Fragments from a War Diary, Part #43
I have a complex fondness for Kyiv central railway station, because so many unusual things have happened to me there. Back in 1994, on my first visit to Ukraine, a man in the station’s complex labyrinth of underpasses pulled a gun on me. This was the first time this has ever happened to me, but not the last. I was the victim of a complex scam typical of the former Soviet Union at the time in which I mysteriously found a wallet bursting with One Hundred US dollar bills lying on the floor and then someone purporting to be a Police officer would arrive and extort me for money. My assailant let me go promptly when he realised I was an impoverished foreign university student. That was my first serious foray into Eastern Europe, and I have never looked back.
In 1994, Ukraine, at that point a recently independent state after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was in economic free-fall. The people of Ukraine were mired in poverty after the Soviet Ruble had collapsed following its ill-fated floatation as part of a series of hurried and ill-understood economic reforms accompanying the dismantling of the communist system. In Ukraine, there had been an attempt to prevent the evaporation of people’s life savings by earmarking Soviet Ruble banknotes in Ukrainian control by marking each Ruble note with a small sticker with a Ukrainian trident on them, in order to distinguish them from the collapsed (Russian) Soviet Rubles.
However the financial collapse in Ukraine proved to be even more comprehensive and catastrophic than that in Russia, and the Ruble with a Ukrainian sticker on it (that was known as the “Coupon”) became entirely worthless. People would spend their time trying to peel the stickers off old Soviet Ruble notes, in an attempt dramatically to increase their value; the authorities reacted by using ever stronger glue. The net result was that nobody would accept anything for purchase in Ukraine except crisp low-denomination US dollars. Approaching an exchange office would cause you to be surrounded by desperate Ukrainians clutching swatches of Coupons, eager to offer you any exchange rate you pleased just so they could get their hands on some Dollars. The country was in catastrophic free-fall, far more so than it is now amidst the grip of war.
Almost thirty years later, Kyiv’s main railway station retains the seedy, grimy air of a place where you don’t really want to be. Although the building itself is a superficially striking and even beautiful example of Soviet-era socialist realism, it is in a frankly unhygienic part of town in which all the least salubrious people of Kyiv seem to congregate for no obvious reason. There is a smattering of unpleasant hotels and lodgings, and one tolerable western brand that has sprung up and to which I treated myself for reasons of convenience: I have an extremely early morning train and I patter out these words while getting ready for my journey to commence at an ungodly hour. The bus station is also close. Outside wartime, this area is awash with a sea of drunks, the criminal end of the taxi-driving fraternity and ladies of lower morals at nighttime, but one of the unsung benefits of curfew is that these various categories of people all have to go to bed. So the area around Kyiv railway station is slowly getting better.
Kyiv in particular has a schizophrenic relationship with the Soviet era and with communism in general. Kyiv was almost completely destroyed during World War II, and the Soviet command economy rebuilt the city with significant glamour, including reconstruction of much of its heavily damaged historical centre, controversially using German forced labour. Many of the iconic parks, statues and civic buildings now in evidence in downtown Kyiv, including the cavernous central railway station, are the products of Soviet industry. Nevertheless the educated and cultured classes of Kyiv are keen to reconstruct a history of Ukraine that eliminates the substantial Russian influence that has existed throughout Ukraine’s past, and this is eminently understandable. The Soviet Union is not talked about in terms that compare it with prior Russian empires or the current totalitarian regime in Moscow, although really that is what it was: just another form of government from the Russian capital, and one particularly barbaric in many aspects of the practical application of its curious Marxist philosophical underpinnings. The people of Kyiv are genuinely grateful for their liberation by the Red Army from the 1941-1943 Nazi occupation of the city, and that may explain their reluctance to condemn the Soviet Union openly or to tear down all the Soviet statutes and monuments as part of their process of de-Russification of Ukrainian society.
I am headed for Kharkiv, as soon as the curfew lifts in the next hour. Kharkiv, a predominantly Russian-speaking city in the east of Ukraine, is somewhere I have never been before and it is known for having suffered significant blast damage at the hands of the Russian Armed Forces in the early days of the Russian invasion, as the Russians contemplated an attempt to seize the city. (In the end they did not attempt it, despite its proximity to the border; they would have become bogged down in street-to-street combat as the people are Kharkiv did not relish the prospect of their city being absorbed into Russia.)
Apparently there is a rare problem with the railway, and the electricity lines are out. My train will be pulled by one of Ukrainian Railways’ enormous purring diesel locomotives. Kharkiv is a city that has seen a significant influx of internally displaced persons as a result of the ongoing conflict in Donbas that lies just a couple of hours to the southeast. Along with Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk; the “Petrovsk” was removed as part of the process of de-Russification of Ukrainian culture), Kharkiv serves as the principal jumping-off point for the Donbas conflict. There are many people in need there, and also many soldiers taking respite from battle. I have no idea what adventures will await me, but already something tells me that I can expect a warm welcome from an eccentric and eclectic international and domestic crowd. People seem excited that I am coming to Kharkiv; I do not know why but it is always good to feel appreciated.
But before I get on the train, I will have to pass through a sea of all humanity around Kyiv railway station. The beggars, the hustlers, the people selling war trinkets, the suspicious police and the grim-faced soldiers returning from hospital or from their families to the front line. Kyiv railway station is a magnet for the massive movements of people every day that characterise life in wartime Ukraine.
Last night, at my hotel bar, a collection of mysterious and surly characters congregated in huddles. Two of them, enormous military men uncomfortably trying to pretend to appear civilians, looked around as though searching for snipers while barking at one-another in American accents. I have come across these sorts of people before. They give themselves away by their comprehensive sets of bodily tattoos, their angled faces, oversized muscles and barely disguised military shoes, bags and bulges in their pockets. They swiftly quaffed their beers and disappeared, with stern stares, privately to discuss whatever they are plotting. I wonder whether they will be on the train to Kharkiv. Something tells me that they may well be.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.