2012 - Ukraine

October

This short visit formed part of our cruise on Discovery to the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea taking in 10 countries: Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Italy, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine. We had visited before with Zoë in 2006 including some days spent with her friend Larissa and husband Andre. We also met Nathan and Keri in Kiev as part of that visit.

Ukraine is Europe’s second largest country.  It declared independence in 1918 but was conquered by Russia in 1921 and lost a third of its territory to Poland.  It suffered mass starvation and also mass executions between the wars. It also suffered massive losses against Germany in the war.  After independence in 1991 there has been constant political instability.  Russia cut gas supplies but later agreed re-instatement after taking a 25 year lease of the Black Sea base of Sevastopol.  A significant portion of the population is Russian.  The western part has closer links with Europe.

Population: 45m.

Thursday 25th October

Yalta is in the Crimea and is surrounded by mountains.  It developed under Tsar Nicholas 1 and has many large houses dating to that period.  We took a coach trip out of the city via a long winding hill past big houses and flats to the Massandra Estate.  This French chateau building was originally started by a prince but he died before it was completed in the 1880s and it was purchased by Tsar Alexander 111.  It subsequently became a dacha for Stalin.  Interesting rather than absolutely stunning.

Our next stop was the Livadia Palace where the Yalta Conference took place at the end of the war.  This had been built for Tsar Nicholas 11 in the 19th century and is very ornate and sumptuous. 

There is a large hall near the entrance and this contains the table at which the Allied leaders sat at the conference.  It was here that Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill signed the agreement for settling the boundaries after  the war.

We had some light refreshments accompanied by music from a traditional folk group.  As our party was quite large we were not able to see the group very well from our seated position but Jill stood and took photos to aid our memories of this.

The palace area enjoyed wonderful views over Yalta.

That evening we watched another Folkloric Show put on by the Philippino crew.  As usual this was great fun and the performers seemed to get as much pleasure from it as we did.  Great!

 

Friday 26th  October

Our next port of call was Sebastopol.  The weather was fine but for the first time we found it cold especially first thing.  We first drove through the modern city.  Sebastopol was founded in 1783 as a navy base for Russia which it still is.  It contains many monuments and also has many grand Grecian style public buildings.  These are built in the local limestone that goes cream or grey after a few years.  It currently has a population of around 400,000.  Inevitably there are the usual blocks of Soviet flats on the outskirt although these are limited to 5-7 floors. The city was twice nearly totally destroyed with 99% of buildings being flattened in World War ll.

Our destination was the 5th century BC Greek city of Chersonesus.  It is amazing that this remained in occupation until the 13th century when it was razed by the Tartars.  I don’t think we have seen such a large archaeological site and even  then some of it is now under the sea!  It contains the remains of Greek, Roman and Byzantine buildings.  This includes a Byzantine 6th century basilica built on the site of a Greek temple.  After walking around the site we visited a modern church built on the site and then the museum which contains many exhibits covering the whole period of settlement of Chersonesus

We were particularly keen in our sightseeing (!) at Sebastopol as we had arranged an afternoon trip as well as a morning.  Between these we had a quick packed lunch on the ship!

Our second tour involved a coach trip which took us through the Valley of Balaclava where we could imagine a little of the military strategy of the Crimean Wars as the wide valley was laid out before us from the top of the hill where a memorial now stands.

We were heading for Inkerman and Uspensky Cave Monastery carved out of limestone caves. It dates to the 8th century and comprised several churches but some no longer exist following damage by war and earthquakes. The approach was up a long track and then a stone staircase.  A formidable guide warned everyone about not taking photos.  Jill thought this meant within the church and so incurred his considerable wrath for taking one across the valley from the staircase outside the church.  Fortunately we lived to tell the tale – just!

On our return journey we visited the Khan’s Palace which dates to 1400-1700.  The Khan was an area ruler under the Sultan.  The palace had been neglected and was restored for a visit of Catherine the Great.  It is now a tourist site and also a favourite backdrop for wedding photos.  It was rather strange to see outside a group of wedding guests standing in their finery at the roadside enjoying the wedding breakfast (presumably) from the boot of a Lada car!

Our guide was very informative and told us many things about the area.  Apparently, until 1996 no-one could enter Sebastopol without military permission.  This even applied to friends of local people and it could take 1-2 months to be granted.  Crimea is now an autonomous region of Ukraine and has its own government and flag.  Its population is 2 million of whom 75-80% are Russian.  This obviously makes politics interesting as the west of Ukraine favours Europe but not surprisingly the east looks to Russia.  This area is Russian speaking, although a lot of Ukrainians’ come here in the summer.

We were struck by the vast preponderance of Lada cars.  We were told that about 75% are Ladas of varying ages in the country areas.  Here there are also ancient buses.  The rural areas also have small and poor single storey houses.  All of this is somewhat of a contrast to the city.

As regards health, medical help is officially free but in practice private payments have to be made to medical staff and medicines have to be paid for.  An operation will involve a private payment (backhander) of around $300.

In 1992 apparently 93% voted for independence from Ukraine – they feel that Kiev does not give them enough money!  We were to see more of the politics on our return to the city as the square beside the port was closed for what appeared to be a large pop concert.  It was in fact put on by the ruling party complete with speeches and the release of balloons ahead of an election two days later.  We noticed that the speaker was dressed in military uniform.  Apparently the ruling party has been in power for 20 years.  Our guide the following day thought that communism was better and that politicians were just in it for the money.  It is sad that so called democracy does not help them.  We subsequently found that “The International Election Observation Mission concluded that the 28 October 2012 parliamentary elections in Ukraine ‘were characterised by a tilted playing field. This was the result, primarily, of the abuse of administrative resources, as well as a lack of transparency in campaign and party financing and of balanced media coverage. Voters had a choice between distinct parties and candidate registration was inclusive, with two notable exceptions, representing a wide variety of political views’. ” 

This area is very beautiful with its hills and a good amount of vegetation.  It was also interesting from an historical viewpoint.

Saturday 27th : Odessa.  The sea was very rough as we approached and the weather was cold but sunny.  The mountains protect the Crimea from the worst weather but do not do the same for Odessa.

An earlier city was destroyed by the Tartars but the present was founded by Catherine the Great and presents an elegant 18th – 19th century appearance.  There is a small area of glass and concrete buildings in the centre of the city but they would not be allowed now. Although now in the Ukraine it was Russian and was the most important port in the USSR and a naval base.  It remains a very important port.  Our visit comprised a coach tour with some walking around the city.

This is the 5th largest city in Ukraine with a population of just over a million.  It had a rather military air with many statues and with a changing of the guard ceremony at Shevchenko Park.  This proved particularly interesting however as the guards were school children of about 15 years of age for whom it is considered an honour to perform this duty.  They do so for one week, being on guard for 15 minutes twice a day.  We were invited into the guardhouse and were able to ask questions and talk with two girls who had been on duty.  Over one third of the population of Odessa was killed in the war and this ceremony reminds them of this and of the dangers of Naziism.

The city dates back to 12,000 BC we were told, having been founded by Assyrians.  It became European from about 5-6000 BC.  In recent times it was used for the export of Russian wheat.  Apparently a lot of Italians were involved in the trade and the ships were filled with ballast comprising lava from Etna – this was then used for road surfacing in the city.

The architecture was very grand by the station.  The area was bombed in the war and the station was rebuilt in 1952.

We noticed many trees in the city and were told that a tree had to be planted in return for the grant of planning permission.  This seemed a great idea that would beautify the city.  However, we also noticed a lot of graffiti.

We stopped at the Cathedral which was demolished in Soviet times but was rebuilt in 1999 by private subscription.  It was certainly beautiful.

We also saw the Potomkin Steps, the Opera House (restored in 1967) and the city hall with a statue of Pushkin.  Pushkin is called the father of Russian literature.  It is interesting that until his time French was the language used in Odessa (presumably at least by the educated elite).  The buildings have been well restored and rebuilt and make this an attractive looking city.

The cities that we saw in the Ukraine on this trip were certainly more attractive than those we had seen on our previous trip when we had visited Zoë’s friend Larissa. Zoë had visited the Black Sea area with Larissa and had told us that it was attractive.