Continuing on his journey of exploration throughout Ukraine, Christian Diemer arrives in Chernivtsi, a forgotten city in the west of the country, the fate of which has been inextricably tied up with the turbulent history of Eastern and Central Europe over the last centuries.
I have found paradise on earth. Nobody knows that it exists. The world has long forgotten about it. Even the Ukrainians, that blessed people who live so close by, would not have it on their radar – their smallest regional capital, lost somewhere in the most remote south western corner of their large country, twenty minutes from what is now the border of Romania and the outer edge of the EU.
Trains long gone
In May 1914 I could have boarded a train at Vienna’s Nordbahnhof at 12:35. A first class ticket would have cost just under 100 crowns, a second-class ticket around 60. Only 19 hours later, the low, elegant art nouveau train station would have come into sight, couched in the gentle bend of the railway lines amidst a green, flat valley. As the train came to a halt, a sign would have drifted in front of the dirty carriage window: “Czernowitz”. Maybe a train guard with a handlebar moustache would have shouted: “Endstation, bitte alle aussteigen! Last stop, all change here!”, in a melodic Austrian accent, accompanied by the curses of the Ruthenians, Poles, or Jews heaving their leather suitcases down the tall carriages.
Their voices and clattering would have resounded from the tall, florally-ornamented vault of the entrance hall, complete with chandelier. A hackney would have carried me up the steep Bahnhofsstraße towards Ringplatz and the administrative seat of the crownland of Bukovina. Halfway up at the height of Musikvereins-Gasse, the yellow and black double-eagle of Austria already in sight, I would have checked in at Hotel Bristol, a “first rank house” with central heating, a lift, warm water and electric lights.
“Grüße aus der Bukowina – Regards from Bukovina”, I might have written on my postcards to friends and colleagues back home, “Grüße aus Klein-Wien – Regards from Little Vienna”. Other contemporaries would have called it “Little Paris”, “Little Jerusalem on the river Pruth” (an allusion to a third of the population being Jewish that smacks of the German nationalist perspective), or simply “das liebe Stück Europa – the dear piece of Europe”.
The paradise has changed its name more than once: Cernauţi under the Romanians (who were complicit with Nazi Germans in the extinction of the Czernowitz Jews from 1940 onwards), Chernovtsi under Soviet rule (which severed the remaining ties with Europe), Chernivtsi as the capital of the Chernivets’ka region in south western Ukraine. The Yiddish names טשערנאָװיץ or צֶ׳רנוֹבִיץ (Tschernowitz) are hardly used any more, only one of what was once 14 synagogues is still active. Some western Europeans mistake Czernowitz for Chernobyl. Hotel Bristol is now a shabby students’ dorm.
It is a bit onerous to reach the paradise nowadays. Potholes and dead ends have even brought hardened driver Andri to despair, en route from L’viv to Chernivtsi. And even on the train from L’viv to Chernivtsi – all that is left of Imperial-Royal Nordbahn and the Lemberg-Czernowitzer Eisenbahngesellschaft that used to connect Vienna and Czernowitz – I almost missed paradise, when an overzealous Ukrainian train carriage mother-in-command told me to alight two hours early at Kolomiya, just as the early morning was beginning to blush over the peaks of the Carpathian mountains.
A stage to the world
As if from a stage, Chernivtsi looks out into the world. A panopticum of gentle, green hills and meandering river branches lies below, with a few red and white striped chimneys poking out of it here and there. The city is built entirely on an inclined plain. From the train station down in the valley, solitary neighbour of the otherwise lonely, half seeped-away river Pruth, the Vulitsa Holovna (Main Street) starts winding upwards. A blackened house in form of a bow of a ship majestically marks the beginning of the inner city, but already at the very next crossing – a steep triangle dissolving into rubble – the height of its roof line is surpassed. Turkish Square, Philharmony Square, Central Square are behind and below me, before the street diverges into three boulevards – among them the interminably long pedestrian precinct, once known as Herrengasse, nowadays the Vulitsa Kobylyans’ka.
Trams used to struggle up the streets, but they did not cope well with the ascent. The hoarse singing of trolley buses fumbling along a tangle of overhead cables has taken over. And the fork junction is not even the end of the rise: the blue and white town-hall on Central Square leans against the steep ascent further up the street, lined with impressive neo-classicist town houses and oriel windows. When, at the highest point of the city, the incline eventually flattens out, with a view of the city roofs and turrets cascading down towards the unfolding world, the city centre seems to be already petering out in the direction of noble parks and mansion areas.
Nothing is intimidatingly high in Chernivtsi. A few imposing three-storey houses tower over their neighbouring buildings as if they had expected them to grow up in the course of time or prosperity. Many of the colourfully painted houses either only have one storey, or even if they do have two storeys, their ground floor is eaten up by another ascent of the street.
It even seems that the most beautiful places are those sunk below the ground – such as the Theatre Square, a small Garden of Eden with benches, roses, little firs and free wifi, a few steps below the level of the surrounding streets. Low and friendly, painted in a mild turquoise, the former Czernowitzer deutsches Stadttheater (Czernowitz German City Theatre) does not dominate, but instead has a soothing presence from one side. It is is one of the wonders of Chernivtsi that the theatre, which now bears the name of the Ukrainian national poet Olha Kobylyans’ka, has an almost identical twin in the Bavarian city of Fürth – right down to the busts of Goethe and Schiller surrounding its roof.
When one turns around, the townhall belfry’s black and gold clock is looking over. Where once the Austrian eagle was installed, the Ukrainian flag now blows in the wind, and when the Maidan protests in Kyiv escalated, they hung out a EU flag from the bell cage.
The haven of the lost
Every paradise has its dark side. And so it is that dusk sees idyllic Theatre Square transform into an arena of bizarre rituals. While young people accumulate in front of the clubs around, roaring Mercedes and BMW start prowling around the square, polished silver rims, blue underbody light, deafening subwoofer. Muscular arms hang out of the tinted open windows, enticing or startling long-legged and short-skirted beauties. Chernivtsi is a paradise of clubs and enjoyment. 19 establishments compete for the favour of around 260,000 inhabitants. In Izograf, a bottle of Demirov vodka costs six euros, and the Khot Dog is right next door. In Hard Rock, boys in gleaming suits and white leather shoes pose in front of Harley Davidsons and hips decked out in sequins. Egoist Palace is a Kubrick-like cathedral of black marble, glittering chandeliers, and unbridled luxury hookers. Sorbonne, adorned with volutes, shell ornaments and cupolas, tempts where once a Catholic church used to stand. In Pub 34 rounds of bibulous Ukrainians, feasting at endless rows of wooden tables, squeal kitschy karaoke. And Bierplatz is the most peculiar intercultural misunderstanding of what an idyllic German pub is believed to look like, with half-timbered oriel windows, splashing village fountains and inscriptions in Gothic script: Altbau, Willkommen, Natürlich.
“In what other city in the world could I go out on a Tuesday night and find a random club jam-packed with breathtaking girls?”, Marcus asks, the second pack of orange juice and the third bottle of Demirov in front of him. “And they are all nice, educated, well-mannered. I am a fat old grumpy Englishman drinking his bottle of vodka – you should not stay with me, you should go for those hot cats out there!”
And what lies westward, in between Kabul and England? Chernivtsi.
Marcus says he used to be a real estate shark in England. “Houses, Range Rovers, I paid everything in cash. That was my principle.” But at a certain point, he decided to drop it all and to start a new life – in Kabul. But Kabul stank, so he turned westward. And what lies westward, in between Kabul and England? Chernivtsi. For the second time in his life, Marcus became a shark: a hostel shark. Within just a few years, he had built up a hostel empire stretching from the river Pruth to the Seversky Don. In a country where the concept of backpackers was still relatively unknown, he opened up hostels in all relevant cities. Only to sell them all right before the European Championship in 2012. All except for the humblest and tiniest hostel in Chernivtsi. To which I am now escorting him – staggering slightly – back home from Izograf.
Marcus’ hostel is a haven of the lost, a place for the displaced of the world, home to the disgarded and ejected. A melancholic French jazz pianist, who sleeps like a marmot during the day, before waking and composing through the night. A failed Australian mining engineer who spent his working life blowing up wild cats with explosives and chasing kangaroos through tunnels. The “man who has travelled the longest in the world” (for the past 21 years allegedly without a break), lying on his hostel bed smiling into his laptop day and night. Even an ethno-musicologist is said to reside there from time to time. And of course Terry, an ex-CIA agent who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after being caught, abandoned, and tortured in Guatemala. He spends his time drinking 24 beers a day in the hostel kitchen, burping and grunting in agreement at the action movies that flicker over the screen 24/7, or cursing loudly against the US, before snoring like a perishing walrus when carried to bed.
“This country will never change”
Chernivtsi is ranked amongst the cities with the highest quality of life in Ukraine: while the buildings are lovelier and the clubs more wicked than anywhere else, prices are still lower than in most other cities – and that in a country that is already a land of milk and honey for most western Europeans.
This does not necessarily apply for all Ukrainians, as I am to find out on the fringes of the Meridian festival, meeting point of the Ukrainian intellectual elite and authors from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Israel, Russia, the USA and many other countries annually, who transform the city into a mystical realm of poems, words, and memories, as if times long past had come into being again, when everyone in Czernowitz used to write poems – the era that saw Paul Celan, Rose Ausländer, Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, Alfred Margul-Sperber emerge from the city, an era long fallen victim to the terrors of the Holocaust and the division of Europe…
It is here that I meet Anya – very red lips; dreamy, ponderous voice. Originally from a small town in western Ukraine, she studied at the renowned Yuri Fed’kovych University in Chernivtsi and now works as an English teacher. She earns 150 euro a month. In the winter, the heating in her classroom does not work.
“When I see an old man standing there, his hands shaking so much that he can hardly count his kopeks, I feel such pain inside me, and such fury. He is getting a pension of 60 euros a month. His hand is shaking. And what do they do? They dress up in vyshyvankas [traditional embroidered clothing] and sing their stupid patriotic songs!”
Anya is very far from being patriotic. “Had it not been for the protests and the revolution, we would not have this war in the east. The blood of those dying there is on Poroshenko’s hands. In hindsight, it would have been wiser to have kept Yanukovych for another half a year – because after the next presidential elections he would have been blown away anyway – than to bring all this misery to the country.” Isn’t it somewhat cynical to blame the Ukrainian revolution for the fact that it serves as a pretext for Russia to encroach on Ukraine’s independence? Isn’t this all based on the assumption that Ukraine is not an independent country, in throes to Russia’s approval when trying to overcome its internal problems? “Well, but this is Russia. Of course it is not fair, of course it is a shame. But it is Russia, it simply is like that and you have to take that into account. Don’t start with international law and human rights. This is Russia. It is something you just don’t understand.”
Chernivtsi has not been spared from the politicisation and election campaigning that has gripped the country. Bridge railings have been painted in yellow and blue. Hidden graffiti on the road surface bears the letters ПТН – ПНХ, acronym for “PuTiN – Pashyol Na KHuy – Putin fuck off”. Radical clown Oleh Lyashko declares from election posters: “Putin khuylo – Putin dickface”. “Ukrayina peremozhe – Ukraine will win” says the election placard of the Yuliya Tymoshenko party. “Ukrayina will win?”, gasps Anya. “Ukraine should win against itself, against all this lying and corruption rotting it from the inside. But of course that is not the sort of victory they are referring to on the placard.”
Election campaigning is certainly not the most uplifting part of political discourse in any country. But isn’t the revolution, fuelled by people’s mistrust against a corrupt political elite, at least the first step on a long path? Couldn’t the notion of solidarity and awakening that has grasped almost the entire country, even more so in light of the Russian threat and patriotic mobilisation, be the first step towards seriously tackling the country’s problems for the better? “This country will never change. I tell you, because I know it. I know this country. It will always be like this.”
Anya speaks Russian, Ukrainian, English, German, and a bit of French and Italian. “Honestly, I don’t know why I did not leave long ago. Something keeps me here. The barrel is not yet full.”
The Banerivtsi and the klezmer band
One golden day, the paradise is intruded upon. Along Kobylyans’ka, hollow-sounding chants and shouts reverberate, the sound of a crowd marching in step comes closer: a parade of right-wing football fans, organised by the Svoboda party. “Chernivtsi! Chernivtsi! Chernivtsi!” they bawl, clapping their hands vigorously. “Odna! Edyna! Svobodna Ukrayina! One! United! Free Ukraine!” Brisk choruses praise Stepan Bandera, who collaborated with the Nazis and committed attrocities against Jews and Russians while hoping for the Nazis’ support for an independent Ukrainian national state – and ended up in a German concentration camp himself. As the parade advances street-wide banners are accurately manoeuvred over the flowerpots and benches in the middle of the pedestrian street.
Some Ukrainian policemen are walking relaxedly behind the procession. Girls continue shopping. Couples wait until they can move further behind the passing march, or throw a puzzled look from the balcony of Wiener Café. No one really cares.
The parade comes to a stand level with the Orthodox cathedral, three domes in garish pink half the length of Kobylyans’ka. The ringleader gives commands to the jazz band playing in the sun: the national anthem, please. For all their ardent patriotism, their singing is quite muffled and unsure. And on they move, the praise of Ukrainian rivers and plains on their lips – and while the last black and red flags are still passing by, the jazz band falls back in a lively klezmer tune, the clarinet howls, the double bass is grooving, paradise is restored.
Anya regularly receives concerned calls from her relatives in Russia inquiring whether it is safe for her on the streets of Chernivtsi. “They are told the most ridiculous fairy-tales over there in Russia. And my own relatives won’t believe a word when I say that we don’t have fascists and the Banderivtsi running around, massacring people. And of course we don’t! Life here is as it always was. It is calm, peaceful, completely relaxed.”
Whenever Anya talks to her relatives about politics or mentions the word “Crimea”, the line is cut anyway. Anya doesn’t like talking about politics whatsoever, although she ends up doing so quite often. A friend of hers, who had fled from the Donbass bombings to Chernivtsi, was interrogated at the police one day after uttering some critical concerns about the role of the Ukrainian army over there.
Three weeks later, I return to paradise. Autumn has arrived. At Café Wien they have closed the balcony. Anya is ill, because there is no heating in her classroom. She is waiting for last month’s salary. She says she cannot stand watching television any more because of the sickening election campaigning.
Marcus has donated one of his jeeps to the “anti-terrorist operation” in eastern Ukraine and is now an official Ukrainian hero. Terry’s empty beer bottles are standing in the hostel kitchen, a Bloody Mary is waiting in the fridge, never to be drunk. Terry died just hours before my return, decaying alive within days from a gangrene that started expanding from his testicles while he was sitting and drinking at the hostel table. The man who has traveled the furthest in the world is smiling at his laptop and telling tasteless jokes about the smell inside the sealed coffin.
Since it would cost a lot of money to ship the coffin back to Texas, Terry will be buried in Chernivtsi. In some respects, it is the place where he belongs anyway.