May 2007

18th May 2007 |

A picture from rural Ukraine, in the neighbourhood of L'viv

A picture from rural Ukraine, in the neighbourhood of L’viv

A couple of months ago I promised to say something about my time in Ukraine. My interest in the country dates back to 1993 when I walked through part of it on my way to Romania and wrote about it in The Gypsy in Me.

On my way I found myself in a small town with only one hotel. I was hot, tired and dirty but, to my amazement and disgust, the hotel refused to have me. Eventually I found two English teachers who took pity on me, and invited me in, and that began a friendship which has lasted and blossomed.

Anyway, this year I was invited by one of those teacher friends to spend three weeks at a sanatorium on the Black Sea, and share a room. These sanatoria are a holdover from the palmy days of Soviet times, built so that favoured workers could also enjoy the seaside pleasures once reserved for the rich. My sanatorium was named “friendship” and was built in 1985. It’s an extraordinary building. Here’s a picture of it:

It’s built right on the coast, a hundred yards from the beach. From the window of our room we looked out over the blue Mediterranean waters of the Black Sea and could watch dolphins leaping out of the sea all day long. A few miles East is the port of Yalta.


I confess I had no idea what to expect. Would it remind me of the grim reports people brought back from holiday hotels in the Soviet bloc back in the old days; dull food, rude service, endless waiting and things that didn’t work?
I was pleasantly surprised by the room, which had a nice comfortable feel about it. An enormous radiator concealed behind a mirror kept it warm, the beds were good, there was a refrigerator that worked and a fairly modern bathroom with a tub. We arrived just after the sanatorium had opened for the season, and it took a while to get into its stride. At first there was no hot water when we needed it and the bathroom was cold, but things gradually improved.
True, the beach is pebble, but that’s not so bad. There were three meals a day served in a large, airy restaurant on the top floor. The dishes were brought to the table, more or less graciously, and there was a limited amount of choice.

You can have various kinds of “kotlet”, which are rolls of chopped meat, breaded and fried, but whatever they have in them they all taste rather similar. Then there’s boiled chicken and fried chicken, and boiled fish and fried fish, and . . . well you get the idea. But after a day or two I actually got used to it, and found it quite acceptable.
There are big tureens of good soup (including borscht). There is fruit juice sometimes, and always tea, lots of tea. On Easter Sunday we all got a glass of wine, but otherwise I never saw alcohol at any of the tables. I believe you’re perfectly entitled to bring a bottle to the table but I never dared.

As for other amenities, the bottom of the building houses a fine, and very large salt water swimming pool. There’s a concert hall where ther are films and disco dancing on alternate nights, and occasional cutely innocent little shows. There’s a gym with serious equipment, and table tennis.

My friend, being a qualified “worker”, only had to pay twenty per cent of the cost, but I had to pay the full amount, which came to a stunning $200 (or £100) a week. This is an incredible bargain for us lucky westerners, but before you rush off there you should know that you are very unlikely to find an empty bed.

My worst fears, that I would be confronted by stony-faced officials and bureaucrats, were generally unfounded. The ladies at the reception desk were unfailingly nice, warm and sympathetic.

The last of the old-style bureaucrats seem to have been banished to the nether depths of the swimming pool. There were two of them down there, Scylla and Charibdis, and even when the pool was empty, after 40 minutes one of them would be screaming “Out”, like a banshee.

The countryside around is hilly, lightly forested, and quiet, although more and more is being acquired (corruptly, one is told) by the new rich. Quite nearby is the Czarist palace of Livadia where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met 63 years ago to settle the fate of Europe.

A walkway called “path of the sun” follows the escarpment that faces the sea and connects Livadia with another palace in Alupka, where Churchill stayed. This was built for Count Worontsov, and is a strangely eclectic mixture of Scottish, mediaeval English and Oriental styles, but succeeds nonetheless in being very impressive.

Here’s a picture of the conservatory

And here's another of Ted playing the Count in the banqueting hall.

And here’s another of Ted playing the Count in the banqueting hall.

Ukraine is one of those countries I always had a hard time getting a grip on. Like most people I just thought of it as a part of Russia, never as an independent nation, and I can see now how hurtful that was to a lot of Ukrainians, who have their own language and culture.

Like Poland, Ukraine has been fought over through the centuries by powerful neighbours eager to claim it’s rich natural resources, but while Poland first achieved nationhood after the first world war, Ukraine had to wait until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Even now Stalin’s legacy causes bitter strife. He deported large numbers of Ukrainians, and encouraged Russians to live there, so that half of present day Ukrainians want closer ties to Russia, while the other half wants to join with Europe.

This seems to be the root cause of all the political infighting, the recent crisis, the apparent betrayal of the Orange Revolution and government paralysis. It also favours wholesale corruption.

A journalist (who should fear for his life) recently added up the cost of all the wrist watches worn by the members of Ukraine’s parliament who, it’s believed, routinely sell their votes. He concluded that their combined value could solve at least one of the countries most pressing problems.

Murder can be politics by other means. While I was in Yalta, a Russian deputy was assassinated there. His name translates roughly as Little Chicken but apparently he was immensely rich, with huge holdings in Crimea. It wasn’t the murder that made the headlines. Politicians are murdered on a regular basis it seems. It was the assassin’s gun which drew attention. The bullet, they said, was fired by a “special” that was known to cost a million dollars.

This is the market in Yalta, one of the best I’ve seen,
with many delicacies that I hadn’t come across before.
The cost of basic food items in Ukraine is approximately
a sixth of the price in Western Europe.