From the sixth floor balcony of my paint-peeling Soviet style apartment block I have a magnified view of a shiny new building surrounded by brightly coloured cars glittering like bugs in the winter sun. The rest of the flat is dingy. One room that serves as two bedrooms, living room and dining room plus a kitchen and a minuscule bathroom, dominated by a slimline washing machine. The décor is not so much a mishmash as a battleground of patterns and colours: flowered wallpaper cowers under the ballistic onslaught of Persian style carpets, various floor coverings reveal vertical stripes competing with new age spikes, both retreating under the unstoppable advance of squared linoleum. As if this was not enough, frilly or lacy curtains, china cups and figurines yell down abuse from the cupboard, around the windows and doors, even on the balcony.
This isn’t anywhere in St Andrews. In fact, I am writing from Kiev. I ended up here through a generous mix of disorganisation, stubbornness and lack of money…and it was the best thing that ever happened. Like many language students, I decided that a year abroad was the best option to gain true fluency (or in my case, any fluency at all) in my language of choice, which is Russian. After the shock of realising that I was now in second year and actually had to get a certain part of my anatomy in gear, I was already drowning in paperwork, waking up with that sinking feeling of forgotten deadlines and the inherent guilt of missed meetings. My intention had been to find some low-skilled job in Russia (Moscow preferably, there is something about its grime and grittiness that appeals to the romantic masochist in every overpriviledged student), get a room with some old babushka or single mother who feeds me salted fish and cabbage on Friday nights and possibly study something at one of the many language schools. But St Andrews had other ideas: a language course at one of the most expensive institutes in the city, no working, pre-arranged accommodation and travel and with it an extortionate broker’s fee. At this point I was already making the harrowing choice between beer and food (mostly coming up liquid) and scraping together bits of stale tobacco from the bottom of my bag to make suspect cigarettes tasting of pencil. In a fit of “screw-it-all”-ism that made my friends sigh with resignation and hide the whisky, I further irritated the entire administrative process and my long-suffering tutors by opting for a leave of absence before departing with the proverbial handkerchief tied to a stick to seek my fortune in Ukraine.
It has been obscenely easy to get settled here. Sometimes I think that I was somehow cheated, why didn’t I experience the horrors so many ex-pats talk about at length in bars or at the other end of a fibre optic cable? How was it so simple? I received three job offers in a week on the strength of limited teaching experience and TEFL, my employers found me an apartment within two weeks of my arrival and have been paying me cash in hand ever since. The only difficulty I may encounter is the visa requirements, which change every other week, but even that seems fairly simple (although I am furiously touching every bit of wood in the vicinity).
Paradoxically, I think the sheer complexity of living here makes up for the ease I had on arriving. Even repairing a computer can evolve into a life-altering experience, as you traipse between identical houses looking for a Yuri who is a friend of a colleague who knows someone who studied with someone who works in IT who is out right now but whose neighbour is also a techy and who is happy to repair your scabby Compaq for free…Is that a bottle of vodka in your bag? How kind. Compare this to handing your laptop to the skinny guy at the computer shop by Drouthies and picking it up an hour later good as new…The relics of cigarette ash and vodka stains mean more to me than a light dusting of proficiency. This may also be the reason I am writing again.
My timing was equally fortuitous. This is a good time for a nosy foreign student to be in Ukraine, although a bad one to be Ukrainian. Julia Tymoshenko has finally been sentenced to seven years in prison on corruption charges, the first news I got of this was followed by a sentence that has become a mantra here: “Goodbye, Ukraine!” It was confusing at first, no one seemed to deny that she was corrupt, indeed I have only ever heard one positive review of her, and even this was followed by the admission: “but, yes…of course she made mistakes”. So why was everyone so discouraged? Surely this was a step towards more honest politics, the first politician to be held accountable for the terrible disappointment of the Orange Revolution. People should be cheering! Cue laughter and shaking of heads at Stupid Foreigner. “Of course she’s corrupt,” says one of my students as he gives me a lift home, thumping the steering wheel and narrowly missing some ancient, shuffling pedestrian stupid enough to cross on a green light, “but all our politicians are corrupt, especially the ones that currently hold government positions. He only targeted Tymoshenko because she is the most eloquent opponent he has, she still has strong support from people in the villages. This isn’t about democracy, this isn’t about transparency…this is about becoming Napoleon!”. What? He’s a dictator? “Not yet” He warns, “but he will be.”
It’s fair to say that not everyone is as convinced as he is about the oncoming dictatorship. But the view on Tymoshenko is unanimous. “This makes us look like Bielorussia” said another student, “we will never be accepted in the European Union now. It’s embarrassing.”
Embarrassing. Embarrassing for a country where the general population is smarter and better educated than most of the people I have come across anywhere. Embarrassing for people who believed in recreating a Ukrainian national identity and who stood as one in the Maydan Square giving flowers to policemen (there is another, very different take on the Orange Revolution, but that is for another time). Embarrassing for people who expected to move freely around the forbidden European countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to be welcomed into the European countries club as democratic equal. “I couldn’t get a visa to go to Italy” someone told me, “it annoyed me because I don’t want to live in your Italy! I have my Ukraine! I just wanted to see it.” Embarrassing for people smart enough see the long term consequences of these actions but can only live in the present because tomorrow might be radically different from today and there is nothing they can do about it.
Cue satisfied nods and rolling eyes…Stupid Foreigner has finally understood.
Image – Bogdan Seredyak