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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #358

One of the most extraordinary transformations in Ukrainian society as a result of the second Russian invasion of Ukraine starting in late February 2022, in particular, has been Ukrainians’ attitudes towards foreigners. Astonished by the influx of foreigners coming to Ukraine to help them, quite different from the sex tourists and other casual predatory visitors from the West that used to travel to Ukraine before the war, and realising that Russian visitors to their country were themselves predators now transformed into militaristic aggressors, Ukrainians have completely changed their attitudes towards foreign people from the west and they have started to be open, fair, generous and less suspicious towards them. This sort of transformation reflects a radical realignment of Ukrainian cultural values towards European norms and away from Russian ones, and it is a wondrous thing to behold.

Previously westerners visiting Ukraine would be routinely overcharged and ripped off on virtually everything. At one time it was an official policy of the government. In the 1990’s, in the post-independence period, there were structured pricing regimes in hotels, restaurants, museums and hospitality venues depending upon one’s nationality. People from former Soviet Union countries would be charged one thing. Those from former Warsaw Pact countries would be charged in a second higher tier. Those from the rest of the world, and in particular from the West, would be charged a third. Some hotels would not accept westerners at all in the 1990’s, who were all herded in the direction of mediocre but expensive typically three-star hotel facilities called “Intourist”, after the official Soviet Union travel agent that was supposed to organise all tourism visits to the Soviet Union. Intourist dissolved into a series of related and extremely similar regional branches corresponding to each Soviet state with much the same traditions of interminable bureaucracy, poor hospitality, miserable staff and egregious over-pricing. Ukraine had its own Intourist and for a significant period after the independence of Ukraine tourists were pushed in the direction of Ukrainian Intourist institutions. Even regular hotels and restaurants not part of the Intourist network would routinely overcharge foreigners depending upon their nationality.

This began to change in about 2004 with the Orange Revolution and the beginnings of the real opening up of Ukraine to the West, as previously cumbersome visa procedures (which really just served as thinly veiled covers for border guards to take bribes) were swept away for westerners who were told they were in principle welcome to visit Ukraine on the same terms as any other visitor and without all this official penalty pricing and cumbersome procedures. This marked the end of the Leonid Kuchma Presidency in Ukraine when Ukrainian politics were really just a branch of Russian politics, particularly under Russian President Vladimir Putin who treated Ukraine as a vassal state and treated foreigners in Ukraine in much the same way as foreigners were treated in Russia in the 1990’s: these were difficult environments in which to travel. Nevertheless the development of English as a working language in the hospitality trade did not really develop until the second decade of the twenty-first century and at this stage both Kyiv and Lviv became friendly enough to western visitors. The balance of the country remained somewhat off limits by reason of the language barrier; you couldn’t get far without Russian or Ukrainian, the latter being extremely hard to learn from outside Ukraine because there weren’t any textbooks.

During this period Kyiv became quite an expensive city for foreigners and if you sought to venture elsewhere in Ukraine outside the capital you could face difficulties. You would be persistently ripped off in petty transactions, which became a constant source of irritation. Your local Ukrainian friend or guide would incorporate hidden commissions into virtually everything a foreigner might do in the country. The ground breaking change however came with the widespread use of booking engines like in Ukraine in the later part of the second decade of the twenty-first century in which it became possible to book Ukrainian hotels online without being scammed because the prices were fixed by the website and you paid with a credit card. At this point however a number of scams would remain, in particular around bars, restaurants and taxis, and any interaction with the government in which the bribes to be paid would be higher for foreigners than for local people. Even as late as 2019, it was eminently possible for a foreigner to travel to Ukraine and to leave the country with a bad taste in his mouth because he had been ripped off sequentially by virtually everybody he or she had met.

The February 2022 invasion by Russia of Ukraine changed all of this, as Ukrainians realised that people were there to help them and they began to understand that in the modern Europe that was coming to protect them from the Russian invasion and that they aspired now to be part of to free themselves from the Russian yoke, this sort of discriminatory pricing, corruption, stings and rip-offs were no longer acceptable. Not only would foreigners and the authorities call them out in acting in such ways, their fellow Ukrainians would as well and such actions would denigrate Ukrainians in the eyes of foreigners which would harm their national cause. Hence it is now a pleasure to be able to travel around Ukraine and - for the most part, with very few exceptions - enjoy prices that are the same as those the Ukrainians pay, and without quite so many hidden commissions.

Ukrainian society remains imperfect but is becoming increasingly honest. I no longer feel I have to count my change or check my bill at the end of every transaction - save in a few less salubrious places that then have their reputations damaged with foreigners and suffer the appropriate market penalty. Occasionally a carriage attendant on a train will overcharge me as a foreigner for a cup of tea or coffee but the sum in question is usually nugatory so I let it go. No longer do I feel relentlessly conned when I am in Ukraine, and there is more of a feeling of harmonious unity between Ukrainians and their foreign guests and supporters as common, equal and free Europeans, fighting together the insidious influence of torrentially corrupt Russian culture and customs.


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