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pictures & text by Layla

On Sunday, 4th of June, Liouba and I boarded the 10 am train to Lvov at the Simferopol Central Station. The plan was to get to Budapest through Lvov/Chop/Zahon’ and also see something of Ukraine.

Once upon a time – and historically speaking not such a long time ago, too, Russia and Ukraine were constituents of Kievan Rus’ – a kingdom pulled together by Riurik, a Varangian (Scandinavian) prince. Kievan Rus’ extended all the way to Yaroslavl in the north, Nizhny Novgorod in the north east and included in its cultural and physical space Novgorod the Great, Ladoga and Pskov. Since the historical sources have always been sponsored by the powerful and thus have mostly been biased (otherwise they would neither be “authoritative”, nor “sources”, nor “historical”) so, they often praise and glorify might and wealth and we know that those qualities depend on quantities, particularly on the extent of exploitation of land, sea, sky and people. That often means that the experience and the point of view of the majority (peasants, for example) is rarely present in the accounts we read.

“Hitler did”, “Charlemagne won”, “Napoleon lost”, “Alexander the Great conquered”…

– “Really?” I sometimes tease. “HE did it all by himself! Just walked over, bullied and grabbed? Wow! Impressive!”
– “No, silly,” am usually told seriuosly. “He raised an army. He was a good strategist. A firm commander. A true leader. And so he conquered”.

– “Aha. So, it is not HE who did it but rather all these other people whom he ordered to do the killing and dying so as to glorify and satisfy the megalomaniac needs of the celebrity! Ah! The invisible sacrifice!
– “No, not that invisible. The armies are sometimes depicted”.
– “Sure, they’re depicted. As a faceless, depersonified resource in uniform and numbers representing gain and collateral damage. But what do we know of their lives and their dreams? Why do they agree to participate? I never understood why the dream of a megalomaniac would be deemed worthier than others. If anything, it is often fatal for the humble common folk. Just look at the dreams of the Grim Reapers listed above; or, if you’re more confident with contemporary celebrities such as, well, pick anyone in any government in the world, they aim their scythe at the geographic places they pronounce, sowing great suffering and death.

All that is to explain why I am suspicious of the official scripts on Kievan Rus’ that  praise the foreign rulers who have come from Scandinavia to “organise” local peasants for the glory of a kingdom, i.e. their own fancy, royal appetites. The organisation, of course, comes with the necessary “argumentation” that would convince these people to work and feed the megalomaniac and the aristocracy who gets rewarded for looking out for the interests of the megalomaniac. In all of this, the most important element is to articulate some ultimate “cause”. The Riurik brigade achieved just that. And the historical sources praise “him” for that political accomplishment that had invented an official version of a cultural identity, a belonging to the ruler and “his” land, nourishing the venomous dream of the mad.

However, culturally and ethnically the whole Slavic area, probably like any other place, is fascinating, multifaceted and mysterious. It had thrived way before the Greeks first mentioned in the 700s AD the ethnic group known as the Eastern Slavs who supposedly were natives in the region known today as Russia, Belarus’ and the Ukraine and who spoke an East Slavic language. There must have been people and history even before the descriptions of the Scythians who are said to have galloped on their horses circa 7th century BC, wearing pants and bringing with them a different attitude to life and wine, which they drank straight, not diluted with water in the manner of early Romans and Greeks.

Of course, it would have made more sense for me to fetch the historical spirit in the more central parts of what used to be known as Kievan Rus’ and from there dream of what the kingdom might have been between 880 and the 12th century before the Poles began to snatch off bits and pieces, such as Galicia in the late 900s and before the Tatar Mongol invasions; or to attempt to peek into the Slavic history prior to the mention of the first kingdoms, when pagans could still choose their land and till it for themselves, before the kingdoms bound most of them “legally” to that land that now belonged to some prince (often foreign, but being local made no difference), forced them to pay tribute to princes and boyars (aristocrats) and turned them into “serfs” to work for and feed the megalomaniac and his brigade and before the kings wrote laws that rendered illegal the choice to leave. Then in 988, came the patriarchal and hierarchical interpretation of Christianity. That, too, walked over on borrowed legs, but effectively sang and hummed and lulled and wrote and proclaimed all the good reasons for why the poor should resign to their lot and be glad to feed and die for the wealthy megalomaniacs.

The application of military force added weight to the “feed me” argument and together with the compassionate yet grabbing paw of the priest, worked miracles. The commiserating billy club gave the common folk a convincing explanation and the hope to die. Ah, those heavenly depictions of angels in church frescos – a window to dream a possibility out of this world of injustice and agony! Of course, what is usually omitted is that all this “modernisation” and “christianisation” did not come to an empty land. It came to people who had lived for thousands of years with a more sensitive outlook on the balance of forces, including femininity and masculinity, and the complex understanding of the role and place of nature. Their culture had to recede before the dogmatic simplicity of an order that required the suspension of individual judgement and before religion and the state who, both, preached docility. This, of course, brought conflict to people’s decisions about their lives and their relationship to the world. Some groups refused to become serfs, and took off in independent military communes, such as the Cossacks who chose to till their land for themselves only; or the poetic, musical Gypsy communities; or other peoples who had accepted a different invading faith, for example Judaism or Islam, such as the Khazars, the Tatars, the Karaims.

These people have seen it all: Scandinavian princes, German queens, Jewish revolutions, Christianity, and the Tatar-Mongols, those first “globalists” or in today’s fashionable parlance, those “post-colonial economists”, which, if we accept main-stream chronology, were more accurately the “pre-colonial economists”. The Tatar-Mongols were smarter than the later British and French imperialists; they left the illusion of self-governance of conquered territories, where local princes continued to rule, but paid heavy duty “taxes” or tribute to the Tatar Khans. Basically, they did the same what the “first world” does today with the rest of the world in terms of “debts”, “interests”, “currency devaluation”, et al. and when the local puppet government, the Golem, acquires life and greed of its own, it is dealt with swiftly, e.g. The Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Quaddafi, the Taliban, or whatever other contemporary illustration of successful implementation of political power and ruse.

What astonishes me most is how thousands of years have not changed much in terms of political tactics or the art of duping. I saw the irony during my trip – just like it struck me when reading on the Riurik reign or the Tatar-Mongol empire. Ukrainians, Hungarians, Serbs complained to me that there was everything wrong with the individuals in their governments, but nothing wrong with the structure of national and international politics. “Look how the German, French or Canadian governments are taking care of their people”. The overwhelming statistics on poverty and mental illness or depression, which point to the extent of unhappiness and stress prevalent in these well-taken care of societies, or the discussion of how certain groups, for example, the Native Americans or Blacks are singled out and jailed in these civilised cultures, how these economies depend on the devalued currency and undervalued labour of the poor countries (including their own) – all this information does little to counterfeit their faith in propaganda of the “civilised” countries’ successful economies. My interlocutors refused to see that their governments were the same as the “civilised”, in fact their governments were urged to be modelled after the “civilised” structure, whose most striking and most efficient quality is hierarchy, and that the purpose of local governments was not to “take care of their people” but to feed the civilised gourmands and, of course, themselves – i.e. in the tradition of the Scandinavian royalty or the local Slavic princes and the Tatar-Mongol Empire.

In any case, in spite of my fascination with the history of the various peoples that had populated the area, alas, alack I took the other track, rushing west towards my sisters and niece.

Liouba and I travelled in the sleeping car that, once in Lvov, was going to be attached to the train heading to Uzhgorod the following night, which meant that we had a whole day to enjoy Lvov.  The humming of the wheels against the steel slowly carried us away from Sasha waving goodbye on the other side of our compartment window. His train departed from Simferopol to Moscow that evening, so he had time to stroll the cobble streets of the Crimean capital that Russians built in 1784 adjacent to the Tatar settlement of Ak-Mechet. During the Russian Civil War of 1918-1920, Simferopol was occupied by foreign troops, where England and France fought on the side of the Ottoman Turks against Russia. But this was not the bloodiest of what the city had seen. During WWII, the Germans exterminated, according to some sources, 22,000 of Russians, Jews, Gypsies, and others.

But there were earlier signs of “development” and  struggle for the possession of “real estate” here than all that. The Scythians built here their capital around 3rd century BC. It was known as Neapolis and lasted until 4th century AD, the ruins of which can be seen on the southern outskirts of today’s city. The Scythians were an equestrian nomadic people who spoke an Iranian language, spreading out from Greater Iran around 1000 BC. Apparently, they organised themselves into confederated pastoral tribes and inhabited what is known today as Russia and Ukraine among other places. Most of our knowledge of them comes either from excavating their rich burials, from the Greek Historian Herodotus (440 BC) or from Celtic  legends that praise the Scythian king Fenius Farsa for having created the Gaelic language and the Ogham alphabet.

Before the Scythians, this region, particularly the southern shore of the Crimea, was home to the mysterious Neanderthals and their breathtaking cave dwellings that we visited throughout the southern part of the peninsula. The archaeological site Prolom II, on the southern outskirts of Simferopol, harboured treasures that bear witness to their musical intelligence and sensitivity, for, the Neanderthals made flutes and other instruments almost 100 000 years ago.

Of course, there is always Fomenko who challenges historical dating. And I applaud him, confessing that deep inside, myself, I am a Fomenko at heart. Yet, there is something soothing in the musical version of the Neanderthals and in the dream of how they exhaled music from their caves overlooking the  immense sea some unfathomable dimensions  ago or maybe even ahead. I was overwhelmed, intoxicated by the abysmal cosmic song as I gazed out of their dwellings over land, water, and through the horizon. But that was then and there, in Bachisarai, in Çufut Qale, and in Inkerman. Here, we left Sasha explore alone, and headed towards the Western part of the Ukraine, a place that, I had been warned,  would not welcome me because they have forgotten their past and have learnt from political strategies to “hate all things Russian and be more racist than Nazis”. I prepared myself morally (as opposed to immorally) to defend racial and Russian honour and headed west in the hope that there would still be a large enough divide between people’s hearts and their official propaganda.

There were only the two of us in the four-bed compartment. Liouba immediately set the upper beds as a house and a street. I was on the “ground floor”. Again, just like in the 25-hour ride from Moscow to Simferopol, I turned out to be a victim of my robber-daughter. She took out her collection of tin-foil cats she made on every occasion during our travels in the Crimea, and they  ganged up against me, stealing food, pens, pencils, knitting needles, books, yarn, and all.

After 5 hours of travel and merry play, in Miletopol a woman in her 70s joined us on one of the upper beds. She introduced herself as Anna and spoke Ukrainian. I immediately armed myself mentally to face the “Nazis”. But she turned out lovely and friendly. She simply spoke what she spoke, and I spoke what I spoke and we understood each other perfectly, for, after all, Russian and Ukrainian are like the Arabic of Egypt and Sudan. I found out that in order to stress their “Polish” colonialism, the Ukrainians often point to the very “different” words such as: Perukarnia where the Ukrainians do their hair and Parikmakher where the Russians do theirs. miltsov.org/travel/photosFor those who don’t know, the first term comes from French, peruque or wig and the second from German, the wig-maker).

Obviously and ironically, both terms are as Polish, as Russian, and as Ukrainian as I am Dutch. And so, I left socio-linguistics alone and turned with all my heart to Anna. She told us she was travelling to Uzhgorod to see her daughter. Her daughter’s husband commuted to Hungary for plumbing and construction works, while she had a “small” job. As usual, it turned out that small jobs consumed the most time and sucked out her life-force with misery as the pay in return. So, Anna travels several times a year for a few months at a time to help out with her grandchild. We discussed the various aspects of Ukrainian life and she said that she didn’t understand all the fuss about “westernisation”, since life during the Soviet period was easier for her. “From having little, I went to having nothing. My granddaughter is my only joy”.

Anna asked the usual question about what grade Liouba was in school and appeared sincerely curious to learn that Liouba didn’t go and wasn’t going to go to school. She was particularly interested in Liouba’s non-schooling learning and after a few questions and answers on how everything and anything could turn into a passionate discovery, even a train ride such as this was a learning opportunity for a child, who like all children, through natural curiosity and a desire to participate in this magnificent world, strives to unearth history and touch the future. Anna said that she supported such initiative, drawing a parallel with older times, when babushkas spent more time with their grand-children and the kids learnt from village life. “But unfortunately, I don’t see how it could be done in our conditions today. I’d love my daughter to take care of her health and her child,” Anna sighed. Liouba was solving cross-words and Anna was laughing like a kid trying to guess some of the puzzles.

So, I didn’t dare intervene with a suggestion that perhaps keeping a garden and a goat, like some of my friends in Russia do, might be healthier than sacrificing oneself to a “small” job that takes away one’s all and that Soviet times, or pre-Soviet times or post-Soviet times all seem to respond to the pressure from without and to the appetites of the elites. Though, I must admit that the Soviet appetite has proved to be more modest, and that capitalists, who have always worshiped Bacchus, despise modesty, for, it exposes the ugliness of gluttony. History books sponsored by these capitalist idealists miltsov.org/travel/photosyes, an oxymoron) glorify the achievements of a people who practised emetophilia, drowning themselves in orgies and vomit and despise the depictions of common folk at work in Soviet art dismissing it as “totalitarian propaganda”. They mourn the collapse of the Roman empire of greed referring to it as the “collapse of civilisation” and celebrate the conquest of the poor, calling it the “opening of the Eastern European market”.

We travelled like that for a few hours. In Dnepropetrovsk a cheerful young Sergei came aboard bubbling with joy at the thought of reuniting with his fiancée in a few hours with whom he just couldn’t wait to get married and have kids in their native Ivano-Frankovsk or as it is now called Ivano-Frankivsk. This was his first break from the army. He drew pictures with Liouba and helped solve cross-word puzzles adding to the amicable atmosphere with Anna.

After the breezy mountains of the southern shore of the Crimea in the south or the lush forests of Russia in the north, Ukraine appeared a desolate grassland. Traditional architecture and the organisation of private and social space was close to Russian. Namely, the space between country houses is usually large and lush, yet people interacted in close physical proximity with each other. Sasha had observed during our trip from Moscow the most striking difference between Russia and Ukraine: the roofs in the Ukraine were made of fluffy straw and had four sides, often stemming from the same centre point on the top of the house.

original by shine_ya

In Russia these roofs would probably not last long and traditional, country houses have been covered with wooden roofs and sometimes with metal. The most common roof folds at the top to drop in a straight line hanging down, sometimes, low like two protecting sheets. Those who could afford it, improvised with the basic triangular figure and decorated the house with carved ornaments. Of course, buildings for religious purposes are known for the round domes, while contemporary buildings – well they’re contemporary. Here are some examples for contrast.

At a certain point, the weather and climate began to change abruptly as we approached the Carpathian mountain range and by the time we arrived in Lvov, it actually became cold and more pleasant to travel. This helped us get good sleep, which we had missed on our last night of packing in Alushta.

Early in the morning, the train arrived in the centre of Lvov. We left our luggage in the compartment. Anna stayed there too, while Liouba and I went out to walk around the city and face those notorious nationalists.

Now about the city. First mention of Lvov appears in the Halych-Volhynian Chronicle around 1256. King Danylo Halytsky named it after his son, Lev. It became the capital of Halych-Volhynia and was grabbed by those of the Poles who were grabby in 1349. Shortly after the grabbing, Casimir III of Poland installed the system of German burghers miltsov.org/travel/photosnot as the glamorous menu of big Macs, but probably quite delicious and nutritious when one was a burgher oneself) where the rich could elect city councils and could even be elected to “solve” their problems and promote their interests. Lvov or Lviv miltsov.org/travel/photosas it is pronounced in Ukraine today) was also conquered and grabbed by the Austro-Hungarian empire. The two World Wars had a devastating effect on the whole region and the city was caught in the midst of ethnic macabre. Often, German soldiers relaxed watching Ukrainians exterminate Jews and Gypsies. The city had been ethnically diverse throughout its history, but the war brought out the ugliest in human hearts.

But on this bright day, history seemed to belong to another dimension. The people at the market were friendly. A woman offered Liouba some nuts. I bought fresh and dried fruit, some snacks and we continued to stroll the cobble streets.

The city was green. We checked out a few bookshops and Liouba added some books to my backpack.

We saw some interesting children’s playgrounds.

Finally, we came to a big park with a European looking children’s playground. Liouba ran off to play with local children. In an hour, she approached me and whispered:
“Mama, there’s something weird going on here”.
“What?” I asked concerned.
“The kids are strange. They talk like normal kids most of the time, and then all of a sudden snap out things that sound like nothing I know. And then, as if nothing happened, they start talking normal again”.
I burst out laughing. Apparently, my daughter had been travelling for two days with Ukrainians and only now noticed that some of the words differed.
“Are these the nationalists, Mama?” she asked.
“Not yet,” I reassured her.
She laughed and ran off to rejoin the game.

Some mothers heard us speak Russian and were curious to talk with me. We exchanged impressions and experiences. One of them advised us where to find good and inexpensive vegetarian food and when Liouba got tired and hungry, we headed to the closest Puzata Hata and had a good time.

It was getting dark, so, we walked back to the train.

Anna said she had slept the whole day and was ready to sleep again through the night. The train departed at 1 am, so we had time to do the whole going to bed ritual. The train must have rocked us into deep sleep, because the next thing I knew was Anna shaking us so we wouldn’t miss Chop while she continued to Uzhgorod. We quickly got ready, bid Anna farewell, wishing each other good luck. I planned to get on the “local” suburban train across the border going daily from Chop to Zahon’ on the Hungarian side and from there catch the train to Budapest.

Sleek, tall officers, their uniform reminded me of the Soviet times, stood outside the wagon, their keen eye dissecting every disembarking passenger but not asking questions. Somehow, my intuition told me that I was going to be invited for a closer acquaintance. I have much experience in the field of travel and border control introductions. Sure enough, the officer told me in pure Russian:
“Your documents” and motioned us to steep aside.
I felt Liouba get tense and extremely alert and quiet.

Here I need to mention the Ukrainian policy for visitors. Russian and Canadian citizens do not need a visa for a stay of up to 90 days. I entered Ukraine by train from Moscow and, going to the Crimea, it made sense to continue with my Russian passport. Upon entry, visitors are asked to fill out entry and exit immigration cards with an address of intended visit. Since we had friends in Sebastopol, that was the address I indicated. The immigration officer in Kazachja Lopan’ took my entry card, stamped the exit part, handed it to back to me and informed me that I was not to lose it, lest… I guessed, lest I be kept in Ukraine forever. Although Ukraine was lovely and I had not met nationalists, I nevertheless did not intend to stay there more than 45 days. So, I saved the exit card religiously inside the passport.

Now, the immigration officer in Chop frowned seriously upon my documents. Flipped the pages of my passport forth. Then flipped them back. Shook his head solemnly. Read the immigration exit card gravely. Frowned again. Flipped the passport now back and then forth. Shook his head sadly and thus spake, like Zarathustra:

“A little problem, here…. hmmmm…… We have a problem. Your immigration card indicates an address in Sebastopol. But I catch you in Chop. You have broken the law of INDEPENDENT Ukraine,” he announces in pure Russian.
“Nationalists, at long last!” I think to myself.

“Yes, I stayed in Sebastopol as indicated on the card and now I’m leaving Ukraine. By train, from which you saw me disembark,” I respond in MY perfect Russian.
“Precisely. You are in Chop and your immigration card says Sebastopol,” he repeats.
I don’t say anything.
“You must be inexperienced with travel. I have to apprehend you,” he informs me.
“You are wrong there. I am VERY experienced with travel AND with racial discrimination,” I calmly retort.

He didn’t seem to know what to do with THAT and called his colleague to help deal with THIS.
“Hmmm,” nods the second tall and sleek nationalist who appeared to be of a higher rank. “You have broken the law of Independent Ukraine,” he parrots his colleague in pure Russian. “Your immigration card says Sebastopol. And guess, where we are now?” he mastered the art of sarcasm.
“I don’t understand. If upon entry, I was asked to indicate the address at which I planned to spend my 5 weeks of holidays and that address happened to be in Sebastopol, which I indicated on that immigration card, now I have to spend the rest of my life in Sebastopol so as not to break the law of Independent Ukraine?” I retaliate.
“Ha! You can’t do that! Crimea is now part of Independent Ukraine, too!” he stumps his foot and straightens his back to appear even taller and more convincing.
“So, what am I to do, then? Swim across the Black Sea to Turkey? Fly off into space? What do I do if I can’t be anywhere but in Sepastopol once I’ve entered and I can’t be there since it is Independent Ukraine?” I ask for advice.
Both nationalists are confused and call a third, an even taller and higher ranking nationalist.
He takes the passport and the immigration card and does the whole ritual of gazing and frowning and shaking his head and repeating the dilemma which left me with no option but to be breaking the law of Independent Ukraine whatever I did or didn’t do. I calmly watched them and Liouba was sticking very close to me.
Finally the third nationalist miltsov.org/travel/photosno wonder he ranked highest) comes up with: Eureka!
“Out of curiosity. You say that you are leaving Ukraine and going to Hungary. But Hungary is part of the European Union now and there is no EU visa in your passport. So, what do you plan to tell the Hungarians?”
I see “Eureka” illuminate all three faces as they stare at me now with hope.
“You don’t need to worry about that,” I comfort them. “The Hungarians and I will find a common language”.
“Hmmmm….” he smiles sneakily. “So, what language may that be? Just curious”.
At this point, I got tired of the game, so I took out our Canadian passports and a miracle happened. The three tall, sleek officers, instantly, turned Japanese and bowed almost to their knees. They then spread out their arms, symbolising a brotherly embrace almost jigging a boogie-woogie Kazachok.
“Oh! Ah! Eh!You are MOST welcome! Why didn’t you tell us from the start that you were a Canadian citizen? You are SO welcome! Please, feel at home,” they bowed again and again and suddenly the Ukraine was no longer independent and I was so much welcome and anywhere and any time and they backed, tiptoeing away like three ugly ducklings.

The old woman at the ticket counter inside the station spoke only Ukrainian. She didn’t know and didn’t care for the passports I had.
“I saw them harassing you there. Shame. A woman with a child”. She discounted a huge lot from the official price, I guess a compensation for my encounter with nationalists.

Liouba wanted to reflect on and discuss the effect of Canadian passports on border guards and immigration officers and so she learnt about history, politics and guess what? Nationalists. And having finally met them, I felt ready to leave the miltsov.org/travel/photosI’m confused now, is it Independent or Dependent?) Ukraine.
Layla AbdelRahim, 2006


  1. Valentina S. S. says:

    I enjoyed very much both reading the commentary and seeing the pictures. Historical commentaries are presented in quite inobtrusive manner and with a great sense of humour!

    September 14, 2007 @ 4:30 am

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