Travel: Ukraine in transition 

After decades of subjugation Ukraine continues to search for its niche within modern Europe


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"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.



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