Tales From Abroad: Ukraine
Ukraine is one of the weirder places to tell people you are going. This is especially true when you tell your professors and friends, “Sorry, I won’t be able to be there next week. I’m going to be in Ukraine. For music.” That will get you a reaction that is a blend of surprised and confused. When I first found out, I pretty much had the same reaction. I have probably submitted pieces to at least 50 calls for scores. I have received a few yesses and a plethora of nos. This was my first big orchestral gig. I did not expect to be told that they wanted to play my piece. After that initial shock, I realized I had no idea what to expect from Ukraine.
“Okay so what did you know about Ukraine, before coming to Lviv?”
“Ummm, well I know what I read on Wikipedia. I know what I learned in European History in high school. Oh, everything that we read about Crimea—”
“Of course. The world now knows Ukraine exists because we’re being taken over. And it’s even worse because it’s Russia.”
I was chatting with these two Ukrainian college students that I had met at this bar in the city center called Pravda. “Pravda” means “truth” and was also the name of the Soviet propaganda magazine. There are a number of these restaurants and bars that are Soviet- or Ukrainian Revolution-themed. The city has a lot of tourists, but not from the West. Lviv (the city I was based in) is one of the cultural capitals of Eastern Europe. On the weekends, families, university students, school groups, flood into the city to see the big city and old buildings.
When I first arrived at the airport, I wandered over to the small bus stop next to the arrivals port through the swarm of taxi drivers offering me “a great price.” There were three other people waiting for the bus: this other American, and a Ukrainian woman and her child. The Ukrainian woman turned out to be a Jehovah’s witness and promptly began working at convincing the other American and me that we should join her that coming Sunday. She also gave us directions to our hostels and excellent recommendations about the best bakery in town. The other American turned out to be a retired fashion executive who had quit his job to travel the world and write novels; he was currently en route to a pilgrimage to follow the steps of Buddha in India and working on a novel exploring his family’s immigration to the U.S. from Japan.
After waiting 40 minutes, the bus pulled up. Well, a “bus” that is the size of a large van with wooden seats, packed wall-to-wall with standing room only. It was bright yellow and swayed around every corner.
I always love being on public transit in the cities I visit. I like getting to see the people go about their days on their commute. See the streets. Feel the energy of the city.
Despite the feeling that at any moment, this large yellow box on wheels could flip and kill us all, this was definitely one of my favorite moments. The vibrancy and soul of the city flickered by through the smudgy windows: brightly colored orthodox churches, cigarette kiosks, decadent 18th century apartments (with plaster chipping), a sprinkling of grey Soviet block apartments, and people fluttering about the streets. From this start and through my time there, Lviv struck me with a particular kind of dichotomy makes it so exciting and interesting.
Lviv is now on the northeastern part of Ukraine. For reference, Crimea is in the southeast. Lviv used to be part of the Soviet Union, and before that, Poland, and before that Austria, and before that Ukraine again. It also goes by different names: Lviv, Lwow, Lvov, Lemberg; each a reflection of the people that used to govern this place and their language (Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, German). The Ukrainians are very proud of their language. Most of them also speak Russian, but are definitely quite offended if you ask them “Aren’t Ukrainian and Russian are the same thing?” (luckily, I didn’t ask this).
“The Russians stole our language, just like they stole our history for themselves and their mythology. We [the Ukrainians] founded Russia thousands of years ago and then they spent the time since trying to take us over and steal our culture.”
The sentiment here is definitely very anti-Russian. And there is also a surge in pro-Ukrainian nationalism: a strain of nationalism that is constructive … for now.
The Ukrainians have been oppressed for a very long time. When the Soviet Union first dissolved in 1991, there was an initial urge to become “western.” A reflection of this is the sheer number of knock-off Apple Stores, and the bright and shiny new shopping center near the city center that stocks all the standards: Levi’s, Zara, H&M, etc. Now there is a bit of a push to move against this. The country of Ukraine is poorer than its neighbors to the west. This push for imported western goods means that these items are extremely expensive for consumers and also leave the domestic economy rotting. There are new groups of clothing designers and product designers whose mission is to show the world that Ukraine can make its own products that match or beat the western equivalents in quality, while maintaining their own sense of culture and supporting the domestic economy of design and production, all while making products at prices that are much more affordable for Ukrainian consumers. This is not a permeating trend among all groups for a variety of reasons.
The college students were definitely on trend with American fashion. One of them went to high school in Los Angeles and ranted to me about how much she missed Whole Foods and Chipotle. The trends toward nationalism extend beyond the realm of clothing. While I was there, there were a number of protests by the Ukrainian Liberation Army. They marched through the city and demonstrated outside the enormous statue of Ivan Franko (the father of modern Ukraine) and distributed pamphlets proclaiming themselves as “Terrorists for the Nation” and decrying the “Russian aggression in the east.”
This city and this country are definitely split and being pulled in many different directions. There are those that are progressive and forward thinking and those that are conservative and traditional, those that want the nation to become more like the West, those that want it to be more like Russia (a scant minority in these parts), and those that proclaim their pride at being Ukrainian. I was there from October 25th to October 31st. As I met Ukrainians (patrons at bars and cafes, musicians in the orchestra, people at my hostel), they expressed their anticipation and concern with the coming American election.
“Our politics and elections here are so disorganized; your election actually is more important for our future than ours right now.”