February 2014 – The Last Month of Normal in Ukraine

By Graham Phillips

A year ago, in February 2014, I was a bald man in his mid-30s, and a year later that’s still the case though it’s near the only thing of which that can be said. I look back to that month, as I looked on with a sense of foreboding at Euromaidan from Odessa, having been there in January to film, with feelings akin to Solaris – a life gone, existing only in memories, never to be again.

I’ll go back to Odessa, someday, but it’ll be a different city, after the year which has been, met by a different person. Now, Ukraine’s far-right National Guard are based there to quell any attempts at ‘uprising’, on patrol. A year ago, the only camouflage on show was a stallholder at my local covered market.

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This, a Sunday at the start of February, driving round Odessa in my Rover 75. That I gave, in kind, and for services, but more because he’d fallen in love with it, and it would be going to a good home when I could see an uncertain road ahead, to my assistant in Slavyansk in May.

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My cat, Katya. I loved her. She came all around the former east of Ukraine with me on my 6000km round trip in March, seeing everywhere from Kharkov to Kerch. Days away from my being called to work in Donetsk, Katya took a turn, did a runner in Odessa, never to be found.

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My collection of Soviet badges, to me something interesting from history, an accessory to be attached to a lapel. Now, you get arrested in Odessa for wearing them. I say arrested, the police in Odessa take lower precedence than far-right group the Pravy Sektor, holed up all over town, doing as they want all over town.

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I loved walking around Odessa, taking photos of its streets. Odessa now a city of regular explosions, streets roamed by pro-Ukrainian extremists ‘on patrol’. –

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My local karaoke club, it had only opened at the end of 2013. By February 2014, 1karaokewith the hryvnia tumbling from 13 to 18 to the British pound, they were already having to put some stickers over the menu with new prices. With the hryvia now at 40 to the British pound, a pizza there for 40 UAH seems unlikely now. Similarly, my local club in Odessa, drink prices going up week on week as the currency plunged.

But, in that all, the scenes you would see – those of normal life, people having a good time. No tragedies. No May 2nd, May 9th, June 2nd, the list goes on. Just a revolution in Kiev people thought would pass, and some inflation. Nothing Odessa thought would crash down on the ‘hero city’ founded by Catherine the Great herself. More, a city noted, notable for being full of fun.

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At that local karaoke club, by the way, they did think many of the songs in the English language were by Duran Duran. Sweet.

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At the local market, and how women like this are living, with a pension pegged to a hryvnia now worth a third of what it was a year ago, I don’t know…

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Leaving Odessa for Nikolaev, at the end of February, en route to Crimea, with the peninsular breaking away, the price of petrol going up by the day at that time, a full tank –

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Nikolaev, Lenin demolished just the week before by pro-Euromaidan activists, many reported as arriving from out of town for that purpose. Many in the city still coming to terms with that –

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A year ago in Ukraine, here Nikolaev, you could still protest against the government. The pro-Euromaidan was still forming, the regime of repression we now see not yet in place. This gathering of tents was later raided by pro-Euromaidan demonstrators, rammed by cars with a report of at least one killed, the rest fleeing in fear.

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And that was life as it was a year ago, a fairly normal life. I’ll return in future to some kind of normalcy, but even in the same place it will never be as it was. Places, people, changed forever. Hunts for ‘separatists’ in a Ukraine ostensibly closer to EU values. Repression in cities once able to express contra-views, under a president who vowed to be ‘tolerant’. No jobs where there once were, in an economy collapsed. Prices rocketed. Tragedies where once were buildings. Destruction where were monumens. People scared, scarred.

There’s no algorithm to return things to as they were in Ukraine, even in those places not directly involved in the war. ‘Normal’ in Ukraine exists only in a bubble in the past. Something to be viewed with a sentiment reserved for that which was only appreciated when it was no more nor could be again.

1Feb23Last February felt like a tumultous time in Ukraine, at the time. But there was still enough normal for me, a freelance journalist, English teacher even, to have thought that being a war correspondent a year later outlandish in the extreme. I’ve seen things I never wanted to see in my life. There’s been some pain of a lost life I enjoyed. Yet how much more pain could have been avoided if, post-Euromaidan, Ukraine had decided to accept the pain of a past that never could be again, and move forward rather than fight the most futile of fights, the recreation of a past that exists as a past because it is necessarily that.

There will be a normal in Ukraine again, whatever Ukraine ends up being. But it will be a new normal. I’ll return to life as a normal person again, but again, a new normal. I feel nostalgic for all the good things consigned to the past in Ukraine, from monuments to a peace which had never known war, to petrol at 10 hryvnia a litre. But, after petrol is burned, you can’t put it back in the tank.

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