Reflections on Ukraine – My Visit in 1998 (3)


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. Click here for the first post and here for the second post. This is the third post.

One of the things that I remember about my first visit to Ukraine, is struggling to find food that I liked. Breakfast was included at the hotel I stayed at in Kyiv. It was the same every day – ham and peppers. This would not be my first choice of breakfast. I also ate dinner at the hotel – which was an interesting experience since, as noted in the previous post, I could not read or understand Ukrainian or Russian and no English was provided. In the end I made guesses based on what things may be due to price and where certain words appeared on the menu.

I can honestly say that I have never been so pleased to see a McDonald’s in my life as I was when I came across one – not far from my hotel – in Kyiv.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that the expansion of McDonald’s and other global brands across the world is a positive development, but when you can’t speak a local language, there is certainly a benefit to being able to find something familiar. Of course, the opening of McDonald’s beyond what was the iron curtain was often cited as an example of the expansion of globalisation and a symbol of the changes that were happening in these countries. But, based on what I saw, it was quite superficial. Ukraine – particularly Donetsk – looked and felt poor and directionless in a way that the cities I visited in the following days in Poland did not. The huge variation in economic fortunes that have come over the following years really hasn’t surprised me. If you would like to read more about this (and how it relates to the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia), read this excellent article by Richard Katz, from which I have taken the following graph:


It is clear from this graph that in 1998 (and then again in 1999) I was there at the low points (until now, at least) for the Ukrainian economy.

Another aspect of how poor Ukraine was at this time could be seen in the size of the potholes in Donetsk. The cars had to ensure that they made their way around them – doing anything else would almost certainly have broken the suspension, assuming the car would even get out of the hole (calling them potholes really doesn’t do justice to how large and deep many were). The roads, as you can see in the following picture (I don’t seem to have any pictures of my time in Donetsk), were generally much better in Kyiv.

I also remember walking across what looked like a wasteland to get to some buildings – possibly a school – when in Donetsk. There were clearly people who had money in the city – but it wasn’t reaching all levels of society.

Returning to the discussion of food, when I was in Donetsk I met and was shown around a local university student (I think he was introduced to me by the education agent that I had been dealing with in my work to try to recruit students (see post 1)). The main thing I remember from when we were together was him asking what university students in the UK like to drink. “Beer. What about Ukraine?” “Vodka” (with the ‘v’ sounding like a ‘w’) and an intonation that sounded to me like “of course”. “Yes, we sometimes drink vodka in the UK too… often mixed with orange juice” was my reply. The look on his face, I will never forget. I may as well told him that I was planning on committing mass murder. He couldn’t believe that we would do such a thing to vodka (whereas I still can’t imagine drinking it neat… and I hardly ever drink it at all these days – despite taking a liking to Wiśniówka (cherry vodka (which I suspect is also frowned upon in Ukraine) during my visit to Poland).

Anyway, by the end of this trip, I have to admit to getting a taste for ham and peppers for breakfast (seemingly not a breakfast reserved to Ukraine as it was also served on the Moldovan Air flight referred to in the first post and my post on flying experiences), though I cannot remember having it many times since.

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