Slava Ukraina!

‘Passports,’ the border guard grumbles as I exit our minibus at the Poland-Ukraine border checkpoint. It is minus eight degrees and the desolate landscape is covered with a thick layer of snow. Hoping that the two Russian visas will not cause me any trouble, I rub the sleep from my eyes. As we enter Ukraine, I actually feel that I am crossing a European border for the first time.

Ukraine is still fighting a civil war, which the large number of donation boxes prove. Even at the border, a volunteer is collecting money for the soldiers at the frontline in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in East Ukraine. In a hostel in Lviv, a girl from Donetsk tells me: ‘The front line is about 40 kilometres from my home. Many people from my university and work are now on the other side.” Lviv has Polish roots and was part of the Hapsburg empire for a long time: it was only incorporated into the USSR and then later Ukraine after WWII. It is a place where you will find the strongest pro-Ukrainian sentiments, such as bars selling ‘Putin Dickhead’ beer or requiring knowledge of the passwords: ‘Slava Ukraina!’ (Be brave, Ukraine!)

Putin Dickhead beer
The label for ‘Putin Dickhead’ beer

Although the frontline is far away, the civil war is noticeable in this beautiful city in more ways beyond merely collecting bottle caps for prosthetic limbs for soldiers. On the main boulevard, a tent grimly displays pictures of those who have been lost. People here are handing out flyers and collecting money, too. Interestingly, a tent like this was also set up near the State University in Moscow, but there, it was in support of the separatist republic. In the historic cemetery, a special area is designated for the graves of soldiers that died in the war. A lady lights candles at the grave of a loved one; the grave is fully covered with flowers.

In the port city of Odessa, the situation now seems to have stabilised following an eruption of tensions on 2 May, 2014. This Ukrainian city, in contrast to Lviv, is almost completely Russian-speaking and a significant number of citizens hold pro-Russian sentiments. After a clash between pro-unity and pro-federalist supporters, the labour union building which the pro-Russians were using caught fire. Many people died, due in large part to insufficient action from the police and firefighters. ‘Something had to happen. If these clashes and retaliation had not taken place, Odessa would have been much worse off,’ says my host.

‘The fight against corruption seems to have begun’
Not only the general mood in the city has improved, but also the fight against corruption seems to have begun with a serious restructuring of the police force. Vladislav is part of this new police force, having previously served in the Ukrainian army in East Ukraine. He assures me that after the events of 2 May, many policemen disappeared and, under the new governor of the Odessa region, the situation is slowly improving. This recently elected governor is former Georgian president Mikheil Sakhasvilli, known for striving against corruption.

As we empty the bottle of vodka with a toast to the new police force, we head to downtown Odessa. After the first bar, we try to get into a club but we are told there is no place for us there. Vlad starts an argument and the situation narrowly avoids escalation. It would have been so damn easy to show his badge and afterwards let some police car take us home. But as my host and a good friend of Vlad’s tells me, ‘He knows that everyone in his close circle will abandon him if he ever resorts to corruption.’