When I mention Ukraine to friends in India, the usual reaction is, ‘Oh, Uuuu.Kay’? Or ‘Ah, in Russia, no’? To be frank I didn’t make much difference between Russia and Ukraine when it first came home to me! Whether it was Oleksii or Olesky, mattered little till it was pointed out that the first was Ukrainian and the second Russian. Not being outdone I retorted, “Ah, same thing”! The face blushed and responded calmly, “Just as you are Pakistani”. That shut me up for good and had me read about Ukraine.
Ukraine’s problems among the world at large as been one of identity. This Slavic country with a history of 1000s of years is mostly identified with the Soviet era, of which it was a part from 1922 to 1991. Ukraine like a lot of Eastern Europe after WWI-Bolshevik Revolution were lured into Lenin’s communism. Ukrainian uniqueness and Soviet era signs intermingle in some parts, especially Eastern Ukraine even today.
Ukraine is the largest country in terms of area in Europe (both Western and Eastern) and with a population of a mere 42 millions it has a lot of land that helps it be the granary and bread basket of Europe. In terms of comparing it with India, it is 1/3rd in terms of landmass but has only 4% of its population.
Ukraine‘s diplomatic relations with India is almost negligible or overshadowed by Putin’s Russia, though it is a large defense and trading partner. It maintains an Embassy in New Delhi with a small Consulate in Mumbai dealing only with trade. My first experience with Ukraine was that it was more bureaucratic than India! Applying and getting a visa is not easy. Everything has to be done in person even if you don’t live in Delhi. They distrust Travel Agencies who in term also express their dislike for the Embassy in colorful Dilli language!
But once you get a tourist visa (dates coterminous with ticket), and arrive at Borsypil airport Kyiv, you are awestruck by its grandeur, history, modernity, technical prowess and well designed cities and towns. Borsypil airport was upgraded with a new Terminal D and opened before the Euro 2012 football finals held in Kyiv. Even the older and smaller Zhuliany, is pretty well laid out. And what can I say about handsome and smart immigration officers? You want to be young and flirty again!
Ukrainians today work doubly hard at asserting their identities and highlighting their independent history as an east Slavic region or as Cossacks. Note the spelling of ‘Kyiv’ as against the Russian Kiev. They have launched their own social media platform and it is deemed patriotic to use this over the Russian ones, VK and Odnoklassniki.
The cities are squeaky clean with no dust and definitely no litter found anywhere. I remember during my first visit in 2014 prying to find some signs of overflowing garbage bins or some litter outside Metros or highly frequented places and finding nothing. In New York or even London there are some alleys where things are not pretty. When I enquired I was told it was not so 30-40 years ago. But they ran a campaign and awareness programme which transformed their cities and towns and also the generations following. Waste management as almost any aspect of city management is scientifically managed. The roads, many built 50-70 years ago are so well planned, with wide pavements, service roads, open city centers which can accommodate a lakh of people and free parking! Old areas have cobblestones and a charm of their own.
The Metro network in Kyiv and the Railway network in Ukraine are a marvel, considering they date back to over a 100 years! Inter city rail networks are extensive, clean, cheap and efficient. All tourist destinations even in mountainous Carpathian region are well connected. The Chair cars resemble an aircraft with smartly turned out Conductors in uniforms. The Railway platforms don’t have food stalls. No food or drink can be had in the Metros. The floors are cleaner than our homes! Kyiv also boasts of the deepest Metro line in the world. The escalators move at twice the speed of a regular one and yet takes about six minutes to reach surface level! There is no doubt about their engineering prowess and their desire to maintain quality.
The language spoken is mostly Ukrainian by the young, while the older generation also speak a lot of Russian. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, more and more are consciously speaking their native language. In the Malls, the sales folks are being trained to speak English with tourists. College students and graduates speak good English but among themselves will always speak or write Ukrainian.
I have visited Ukraine three times in the last three years and discover this country bit by bit each day I am here. One thing that strikes me each time is the physique of its people and their homogeneity. So, an Indian walking down a street or seen in a restaurant are novel but nobody will stare at you, not even kids! Most people are slim and their gait is always purposeful. Obesity is quite rare and I believe this is because this country has dedicated walking areas where folks walk from childhood without fear of being run over and by using public transport.
Ukrainians look upon India with respect and awe. They believe they had a shared history which is borne out by their language having its foundations on Sanskrit. The other day on International Yoga Day, I saw an Ukrainian lady wearing a beautiful Kanjeevaram sari, hair tied in a bun and flowers around it, like a typical South Indian! Bollywood dance classes and Indian classical dance schools are not uncommon. They also love our spices though their food by most accounts are bland!
The movies of 1960s, especially of Raj Kapoor and Mukesh songs are still remembered with fondness. What’s appreciated are Indian stories and music and not the modern ones!
Ukrainian restaurants and food can be challenging for vegetarians. Even getting a ‘make your own’ Pasta or Pizza is rare even in high end restaurants. Vegetables are consumed in plenty in salads, soups, dumplings etc., especially in spring and summer. Food is low on salt, spices and oil. I’ve hardly seen any Ukrainian snack like our Chakli or Chivda! Flavoring is mostly with herbs, especially Dill which is used predominantly! However, they have amazing cakes and pastries, the Kyiv cake being one! Roshen chocolates, owned by President Poroshenko is a favorite at fraction of the cost of a Dutch or Danish variety!
In India despite multiple languages we somehow get by. Even the sign language one uses here can be misinterpreted! On the second day of my first visit my hostess made a sign of brushing teeth after I had woken up and I promptly said, “Yes, I have brushed my teeth!” She knew enough English though to know I had got it wrong! She was really asking if I was ready to eat! ‘Kushey’ or eat is an oft repeated word, as Ukrainians like to feed you just like Indians!
Most celebrations, like Christmas , Easter etc.are with families. The Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th which is believed to be the day Jesus was born as per the Gregorian calendar. Presents are exchanged for New Year and not Christmas.
Zebra or Pedestrian crossings are beautifully adhered to. It’s my favorite pastime watching out of the balcony. No honking and none required too! Suddenly you feel so human from the mayhem in Pune where even the old have to jostle for space and security!
There are plenty of pet owners, mostly dogs. In any given day I see 40-50 dogs walking with their owners. I have begun to recognize the regulars and look out for them! Mostly unleashed, even the dreaded Husky or German Shepherd walks regally and quietly without straying. Some are coiffured and dressed to the hilt! Alongside, kids cycle or stroll on their push scooters and parents walk without a care in the world!
One jarring thing I find here is the rampant smoking in most outdoor places, restaurants, streets but not at the Metro where it is banned. Parents pushing prams smoke away as if passive smoking is unheard of. Drinking beer or alcohol in the open is also not a rarity and one observes revelers on Friday evening or the weekends.
Plenty of Indian students come to Ukraine, mostly in the south. Every year thousands enroll into medical schools.