"Ukraine! You're going to the Ukraine on a holiday?"
Most people react the same way - an incredulous "Why are you going there?" And I have to agree that the Ukraine is not among Europe's top holiday destinations.
Until the Orange Revolution and the intrigue surrounding their recent elections launched the country briefly into the media spotlight, most of us on this side of the pond knew precious little about Europe's largest country. Like most North Americans my knowledge consisted of a handful of facts without any historical context. The "breadbasket of Europe," the "Cossacks," the "Charge of the Light Brigade," the "Chernobyl nuclear disaster" and the "siege of Sevastopol" seemed strangely unrelated yet each is a part of Ukraine's historical legacy. The more I read, the more fascinated I became with the Ukraine - an ancient society that has existed as an independent nation for less than 20 years. And what better way to learn more about a country than to visit it and talk to some of the people who live there.
We flew into Kiev and made our way to the Dnieper River where our ship, the Viking Lomonosov was moored. Olga, our guide for the next two weeks, met us on the ship and introduced us to her colleague Anna and several other members of the ship's crew. A native of Sevastopol, Olga has a degree in English Literature, speaks fluent Russian and Ukrainian, and works as an instructor and interpreter for the National Naval Academy. Anna, a history professor from Kiev, is both guide and ship's lecturer. Like Olga she works as a part-time tour guide during her holidays in order to supplement the meagre income from her full time job. In the Ukraine even those who are fortunate enough to have a job must struggle to survive.
In 1991, for the first time in its history, Ukraine became an independent nation. It has been 19 years of profound economic hardship fanned by uncontrolled inflation, poor job opportunities and mass emigration. During this brief period the population declined from 52 to 46 million and many of those leaving are the country's best and brightest. According to Anna, five million Ukrainians work illegally in Europe at menial jobs that give them a better living than they can achieve at home. And life expectancy is dismally low - 72 for women and 62 for men.
Ukraine means "borderland" or "edge," a fitting name for a country wedged between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland and Russia. Its history is tarnished with tragedy and repeated failed attempts to gain independence. In one of her lectures Anna relates the conversation between an old man and a visitor to his village.
"I was born in Austria, I went to school in Poland, I got married in Russia and now I live in Ukraine." says the old man.
"You have certainly traveled a lot during your life," the visitor comments.
"No," replies the old man, "I have never left my village."
The story captures the essence of Ukraine's history - a region buffeted between east and west, a place where political boundaries have shifted depending on the whims and relative military strength of neighbouring countries and warlords. From Mongol horsemen in 1240 to the tanks of Hitler's Panzer Units in WWII other people have fought their battles on Ukrainian soil. And the vast expanse of flat land, the central European steppe that makes up most of the country, is virtually indefensible.
We spent a few days in the ancient city of Kiev before beginning our trip down the Dnieper to the Black Sea. Europe's third longest river, after the Volga and Danube, is not only the geographic division between eastern and western Ukraine but also a boundary between cultures, economies and religions. Orthodox eastern Ukraine bristles with the smoke stacks of heavy industry. When it was part of the USSR eastern Ukraine was the heart of the Soviet military-industrial complex, but even then Moscow kept "little Russia" on a short leash. Almost every product manufactured in the Ukraine was dependent on some critical component made exclusively in Russia. Most of the people in eastern Ukraine are ethnic Russian. Russian is the dominant language and the economy is still closely linked with that of Moscow.
In contrast, western Ukraine is predominantly agricultural.
There is a saying among Ukrainian farmers that the soil of the steppe is so rich that "a spade left in it overnight will start to grow by morning." Before the fall of the Czars and the emergence of communism Ukraine was truly "the breadbasket of Europe," exporting vast amounts of food to Mother Russia. But that all changed in 1917 when Stalin began to nationalize Ukrainian agriculture. Farmers were kicked off their traditional land, herded on to collective farms and given grossly unrealistic quotas. The result in 1932-33 was a famine that took almost eight million lives, most of them village farmers and their families. Today the population of western Ukraine is mostly Catholic and ethnic Ukrainian. While their economy is still closely bound to that of Russia, many of its citizens foresee closer ties to the west in the future.
For the first four days of our trip the Dnieper is more like a lake than a river. The surrounding landscape is utterly flat and a succession of five hydroelectric dams has backed the water into a series of vast, shallow reservoirs bounded by low, scrub-covered banks. Except for the occasional farmhouse and a few cultivated fields there is little evidence of human settlement. And until we reached the industrial city of Zaporozhye, three days south of Kiev, the river itself is eerily quiet. I asked Henry, one of the ship's crew, why there was so little ship traffic.
"It's a government regulation," he replied. And when I asked him why he just shrugged "who knows?" he said, "Only six tourist ships are allowed on the river."
A few miles past the fishing village of Kherson we left the river and the monotonous flatland of the steppe and slipped into the Black Sea. Here the mountains of Crimea and the Carpathians form a backdrop to the towns and cities along the coast of this vast inland sea and I began to feel a closer bond to the landscape. We visited Sevastopol where the Russian Black Sea fleet is based, toured the White Palace in Yalta where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin carved up the map of post-war Europe, and climbed the fabled Potemkin Steps in Odessa, "Pearl of the Black Sea."
Our brief visit to Ukraine was more a learning experience than a conventional holiday but I came away with a new sense of empathy for the people who are struggling to make the country work. Many of those I spoke to are remarkably open about the obstacles they face. Foreign investment is dismally low because of corruption, instability and bureaucracy. According to Anna, five per cent of the population belongs to the shady, privileged oligarchy, 15 per cent are middle class and the remaining 80 per cent are struggling to survive.
"Among the older population," she says, "there are many who miss the false stability of the Soviet era. They had someone to complain to even though it was futile to get things done."
But she is optimistic about the future. "Ukraine is an infant democracy still struggling to build its identity. Things are better now than they were 10 years ago," she adds, "and there is no way back."
Our brief visit to her country was a fascinating glimpse into a culture buffeted between the competing forces of eastern and western society. Over the next few weeks I'll revisit some of the highlights of our trip in more detail.