Soviet-era naval murals in Sevastopol

In spring 2006, I spent two weeks travelling around Ukraine. It was some 18 months after the events of the Orange Revolution, an upswell of popular discontent that turned the capital Kiev’s main Independence Square into a camp bedecked in orange flags. It was an attempt to prevent the victory of Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian politician deemed to have won the recent general election though bullying and stolen votes.

It succeeded. Ukraine, a decade-and-a-half after separating from a crumbling USSR, was a country that seemed to be making the first tentative steps towards its place in a modern Europe, the shadow of its vast Russian neighbour always at its side.

The events of the last few weeks have plunged the country – Europe’s largest, apart from Russia – into a crisis like those of the Cold War’s darkest days. The names popping up in the straps of the TV news channels and the sidebars of the newspaper articles are exotic reminders of historical pasts; Crimea and Balaklava, Feodosia and Sevastopol. They are names that echo with imperial ambition and Soviet sacrifice.

Ukraine’s too big a place to cover in just two weeks – the trip started in Kiev, Ukraine’s sprawling capital, and down to Crimea, then across to Odessa, the home of the famous Odessa Steps from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and westwards to Lviv, once Polish, now the heartland of modern Ukrainian nationalism. The east, the industrial region of coal mines and bustling cities like Donetsk and Kharkiv, would have to wait for another trip.

Ukraine was a joy to photograph. Kiev offered the unsubtle spectacle of Rodina Mat, the giant Soviet-era monstrosity looming over the Museum of the Great Patriotic War; Kiev’s residents had dubbed her “Tin Tits”. In front of the museum a pair of Soviet-era tanks had been repainted in gaudy colours. Kids clambered over the hulls and the crossed cannons raised to the heavens.

Crossed tanks in Kiev

Grumbling Soviet buses shared the streets with Ladas and Volgas, and the old Gaz trucks that look like something designed for a sandpit. The golden-domed St Michael’s Monastery, cupolas gleaming in weak sunlight. Andryivsky Uziz (St Andrew’s Descent), a winding cobbled lane full of galleries and bars and one of the best museums I’ve ever been to, the old family home of author Mikhail Bulgakov. It was staffed by volunteers who bordered on the reverent, took 10 minutes to visit, but was genuinely touching –the most eccentric-yet-endearing museum I’ve been to. Independence Square, which had been the centre of the 2004 protests and the scene of such surreal violence in the last few weeks, played host to gang of drinking, laughing teens.

Like Russia, Ukraine had inherited a massive railway system. The distances may not have rivalled Siberia, but large chunks of the two weeks were spent watching Ukraine sweep past the window on long-distance trains, getting out every few hours to stretch the legs and buy home-cooked food from the babushkas crowding the platforms. It was 15 hours from Kiev to Simferopol.

May in Crimea was warm but overcast, the air humid and rainclouds never far away. The resorts which would soon be rammed with Russian tourists were counting down until the start of the tourist season. Cloudy Crimea seemed to be listlessly waiting for summer to begin.  Sevastopol was a former no-go zone; this former Soviet closed city was the home of the Black Sea Fleet, an arsenal of warships and airbases crammed with bombers and interceptors. When the USSR collapsed Russia and Ukraine squabbled over who got to keep what; the result, in 2006 was that Sevastopol’s fleet of warships now belonged to two separate navies.

May Day celebrations in Sevastopol

Despite the frigates and corvettes lying at anchor, however, Sevastopol felt anything like an armed camp. The city had been reduced to rubble during World War II; Soviet forces had held out against Hitler’s armies for more than eight months until Sevastopol fell In June 1942. After World War II Stalin wanted to rebuild it in heroic Soviet style. Instead, the architects and planners sent from Moscow rebuilt the city in the elegant, imperial style of the 19th Century city.

There were few superbly sunny days, but Sevastopol was a photogenic city nonetheless. In the past week commentators have described the city as looking like a shabby Soviet theme park; being there during the celebrations to commemorate the end of World War II might have had you thinking the Iron Curtain was well and truly intact. Military bands played in the parks in front of crowds of veterans weighed down in Soviet-era medals and swaying from too many vodkas.

Independent Ukraine, USSR echoes

It was while I was in Sevastopol that news came through of a musician I had met several times dying suddenly; Grant McLennan of acclaimed Australian indie band The Go-Betweens. I read of his death in an internet café and left a message an online book of condolence, shaky with a hangover from a Saturday night in a Sevastopol club. I can remember that the harbour’s massed ranks of ships suddenly looked more menacing, and a line appeared in my head: “A Sunday in Sevastopol/before the sea turns red.”

A few years later, that haunting, hungover line had somehow been turned into a song, ‘Sunday in Sevastopol’, by The Verlaines, a New Zealand band led by my old friend Graeme Downes (it’s on their 2007 album ‘Potboiler’).  Graeme’s brooding melody, buoyed by brass and strings, has been described as “suitably Crimean”; and hearing the song has always brought me back to that May morning on a Black Sea quayside. The last week seems to have given it an extra dimension. My hope is that Sevastopol – and the rest of Ukraine – enjoy another sleepy spring.

(If you’ve not heard The Verlaines before, check them out. Their early 1980s output gathered on the early compilation ‘Juvenilia’ is amazing; the 2003 best-of ‘You’re Just Too Obscure For Me’ collected later material. Push comes to shove, my favourite album is 1993’s ‘Way Out Where’, where they briefly sounded like an Antipodean answer to Buffalo Tom.)

A sailor at rest on a spring day in Odessa
Track-side snakc, Ukraine style
Revolutionary sculpture in Odessa
Old motors and Soviet trolleybuses, still a common sight on Kiev streets

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Stephen Dowling
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