8 Davisville Road
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8 Davisville Road

Postcards from Ukraine, 81

Red carpet for bedraggled British student tour party

Photo by Karen Thompson

That mildly sullen student boredom still beams out across the decades.

I look particularly mopey — hand on head, skulking in a slither of shadow. Three of the other young men stare down at what would now be TikTok videos — but only have diaries to amuse them. The fellow on the right is literally staring at the floor, as if it might magically open up to reveal an iPhone two decades ahead of schedule.

At the back a young woman is stretched out and puffing a roll-up, to general unconcern. Nobody bothers to communicate — we’re far too cool to do small talk, though conviviality breaks out when cold drinks are introduced.

photo by Karen Thompson

Couldn’t tell you where these two photos was taken. I think that was the case at the time. I do know that the luxury of floating aimlessly down that beautiful river has been brutally curtailed. At least for now.

The Grand Tour

We were on the boat as part what would be the last ‘cultural exchange’ between the UK and the Soviet Union. The latter was keen to demonstrate that invading Afghanistan had not diluted its commitment to international peace and understanding.

Our end of the deal was an exotic itinerary at a ridiculously low price.

Then, as now, the key mission of a fancy holiday was to collect photographic evidence for the folks back home. The place names scribbled on this album now have a poignant resonance:

‘Russia’ was the Soviet Union — the terms were used interchangeably in that era

I knew that the last two cities were Ukrainian and (K)herson rang a faint bell. I’d never heard of Zaporizhia. Now everyone has.

We started our tour in Moscow and then took the overnight train to the mysterious, Zaporizhia, described as ‘an industrial city with a major hydro-electric dam’. Not an obvious bucket list location.

All that ZAZ

The first I heard about the nuclear power plant was when artillery shells began raining down on it. In fact the plant was not built until the 1990s.

So we didn’t have reactors to inspect — but we were treated to the next best thing — a night out at the local car factory. ZAZ had apparently been in cranking out vehicles for half a century. And that felt like the length of the welcome address at a special reception laid on for us.

One of the models our hosts were manufacturing — a few miles on the clock now, of course, but still…

We smiled vacantly, in slack-jawed anticipation of a long evening celebrating Soviet spark plugs. But after the interminable exchange of comradely greetings things livened up dramatically. Tables were cleared, a stage curtain pulled back, trays of shots wheeled out. Soon the Beatles were back in the USSR — or a game Ukrainian version of them, anyway.

A riotous evening ended with the (male) British students taking on the Ukrainians in a drinking contest. I think you can guess the outcome but the victors sportingly carried us back to the coach.

Mind your step

All I knew about Ukraine was what featured in my (Useful) Idiot’s Guide to the October Revolution. Though a Trotsky fanboy, I hadn’t even registered that the big guy was born and raised in Yanovka (now Bereslavka) a one-horse Ukranian village (pop: 139). Not that they were offering a visit as an optional excursion. The alleged kingpin of the counter revolution was a faded bogeyman, a Soviet Dick Turpin. His hash had been settled down Mexico way and his name not mentioned in polite society.

I was looking forward to seeing the Odessa Steps, though, having seen Battleship Potemkin:

Thankfully there were no marauding Cossacks when we visited.

photo by Kieran McGovern

A frank exchange of views

Foreigners were not encouraged to saunter around the Soviet Union without supervision. Our minder was Vardic, seen here in customary declamatory mode.

photo by Karen Thompson

Vardic was full of bonhomie at the outset but our student irreverence/arrogance wore on his nerves. At one point, he launched into an angry speech about perfidious Albion. “When a Russian gives his word…” he began, before rattling on for a good ten minutes. Executive summary: the British were two-faced, double-crossing snakes.

This seemingly passionate resentment was a little disconcerting. But we talked Vardic down from the ledge and détente was soon restored.

Size isn’t everything

photo by Karen Thompson

We visited many war memorials, where families would pay their respects on weekends and special occasions. These informal ceremonies were moving to observe, though the macho social realist sculpture was not to all tastes. This would not be my personal choice for a garden of remembrance.

Tachanka Monument

Kakhovka, a port in the Kherson Oblast has experienced an especially bloody modern history. The Tachanka Monument (1967) depicts the tachanka or carts used by the Red Army to cross no-man’s land during ferocious Civil War trench warfare (1917–20).

photo by Karen Thompson

In March 2022 Kakhovka fell. Sobering to think that surviving locals in this photo will now be under Russian occupation — and according to V Putin citizens of that country. What do they think of Tarchanka now? It has theme park appeal — who doesn’t enjoy a giant brass horse? But the quirky charm masks an assertion of Bolshevik power. I’m generally against statue cancellation but this one may go the way of Ozymandias.

Wedding Bells

A more uplifting image from the car park of the same location.

photo by Karen Thompson

My reading is that the bridegroom (who seems to have borrowed his bigger brother’s funeral suit) has been shotgunned up the aisle, perhaps by the scary looking hitman on the right. Then again, the happy couple may have just celebrated their ruby wedding anniversary. As Chuck Berry wisely pointed out, you never can tell.

Do pobachenn’a Kyiv

I think I dreamt our last night in Ukraine. Standing with 60,000 fervent Dynamo Kyiv fans — many in uniform — as the legendary Blokhin scores the winning goal in a European Cup tie. Then back to the apartment of local art students and — pinch me — Beatles geeks.

Would you like some beer? That would be lovely. Do you prefer the White Album or Abbey Road? Ooh, tough call! Is it okay if sketch you? Please be my guest.

Just couldn’t have happened.

by Oleg Daniloff, Kyiv, September 16, 1981

With thanks to Karen Thompson for photos and additional research.

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