Great Continental Railway Journeys – BBC 2


Hooray, I am actually not the only person in Britain who thinks that Ukraine is a fascinating place to visit, although when I went it was ten years ago and there wasn’t a war going on.  I went from Odessa to Kyiv: Michael Portillo, dressed in Ukrainian blue and yellow in the Ukrainian sunshine, did it the other way round, going from Kyiv to Odessa, and also visiting Lviv which I haven’t yet been to but would love to see, in this hour-long special which was fascinating even if it did present Ukrainian history from a rather biased Ukrainian-only viewpoint.

I’m rather hoping that the fact that the Champions League final is in Kyiv this year, and all the marketing stuff says “Kyiv”, the transliteration of the city’s Ukrainian name, might finally stop people from spelling it “Kiev”, the transliteration of the city’s Russian name!  And, yes, I know that I’ve just typed “Odessa”, whereas in transliterated Ukrainian it would be “Odesa”, but most people in Odessa speak Russian.  And then there’s Lviv, also known as Lvov (in Russian), Lwow (in Polish) and Lemberg (in German).  Oh, and it’s “Ukraine”, not “the Ukraine” – something else that sometimes needs to be pointed out.  It’s a country, not a region!   Gloriously confusing, isn’t it 🙂 ?

I wanted to see Kyiv because it was the centre of Kievan Rus, the first East Slavic state.  Well, more of a confederation of tribes.  And ruled over by the descendants of Vikings.  See, I said it was gloriously confusing J .  It emerged in the 9th century AD, but began disintegrating by the 11th century and eventually collapsed amid the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.  When another strong East Slavic state finally began to form, in the late 14th and 15th centuries, this time it was under the leadership of Muscovy, with the state later becoming known as Russia, and centred on Moscow.

By that time, Kyiv, and most of the rest of what’s now Ukraine and Belarus, had fallen under the rule of Lithuania – from 1569, Poland-Lithuania.  After the Khmelnytsky Uprising of the 1640s, Left Bank (Eastern) Ukraine came under Russian rule.  Right Bank Ukraine remained under Polish-Lithuanian rule until the Polish Partitions of 1772, 1793 and 1795, whereupon it also became part of the Russian Empire.  That was apart from Lviv and the rest of Galicia, which came under the rule of Austria, and then, after the First World War, part of Poland … and then became part of Soviet Ukraine after the Second World War.  The Black Sea area of Ukraine, meanwhile, was part of the Ottoman Empire until it was conquered by Catherine the Great in the war of 1787-1792, with the port of Odessa being founded there in 1794.  Crystal clear, all that, isn’t it 🙂 ?  I so love Ukrainian history.

Moscow is the Third Rome, following the fall of Constantinople 😉 , but it’s Kyiv which is the cradle of Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy (all a bit messy these days, with different patriarchates within Ukraine), following Prince Vladimir (OK, Volodymyr, if you’re being Ukrainian)’s decision to convert to Orthodoxy in 988.  The story is that he decided to convert himself and his people to AN major religion, and thought about Islam but didn’t fancy it because of the booze ban.  I like that story, so I was very glad that Michael mentioned it.  Very Russian/Ukrainian!  St Sophia’s Cathedral, built in the early 11th century, was the main place I wanted to see in Kyiv and the first place Michael visited, and it is glorious.  Sadly, it hasn’t been a working cathedral since the Revolution, but at least the Communists didn’t destroy it as they destroyed so many other beautiful, historic places of worship – including 80% of churches in Ukraine.

I got quite excited, seeing the cathedral again.  So Byzantine.  So beautiful.  I love Orthodox churches!  And my favourite Catholic cathedral is St Mark’s in Venice, because it looks Orthodox.  Michael – via the metro system, stopping at one of those stunning metro stations you often find in former Eastern Bloc states – also visited the Pechersk Lavra monastery complex, closed during the communist era but now operational again, which was also just as beautiful as I remembered it.  He saw some of the relics of the saints close up: I’m quite glad I didn’t do that.  I know some people are really into relics, and that relics even go on tour sometimes, but they’re not really my thing.  Each to their own.  Michael seemed quite impressed by them.  Being a bloke, he was OK to go bare-headed.  Headscarves (I’ve got a nice silky one!) for ladies.  Orthodox churches in most places aren’t so bothered these days, but Russia and Ukraine are both still quite strict in that department.   And the music!   Orthodox choral music is amazing.  And there’s lots of it.  Religious services, in any religion, are generally very boring.  So, the more music, the better!

Michael met up with two historians during his time in Kyiv, and they discussed this whole difficult issue of whose heritage Kievan Rus is.  The historians insisted that Russian wanted to recreate Kievan Rus, although he did point out that the Crimean issue was also about access to the Black Sea.  Michael, to be fair, pointed out that Crimea is actually mainly Russian-speaking, although he didn’t say out loud that most people in Crimea want to be ruled by Russia.  Neither of them pointed out that Crimea was never part of Kievan Rus.  Nor did they mention the Left Bank/Right Bank issue and the fact that, as a result, Left Bank Ukraine has far closer cultural ties to Russia than Right Bank Ukraine was.  Everyone seemed very keen to present Ukraine as being united.  It isn’t.  All countries have regional divides.  As for the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy issue, although I think Moscow has long been regarded as the Holy City of Russian Orthodoxy – well, yes, there certainly is that, and there’s the general Slavophile issue.  There was talk when the Soviet Union collapsed of creating a union between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.   It’s complicated.  Ukraine’s very complicated!

Going back to St Sophia’s, the only thing I didn’t like was the enormous statue of the aforementioned Khmelnytsky stood very close to it, and my guidebook said that a lot of Western visitors familiar with Ukrainian history feel like that.  The Cossacks have a mixed reputation: the Khmelytsky Massacres are one of the main reasons for that, and the pogroms of the late Tsarist period are the other.  The other side of it is the Cossacks’ reputation for bravery and superb horsemanship, and the general romantic and dramatic image which they’ve got, and that does live on.  We went to an exhibition of Cossack riding and dancing, and it was great.  And the rather glamorous-looking blokes were very happy to pose for photos with tourists!

Michael visited a “living history” Cossack museum, and dressed up as a Cossack, and it was all very nice … but the woman there didn’t half come out with a biased view of things.   Cossacks are all about Ukrainian identity and defending Ukraine against outsiders, and Ukraine looks to the Cossacks for its identity, apparently.  Well, to be fair, the trip I went on was advertised as “Ukraine: Land of the Cossacks”.  But there are Cossacks in Russia too!  And what about all the Cossacks, from both Russia and Ukraine, who fought for the Russian Empire?  Anglo-Russian relations being much in the news at the moment, what about all the Cossack involvement in the Crimean War, and the Great Game?  Oh dear.  I appreciate that a country that’s only very recently become independent wants to present its history in a way that works with nationalism, but I thought it went a bit too far.   (Khmelnytsky and the fact that he’s a big hero in Ukrainian history were not mentioned.)

Michael then spoke to a few locals about their views on Ukraine being an independent state.  OK, he only asked a few people, and their views may not have been representative, but it was interesting that the younger people were wholly in favour of independence and the older people less so.   And, as he said, we don’t know how it’s all going to pan out.  The possibility of EU membership wasn’t mentioned, but that’s certainly a big issue.  Oh, and he spoke to some bodybuilders as well.  I don’t know anything about bodybuilding: I am far too unfit for that!

Next up, Lviv – which looked lovely.  In a very Mitteleuropean sort of way, and there seemed to be a lot of posters in the Latin alphabet rather than Cyrillic. We saw a shot of a Roman Catholic cathedral.  Weirdly, there was not one mention of the Greek Catholic church.  (I would say “the Uniate church”, but apparently that term’s considered offensive.)  I’m rather confused about that.  I even wondered if maybe the cathedral was Greek Catholic, and the BBC’d got confused!  It’s much the biggest religious denomination in Lviv.  Most of the Ukrainian community in North Manchester is of Western Ukrainian heritage, and the Ukrainian church near me is Greek Catholic … er, which is totally irrelevant.  Having said which, the one in South Manchester’s Orthodox.  Which is also irrelevant.   Sorry!  Back to the point!!

According to Michael, Lviv seemed like “the cradle of Ukrainian patriotism”.   He went to a bar where people were doing (in a jokey way, I hope!) a lot of “down with the Muscovites” stuff.  He listened to a choir – whose members, young and older alike, spoke English impressively well. He visited a library, where he heard about the life and work of the great Ukrainian poet, writer and artist Taras Shevchenko (who came from central Ukraine, nowhere near Lviv!).  That was fine.  I’m certainly not knocking patriotism, and I get very annoyed when people do.  But not one reference was made to the fact that Lviv was under Polish rule in the inter-war period, or of the large numbers of Poles expelled from there after the Second World War … most of whom moved to Wroclaw (formerly Breslau), to replace the Germans expelled from there!   It was all about Ukrainian nationalism.  As I said, I’m not knocking that, but it’s quite worrying when history becomes a tool of nationalism to such an extent that it’s not presented accurately.

Then on to Odessa.  By train, obviously … which avoided the problem everyone in my group had, when all our luggage was mislaid and we had to deal with the Odessa airport lost luggage department, which was like some sort of Cold War nightmare.   We did get our luggage the next day, which, bearing in mind how inefficient the airport staff were, was a bloody miracle!  Anyway.  Nice pictures on the famous Potemkin steps, featured in the Eisenstein film about the 1905 mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin.  Like the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917, what actually happened really wasn’t much like it appeared in the Eisenstein film, but still!   They’re supposed to be called the Pimorsky Steps (their pre-Soviet name) now, but I don’t think anyone calls them that.

With Odessa, hooray, it was not all about Ukrainian nationalism!  It was acknowledged that the city was founded by Catherine the Great (the German-born Russian empress!), although the conquest of the area from the Ottomans wasn’t really mentioned, and that Odessa’s first mayor, who had a huge influence on the city, was a Frenchman, the Duc de Richelieu (a direct descendant of the brother of Cardinal Richelieu, by the way).

Whilst Ukrainian Greek Catholics still failed to get a mention, Ukrainian Jews were the main focus of the visit to Odessa.  Ukraine has played a huge part in Jewish history and culture, and Odessa is one of the great cities in Jewish history.  No, it wasn’t a great centre of Jewish learning, like Vilnius and Warsaw, and Cordoba before them, were, and it didn’t produce great scientists who happened to be Jewish, like Vienna did, and it most certainly isn’t New York.  Of all the waffles I’ve ever written, the one that’s had the most views is the one about Downton Abbey’s misrepresentation of the Odessa pogroms … although, to be fair, that’s because people are interested in Downton Abbey, not because they’re interested in Odessa 🙂 .

Anyway, focusing on more positive things, around a third of the population of Odessa was Jewish in both late Tsarist times and (despite the large-scale emigration after the 1905 pogrom) early Soviet times, and many of those people were very important in politics, economics and the press.  Trotsky , whose parents seem to have identified as being Jewish even though they weren’t religious, attended school in Odessa. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Zionist leader who organised the Jewish Legion which fought alongside the British Army in (what was then) Palestine during the First World War, came from Odessa.  So, as Michael mentioned, did the author Isaac Babel; and amongst those who emigrated after the events of 1905 were the grandparents of Steven Spielberg and the grandparents of Bob Dylan.  There are also some brilliant stories about Jewish “humane gangsters” in Odessa – notably Mishka Yaponchik, Odessa’s answer to Robin Hood.  Far more interesting than all that religious studying that went on in Warsaw and Vilnius!

Then, in 1941, the Nazis and their Romanian allies – and it was the Romanians more than the Germans – murdered over 100,000 members of Odessa’s Jewish community.  And it was difficult to practise any religion in post-war Soviet times, and it’s only recently that Jewish religious and cultural life in Odessa has begun to flourish again – but it really is flourishing again now.  Michael visited the Great Synagogue in Odessa, which our tour group also went to see.  I thought it was a shame that there were no women in these scenes, but we got some lovely shots of the inside of the synagogue, and an interesting interview with its London-born rabbi about the revival of Jewish religion and culture in Ukraine – just as we’d seen the revival of Orthodox religion and culture in the scenes in Kyiv.

When I went, we got shown round the synagogue’s kosher food shop as well.  Being rather more interested in food than religion, I quite enjoyed that 🙂 .  Whilst my local Tesco has a larger selection of kosher food than they had there, it seemed such a big thing for the Jewish community of Odessa than they had this kosher food shop at all, after everything that’d happened, and so it was good to see it.  It’s a whole community complex: there’s a kindergarten there as well, although obviously the BBC couldn’t have filmed little kids.   It was also interesting to see that some of the men were in Orthodox Jewish clothing, and sporting long beards, whereas others were in Western clothing: it’d be unusual to see the two groups together in a synagogue in most countries.

Most of this programme was about the revival of cultural life which was repressed during the communist era.  There were many good reasons for the 1917 Revolution, but what followed was horrific.  It’s time to move on – and, in some ways, to move back.

And then he finished up with a mud bath!  The Black Sea area’s great.  Ukraine’s a fascinating country, and I hope so much that some sort of lasting peace can be reached there.







2 thoughts on “Great Continental Railway Journeys – BBC 2

  1. Chris Deeley

    Cossacks haven’t always been brave. They turned and ran away when confronted by the Heavy Brigade (which never went faster than a trot). Much the same reaction to the Light Brigade. Cardigan was surrounded by Cossacks when he emerged through the gun-smoke, but was not attacked. Cardigan, of course, was mounted on a magnificent horse (Ronald) and just sneered at the poor quality of the Cossack horses. And who did Karenin (Anna’s husband) say had the finest cavalry in Europe? Not the Cossacks – the British! (Quite right too.)


Hello! Please let me know what you think.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.