My last blog post was on 23rd February 2022. The next day we woke to the news that Russian troops had invaded Ukraine. A month later the fighting rages across the nation. I find it shocking to write those words. The Western press reports the Russian war has not gone to plan. They were, we are told, expecting a quick invasion accompanied by the collapse of Ukrainian resistance, and Russian troops being welcomed as liberators. This is certainly not the case. However, it is important to recognise that the truth is the first casualty of war.
This month’s blog is a reflection on my experiences in Ukraine. Kyiv is one of the cities I most enjoyed visiting. The Ukrainians we met and worked with were wonderful people. My time there made me want to learn Ukrainian and go back as a tourist. What is happening is quite dreadful and unprovoked. Putin appears deranged and vicious, but it is difficult to predict what will happen.
I worked in, and on, Ukraine making several visits between 1997 and 2001. The first, with my friend and colleague Professor Tony Barnett, was to undertake an assessment of the potential social and economic impact of HIV and AIDS in Ukraine. We were invited by Dr Lev Khodakevich, the UNAIDS programme advisor for Belarus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine and Simon Williams, then Deputy Director of the British Council in Kyiv. Our task was to work with Ukrainian colleagues to prepare a report on what AIDS might mean to Ukraine, and what could be done to mitigate and prevent this.
On our first visit we spent 10 days in Kyiv. There were subsequent visits and in 2001 HEARD, the Health Economics and HIV Research Division, the organisation I established at the University in Durban, updated the study and ran a workshop for people from the region. I am particularly proud of how we undertook the work. It was joint research with us and a team of Ukrainians. We published from the research in both English and Ukrainian.1, 2 The experiences in Ukraine, India and Southern Africa lead to a pinnacle in my academic career, the development of the conceptual framework: the Jaipur Paradigm.3 I am proud of it and think it was ground-breaking. Please forgive me for becoming an academic here, rather than simply writing a blog, it is important this work be properly referenced.
I really enjoyed the visits and the work. On the first trip we were housed in a flat belonging to a local family on the bluffs above the Dnieper River. My understanding is that this was an opportunity for them to earn foreign currency. Basically, they moved out while we were there. The apartment was fully furnished, in a very soviet style. It was also the first time I came across padded toilet seats!
We were able to cater for most meals ourselves, visiting the local shops and the market to buy provisions. As I recall the black bread was amazing, but it did not keep. I brought loaves back to the UK and the family enjoyed it, just for a day or two. There was ample smoked fish and sausages and pickled vegetables, but not very much fresh food. Of course, this would not be complete without mentioning the array of vodka available – from silky smooth to paint stripper. When asked on our return about the drinking ‘problem’ in Ukraine, I said: ‘I did not have a problem’.
It was a packed visit. The terms of reference for the first visit were:
‘to validate and collect additional data, prepare projections of the epidemiological and demographic impact of the epidemic based on assumptions arrived at in discussion with the Ukrainian team and data provided by them … make a diagnostic and indicative evaluation … [and] present a preliminary report to an inter-agency meeting’.
My records show we had over 20 meetings, with people from government officials to international agencies to NGOs and representatives of the nascent civil society. Most were open and really helpful, it was only some of the international agencies and donors who were clearly ‘protecting their turf’.
The visits and discussions were fascinating. Most of the people we spoke to did not speak very good English, so we had to use translation. In one of the meetings, I became aware of the simmering tensions, one of the interviewees was firmly told to speak in Ukrainian not Russian. It is very striking how well the Ukrainians currently being interviewed for news programmes speak English. I do recognise the sample is skewed by the need to convey messages, and have interviewees who can connect with the audiences, but it is still remarkable. Their fluency and lack of accent is notable. This is, I am sure, in part due to the activities of the British Council! It is one of the reasons Ukraine is winning the information war.
The legacy of the Soviet era was clear in many aspects of life. For example, when we went out to eat, the menus specified the quantities of all the items being served, exactly how many grams of bread, butter and meat and so on. In addition, there were not that many places to go. Hotels had restaurants, but there were not many on the streets, although there were plenty of bars! The metro system was efficient and clean, and the tunnels were incredibly deep underground. Our nearest stop was Arsenalna. Going down to the trains involved very long and steep escalators, it felt like one was descending into the very bowels of the earth. Despite this the city did not feel prosperous on the first visit, but by the time of my last trip it had a different feel.
I vividly remember going to the opera. The National Opera and Ballet Theatre, in the centre of the city, with its domes and colonnades is a relatively recent building, built in the neo-Renaissance style in 1901. Inside the velvet seats were slightly threadbare, and on the two occasions we went the auditorium was half empty. Despite this it was an enchanting experience. The performance of Tosca was mediocre. The actor playing the Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia was incredibly camp, totally inappropriate for the character. This alone made it an experience not to be missed. The second one was the joyful romp of Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi. The singing was excellent, and the cast clearly enjoyed the performance as much as the audience.
I visited most of the tourist destinations. The wonderful Saint Sophia Cathedral is older than my ‘local’ cathedral in Norwich, the building was begun in 1011. It has numerous, distinctive, gilded, onion shaped cupolas. I shudder to think of the destruction Russian bombardments could cause. It has been suggested that the importance of historic Kyiv to Russian origin stories might prevent indiscriminate shelling and bombing, it was ancient Russia’s capital. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica it was severely damaged during World War II but was restored by the mid-1950s.
I was very taken by the Podil, or the lower city, a historic neighbourhood on a floodplain terrace next to the Dnieper River. Podil is one of the oldest neighbourhoods and is the birthplace of the city’s trade, commerce and industry. It was moving to stand and imagine all the people, traders, soldiers, invaders and farmers who had gazed on the buildings. Even more amazing is to think the Vikings, who knew the city as Kœnugarr, would have been among them. Podil was an important point on the trading route between Europe, the Black Sea and Byzantium.
During my first year in Canada, in 2014, I was invited to accompany the head of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) to a foreign affairs meeting in New York. This was just after the Russian invasion of Crimea. The key speaker at the dinner was a senior person from the UN. He was asked about the role of the UN in the conflict. ‘To monitor the borders’, he said. I was puzzled, put up my hand, and asked: ‘which borders, the ones before the invasion or the ones after?’ His response was to tap dance around the question, and we did not get a satisfactory reply.
I really hope this conflict is rapidly resolved but fear it won’t be. It is totally shocking that this brutal invasion has taken place, shame on the Russians and Putin. So: Слава Україні! — Glory to Ukraine!4
- Tony Barnett, Alan Whiteside, Lev Khodakevick, Yuri Kruglov and Valentina Steshenko ‘Estimation of Possible Demographic and Social-Economic Consequences of HIV/AIDS Spreading in Ukraine’ ДЕМОГРАФIЧНI ДОСЛIДЖЕННЯ, (Vol 20) , Kyiv, 1998, pp. 81-104. (Ukraine Demographic Journal – in Ukrainian)
- Tony Barnett, Alan Whiteside, Yuri Kruglov, Valentina Steshenko and Lev Khodakevick, ‘The Social and Economic Impact of HIV/AIDS in Ukraine’ in Social Science and Medicine 51 (9), November 2000 (pp 1-17)
- Alan Whiteside, Tony Barnett and Josef Decosas, ‘The Jaipur Paradigm: A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Social Susceptibility and Vulnerability to HIV,’ South African Medical Journal 90 (11) Nov. 2000