Friday, 28 February 2014

Ukraine - looking back a bit

On New Year's Day this year sig other and I were invited by some friends to meet three young Ukrainian women who were staying with them. Communication was difficult, as the three did not really speak English or French. They could all understand Russian however, and one of them spoke it quite well (Ukrainians are mostly not bilingual, whatever you might have read recently), so I was recruited to speak my bad Russian and native English and aid communication. The three were from Lviv in western Ukraine, were Catholic, and were in Strasbourg for the annual pilgrimage of young people associated with the Taize community. Even then they were horrified by what was going on in their country. They were keen to be part of the EU, although when it was mildly suggested to them that they would be poor relations as new members, and quite possibly subjected to discriminatory rulings by some member states, as Bulgaria and Romania have been, they were given pause. They felt that Russia was interfering in their country. On the regions and people of the east and south of this big country, who mostly speak only Russian, these women had no view. It was another country to them. I was interested in that. (It's how I feel about Scotland).

Ten years ago, in 2004, there were three elections in Ukraine. For the first of them, in October, I was part of the election observation team. I was deployed in a village not far from Kiev, where people spoke Ukrainian and where the cows came home at night. In the distance, on the horizon, shale oil was burning. No fracking here. Nature has already done it. Kiev itself was given over to propaganda banners and displays for Yanukovych. The Orange Revolution was starting. That election was inconclusive. By then I had acquired some experience in election observation. You report what you see, and what people say in answer to your questions, not what you have read in the media is going on. There was a second election, in November, at which I was not present, and a third, on 26th December, for which I was part of the team, and was deployed to Odessa. In the south, mild weather, no snow, forever linked in my mind's eye with the Eisenstein film. Everyone spoke Russian. No sign of the Orange people. A strange Christmas it was. Of course, it was not Christmas there. That happens in January.

Back in Kiev, the streets were camped out with Orange people. A seductive movement, but it was clear to me from what was being said (I can mostly understand Ukrainian though can't speak it) and from the literature on the stalls, that the European far right were friends to this movement, that Holocaust denial was present, and that the fever-eyed young men shouting in the streets were fuelled not only by whatever uppers were available in Ukraine at that time but by a measure of Jew-hatred along with nationalism. Not a pretty sight. And not what was mostly being reported in the West at the time.

"Orange gangsters", someone at a polling station described them to me.

Back in the UK I wrote something in my column in the local newspaper, noting that the election was about the freest and fairest I had seen. Boy was I denounced. A most unpleasant fellow named Peter Shutak stopped only just short of a public death threat. He had not been there of course, but knew far better than I did what had been observed there.

A little later, a delegation of Ukrainian MPs visited the UK. Cross-party. I invited them to the constituency, and they were pleased to visit. We took them to the Loch Fyne restaurant in Reading, which they enjoyed very much, and to the Ukrainian club. Also invited was a nice Ukrainian lady called Snejana who lived in Reading and who helped with interpreting, and a Reading trade unionist and Labour Party member named Mick Pollek, Ukrainian by family origin and associated with the Ukrainian club, also a Ukrainian speaker.

The meeting at the Ukrainian club in Reading was an interesting one. Mick Pollek dashed in with some Orange banners with the slogan of the time, "Tak!" ("Yes!"). What he had failed to ascertain was that the cross-party delegation of Ukrainian MPs included no Orange members. Not one. It did include a communist, and a member of what is now the Party of the Regions, neither of whom was exactly enamoured of the Orange people. Coffee and Ukrainian snacks were consumed. Speeches were made in Ukrainian, which were not fully understood by all the delegation. Then the Reading Ukrainians began to sing nationalist songs. The communist and the Regions bloke stood stony-faced and silent throughout. How to get it very very wrong. I didn't care. I had simply offered the hospitality of the constituency to visitors from Ukraine, whatever their political complexion. Pollek and his ilk had never even asked about the make-up of the delegation, and had not put a single question to me as a recent visitor to Ukraine who had had meetings with both government and opposition. Part of the political establishment in Reading got it very very wrong.

That was ten years ago. Do we understand Ukraine any better now? Does it matter?  The political establishment then had made up its mind what was going on. They got it wrong. Ukraine was not helped by that.

I would say this to those who are in politics - go there. Go to Ukraine, go to whatever place you are minded to pontificate about. Learn its language. Read its history. Talk with those who know about these things.

How much has changed in ten years?


Anonymous said...

Sorry to hijack this thread Jane, but your Yahoo e-mail doesn't work.
Did you know that you were briefly mentioned in the Reading Chronicle, in a letter about Reading Gaol?

Jane Griffiths said...

no, the yahoo is now disabled. you can reach me at - yes I knew about the letter, someone sent it to me. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

James Meek seems pretty sensible to me, in the Guardian & in a recent LRB.