There was a strange dearth of Cossacks in this. Who goes on a tour of Ukraine and doesn’t have their photo taken with Cossacks?! And I was cringing when Chris Tarrant blithely informed a local guide in Lviv that he expected the place to look Russian. Someone give that man a very long and detailed lecture on the Polish partitions, please! However, there was quite a bit of interesting information in this whistle-stop tour of Ukraine, not least the fact that the current head of health and safety at Chornobyl (and, yes, it is transliterated with a second o, not with an e) comes from Bury. I love that!
And I love Russia. And so nobody has ever accused me of being biased towards Ukraine: it’s awkward to do both! However, it does really annoy me when people refer to “the Ukraine”. Lose the “the”, OK. And transliterate the Ukrainian names for places, not the Russian names, unless you’re talking about majority Russian-speaking areas, like Odessa (which would be Odesa in Ukrainian). There. I like to be pedantic. Oh, and don’t moan about Ukrainian railway maps being in Cyrillic. Of course they’re in Cyrillic – what do you expect?!
So, we kicked off with a railway journey through the Carpathians and a visit to the capital of Ukrainian Galicia – Lviv, also known as Lemberg in German and Yiddish, Lwow in Polish, Lvov in Russian and Ilyvo in Hungarian, formerly the capital of Ruthenia, then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, then under Austrian rule, then under Polish rule, briefly part the Soviet Union for less than half a century and now very loudly and proudly Ukrainian. Chris said that he expected it to look Russian. Ouch. Even worse, he was using “Russian” to mean “Soviet”, as in drab and grey and miserable. No, no, no. Galicia is not Russian, and Russian is very, very definitely not a synonym for drab. Anything but!
However, the guide soon put him right, and he seemed very impressed with the place. Fascinating history. I could waffle about the history of Galicia all day! He also acknowledged the darkest period of its history, with a visit to sewers in which a number of Galician Jews had hidden during the Nazi occupation.
Next up came a place called Rivrie. No history there, but it was apparently supposed to be very romantic. Hmm. I think I’ll stick to Venice! But the next long railway trip was interesting, because that part of the track, built in 1873, linked Austro-Hungarian Poland and Russian Poland. That would have been ten years after the uprising, but the uprising wasn’t mentioned … and possibly wasn’t very relevant. Both Russia and Hungary were industrialising big time at that point, though, and the railway link must have been crucial.
Then back to the twentieth century, and the Holodomor. I really want to put “Holodymyr”, which looks more Ukrainian, but “Holodomor” does seem to be the generally-used spelling. There is still so much controversy over this, the famine in 1932-33 which killed as many as ten million people. Stalinist collectivisation, forced industrialisation and appalling mismanagement led to grain shortages. Food was requisitioned, and anyone who resisted was killed or sent to Siberia. The official Soviet stance was that there never was a famine. Others have claimed that it was due to natural causes and wasn’t man-made. However, it’s now generally accepted it was a result of the policies of Stalin’s government. Certainly it seems that the rural and to some extent urban population of Ukraine was sacrificed to his Five Year Plans, but there’s some debate as to whether or not it was also an deliberate attempt to suppress Ukrainian nationalism. Some countries have recognised it as genocide. Whatever the issues of semantics, what’s indisputable is that millions of people died.
The Chornobyl disaster wasn’t deliberate, at least, but who will ever know how many deaths it was responsible for, how many people’s health has been affected by it, and what sort of damage has been done to the environment. We were told that $700 billion has so far been spent on such clean-up operations have been possible, and reminded that the Soviet authorities didn’t admit that anything had happened until abnormal levels of radiation were detected over Sweden.
You can actually go on trips there, now. I always wonder why anyone would want to, but Chris seemed to find it quite interesting. Well, it was interesting … just a rather odd choice of destination. And what was particularly interesting was that the guy currently in charge of the clean-up operation was from Bury! Brilliant.
It was a whistle-stop tour, and it wasn’t meant as a history programme, so I suppose it can be excused for not giving a long and detailed explanation of the causes of the civil war. I’d have gone back to the 1640s and taken it from there! Or maybe I’d’ve gone right back to Kievan Rus. Kyivan Rus. Whatever! We were, however, reminded that this ongoing conflict has so far killed 10,000 people, and were shown an area of a railway station where soldiers get physical and moral support.
Then on to Podilsk, where nuclear weapons were stored… to play some rather sick computer thing which made it look as if you were launching a nuclear missile and blowing up a Western city. No, me neither! Give me Kyiv and its incredible churches and monasteries! Why would you want to pretend to launch a nuclear weapon?!!
And finally, Odessa. Chris was travelling by train, so his luggage arrived at the same time he did. I arrived at Odessa airport to find that my luggage had been left in Prague. About eight of us were in the same boat. I don’t think the lost luggage department at Odessa airport had ever got out of the Stalinist era. It was a nightmare. But our luggage did turn up the following day. Anyway. Chris did talk about Ukraine being “the bread basket of Europe”, and I thought we were going to get a nice history lecture. I’d’ve started with the reign of Catherine the Great and then gone on at length about the Crimean War and the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin … but the programme was nearly over by then, and we just got a few shots of grain being transported and stuff being loaded on to ships.
Oh well. It wasn’t really meant to be a history of Ukraine, and there’s only so much you can fit into an hour, minus adverts. But there was some interesting stuff in there. It’s just such a shame that they chose to call the programme “Extreme Nuclear Railway”. Rather an insult to Ukrainian history and culture! My trip to Ukraine, in 2008, was advertised as “Land of the Cossacks”. Much better marketing!