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A flame of hope?

If you measure the level of activity before and after, I am not sure that I have “ retired “ , or will ever “ retire. ” I can though put a date on when I ceased to have meaningful remuneration for my efforts.  It was  that point that I decided , as do many “retirees” to turn a life long hobby or passion in to something a little more meaningful. 

In my case this was photography, and I wanted to see where I could take it, so I pushed my limits, got some letters behind my name that suggested that I was recognised as capable of professional photography . I’m not a professional photographer, I see that as making your living from it but I can shoot at that level. I get commissioned for portraits, I sell landscapes. For that I needed a website. 

I’ll refrain from unrestrained self promotion because that is not what this article is about . 

My website provider is based in Silicon Valley in the USA. I’m of a certain age, but although I am pretty tech savvy, I know my limits so there has necessarily been the occasional use of the “chat “ function and sometimes the toll free telephone line. I find those calls fascinating. 

Nothing is too much trouble, no problem is too small. Universally my accent is “ cute .” They are fervent in  hoping that my day will be “ nice .” Were this the East Coast I might be “ Sir” but here I’m “ man’ occasionally “ dude.” And it seems in a rather warm climate over there everything is ‘ cool .” 

I have learned over the years to be careful how I handle such calls. If for instance I have to have to go from that to say a call with a UK utility company or lord help us a bank, the transition in culture can be seriously disorientating and taking one expectation into the other scenario “Hey dude is it cool to talk about my overdraft,” doesn’t usually hack it . 

On one occasion, phoning my American friends we hit a problem that they could not resolve. 

“ Man this isn’t cool, I’m gonna have to put you through to a Support Hero …have a nice….” you know where this going. They don’t have technicians the have Heros, doubtless they also have finance Heros, technical Heros etc. 

 The call was seamless, an accent at the other end that was not American but had American cadence, learned American. This was Yuliana, and she was brilliant . 

You don’t really know me so you won’t be aware that one of my party tricks is to replicate accents. One April Fools day I had my son who was on  the help desk of his University believing that he was speaking with a Russian Gynaecologist.  Surprisingly  he survived his 18 years living with us relatively mentally unscathed. 

So it was natural for me to express interest in Yuliana’s accent . She laughed “I’m Ukrainian, you are speaking with Kyiv.” 

I marvelled for a moment at the seamlessness of that transition from Silicon Valley to Kyiv, and probably gave away my age by so doing, she laughed again  and I commented on how lovely her country was.

“ You have been here ?” She sounded very surprised .  I said that I had come back from there just 3 months earlier. We had a holiday visiting a friend who was a diplomat but had traveled around the country  for three weeks using trains and busses. . She was delighted and we had a long chat about the recent history of her country, how she found this job, her baby, what her hopes were for the child’s future. 

It was one of those conversations with a young person whose wants it all, and can see no reason why she and her family could not have it. It was full of hope, unrestricted by experience or doubt. 

Ukraine was an incredible country for my wife and I to travel around.  Tomorrow , or today if this article doesn’t go out until Wednesday,  by many accounts,  Ukraine may be at war. 

Yuliana and her young family may be in a bomb shelter in the centre of Kyiv that has been abandoned for decades. 

It is a country of astonishing contrast. Simply put, the poorest country in Europe with the greatest excesses. 

In Kyiv you will see Oligarchs dripping with gold jewellery closely followed by huge guards walking with impossibly beautiful young women on their arms. On the busses you will see wizened babushkas taking the fares who seems to have been transported from a different century. Go into the countryside and you will see that century for real, horse drawn carts, stunningly ancient Ladas, poverty,  substance farming. Huge distances between settlements, very poor roads, slow patched up trains that astonishingly always get there if not exactly to any known time table. You will find huge lavish Soviet era stations and public buildings. You will find tiny very poor villages interspersed with lavish onion domed churches. 

You will find Chernobyl , and that will be another article. 

More contrast, the breadbasket of Europe Ukraine is capable  of feeding itself and more yet it  also saw the forced collectivisation of farming  and the Holodomor . Between 1932 and 1933 at least 3.5 million people were starved to deaths by the brutality of Stalin’s regime, across Ukraine and into Moldavia. This period is referred to by some as the terror-famine or the genocide-famine, the Holodomor. 

The  flat plains  and the black earth of Ukraine are ideal for growing and for tanks. You get the sense that some of the older farm workers, should Ukraine be invaded again will look at the tanks rolling past in the same ay as they saw the retreat of the German Army in the second World war. Same tanks different drivers. Different people same atrocities. 

Ukraine’s relationship with Russia is different from Russia’s relationship with Ukraine, and it is a confusing one. 

I will not attempt to say that I understand it because it is expressed at an emotional level that anyone who is not from there can’t claim. But be warned that any external derived assessment is an opinion amongst many. Russia has a sentimental relationship with Ukraine that sees it as one of a family of nations. Ukraine? Ukraine sees Russia in many ways. A minority share the Russian view. 

If you go up  the hill in Kyiv you will come to a ridge that over looks the astonishing Lavra monastery at one side and the Dnieper river. You will also find a museum dedicated to the Second World War and the role , expressed with gratitude, to the Soviet Army relieving Ukraine from the Nazi yoke. Walk a little further and you will find the eternal flame of the Holodomor memorial. They are a kind of introduction to confusion of emotions that reflect the relationship between the two countries. 

Ukrainians fought with the Russians , some who hated the Russians because of the Holodomor  fought with the Germans, and peeling away the layers of motivation that formed each logic is like peeling an onion, and it ends in tears. 

There is no doubt that there are those who crave a stronger relationship with Russia, there are linguistic similarities cultural and religious ones too, and the further East possibly the more these sentiments  are expressed. But in Kyiv? 

Go to Lviv and you will see the polar opposite. A city that is essentially Polish in sentiment,  historic and yet very, very modern, this could be an Austrian city or Prague; tourists music fabulous food . It looks West.

Memorials too,  to the Dombass, the other area additional to Crimea where Russia continues to wage war agains Ukraine though through a client  group of insurgents . Thousands of young men and women have died fighting there, they are fighting today, whatever else happens with Putin’s tanks. 

We spoke with a young woman guide in Lviv. She was showing us round the Jewish quarter, where since the Second World War there are virtually no Jews. They are painstakingly pulling away the paint that covered Hebrew writing  on the shops, I saw a hat shop, a barbers, a bakers, a synagogue. ” It is our history and something we must remember ” she said .

She showed us the train terminal where people were loaded to be taken to death camps. “ I can’t speak with my grandparents about this” she said “ they supported the Nazis because they felt the Jews were rich and they were poor, they were the employers and they wanted what they ha . This is why we have to remember why I have to tell the story, keep it alive “ 

You get the sense of a place where it is very special to find a right because there are so many wrongs. 

You get the sense that everyone has the capacity to get this wrong. 

But our young woman was very, very clear in her feelings. 

“ This is Ukraine, our Ukraine, no one but us has the right to express what our future will be . “

And for my other Ukrainian friend? 

“I trust Yuliana what you are well and you and your family will remain so. The flame of hope  and humanity you expressed is inextinguishable. “ 

That is the true lesson of history. 

vehicles on road beside sea
Photo by Alexandr Podvalny on Pexels.com

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  1. I went to school with a lot of girls whose parents had fled Eastern Europe during the Second World War and its aftermath. I clearly remember one Ukrainian girl who was very active politically about the rights of her home nation. She used to ask us to sign petitions and get involved with campaigns. She explained the situation in the Ukraine to me, or she tried to. It was a complicated history of being taken over by various other nations, and usually not being treated well by them. She was proudly Ukrainian, and her main hope was for the Ukraine to be an independent nation, with control over its own future.

    Irene Tchorek (possibly spelt wrong) comes to mind when I see Russia threatening the Ukraine, and I think – why can’t they leave them alone? Russia has enough land and enough of everything – why can’t they leave them alone? The Ukraine has had enough hard times, and, as you say Steve, in relatively recent times – the parents of a girl I went to school with.

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