My bad first impression of Ukraine
Five years ago, I took a train from Kiev to Sevastopol, crossing the Ukraine Crimea border. The 18-hour train ride was probably one of my worst travel experiences. I was on my own, still having a fever and sore throat, and culture-shocked. Having been to India the previous year, I totally underestimated Ukraine. I did not know much Ukrainian or Russian when I first arrived, thinking that I would get around with English, body language and survival instinct. I was wrong.
Super confusing train ticket – not mine (I lost mine)!
Except young people, most Ukrainian don’t speak much English and very few places have translated sign board or menu at that time. Despite the crowd in the capital Kiev for UEFA Euro 2012, very few stopped when I asked for help. People were rather reserved and although I managed to board my train on time, my first impression of Ukraine was far from good.
Luckily, (my) first impressions are often wrong.
What I learned from studying food
I must admit that I was quite oblivious when I first arrived in Crimea. I was pretty much clueless about its history or culture. And given my limited Ukrainian and Russian, I did not have long conversations even with people who were eager to share stories with me. But eventually I found my way – we bonded over food.
During my two months in Ukraine, I was frequently invited to join my friends at their homes or at their favourite restaurants in town for breakfasts, lunches and dinners. I became part of people’s families and I learned a great deal about Ukraine over the dinning table, in particular the complicated history of Crimea.
While helping to prepare chebureki (deep-fried pocket of cheese and meat) and pelmini (dumpling served with sour cream), my friend’s aunt lectured me about the history of conflict in Crimea. Tatars were believed to have settled in and founded the Ottoman Empire in Crimea around 15th century. In the 18th century, Russians invaded the Peninsula and established its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, which serves as a strategically important port, allowing Russia to extend its force through the Mediterranean. As a result of this, the majority of Tatar people emigrated from Crimea and quickly Crimea became an overwhelmingly Russian populated territory.
The next Friday, sitting around the dinning table and with my friends translating, Grandpa told us about the war. During WWII, Crimea was again invaded but by the Nazis and Stalin deported almost the last Tatar inhabitants of Crimea to Central Asia accusing them of collaboration with the Nazis. Following Stalin’s death and at the beginning of destalinisation, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in recognition of Ukraine’s effort during the war, offered Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.
This transfer was no more than a gesture and had no real effect, as Ukraine was still a constituent republic of the USSR. However, the consequences of this decision were really felt with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, as Russia was not ready to give up on Ukraine and Crimea.
Flashpoint between Ukraine and Russia
There comes a point in your life when you realize we are all a part of history. We are living in a narrative that will be written in the history books of tomorrow.
Soon after I left Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to take a loan from Russia instead of integrating with Europe sparked protests around Ukraine. But as a region with long economic and ethnic ties to Russia, eastern Ukraine and Crimea took a different side.
Within few weeks, Ukraine became divided on its future alignment with either Europe of Russia. Sudden violence broke out and escalated at a rapid pace with the attention quickly shifting from Kiev’s deadly protests to Crimea’s ‘invasion’ by Russia. Crimea once again found itself at the center of a power struggle and in March 2014, Crimeans voted to be annexed to Russia.
Lines on Map – From Ukraine to Crimea
Three years on, as I am planning to visit Crimea again, I realised it is now impossible to travel to Crimea from Ukraine. You would need to travel to Moscow and then fly to Crimea.
This socially constructed idea of ‘borders’ not only separates people physically but also draw a line between “us” and “them”. It is so central to our sense of identity yet it rarely can prevent economic, political, social and cultural interaction between people.
I doubt humans can live in a borderless world but for me, lines are drawn to be crossed.
Vivian grew up in a road-tripping kind of family so she attributes this to be her root cause for a desire to explore the world. She studied the weird combination of anthropology and comparative law for her bachelor’s degree, and is currently doing her post-graduate degree in Hong Kong.