Living in Ukraine, a country rotten from corruption but full of noble people
Irishman Ronan Goggin is head of public information at the European Union Advisory Mission Ukraine
Ronan Goggin on Mission Ukraine
There weren’t many weeks left until the thaw, but a film of snow was still gripping Kiev’s sidewalks, stubbornly. It was February, and benign temperatures fluctuating from slightly above to a bit below zero had made this winter moderate. So moderate that I had yet to reach for my thermals - a first, through six winters in Ukraine.
Word was that the “blocking low” that stretched all the way from Siberia down to the Black Sea last winter (and which turned the River Dnipro into a block of ice) had either retreated or relocated.
Spring would thus be welcomed with gentle nod rather than a gasp or grumble, the usual pining for warmer air sated somewhat. But then the “Beast from the East” started to growl, and dispensed a metre of snow that didn’t melt away until April. If you didn’t know, the “beast” lives somewhere not far from here.
Now, barely four weeks later, mosquitos are already making their way indoors, as 30 degrees softens up the tarmac outside. Such climactic extremities are water off a duck’s back for Ukrainians, who never seem to mind the polar conditions they usually brave in the process of trying to overthrow the government. There have been two winter revolutions since 2004/05, the last one - the Maidan “revolution of dignity” - ending in February 2014 with the slaying of civilians by sniper fire.
Even these days protests persist, because the corruption that brought Maidan revolutionaries onto the streets has festered, and people see President Petro Poroshenko walking and talking much like his despised predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych.
Outsiders seized on Ukraine’s revolution to indulge their ideological prejudices. It was a fascist takeover, or an American coup, or a Putin putsch. The simplistic narrative was that Ukrainians had to be either pro-West or pro-Russia; they couldn’t simply be pissed off. Absolutists are ill at ease with grey realities not mirroring what they convince themselves are absolute truths. In any case, a line in the sand was drawn in Ukraine in 2014, and now eastern Ukraine, the entity I never heard anybody reference before November 2013, is cut off and out on its own.
November 2013 is when I left Odesa, which perches over the doted-on Black Sea - a place of respite and portal to the world beyond that swells Ukrainian pride. I learnt this on my very first day of work in December 2010, when I pressed colleagues to advise how far away from the office “the lake” was. It was only over the road, but I dared not call it a lake again.
It is not every country that throws up a regional city that feels more unhinged than the capital. Odesa is loose, indifferent, brazen, seemingly perpetually on the verge of lawless oblivion. It is also famed for having a special sense of humour, though I am not sure which of the above explains the fact that it is the only place on earth a taxi driver has ever told me not to wear my seat belt.
It is through taxi stereos that Ukraine’s regional nuances are laid bare. Kiev’s are where the lost rhythm and blues sounds of the pre-1990s (to Soviet mono culture) are being dusted down and rediscovered. Odesa is where those same vintage melodies invariably morph into despicable remixes. The Nashville of Eurovision music has its charms, but the barrage of trashy noises Odesa churns out is something I maintain not even Johnny Logan could survive.
Back in Kiev, the building I live in was constructed in 1904. It has therefore had to put up with quite a lot of upheaval - two revolutions in 1917, the formation of the Soviet Union, two world wars, a famine (considered by many a genocide), communism and its collapse, the bankruptcy that followed the rush to the free market, then the post-independence revolutions. It is a bonafide litany of sorrows. But my building does remind me of the one word I’d use to describe Ukrainians themselves: resilient.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That’s why a country so rotten from corruption still produces noble people; why the oligarchy that pull the strings of power are thankfully not as visible day to day as Europe’s friendliest hipsters; and with the Champions League final just around the corner, and even as hotels try to extort intending travellers, ordinary Kievans - worried about the tarnishing of their reputation - are using social media to invite Liverpudlians and Madrilenos into their homes to stay for free.
Decent skins indeed. It is a privilege to be among them at so delicate a turn in the country’s evolution.
Naturally my thoughts often wander off towards home: the madness of the laughter, pints in snugs, An Nuacht, even the dongs of the Angelus, certainly the road to West Cork. But you tell yourself not to get too greedy, there will be a time and a place for that soon enough.