Stage 30 – Russia & Ukraine: Chernozem, Donbass And Crimea [1/2]
West of the dry steppes of Central Asia lies the Chernozem, the fertile, black earth region of Russia and Ukraine which constitutes the breadbasket of Eastern Europe, and has historically been a melting pot of Slavs, Cossacks and peoples from the Black Sea region and steppes beyond. After transiting the agricultural heartland of Russia, I would enter Ukraine and begin a lengthy tour of the country, more than four years after my original plans on the outward leg of the Odyssey had been scuppered by a robbery in Romania. Exploring Ukraine for the first time, from the industrial Donbass Region of the east, small towns of the far north, then to the capital and down the Dnieper River, south to Crimea and west through Odessa to the Danube Delta and the Moldovan border, I would find a highly divided country, one which at once had fostered the Eastern Slavs, a civilisation who gave rise to modern-day Ukrainians, Russians and Belarussians, yet at the same time one which had only existed for twenty years as a united and independent entity. Having for centuries existed as something of a frontier territory of a far larger, Russia-centred empire, this eastern half of Ukraine would reveal a surprisingly diverse country, set against beautiful, rolling countryside and the spectacular coastline of the Crimean Peninsula.
In the very early hours of the morning of the 9th August 2011 I leave the Kazakhstan – Russia border at Ilek and drive north-east parallel to the Ural River, reaching Orenburg at around 04:00, where I am happy to meet Ruslan, with whom I had stayed in April. I stay three lazy days with Ruslan, each night accompanying his friend Oleg delivering pizzas through the early hours, stopping frequently to smoke and enjoy the mesmerising passage of sodium-yellow street-lights as we drive the city’s empty streets. With just a ten-day transit visa however I am conscious that I do not presently have the luxury of time, and so my thoughts are on crossing the country to the Ukrainian border. West of Orenburg I drive through fields of ripe sunflowers towards the Volga, bypassing Samara on roads choked with lorry traffic, driving around the Samara Bend and stopping in the city of Tolyatti.
Named after a secretary of the Italian Communist Party, Tolyatti is a disjointed industrial city set attractively amidst leafy hills on the banks of the Volga, and is Russia’s motor city, home to the AvtoVAZ (Lada) plant, where the iconic Soviet Zhiguli was manufactured from the 1970s in cooperation with Fiat. I’m hosted in Tolyatti by Dmitriy and his wife Alena, who live in a fourteen-storey apartment block overlooking the city’s central park and golden domed Transfiguration Cathedral. Tolyatti is a nice example of a Soviet city, and I spend an enjoyable day walking along the sandy banks of the Volga. On my second day I am am interviewed about my long road journey by a friend of Dmitriy’s on Lada FM, the radio station broadcast in the AvtoVAZ factory, but my most lasting memory of Tolyatti, and indeed of the entirety of this short journey across Russia, is on my final evening. With Dmitriy and Alena and a group of their friends, we sit out in the warm evening on the grass in the park, next to the church, playing guitars and drums, drinking beer and simply enjoying the genuine company of friends in a free and unpretentious environment. Such simple and human experiences as these would make up my most lasting memories of Russian people, and their spontaneity and simple honesty would only serve to highlight the paucity of social life in western society.
From Tolyatti I proceed westwards via Syzran and Penza, through the beautiful, rolling Russian countryside which, whilst rarely spectacular, is soothingly wild in its unmanaged endlessness and a real pleasure to drive through. In the afternoon I enter Russia’s Central Black Earth Region, an agricultural heartland which stretches south almost to the Caucasus, encompassing some of the world’s most fertile soil. I stop in the city of Tambov long enough only to witness a drunken fight in a city park. Indeed, as I head west in Russia it seems that ever increasing numbers of sullen, pallid, disaffected, track-suit-clad youth and ugly advertising hoardings on every street mark an erosion of traditional Russian culture with increasing proximity to Western Europe.
It’s a blissful drive west out of Tambov in the late afternoon on a quiet provincial road, and I pass the city of Lipetsk after dark, stopping for the night at the roadside and continuing in the morning to the charming town of Yelets, the oldest in the Black Earth Region. Set on a hill on the western bank of the murky Sosna River, Yelets is a provincial town which retains an air of ‘real’ Russia, with beautiful pastel buildings, ancient churches and wooden, chocolate-box cottages set aside quiet, sloping streets. Down amid the wild, rambling green vegetation of the riverbank, overlooked by the light green Ascension Church, bronzed Russians are swimming, sun-bathing and fishing from small boats, enjoying the late-summer warmth in an almost Mediterranean-like atmosphere of torpor and relaxation.
From Yelets I continue southwards, joining the M4 Highway which links the capital to Rostov-on-Don and Russia’s southern, Black Sea coast, roughly tracking the Don River on its way to the Azov Sea. I stop in the afternoon in Voronezh, a city of roughly one million which typifies many of Russia’s western cities; heavily rebuilt following the destruction of the second world war and somehow lacking the charm of many of the cities located between Moscow and the Volga.
Continuing southwards on the M4 the following day, amid the heavy summer traffic of Russian holidaymakers heading to and from the Black Sea coast, the landscape changes very gently from undulating fields and forests to the warm and verdant plains of Southern Russia’s Don Basin with its longer growing season and far milder winters. Trucks at the roadside selling melons remind me for a moment of Uzbekistan, though thankfully there is nothing like the terrible summer heat of Transoxiana. The area also feels more cosmopolitan with its proximity to the Caucasus and Black Sea, and as the homeland of the Don Cossack Host.
Although their origins are unclear, the Cossacks have long been a self-governing group of militaristic communities living in this southern region of what is now Russia and Ukraine, and have played a vital role in the history of both countries. Russia’s Don Cossack Host (one of several hosts) became allied with the Russian Tsars and were instrumental in the expansion of Russia in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, eastwards to the Volga, Urals and beyond across the entirety of Siberia, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Later, the Cossacks became a recognised military class and fought in numerous wars for Russia, forming a strong counter-revolutionary force against the Bolsheviks following the 1917 Revolution.
I stop in the afternoon in the city of Novocherkassk, founded in 1805 by the ataman (supreme military leader) of the Don Host, as capital of the then Don Cossack Region. It’s a pleasant and laid back city with leafy, divided boulevards and low Tsarist-era houses. At the edge of the centre, in a huge cobble-stoned park sits the striking Ascension Cathedral, and next to it a statue to perhaps the most famous Cossack, Yermak Timofeyevich, who following Ivan The Terrible’s defeat of the Tatar Khanate of Kazan, led the first Russian conquests into Siberia, laying the foundations for Russia’s vast territorial expansion. There are few other obvious signs of Cossack culture, but Novocherkassk is a very likeable place, built on a low hill with views down chestnut and mulberry lined streets to the bucolic, plaited fields of the Don countryside.
It’s just forty kilometres from Novocherkassk to southern Russia’s largest city, Rostov-on-Don, which lies on the right bank of the river, not far from its outlet into the Sea of Azov. The traffic is horrendous and I see several accidents as I peel off the M4 into the suburbs, though I am immediately impressed by the city as I drive through the afternoon rush hour to the apartment of my host Oleg.
The region around Rostov has been inhabited since ancient times, but the city itself is relatively modern, established as a centre of commerce and industry on the Don River which is still busy with shipping, with the Volga-Don Canal allowing passage from the cities of inner Russia out into the Black Sea and beyond. Though lying about thirty kilometres inland, the huge, slow Don River gives Rostov the character of a sea port with a certain air of seediness and debauchery and a reputation for organised crime, though I never detect anything close to a threatening atmosphere. I am indeed quite surprised to find Rostov to be one of Russia’s most characterful and charming cities.
Rostov’s raffish old centre stretches along a hill overlooking the Don in streets of old, damp, sometimes crumbling brick houses with a real, lived-in patina. The roads are broken and pot-holed, the tram lines are bowed and lifting from the road surface and bins overflow litter into the streets which are full of dogs and cats. The dogs are friendly characters; two sit patiently outside a pet-food shop, another admires his reflection in the broken glass of a ground floor window, and the cats are approachable and playful. I catch the central market as business is winding up for the day, the crowds thinning to leave behind the city’s alcoholics and madmen; one sleeps under the bench in a bus shelter, another dances jerkily to some awful Europop coming from a nearby music stand; others stagger aimlessly or sit on steps in front of shops. Amid this debauchery the general, sober populace of Rostov bustle on their way home, a colourful mix of Slavs, Armenians, other Caucasians and Asians, which together with the chaos and squalor give Rostov a character quite different from the cities of western and central Russia. I would gladly spend several days exploring Rostov, but my transit visa is due to expire, and so after just two nights I must move west into Ukraine.
The road to the Ukrainian border runs west parallel to the northern coast of the Azov Sea through intensively cultivated fields of black earth. The border crossing into Ukraine is swift and easy and leads me straight into the Donbass (Donetsk Basin) Region of eastern Ukraine, which in addition to agriculture is famed for its coal reserves and has been very heavily industrialised since the nineteenth century. I witness this industrialisation as I approach Mariupol where a huge, rusting, smoke-belching iron foundry sits on the coast amid piles of coal and grassy slag heaps which run straight into the sea. Once beyond the industrial suburbs however, Mariupol is a pleasant place, and I am lucky to be hosted by Pavel, or rather by his mother and mother-in-law, in Peschanka, a suburb of holiday homes at the western edge of the city overlooking the sea. I’m given a warm Ukrainian welcome with tea, ham, salo (cured pork fatback) and borscht, the classic Ukrainian beetroot soup.
Walking for a minute through walnut, cherry and apple trees brings me down to the beach which is a clean strand of yellow sand, though the Azov Sea is the dirtiest I have ever seen; my feet disappear in its murky green water long before my knees are wet. Not far beyond the beach are the cranes of the city’s docks, backed by smokestacks, and the sea is full of container ships waiting to dock, none of which deter the holidaymakers who are sunbathing on the beach. I meet Pavel the following day, an energetic self-made forty year old businessman and workaholic, though the three bullet wounds in his stomach (a ‘professional problem’) and pistol in his bag speak volumes of the way business is conducted in Ukraine.
Donetsk, the regional capital and my next stop lies a little over a hundred kilometres inland to the north of Mariupol and is effectively the centre of the Donbass. Founded in 1869 by the British industrialist John Hughes, and named Yuzovka until Soviet times, Donetsk is a thoroughly industrial city, centre of a sprawling conurbation of mining and heavy industry. Long renowned as a grim, dirty and polluted city, Donetsk was plagued by economic decline and organised crime following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but has very clearly made a great transformation in recent years and appears clean and prosperous, if a little dull, with the overgrown slag piles which can be seen throughout the city being perhaps its most distinctive sight. Judging by the number of expensive cars on the streets of Donetsk, there is certainly a lot of money here, though even more than in Russia, it seems very unevenly distributed.
This eastern region of Ukraine is predominantly Russian speaking with little assertion of Ukrainian national identity, and I notice that independence-day celebrations here are very low key. At the same time however, there are certainly differences from Russia; it’s noticeably less authoritarian, and there seems to be less state intervention in life; business seems freer, and prices are lower. People also seem slightly more European, smilier, more relaxed and a touch more worldly.
I drive north out of Donetsk, passing through a succession of run-down provincial towns such as Kramatorsk and Slavyansk which are set amidst moribund Soviet industry; places which have certainly not seen the same revival as Donetsk. Beyond these, the landscape changes as I leave the Donbass and return to the rolling fields of black earth which characterise north-eastern Ukraine, an area which has traditionally been a frontier of the Russian Empire, and from where the name Ukraine (from okraina, or borderland) may originate.
My destination is Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, which has a markedly more cultured and sophisticated air than Donetsk. I am hosted here by Tatyana, in what she describes as a ‘squat’ though which is really more of a private bar and social club which she runs with a group of friends, hosting local musicians and generally cultivating a free and unpretentious atmosphere. I’m greeted at the squat by Lyosha, Tatyana’s husband and quite a character, with whom I visit a local supermarket. Lyosha seems to have very poor eyesight, and walks the aisles muttering madly, looking for me and forgetting utterly what we came in for. Only later would I realise that this was largely was alcohol related, and this encounter would set the tone for the nine days that I spent in Kharkiv, with numerous and rather debauched all-day drinking sessions and bouts of melancholy, evenings of meeting young intellectual types and playing vintage video games, and one lunchtime barbecue with Misha, the squat’s barman and some friends in a garden on the edge of town, enjoying the last of the summer heat with plenty of vodka.
Kharkiv, which was capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1919 until 1934 has an elegant centre of grandiose, pre-war Soviet architecture. Walking north from the imposing regional administration building, one crosses cobbled Freedom Square, one of the largest squares in Europe, into a circular park from which streets radiate between the buildings of the National Medical University and the 1928 Derzhprom (State Industry) Building, a masterpiece of Constructivist architecture which combined technologically advanced construction techniques with communist purpose.
In contrast to Kharkiv’s architectural grandeur and youthful, educated population are rows of expensive black SUVs and sports cars (Porsches being especially popular), a sure sign of capitalism which here seems even more rampant than in Russia. While Kharkiv has a more worldly air than Donetsk, I am yet to be impressed with any real signs of a Ukrainian identity, though it is here that I see my first statue of Taras Shevchenko (who looks like a wild-eyed Nietzsche), the poet and ethnographer who was exiled in Kazakhstan for twelve years after insulting the wife of Tsar Nicholas I. As the father of modern Ukrainian literature and language, which are central to an independent Ukrainian identity, I would later see that Shevchenko has become something close to a national hero, his name for example often replacing that of Lenin in Ukrainian city streets.
I pull myself away from the squat and its lures of alcohol and indolence, and push further to the north-west, tracking the Russian border to Sumy where my host Borys accommodates me in the house of his grandparents who live on the edge of town. Borys’ grandmother produces wonderful home-cooked food, with vegetables grown in an impressive and meticulously tended cottage garden, while his grandfather, I am interested to learn, is a survivor of the 1948 earthquake in Ashgabat, which killed over one hundred thousand people. Sumy itself is an unremarkable and rather sleepy city, though from a war memorial on the city’s southern edge one gets a beautiful view over the flat, wooden countryside beyond the Psel River.
Beyond Sumy I enter the northernmost part of Ukraine, an area historically known as Severia after a native Slavic tribe, which was incorporated in the tenth century into the medieval state of Kievan Rus’, the progenitor of modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Severia is a beautiful area of rivers, woodland and open countryside around sleepy provincial towns, such as Putyvl, which is overlooked from a forested hill by the gilt domes of the Movchansky Monastery, and Hlukhiv with its collection of churches and unusual Kyiv Gate, a Triumphal Arch which seems somewhat out of place in such a backwater.
Just after Hlukhiv I cross the highway leading from Kyiv to the Russian border along which I drove more than four years ago, on my way to enter Russia for the first time at the very start of the Odyssey. Shortly beyond lies my next stop, the delightful town of Novhorod Siverskyi, which sits on a hill overlooking the slow, overgrown Desna River, seemingly aloof from the modern world with quiet, rambling streets on which move more bicycles and horse-carts than cars, and small houses with burgeoning cottage gardens tended by stout peasant women. In the town’s low-rise centre there are a few Soviet-era buildings, though many are older, including a beautifully preserved example of trading arches, an Eastern Slavic version of an Asian bazaar which have long disappeared from most cities in Ukraine and Russia.
Novhorod Siverskyi is indeed an ancient place with almost a thousand years of history, and was once capital of the Severian Principality. The town’s importance has certainly waned, but it is still famed for its architecture, most famously for the beautifully sited Transfiguration of the Saviour Monastery, a serene Ukrainian Orthodox complex surrounded by a blocky, whitewashed sixteenth century defensive wall, crowned in it corners with pitch-roofed wooden towers, which give it something of a fairytale appearance. In the monastery’s grassy inner grounds monks mow the lawns and gather fruit, and I’m free to wander and climb up a restored wooden staircase to the wall’s upper galleries, then climb to the south-eastern tower. From here there is an impressive view of the Desna as it meanders through rambling, languid vegetation, beyond fields and vegetable plots where women dig potatoes and gather pumpkins. Only the thud of falling apples punctuates the silence in this enchanting spot. In addition to Novhorod Siverskyi’s charming atmosphere, it is here that I first start to appreciate a noticeable difference in character from nearby Russia, one which would become increasingly obvious and assertive as I travelled west. Without Russia’s vast, sparsely populated wilderness, there is not such a stark urban – rural divide; villages and small towns such as this are not forlorn, isolated places eking out an existence, but agrarian communities of living villages and peasants.
From Novhorod Siverskyi I turn westwards through sparsely populated farmland towards what is perhaps Ukraine’s most arresting geographical feature, the Dnieper River, which forms a backbone to the country. The Dnieper divides Ukraine roughly into two halves, with the territories lying either side of the river historically being referred to as Right Bank and Left Bank Ukraine. Both areas were formerly part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, though Left Bank Ukraine was re-incorporated into the Russian state more than a century earlier than its counterpart on the right bank; a legacy which clearly continues to divide the now united country.
I stop short of the Dnieper, in the city of Chernihiv, which with more than a thousand years of history is one of Ukraine’s oldest cities, seat of the Principality of Chernihiv which historically vied for power with rulers of Kievan Rus’, and was later centre of the Cossack Hetmanate, the Ukrainian Cossack state formed by the uprising of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the hetman (head of state) of the Zaporizhian Cossack Host against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1648.
Chernihiv feels rather spread out, no doubt in part due to the destruction wrought upon it by the Second World War, but it has a number of striking churches standing as testament to its long history; from early, strongly Byzantine-influenced churches dating from the time of the ancient principalities, to the Ukrainian Baroque of the distinctive, heavy-walled Catherine’s Church which sits upon a leafy mound overlooking the Desna on the city’s southern edge.
I leave Chernihiv feeling that I am beginning to find a real, distinct Ukrainian historical and cultural identity, and make the short journey south to the Dnieper where I cross into Kyiv, undoubtedly the cultural, historical and economic hub of the country.