Some may question my authority to write this article, as I have never been to Ukraine. Well, did Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawkins visit a black hole before writing about them? Did songwriters Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart have to leave Earth to write “Blue Moon”? And TV evangelists often describe Hell, though none of those holy billionaires has ever been there (at least, not yet).
My expert knowledge of Ukraine comes from a long and happy marriage to a woman of Ukrainian descent. I can’t count the number of Ukrainian-type celebrations I’ve attended at the homes of her relatives or at our local Ukrainian church. I may only know a few words in the Ukrainian language — “eat,” “bed” and “diaper” — but my understanding of the culture is deep. Careful travellers, sit back and let me enlighten you.
People often wonder, is the country called “the Ukraine” or just “Ukraine”? That’s a complex question I’ll do my best to answer. Before 1991, when under the domination of Soviet Russia, the proper name for the land was “the Ukraine.” However, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the leaders of the Ukraine were negotiating independence, the Russian leaders insisted, as a price of separation, that the Ukraine would have to give up the “the” in its name. In 1991, the independence treaty between Russia and Ukraine was signed. One of the first priorities of the new government was to hire tens of thousands of people to go through every piece of writing in the land that mentioned the country’s old name — laws, street signs, works of literature, even song lyrics — and, with a black magic marker, cross out literally billions of the word “the.” Ironically, just as Ukrainians were getting used to life without a “the” in their country’s name, Russia decided to use the “the” it had extorted from the Ukraine, changing its name from “Russia” to “the Russian Federation.”
These days, as you may have seen on the news, the city streets of Ukraine are full of protesters. Why are they protesting? At the heart of the unrest is the demand by Ukrainian grammar radicals that Russia return the “the” it stole in 1991, so that “Ukraine” can go back to being “the Ukraine,” which they prefer.
(My wife just read this over my shoulder and says I should stop “making up ridiculous things” and that “none of that stuff is true.” She says that the protests are really about some trade deal. Well, she’s entitled to her opinion, but so am I. My version may have a few details wrong but at least it makes sense. The only time I have ever heard of people fighting over a trade deal was in The Phantom Menace — the least believable of all the Star Wars movies.)
The thuggish and corrupt leader of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, has taken a pro-Russian position in the dispute, even appearing on the official state TV broadcaster and rolling up a shirt-sleeve to show the nation a new tattoo: “I Love Moscow” in Cyrillic script, over a portrait of Vladimir Putin, the Russian President; Putin is depicted on a horse’s back, shirtless and macho. Yanukovich even went so far as to jail his main political opponent, Julia Tymoshenko, on trumped up charges of “corruption.” (In reality, her only “crime” was styling her hair sort of like Star Wars’s Princess Leia, with thick braids over her ears, and her controversial decision to have a small person in an R2D2 costume follow her around, on the campaign trail, making cute beeping noises.)
The other main opposition leader is the world’s heavyweight boxing champion, Vitali Klitschko, who rose to political prominence by vowing to “jab back at the enemies of democracy” and “knock out corruption.” Klitschko’s only political weakness is his inability to communicate with anything other than boxing metaphors; once, he drew ridicule when claimed in a televised debate that, as Prime Minister, he “would get the economy back on track by uppercutting the bond traders, while simultaneously clinching the risk of high inflation rates, via our rope-a-dope budget.”
At political rallies, Klitschko not only inspires the crowd with defiant speeches, but also works the door as a bouncer, stopping anyone associated with the government from getting in. (At political rallies with a liquor licence, Klitschko also checks the I.D. of people who might be underage.)
If they could only work together, Tymochenko and Klitschko could unify the protest movement and seriously threaten the Yanukovich regime. However, the two opposition leaders often squabble, due to the fact that they were once in love. (It ended on bad terms, when Klitschko was caught cheating on her with Carrie Fisher, the American actress who played Princess Leia.)
On the stage at a pro-democracy rally in 2011, shortly before her jailing, Tymochenko and Klitschko got into an argument over who would get to speak to the crowd first. As the crowd of activists watched in dismay, the situation turned into a wrestling match over the loudspeaker, which tiny Tymochenko seemed doomed to lose — until she pulled from her purse a canister of pepper spray and squirted it into Klitschko’s eyes. He ran from the stage weeping and Tymochenko took the loudspeaker to cry, “Vladimir Putin! Give Ukrainians back our ‘the’ or we’ll pepper-spray you too!”
Due to the political protests, even non-careful travelers are staying away from Ukraine and plane tickets are getting more and more affordable. The finest hotels and restaurants in lovely downtown Kyiv, where it’s normally almost impossible to get a reservation, have recently had openings; some have even lowered their rates. If you don’t mind the smell of tear-gas drifting in through a hotel window in the morning, or dining while watching policemen beat unarmed youths outside a restaurant window, this just might be the time for cheap travelers to visit!
However, I write for careful travelers, not cheap ones, so I strongly advise staying away from Ukraine. The best way to experience Ukrainian culture, while avoiding the risk and expense of travel, is to just find a local person of Ukrainian descent and marry him or her. Trust me, it’s much safer. If you absolutely must travel somewhere, pick somewhere safer than Ukraine — like, for example, my own Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. There’s no fighting or protesting in the streets here — though, in the morning, things can get a bit testy in the Tim Horton’s drive-thru.