< SWITCH ME >
Photo: Christian DiemerIdyll with an egg-yellow Lada, on the shores of the Dnipro-Donbass canal.
In the final part of his exclusive series for E&M, Christian Diemer travels to Sakhnovshchyna in eastern Ukraine, where celebrations are also taking place to mark the anniversary of the village’s liberation during the Second World War. The atmosphere proves, however, to be very different from that of nearby Lozova, and just 150 kilometres to the east, war is again darkening Ukrainian skies.
At seven in the morning, Anna knocks on my door. I am supposed to be taking the elektrychka [regional train] from Lozova to Sakhnovshchyna at 8:46 a.m. Sakhnovshchyna, a small town with around 9,000 inhabitants in the Kharkiv region, is 50 kilometres from Lozova. The Red Army took a day to get there. Consequently, Sakhnovshchyna celebrates its city holiday one day later than Lozova.
But my friends have thought things over during the night. "It is written in your face that you are a foreigner", says Anna. "Times have changed. The war has attracted bad people to our region. It is dangerous for you to go by elektrychka. I will drive you to Sakhnovshchyna."
"Are you afraid to drive with me? I can drive. Only my car is very old." Actually I am quite OK with having company. Anna has a cheerful, vivid voice and laugh. And I immediately fall in love with her car. An egg-yellow Lada, ordered back in the 70s by some relative with good party connections. I can adjust the angle of my seat with a screw. When Anna brakes, my seat slides forward. However fast she drives, the speedometer stubbornly points to 0. And Anna goes fast, hammering over the potholes and crevices, slowing a little or pulling around hard only for the meanest traps. And I understand why this car is made for those roads. It swallows it all, uncomplainingly. "We don’t need a speedometer or a safety belt. These streets are our safety belt, our built-in speed limit. No one can go too fast on them anyway."
Photo: Christian Diemer
Lenin likeliness – as if time had stood still, young Lozovans carry remnants of the Soviet past across the parade
Following on from his trip to Korosten' for the pototo fritter festival, E&M's Christian Diemer is again caught up in a Ukrainian city's celebrations as Lovoza marks the 71st anniversary of its liberation during the Second World War and honours the veterans who fought to achieve that freedom. However, thoughts of a more current conflict are never far from the surface.
"You are not one of us", says the man with the beer on the opposite seat. "Where are you from?" Early morning, I am on the train to Lozova, province town between the eastern Ukrainian metropolis of Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovs’k. "Ich – heiße – Sergey – hoh", he pronounces the words like a pair of copulating elephants, to make me understand how much he likes the decisive, harsh, and "manly" German language, as he puts it. Russian, he claims, is a soft language. French is for women anyway. Sergey gives me one of his beers. He is of the opinion that we should solve crosswords together.
Sergey is Russian. He studied in Saint Petersburg for eleven years before coming to Luhans’k. Is he one of those that Putin claims to protect? "Putin is the second Hitler", he makes clear. "Russia is a dictatorship. Here in Ukraine, you can speak freely, there you cannot." Like many, he is sure Putin wants a land connection to Crimea, which would, apart from Donets’k and Luhans’k, also involve the port city of Mariupol’. He assumes Putin will go further too, taking Dnipropetrovs’k and Odesa. And who knows whether that will be it.
Sergey shows me his passport, a temporary one, he has lost the original. The authorities in Luhans’k offered him a new one, but from their new government, the LNR [Luhans’ka Narodna Respublika, Luhans’k People's Republic]. "What the hell for, I don’t want that, I want my Ukrainian passport!" He left for Dnipropetrovs’k.
Photo: Christian Diemer
Failure of a thousand-year-old past: the empty middle of Korosten', Central Ukraine (August 2013)
In the sixth part of E&M's exclusive series on current developments in Ukraine, we find our correspondent Christian Diemer in the city of Korosten', where he gets into the spirit and celebrates the deruny (potato fritter) holiday like a local.
"Korosten', the city of the Drevlyans, welcomes you", says a wooden board somewhere in the town. "Korosten' is a city of bandits", says Sasha, the cab driver.
Korosten', is certainly one of the best connected cities imaginable. A place of some 66,000 inhabitants that not even all Ukrainians would know, yet with direct train connections not only to L'viv and nearby Kyiv, but also to Uzhhorod, Kharkiv, Odesa, Warsaw, Chişinau, Sofia, Minsk, Saint Petersburg, Moscow. The endless rattling and clattering of trains resounds from all sides. It doesn't even seem connected to the railway lines at all; placeless, ubiquitous comings and goings float around the lonely car garages, one-storey huts, scrapyards alongside the empty streets. The barking of two dogs chasing each other slices through the dawn. Other dogs answer, their howling from afar and near merges with the rattling of the train, or was there even a train? An early bicycle bumps by. A radiating sun rises, shooting its beams onto slab buildings.
I have found the centre. It is the negation of a centre. A vast square, surrounded by faceless tower blocks. Some seem to bear mysterious decorations. One carries an aerial. It is nothing. Every notion of meaningfulness in individual parts of the centre is negated by the utter emptiness of its whole. With seven lanes, the road running through seems improbably large. Once in a while one Lada howls by.
The revolution in Bucharest a quarter of a century ago
The final part of our mini-series marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in many parts of Central and Southeastern Europe takes gives us a Romanian point of view, as we hear from Georgiana Murariu about the revolution of 1989 and the years that followed.
In the months prior to the spectacle that was the run-up to the recent Romanian presidential elections, I was reminded that it is never too late or too repetitive to re-hash and reconsider the profound effects of Ceausescu's regime.
As an increasingly educated and critical layer of youth intelligentsia derides decisions based on anything other than the desire for Europeanness, the use of politically-loaded terminology inevitably results in the creation of arbitrary divisions between different segments of the population. Sure, most of these are aphorisms about what it means to be an old communist crone, nostalgically clinging to the principles of the redistributive state and its overbearing, yet amiable paternal hand, but there is also a lot of rhetoric around corruption and the wish to free ourselves from undesirable spots on annual lists of bafflingly corrupt countries in Europe. All of which is fair, I suppose, or would be, were it not for the fact that we've never given any second thought to whether our condemnation of corruption is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of its manifestation during the late communist era as well as the transitional period after 1989.
Economically and socially, the resulting "grey zones" became less about coping with a seemingly omnipresent government and more about the opportunistic manipulation of old boys' networks and invaluable knowledge to carry on furtively evading tax, whilst promising the people concepts that were once alien to them, like growth and prosperity.
|Photo: Ivan Bandura; Licence: CC BY 2.0
This Christmas tree was going to be put up on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence square) during the wave of
demonstrations in Kyiv back in December 2013
This round, E&M author Ana Maria Ducuta, a Romanian student, takes up the challenge and enriches our little series on Christmas traditions by looking at what happens in Poland and Ukraine. Between animals that may speak with human voices if they eat a traditional dish and weather forecasts that influence people's future, the two countries definitely have interesting traditions to read about.
In Ukraine Christmas is celebrated on the 7 of January. The country, in fact, follows the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian one. Although during the Soviet Union Christmas was not officially celebrated there, after gaining independence in 1991 Ukraine started to celebrate it once again. Now the period between 7 and 14 January is a festive week and many Ukrainian Christmas traditions, which are actually based on pre-Christian pagan customs, take place within that period. But Ukrainian Christmas rituals are also dedicated to God, to the welfare of the family and to the remembrance of ancestors.
|Photo: Danielle Harms; Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Old ladies singing carols at Budapest's Christmas market
In the run-up to the winter holidays, E&M's little series about Christmas traditions in Europe continues. This time around, Ana Maria Ducuta takes us inside traditions in Hungary and her mother country Romania, where the Christmas period actually starts in mid-November.
Christmas. The magical word that brings so much profit to merchandisers and supermarkets, making people so eager to buy and spend their money on useless things who somehow compensate for all the bad things that happened throughout the year. The new consumerist dimension of Christmas has basically drowned out its magical meaning and emotional attachment, making it a celebration of irrational spending. But for centuries, Christmas traditions were not only a way of carrying and conveying a message through generations, but also a moment of introspection and the chance to step into an alternative universe, where we find our identity in the customs and traditions of our ancestors. After all, it's all about understanding people's souls. And that is what traditions do: they carry a little piece of soul and identity across time. Christmas traditions are different across Eastern Europe, but they all carry a very important meaning that should remind us that each Christmas could be a re-birth and a new beginning, if only we’d take the chance to search for and find ourselves. In the former Eastern bloc, Christmas was not celebrated during the communist period which lasted until early 1990s (1989-1992) but after democracy was restored restored, Christmas traditions regained their place and importance. Let's take a look at what happens in Romania and Hungary.
Christmas is a magical time everywhere in the world and Hungary is no exception. Hungarian Christmas starts with the celebration of Advent, which starts four Sundays before Christmas. Meanwhile, front yards and tables are decorated with advent wreaths with four candles. Every Sunday before Christmas, one more candle is lit until the last one, which is lit on Christmas Eve, the most important evening in Hungarian Christmas traditions.
Renaming streets following the collapse of communism in Hungary
In the next edition of our mini-series marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in many parts of Central and Southeastern Europe, we hear from Dora Vuk about growing up in post-socialist Hungary and memories of the socialist era.
The moment I was asked to write about my impressions of the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism, I was forced to realise that my feelings, memories related to this occasion, and the stories I had heard from my parents and grandparents about communism were more complex and ambivalent than I had thought before. So I decided not only to highlight the significance of the subsequent transition in our lives, but also to use scraps of thoughts to present my impressions of the so-called "socialist era" and the last 25 years.
As I originally come from a small Croatian community settled at the Hungarian border with Croatia, most of the scenes appearing now before my eyes are in a particular way related to this minority population and its life in a period characterised by totalitarian policy, and in another, a more free one after that came later. I remember my grandmother and one of her memories from her childhood after the Second World War – when, during the realisation of the state ownership programme, the Hungarian Secret Police (ÁVO, after 1956 ÁVH) took all of her family's agricultural land, animals, and cereals. Once, when the police came, she had to hide in the attic with a basket of corn to ensure that they would have the necessary amount of food to survive the winter.
The communist Buzludzha momunent, completed in 1981, has gone to rack and ruin since the revolution
In the next part of our series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in many parts of Central and Southeastern Europe, we turn our attention to Bulgaria. Milen Iliev was only a young child when revolution came to his country, but vividly remembers the changes that took place in the 1990s.
The fall of communism came about in Bulgaria on 10 November 1989 with the resignation of long-serving leader Todor Zhivkov. I was just about to turn three at the time. I was at that point of growing up, when I was getting ready to leave the confines of my home and join society for the first time in my life by going to nursery. Bulgaria was in a similar position – it was a newborn state, which was about to enter the world of democracy and capitalism and join a larger community of nations through the beginnings of globalisation.
Both Bulgaria and I had a lot of growing up to do. Perhaps the single most common leitmotif when you read about the process of growing up is the idea of the loss of innocence. In a nutshell, the argument is that once you start to realise what suffering and injustice are and how you can help or hinder their development in the world around you, you are not innocent anymore.