From Kyiv with Love

In May 2017, Ihar and I went to Eurovision Song Contest 2017 (ESC).  I had never been to Eastern Europe, and this was a perfect opportunity to visit.

Don’t be afraid, we are safe. We’re entering the forest, a shortcut to the city. You will see a military station soon.

Our Uber driver spoke politely in Russian. Oh boy! I smiled bitterly to Ihar who translated the conversation in English. “Do you mind if I play the music?” He knew we were nervous with his driving style. We had long bumpy ride for the next 15 minutes. He reassured our safety for one more time. “I used to be a driver in the army,” he shouted.

Kyiv is slowly changing

I heard some negative news about Ukraine but I did not expect my first experience could be this surreal.

Entering the city, the nostalgia feeling greeted visitors. The wide highways, a Soviet Union style, were very quiet. Cars, busses and trams shared the traffic. We passed through a single carriage and rusty tram in slow speed. Another Soviet Union legacy. New buildings squeezes old apartment blocks on both sides of the roads. “These building were supposed to finish before Eurovision. They stopped the construction, running out of money.” Our driver opened the story. In the following days, we heard similar cases.  Abandoned infrastructure projects due to “lack of funding”, people said.

But it would be wrong to assume that Kyiv is not progressing. Historical landmarks such as St. Sophia Cathedral, St. Michael’s Cathedral and Mariyinsky Palace have been reconstructed. Newly redeveloped open air theatre near Mariyinsky Palace was about to be ready for summer. They missed ESC target but “things happens in Ukraine”. We use the same phrase in Indonesia to express our acceptance, if not desperation. The government maintain numerous public parks that brings the nature closer to busy city life.

Entrepreneurship flourish, signed by the establishment of trendy coffee shops, trendy bars and restaurants. Some young men and women whom we spoke were very enthusiastic about social and political changes. “We’re getting there, slowly”.

Hardship and resilience

For many Ukrainians, lives in Kyiv is a struggle. The city has much to offer but average earnings, which is much lower than in EU countries, is inferior to prices of goods and services. This issue heated as Ukrainians was about to get visa free travel to EU. “We talk about (bringing) EU values (in Ukraine) but no one mentions about EU salary”, said our guide tour. The crucial point excluded from a focus group discussion whom I participated in previous day. I presume some prefer not to discuss politics in public.

Political turmoils, and recent annexation of Crimea, has effected people’s lives dramatically. The Maidan Revolution in 2013 in which hundreds of protesters died, most of them were students, has left people with collective trauma. To date, the masterminds and shooters of this tragic event remains mystery. Friends and families displayed their struggle, love and solidarity to victims in demonstration sites.

On our trolley bus ride from ESC final concert, around 2 o’clock in the morning, the driver played a melancholic love song from Soviet Union. “Talk to me, talk to me. Talk to me until the morning comes. Talk to me, talk to me…” It was freezing cold and our bus was extremely quiet. Tipsy passengers sat quietly in the dark – all lights were switched off throughout the journey. Perhaps that’s how people cope with the difficulties: being silence and carry on.

Peace, peace and peace

The country celebrated ESC in moderation. The government deployed large number of policemen and militaries in concert venue and other parts of Kyiv for security reason. Foreign visitors, we did not meet many of them, flooded city centre while local resident carried out with their day-to-day activities as usual.

Rumour said Ukraine government prevented people from Russia to enter the country by closing border checkpoints. This impacted to low ticket sales and tourist numbers. A businessman was in agreement with the decision to ensure safe and safety for residents and visitors – by limiting number of visitors from Russia. “We don’t make much profits during ESC. But it doesn’t matter. Peace is what matter the most.” He was right, Ukraine successfully hosted ESC despite the war in Crimea.

Ukrainians use the word “peace” heavily, in a positive way. Take the example paintings exhibited in National Art Museum such as Fedir Krychexsky’s Life or Volodymyr Kostetsky’s Return Home. Or take a look at a giant poster in Independent Square saying “freedom is my religion”, a bold yet powerful aspiration of Ukrainians themselves amid their Christian Orthodox belief.

On our way back to the airport, another Uber driver asked my experience in Kyiv. I said I didn’t know what to expect but I had a great time in Kyiv. I would happily come back. He replied “Next time you visit Ukraine, expect warm, hospitality and peace”.