Reflections on Ukraine – My Visit in 1998 (1)

With everything that is going on with the dreadful, reprehensible war on Ukraine at the moment, I have spent much time over the past couple of weeks reflecting upon a visit that I made to Ukraine in 1998. I thought that I would now put this into a series of blog posts.

Back in 1998 I had just finished my PhD (later turned into the book Japanese Education Reform), and immediately got a job at the University of Sheffield – where I had done both my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. It wasn’t an academic job and it didn’t pay very well – though at the time, it felt like it did since I had essentially had no income since returning to the UK from the JET Programme in 1994. I was working at East Asia Business Services (having previously been Japan Business Services) – essentially a unit of the University that offered consultancy services and aimed to make money. By the time I joined it was rebranding as EABS – largely so that the ‘East Asia’ part was less obvious.

My main task was to set up a new short-term (summer) English-language teaching programme – but one that would not compete with the English language programmes that the University already offered. Essentially this meant programmes for under 18s. I also had to work out which cities/countries to particularly target for potential customers. Part of the answer was to focus on sister cities of Sheffield. This included Donetsk, Ukraine. And so in the autumn of 1998 I travelled to Ukraine and then Poland to visit Kyiv, Donetsk, Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk/Sopot/Gdynia.

I have written about some of the travel experiences in a post called “Flying Experiences” – here is the relevant part:

My next interesting experience was in 1998 flight in Ukraine. The trip had already been marred by my luggage going to Lagos (Nigeria) rather than joining me in Kyiv, as most of the passengers on one of my connecting flights had apparently gone to that destination. I had to take a domestic flight from Donetsk to the capital. The flight was early in the morning and the plane was dark when I boarded. The scheduled departure time came and went. After some time a loud rumbling noise was heard and a long lorry pulled up in front of our plane. From what I could tell wires were then attached to the plane and the engine of the lorry, the bonnet of which had been lifted, and the plane was then jump started. This was mildly amusing until I began to wonder what would happen in the event of the engine failing during the flight. That same day, I took another flight – on a plane of the same design, albeit newly painted in white (to the extent that even the netting to hold the in-flight magazines had been painted over, as became apparent when they were pulled back) – with Moldovan Airlines, the air stewardess was most insistent that I have a Moldovan beer, pointing out that it not only tasted good but was complimentary, despite my protestations that it was still only about 8:30 in the morning!

The above text doesn’t actually cover all of the detail. For example, there were no reserved seats on the flight from Kyiv to Donetsk and when I got on, most people were taking up seats near the back of the plane. I didn’t know or care about why, so went further forward. Once the engines started up, the reason for their positioning became clear. By the time we arrived in Donetsk I was practically deaf in one ear thanks to the sound of the propellers.

However, before all of that, thanks to my case not joining me in Kyiv, I was given some money (equivalent of $50 from memory) and a wash bag with toiletries, to keep me going. My first job in Kyiv was to buy some more clothes. I went into a department store and found that the choice was limited. There were hardly any clothes on display. It may have been about eight years since the fall of the Soviet Union, but elements of what I experienced felt much like what I had grown up hearing about life behind the iron curtain. That all said, the boots that I got in that shop were amazing – so comfortable, warm, and well made. I used them for years.

Despite now having local clothes, it seemed to me that locals could tell that I was not a local. I don’t know what it was – after all, it was now only my jacket which was not something bought in Kyiv. Was it really just the jacket? The way I looked? The way I walked? I don’t know – but I felt this in Ukraine in a way that didn’t happen in Poland. This made me very wary when taking out my camera (keep in mind this is still a time before I had my first mobile phone and those phones didn’t even have a camera in those days) to take any photos as it always felt as though people were watching my every move. And in some places these people seemed to have earpieces – so were presumably security or police of some sort. Ukraine just didn’t seem a place that had many visitors – it hadn’t even been that straight forward to get a visa.

I did take some photos during the trip – but as this is also a time before digital cameras, the quality of the pictures and the subsequent scans I’ve done, aren’t that great. I will leave this post with some pictures that I took during the first day or so in Kyiv.

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