Monday, January 18, 2010

Final Ukraine Observations

As befits a trip to Ukraine, Erik encountered professional and personal complications. He had several productive meetings (and one strange meeting), but some of his plans fell through. Most notably, he was unable to secure credentials from the Central Electoral Commission to be an official observer at the polls. The organization that often helps him in this endeavor was unable to do so this time. While they made efforts to find an alternative sponsor for him, it did not come together in time. The meetings he had yielded some valuable insights and information, however.

One meeting, however, left him speechless. A colleague arranged to have him meet with a political scientist who is associated with a university in Kyiv. Erik was invited into his nicely decorated, homey office, offered tea, and shown various photos of visits to the United States. As an opening question, Erik asked him about his general impressions of the 2010 campaign. He launched into an increasingly layered – and increasingly disturbing – articulation of Ukraine's politics. One cannot look at this election, he said, without proper context. [Fair enough.] One cannot look back to the last ten years, fifteen years, or even one hundred years, as Ukraine's politics owe a debt to deeper historical dynamics. [Okay...] Rather, one has to look back many, many centuries to the time when people first settled the region. “Did you know that Ukrainians aren't Slavs? That is a myth propagated by Russians who are also not Slavs.” [Hmmm...] Indeed, the first people who settled this area invented the symbol of the swastika. [Red flags should have been flying at this point, but I hadn't put all the pieces together...] They eventually migrated across the world, founding the Sumerian civilization. [Did YOU know that Sumerians are deeply connected to the original Ukrainians?] This society was matriarchal and democratic, although it was replaced by patriarchal and militaristic societies. “Ukrainian society is genetically democratic. We have it in our blood.” The Russians? “They are genetically totalitarian.” The Poles? “They are democratic – and real Slavs.” Both the Russians and Poles occupy territory that is rightfully Ukrainian. Ukraine is predisposed to democracy, but it needs a uniquely Ukrainian approach. This includes a strong president who can rule decisively.

After an hour or so of this conversation, which drifted into numerology and conspiracy, Erik had to head off to other obligations. He was given some reading material that he immediately began dissecting on the metro ride back to the center of town. A citation in his publication really struck him – a book called March of the Titans: A History of the White Race. The author is a white Rhodesian (yes... Rhodesian) who may or may not be a neo-Nazi, but seems rather popular among them. The Ukrainian nationalist movement has an extreme element that uses Nazi symbology, emphasizes anti-Semitism, and would probably applaud the sentiments that he heard. To be fair, some of what he read diverges from the extreme right propaganda line, but the broad contours were distressing. Without betraying his identity, the professor is a reasonably prominent political scientist in Ukraine, but Erik had never met him before.

On a personal level, Erik's main inconvenience was his loss of Internet access at a critical point in the trip – a day before the election. He had been using the Internet not only to post to this blog, but to monitor the media and campaigns. He planned to access real-time information from the exit polls and Central Electoral Commission. But, these good plans were thwarted when the cable went down in his apartment (the Internet connection is managed by the cable company and runs through the cable box). So, not only did he lose access to the Internet, but also television news sources. Fortunately, an Internet cafe was located nearby.

On election day, Erik tried to visit polling sites, but had to use care as he was not an official observer. He made sure not to violate any laws, but consequently was only able to gain a superficial sense of what was going on. The process seemed calm and orderly; it seemed less like an election day than a lazy Sunday. Of course, extremely cold temperatures limited the number of people on the street, although Khreshchatik Street still featured many people strolling throughout the day and into the evening. He was fortunate to receive an invitation to share dinner with the director of the Fulbright program, his family, and other guests. Instead of enjoying the evening watching ballot counting procedures, he spent an even better time conversing with good company and indulging in delicious food. Following are various photos from the last few days of his visit with comments. The election produced no real surprises – the second round runoff on February 7 will feature the expected candidates.

A polling station near Erik's apartment. When he approached for a visit, he realized that a VIP was planning to vote there. Security was on high alert with uniformed and plainclothes policemen in evidence all around the site (including some shadowy figures on nearby rooftops who may or may not have been snipers). The precinct also featured a separate entrance for the media who were also represented in large numbers. Given the proximity to the presidential offices and residence, Erik speculates that the president himself would be casting a ballot there. He loitered for a while, but thought that it was probably best not to loiter in a secured area. After an hour with no VIP arrival, he decided to seek out other polling sites in the neighborhood where he lived in 1999 (Erik knew where some schools were located, and they often serve as polling sites). He wandered about for a good portion of the day, stopping in various places to warm up.

This woman has been standing in the same spot for at least two days – and probably longer. Her sign refers to “50 Days of Prayer for Ukraine.”

When Erik was first in Kyiv in 1989, he was told that this Lenin statue won some award for being the best Lenin statue in the world. His memory may betray him – the contest could have been something else – but he distinctly remembers it as being a Lenin statue contest. In any case, its artistic quality has spared it from post-communist purges thus far. Below it, a representative of the Communist Party was soliciting donations for its preservation. Down the street, the People's Party hung a large banner demanding its removal from Kyiv, so it may yet be carted away like the rest.

As Erik rested on a bench, this couple strolled by. They seemed colorful, so Erik snapped a photo.

Approaching Taras Shevchenko Park, across the street from the university's famous “red building,” Erik found Ukraine's Red Dog. Both Lea and Erik attend Red Dog's workouts in Lawrence; old-school calisthenics combined with jogging. Instead of having a bullhorn (or mic rig), Kyiv's Red Dog had a whistle and a similarly unusual collection of exercises. The photo depicts pairs of women playing a type of patty-cake while twisting. Kudos to them for exercising in the bitter cold!

The “red building” noted above. Many stories purport to explain the bright red color (a quick paint job to cover up a massacre of students by the tsar; an intentional paint job to mirror a tsarist-era award; a Soviet-era ideological move), but they seem to be myths.

Strolling down Khreshchatik in the fresh snow, Erik followed the path of previous walkers.

Perhaps emboldened by Ronald's attorneys' failure to dispatch with McCurry in Malaysia, Ukrainian entrepreneurs have started up another imitator. McFoxy – located across the food court from a McDonald's in the Globus Mall (underneath Independence Square) – even chose a suspiciously McD's-like font. But, the chicken leg exclamation point is all McFoxy.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Update from Kyiv

Erik has been working on various research projects in Kyiv since his arrival on Sunday. Although he has struggled to set up meetings this trip (sometimes things work out, sometimes they don't...), he has also made progress. In addition to work-related activities, he was able to catch up with old friends as well. Below are some photos and commentary from the week.

St. Michael's monastery is one of the many lovely sights in Kyiv. Here it is framed by steel-grey skies and ample piles of snow.

Another Kyiv landmark - one of our favorites - is St. Andrew's Church and the path alongside it called Adriivskiy Uzviz/Andreyevskiy Spusk (Andrew's Descent). You can see a panoramic from a hill along the way at the top of this post (click on it for a larger image).

Erik followed a treacherous path down Andrew's Descent, nearly falling a couple of times.

Andrew's Descent hosts a daily market, with artwork and various souvenirs. Few vendors were out during this walk, probably because it was a weekday, as well as cold and windy.

Erik attended a press conference of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine to learn about issues associated with the election.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs clearly signaling its orientation, with the EU flag flying alongside the Ukrainian flag. This election will influence how Ukraine develops its international profile in the next few years.

A few candidates loom over Kyiv on giant billboards. This one is for Sergey Tihipko.

Yuliya Tymoshenko's image is ubiquitous.

Generally campaign tents cluster together by ideology (so, a Tymoshenko tent sits next to a Narodniy Rukh tent (another party supporting her)). Here the two main rivals coexist side-by-side.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Back to Ukraine

Erik has regularly visited Ukraine for professional reasons, but had not returned since the end of 2007 when the Herron family Fulbright adventure concluded. The combination of a new presidential election and research projects that would benefit from a visit prompted this trip to Kyiv.

He left the frigid Midwest, still covered in snow and ice, for a slightly warmer climate. Just like many parts of the US, Europe has struggled with a difficult winter. At his transit airport, London Heathrow, Erik encountered several travelers whose flights were canceled due to inclement weather conditions. Ukraine was also hit with a sizable snowfall, but rising temperatures and rain generated uneven melting. This process created terrible conditions for driving and walking on poorly maintained roads and sidewalks. Major streets, and sidewalks outside many businesses and government agencies, have been cleared of the worst snow and ice. But, workers struggled to chip away 2-3 inches of ice that were slippery and uneven.

Erik's walk around town reminded him of Lea's favorite headline from one of our earlier visits to Russia: "Sidewalks of Death." The article discussed the injury rates of Moscow's pedestrians; tens of thousands annually sprain or break limbs (here you can read a more recent article about the problem). While Kyiv's municipal workers were on the task today, many sidewalks were touch-and-go.

The sidewalks are so treacherous in Kyiv that many - perhaps most - young women seem to have cast aside their ultra-high heeled boots for the conventional variety. This is surely just a temporary measure, as Ukrainian women are among the most skilled at navigating difficult terrain in high heels, and among the most dedicated to wearing high heels.

In the early evening, Erik met with a colleague from the Kyiv School of Economics to discuss research related issues. Despite the cold drizzle, Kyiv was bustling with activity in the center and still lit with holiday decorations. More photos and some commentary follow.

Erik's old haunt from 1999 (the Stalin-era tower left of center). The new apartment to the right may have been there during his last visit to Kyiv, but was not in 1999.

A relatively well-cleared section of sidewalk.

This young woman apparently missed the high-heeled boots/icy sidewalks memo (though her heels might be considered low in Ukraine).

Excessively amateur skating on Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

Khreshchatik Street, the main street of Kyiv's center.

The tree at the top of the post lit for the evening.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Talking Turkey?

On his way past the front door this morning, Erik was surprised to see a large bird standing outside the gate. He grabbed the camera, followed it through the yard and across the street.