Ukraine has been in the news, for the past few days, but for the wrong reason.
Today I saw a video clip of Pro-Russian Soldiers patting the hand of a Pro-Ukraine counter part in a friendly gesture. This prompted me to write my first impression of the place. I remember visiting parts of Ukraine when I was 20 years old, on a ship, as a junior engineer. The ship was a general cargo vessel of 10,000 ton size and carried a variety of goods from India, to be off loaded in various Soviet Ports. My first port of call was Odessa, a black sea port, not far from the Rumanian border.
Yes, it was part of the Soviet Union at that time.
I remember the intense cold and mounds of snow everywhere. I remember visiting some of their large department stores. I remember the blast of hot air that came through the air ducts and me standing right next to it warming my hands. I was wearing a parka that I had bought just a few weeks before, in Las Palmas, which was a Spanish island at the entrance to the Mediterranean.
I remember visiting the Interclub, a sort of “foreigners club” that the Soviets set up for those that could not speak the local language. The club had an English Language Library, where there were not only English translations of Great Russian authors like Tolstoy, but also books like The Catcher in the Rye.
I had almost no money in my pocket, since the pay for a junior engineer working in an Indian shipping company was really poor those days. I had something like 5 US dollars to spend over the next ten days in Ukraine.
And yet, I had lots of fun. First of all, I got a free bus ride to the Interclub, from the port area. Since I did not know where to go, or how to get there and how much it might cost, I took the free ride.
Next, the women that attended the club, who spoke English, did help me get a booklet of transport tickets. These are actually very similar to the ones in Vancouver these days. The same passes can be used on a bus, a train, or a ferry. What was different for me, is that I got a booklet of a dozen or so tickets (forgot how many where there) without having to pay for it. Apparently, it was a present, from the Soviet Union.
So, armed with that booklet, I was free to take any bus or other transport anywhere, and it cost me absolutely nothing. This was a novel experience for me, since I had never been given a free travel pass in any other country.
I also remember few other incidences of basically meeting up young people that wished to speak with me, on the street, or in a cafe, but we could not manage much of a talk because they spoke Ukrainian, Russian or Romanian, and I spoke only Bengali, Hindi and English. Nonetheless, we smiled at each other a lot, shook hands, and I got patted on my back often.
A young women kissed me on my cheek, which caused quite a bit of embarrassment for me. Coming fresh from India, I was not used to sudden display of affection from strangers on streets. On the whole, I came away with really nice feelings about the people of the Soviet Union.
My next stop was in Kherson, at the mouth of Dnieper River. I was there for only a few days. The place needed a different set of travel tickets. I also managed to see a sort of musical play. It was not quite the Bolshoi ballet, but it was very good, in my untrained eye. How did I afford to buy the ticket? Well, once again, I was gifted by a free pass by the Soviet Union. It was one of the best seats, in the second row from the front.
I was invited to a “chess” game. Russians were champion chess players. But the game was invented in India. So I went to play. I knew the basic rules, but was less than an average player. Consequently, I lost both the games, one as white and the next as black. The opponent was a man about twice my age.
What I remember from the game is – we were sitting on the sidewalk across a small round table with the chess board on it. I had a mug of hot Russian tea (actually the tea came from India), while the opponent had Vodka.
People stopped to watch the game. Some stood around us, and spoke among themselves in whispers – probably discussing the game, and no doubt wondering why I was not making smarter moves. Some looked at me encouragingly and even tried giving me advise, which of course I could not follow.
My last stop was in Crimea itself, a small jetty near the Naval port of Sevastopol. I had learned about the recent Russian history, about Balaclava and the Charge of the Light Brigade. About the Yalta conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. But it was while in Sevastopol that I learned that, for most of history, Crimea had been a part of Russia, and that a majority of the population in crimea were ethnic Russian. I knew by then that Russians were not exactly same as the Ukrainians. I had by then also learned a bit more about the links the place had with Tartars, Greeks and even Romans.
I did not know at the time, that I was never to return to those places again. I have had opportunity to visit the northern parts of Russia as well as parts of the former Soviet block nations by the North Sea. I was also to visit neighbouring Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia etc subsequently. But never again did I get a chance to visit Ukraine on the black sea, or Crimea.
On the whole, I only have pleasant memories of the place.