Euro 2012, my Life in, and Best Work from Ukraine, Before the War

As the draw for the World Cup 2018 has just finished, throwing up a favourable draw for England, I couldn’t help but reflect on the run-up to Euro 2012 – the main reason I moved to Ukraine in the first place, sensing an exciting time to be in a country in the build-up to a major football tournament, with opportunities in journalism to be found.

In I worked at the magazine What’s On in Kiev, 2011, and 12. Their website was down for ages, but recently came back to life. And with it, not all, but 90 of my articles from that time.

Looking back over them, and not only, I can hold my hands up and say that ‘pre-war’, I perhaps did write a bit too much about the ladies. But, it was a different time, and far from just that, I’m actually proud of a lot of the work I did back then, although in the context of things now, they are rather like ‘notes from a lost country‘…

So here’s a ‘top 10’ of my work from Ukraine, pre-war: 

10. The Pain of Ukraine? 

My first article for What’s On magazine, January 2012, and it was about defending Ukraine from the attacks and prophecies of doom in the western media –

9. Remembering River Palace

From October 2012, I had a look into the murky history, and mystery, of the former ‘floating brothel’ of Kiev, River Palace, for the Kyiv Post –

8. Tracking down Tymoshenko 

February of 2012, and I went looking for Tymoshenko in Kharkov, with some interesting results –

7. That Said – 

My weekly column from What’s On, in which I tried to cover all aspects of life in Ukraine. From all of them, I pick this one to represent how it was to live in Ukraine, at that time, the spirit –

6. Ok, it was a bit light-hearted, but you could hardly be in Ukraine pre-war, and not write about the sexual side of things. This piece, a cover-story for What’s On, was about the men who came to Ukraine expressly to pick-up women, and how that was working out for them – I liked how it came out, and felt it made a point –

5. Odessa – from March of 2012, my first trip to Odessa, for a travel piece for What’s On – it was to be love at first sight, in Odessa, something captured here –

4. Dnepropetrovsk – Always Parus 

I wrote this for my blog, and it was a labour of love, one of my the themes which most drew me in Ukraine, on which I wrote extensively – abandoned buildings, and the story behind them –

3. The Russian Heart of Ukraine – in which I wrote of my own experience of visiting Donetsk in summer of 2012, for What’s On magazine, and the Russian heart of that city, and not only –

2. November 2012, for Pravda and I wrote about the post Euro-2012, post 2012 election malaise which had befallen Ukraine, and the state of the country at that time –

1.  In October of 2012, I wrote what I believe to be my most significant pre-war piece from Ukraine, about the case of Oksana Makar, her tragic murder, and the implications for Ukraine (a case I continued investigating, going to her hometown of Nikolaev), here for the New Statesman

And there we have it, some of my essays from a different time, a different world. 

My What’s On Days in Kiev

Graham Phillips

I first lived in Kiev for a few months in 2010, then from mid-2011 through to the start of 2013. Starting late 2011, for the best part of a year I worked at What’s On magazine. The magazine had been founded in 1999, rising to prominence in the Whats On Archive2000s, becoming a Kiev institution under then editor, Peter Dickinson (pictured).

The financial crisis in Ukraine of 2008/9 hit the magazine hard, and with advertising revenue having slumped, it stopped publication for a while, before being sold for a smallish fee, around £30,000, to Paul Niland and Neil Campbell in 2011.

I won’t say too much about either of them now – we had a reasonable working relationship, and sometimes enjoyed a few beers together. I appreciated being Whats On Kievgiven the opportunity to go in there, as the only native English speaking staff journalist, and given a great say in the shape of the magazine. In my time there, I pitched many of the cover stories, came up with new features, refined old ones, wrote a weekly column, did reviews, interviews, articles on history, politics, travel, nightlife, specials, proofread the whole magazine every week before print.

I remember being full of enthusiasm, wanting to make the magazine the best it could be. Knocking my pan out every week, then the excitement of coming into Whats On coverthe office on Thursday morning to find a fresh new copy. Taking a few moments to look through, see how everything had come out, pleasure if it had turned out well, then attention immediately turning to the new edition.

Of course, it was a fight. A fight against the dying of the light, the decline of print media. And, to some extent a fight against the owners. The website was something from the mid-90s, essentially an online word document, yet they didn’t respond to my suggestions to invest, upgrade. The magazine hadn’t even been on Twitter until I’d suggested that. And in a country which ran on discounts, with advertising in the magazine way outnumbered by adverts to take out adverts, I found the blunt refusal to offer even a 5% discount to potential new advertisers bewildering, perverse. Similarly then, the strategy cooked up by one to only distribute the magazine in places which advertised with the magazine. Decreasing circles.

Whats On Kiev3There were other issues too, but in my time there I kept positive, put my heart and soul into each issue of the magazine. By the time I left, in late 2012, my relationship with the owners had gone from strained to untenable. There was a fall-out after my departure, when they came at me for re-using my material we’d earlier agreed I could, an ’email war’ ensued. However, I kept in touch with my colleagues there, kept up to date with the magazine.

Then, Euromaidan, the magazine went all-out for Maidan, portraying the Fullscreen capture 21102015 165648.bmp‘glorious’ heroes of the ‘revolution’ week after week, giving blanket positive coverage. But they were well off the mark, editorially, and technically.

While the Kyiv Post, who also went all-out for Maidan, gave live-updated feeds of fast-moving events in central Kiev, What’s On stuck with the weekly-updated website, until eventually attempting to introduce a kind of ‘live photo feed’, which looked primitive from inception, and in any case at the height of action, almost immediately petered out.

Euromaidan ‘concluded’ with the government overthrow on Saturday, February Fullscreen capture 21102015 172938.bmp22nd, 2014. On the 24th, the first Monday back at work, a meeting was convened and the staff, some 20, were told that the Euromaidan their publication had so enthusiastically supported had ‘won’, and that What’s On was now ceasing publication.

So it was, the 16-year-old magazine, which had once generated sufficient revenue to grant its previous owners not insubstantial wealth, the title which was still known across Kiev and beyond, put out an announcement that they were going ‘on a break’.

From my former colleagues there, I understood from the start this ‘break’ was the end. I felt sad for them, most now without jobs at a time of economic collapse in Ukraine, a few kept on for sister publication Panorama. There was the perhaps Whats On Ukraineinevitable struggle for what they were owed, with most eventually just accepting not all, but part of what was due to them. I felt sad for the magazine, which could have absolutely been saved, with some foresight, some investment, even in a post-Euromaidan Ukraine where, as the owners explained in the mass lay-off meeting ‘no one’s got any money for adverts anymore’.

(One of my articles, to the right)

I don’t want to say anything against either of the owners, Campbell I’ve had no contact with for a long time, Niland both blocked me, and fairly regularly trolls me on Twitter, having seemingly turned into a pro-Maidan activist. Actually, I was informed that the man I knew as a magazine owner had set up a new business – the online selling of bracelets saying ‘Fuck Fullscreen capture 21102015 173256.bmpPutin‘. Seriously.

So, the going down of the What’s On website, seemingly permanently, may be to get at me. Or it may be more prosaic, the domain simply expiring. There were initial attempts to keep the Facebook page alive, but that went down to Niland trying to sell his car on it.

In any case, it’s a shame to see the site go down, taking with it all my work there. I feel a mixture of nostalgia, but that it removes important information. I frequently find myself attacked by ‘pro-Ukraine’ supporters on Twitter, and so, accused of ‘hating’ Ukraine. The truth is that, as my writing for What’s On showed, before Whats On Kiev GrahamEuromaidan, you could hardly have found a correspondent who wrote more consistently, and more positively about Ukraine.

Of course, my columns are all available by access to Way Back Machine. But you really have to dig to find them there, which few will do. I’ll have a look through and republish certain of them on here, but whatever way I look at it, it’s a shame. A year of my work, gone either from malice, or because someone didn’t want to pay a few dollars a year to renew a site which actually contained thousands of fascinating articles by many authors. It’s not on, What’s On…