really surprised? …I doubt it, so why is Ukraine getting a hard time? Well, probably because its easy to bash a country with this many problems, and because bad news (verging on hysteria) sells. The Daily Mail and much of the UK tabloid press is built on this model and for once it has the opportunity to take a break from attacking ‘broken Britain’ and throw mud at its neighbours.
Do they really care about these terrible things that they are writing about? Of course not or they would have been writing about them for years. Ukraine’s problems hardly started two months ago.
So, if we put the hysteria to one side, what’s left? Well, what’s left is a nation of passionate and friendly people who can’t wait to welcome people to their country and who cant wait to prove the Daily Mail wrong …and to practice their English!
Ukrainians hold Europe in extremely high regard, sometimes embarrassingly so, and the word ‘euro’ is attached to almost everything here to mean ‘not from one of the former USSR countries’. But while Ukrainians all study hard to learn English and a rainbow of other languages, or study international relations to be successful in the global economy – we continue to shun them. We don’t visit them, and to make things worse, we make it impossibly difficulty for them to visit us. We humiliate them when they apply for visas, especially if they show any desire to live in our country, while we bend over backwards to accommodate their oligarch rulers and sell them houses. (London’s most expensive apartment was recently sold to Ukraine’s number one thief and richest man – Rinat Akhmetov)
Yet despite this treatment and despite the insane amount of money that has been wasted on this tournament and stolen via dodgy deals and murky contracts, I’ve seen nothing at all this year to suggest that Ukrainian’s wont welcome international visitors with open arms. In fact, this week in Kiev, Ukrainian friendliness has been in overdrive.
Of course, nobody is smiling in public, they will still queue-jump if you show any sign of hesitancy and the metro is still unbelievably crowded. However, every time I have left my house this week, I’ve had a wonderful conversation (in English) with a Ukrainian. There’s a tangible sense of excitement. Finally these weird ‘Euro’ people are arriving in town and Ukrainians want to impress them. They also want to question us. What are we like?, where are we from?, is it true that London is always covered in fog? …do we like Ukraine?
As a bit of fun, last week me and a friend decided to take pictures of Ukrainians who were wearing British flags. The union flag has become something of a fashion here, and despite our limited Russian, all bar one, person that we asked was happy to oblige. True to form, almost all of them posed with huge smiles and tremendous pride. These are not bashful people.
In a small corner-shop/cafe in an industrial centre, miles from the tourist traps in central Kyiv, we enjoyed some friendly banter with two middle-aged women who wanted to know if we were here for the football or the girls (Ukrainians indulge in negative stereotypes too). We joked with them for a few minutes and as we left, they were still laughing loudly as we left their modest business. Even in the bleakest industrial estate they were both friendly and curious.
So, while 20th century stereotypes about the ‘evil empire’ have combined with 21st century stereotypes about prostitution and poverty to give Ukraine a less than glamorous reputation. The reality is that Ukraine is a big and beautiful country, with dramatic weather, vast and beautiful open spaces and ancient cities whose poorly renovated buildings give them an old-colonial feel that is as romantic as it is intriguing.
If you come, like most of the people who visit, I’m sure you’ll love it. Just don’t come expecting German roads or a French trains. You wont find either. As the locals will tell you with a shrug ‘this is Ukraine!