Remembering Ukraine

Ash Wednesday thoughts on an unfolding tragedy

Stuck at home, like so many others I have been glued to the TV as my journalist colleagues reveal the unfolding chaos in Ukraine, painful moment by painful moment.

As with other international crises I switch hungrily between Al Jazeera, the BBC, CNN, Euro News, France 24 and Sky News with brief forays into the barely credible coverage on Russia Today.

I am grateful that we can at least see and hear so much as a result of our freedoms, however irritating it may be to put up with the platitudes mouthed by politicians and pundits. But blanket coverage interspersed with occasionally perceptive analysis at least allows us to form our own opinions. 

It is hard to absorb the reality of the dreadful images being broadcast into our homes, but it has taken me back to my own experiences of Ukraine. 

The first mention of that country that I recall was when a friend in Canada married the daughter of Ukrainian exiles many years ago. Back in the 1970s few of us even knew of its existence, subsumed as it had been within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

The chequered history of Ukraine stretches way back beyond the traumas of the last century. The territory once known as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had emerged from a centuries old union with Poland only to be absorbed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and later the Russian Empire of the Czars. 

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Ukraine People’s Republic enjoyed a brief three years of relative independence. However internal divisions facilitated its capitulation to what became the Soviet Union, exactly a century ago, in 1922.

What followed was the continuous extraction of raw materials like coal and iron from the Donbass region to support the industrialisation of the Soviet Union, and one of the most shocking events in modern Ukrainian history. 

Millions died of starvation as the Soviet government purloined grain and other foodstuffs during 1932-33, when peasant farmers failed to reach unrealistic targets set by Stalin. The Holodomor, as it is known, like Ireland’s Great Famine, is still regarded as a man-made catastrophe engineered by Stalin to punish those who opposed him. Ukrainians consider it a genocide and it consolidated opposition to Communist rule. 

The Menorah memorial at Babi Yar to Jews who perished in the ravine

As happened in other chattel states, the arrival of German troops in 1941 was initially welcomed by some as a liberators from Soviet tyranny. The Nazis quickly dispelled this illusion, imprisoning political leaders and breaking up the territory. Nonetheless some Ukrainians joined forces with the Nazis in pogroms against the Jewish population. 

Survivor Raisa Narbaranchuk, who died aged 80 in 2023, at the Babi Yar monument to Roma (Natalia Zinevych)

Many thousands of Jews, Roma and Ukrainian Communists were lined up and massacred at Babi Yar, on the outskirts of Kyiv.

When Putin shelled the TV tower there on Ash Wednesday, he was desecrating a sacred site.

Once the Germans were defeated, as happened with other former Soviet territories overrun by the Nazis, the Soviet authorities used evidence of collaboration as an excuse to consign opponents to the gulags as the Communists reasserted control.

It would be many years before I visited the country to work. By then it had wrested back its independence from the grip of the Soviet Union after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

Ukraine was already one of the world’s leading exporters of wheat. It had sought to protect itself by steering a neutral line between the Russian Federation and the European Union.

But all was not well. Corruption was curdling the public’s yearning for a fresh start.

Georgy Gongadze - Committee to Protect Journalists
Georgiy Gongadze (CPJ)

Journalists such as Georgiy Gongadze were exposing the rot. He paid with his life in 2000, and it was generally believed that the then President Leonid Kuchma had ordered his kidnap and murder. 

I had worked with the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in support of Ukrainian journalists, so I was well aware of their union’s fears and suspicions.

In the 2004 presidential race Kuchma backed his prime minister Victor Yanukovych while his opponent Viktor Yushchenko suffered a mysterious poisoning just before the first round of voting.

As the disputed final count took place, thousands camped out in the Kyiv’s Independence Square in support of the Orange candidate Yushchenko. There was a re-run and their man won.

Yushchenko declared: “Ukraine is a European democratic country”.  Western support behind the mass mobilisation represented by the ‘Orange Revolution’ provided ammunition for his pro-Russian opponents.

Yulia Tymoshenko (Creative Commons)

His political colleague Yulia Tymoshenko became Ukraine’s first female Prime Minister, but he and Tymoshenko would fall out over gas contracts.

She decided to stand in the 2010 presidential election, but it was their old rival Viktor Yanukovych who won. Tymoshenko resigned as Prime Minister just before I arrived in Kyiv in April 2010, and the new President made sure she would later be imprisoned on multiple corruption charges.

Accusations of corruption were common currency at all levels of society. A Ukrainian writer told me about the struggle he had had to get his first novel published, and how he had had to sell copies himself in the Kyiv market place.

He discovered that the market stall holders were at the mercy of unofficial ‘inspectors’ who decided who could trade and where. These people were so compelling that they would eventually take formal charge of the markets. This petty mafia was to reconstitute itself as a security firm and would later reappear as presidential guards, and in police uniforms. On my first visit to Ukraine such stories were as rampant as the protection rackets themselves. 

It was almost as disconcerting as the circumstances that had brought me to Ukraine. I was there to run a MediaWise training programme with local journalists about coverage of women and children. The MediaWise Trust had been employed by a Brussels-based international engineering consultancy called Safege which had won European Commission funding to supply the training. 

It was another example of the growing trend to sideline non-government organisations (NGOs) willing to share their skills and experience but strapped for cash. NGOs had become supplicant suppliers at the behest of commercial outfits with healthy bank balances and bases in many countries They were much better able to meet the demands of funding agencies to cover significant proportions of costs up front. 

Sponsoring ‘humanitarian’ projects, especially in societies seeking to move closer to European standards, boosted companies’ social responsibility ratings. The training went well, but there were clouds on the horizon, clouds of volcanic dust. 

The Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland had grounded flights around the globe, so I was stuck in Kyiv. My hotel was full of Dutch bulb merchants and the parents of a victorious Irish Under-17 girls football team. The team had already decanted but the adults gathered in the bar that weekend to consider our options.

I had been scouring maps on my laptop to work out an overland route. I was working on a romantic expedition south to Odessa, then by land through Moldova and Romania, or across the Black Sea to Constanta in Bulgaria, and on through the Baltic States to western Europe. Whichever option I chose would take a lot of time and luck.

I was sharing my ideas with another Irishman who told me the bulb merchants were planning to hire a coach to drive to Amsterdam. Late that night those of us who signed up to share the cost gathered at the rendezvous and one by one filed through a cramped room and handed over our €200.

Then we hopped aboard a good-looking coach, complete with on-board loo, and off we set around midnight. I saw little of Ukraine as we made our way towards Poland overnight, but we saw little of the loo either since it proved to be out of action. This was a disaster for a coach full of men complete with a good supply of alcoholic beverages and a variety of snacks.

It would take 36 hours to traverse the 2,000 kilometres through Ukraine, Poland, and Germany to the Netherlands. There had to be plenty of stops but with two drivers few unnecessary delays. 

Somewhere in Poland we cleared out a gas station of its supply of  bright green travel cushions for our aching necks. Peculiarly they bore the sewn-in legend WOG in yellow, apparently the acronym for a ‘large economic organisation’. Most people abandoned theirs in the coach when we got to the Belgian capital. I kept mine as a souvenir, though I am reluctant to use it in public.

There was chaos at the rail head in Amsterdam as thousands of people queued for tickets to get down to the Eurostar or onto cross channel ferries. It did not take me long to realise there was little chance of getting home anytime soon. 

I called friends in Germany I have known for forty years and caught a train south to the village of Schriesheim near Heidelberg. There I was able to relax, eat well, sup local wines and watch the world adjust to a brief respite from air travel. It was a week before I could book a seat on Eurostar.

Five years later I was back in Kyiv. This time I was working with colleagues from Belarus. After a KGB interview on only my second visit to Lukashenko’s fiefdom I had been banned from returning so brave young members of the Belarus Association of Journalists <> would come out to the surrounding countries to continue our media development programme.

Ukraine had been enjoying a brief period of so-called neutrality as it again trod an uneasy path twixt Russia and Europe, but when President Yanukovic tried to steer closer to Putin in 2013 there were widespread protests.

They culminated in the ‘Euro-Maidan’ uprising, when Independence Square was again occupied. Demonstrations across the country led to Yanukovych being ousted by the Parliament and a pro-European Petro Porishenko being installed in his place.

The sumptuous entrance hall to the Yanukoych mansion.

Yanukovych fled to Russian and protestors ransacked his opulent mansion in Mezhyhirya, which has since become a tourist attraction.

Putin’s response was to plan for the annexation of Crimea and to provide backing for Russian separatists in the mining areas of the Donbass region.

Sergei Loznitsa’s powerful and gutsy film ‘Donbass’ which premiered in 2021 feels like a fly-on-the wall documentary. It is a mash up of the banality and brutality of civil war, by turns shocking and hilarious. The ‘plot’ features a German journalist, like any foreigner watching the film, who is literally lost, trying to decide where sympathies should lie. We witness the corruption of petty officials and the fear and confusion of the locals. And watching over the it all are Russian troops, pretending not to be there. The final apocryphal massacre reminds us we are on a film set not on a battlefield, but is a hideous portent of what is on our TV screens now. 

I was back in Kyiv in the August of 2015. The Minsk Protocol had already been signed. It was supposed to reduce hostilities in the eastern region, but my cab driver, a father of young children, assured me he was ready and willing to travel east and take up arms against the continuing insurgency in the self-styled People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. 

Meanwhile, the maidan had remained a lively hub of activity and resistance. Huge bunkers made with sandbags and camouflage roofs were still there. There were craft stalls and from a stage, rock music was blasting out. I stopped to watch a young woman belting out a punkish number. 

In a deep bunker at one end a sinister group of sullen bearded men were running what claimed to be an information centre. They did not seem keen to answer my genuine questions, and it struck me as significant that none of their materials were in English. Ukrainian is a language all its own, related to Russian but impenetrable to the uninitiated. Communicating with the outside world requires the use of other European languages, particularly English.

Emblem of the Axov Assault Brigade, now part of the Ukrainian Army, formerly the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion

I experienced a visceral feeling. Could these fervent nationalists in battle fatigues be successors to the mafia gangs who once controlled the market places? Were they associated with the neo-Nazi ‘citizens militias’ that had terrorised Roma and LGBT communities? 

Known as the Azov Battalion, they had also fought on the front line against the separatists in Eastern Ukraine, and were credited with winning back the strategic port of Mariupol. That had won them praise from President Poroshenko and they had been incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard. Putin has pounced on their existence within the armed services as justification for his claim that Russia must de-Nazify Ukraine.

In fact far right parties have had little electoral success in Ukraine. With no formal representation in the Rada (Parliament), groups like Azov have relied upon tacit support from political parties and popular support on the streets. They have known connections with far right groups in other countries. 

As guns are now being distributed to allow citizens to defend their country, armed anti-Russian nationalist militia are the order of the day in Ukraine. Indeed only days into the Russian invasion, former President Poroshenko was interviewed in military garb with an armed and uniformed citizen’s defence group.

Back in 2015 all else on the maidan seemed full of goodwill and positivity. I listened to music, and bought myself some fridge magnets that celebrated earlier violent confrontations with the police.

One of the most striking portrayed Putin as Hitler, over the slogan, in English, ‘Stop Russian Aggression’. I like to think that expresses more accurately the feelings of most Ukrainians as they now battle to retain their independence, than the nasty supremacism of the Azov Battaliaon and their ilk.

President Zelenskyy lays flowers at the Babi Yar memorial on the 80 anniversary in 2021.

Their new President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and was brought up in a Russian-speaking area. His unlikely to tolerate Nazis. He may have started out as a comedian and acted as President in a TV soap but he is now regarded as a statesman in the world stage. And while he may have been the voice of Paddington Bear in the Ukrainian version of the film, he has proved to be nobody’s puppet even when Donald Trump tried to play him. His most challenging role now is to hold Ukraine together in the face of the Russian bear.


Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.


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