In the summer of 1971 a group of school-leavers embarked on a trip to Russia. The 19-year-old Crotchety Man was one of the party. In those days, a political Iron Curtain separated Europe from the U.S.S.R. and we were warned to behave ourselves. High jinks and selling our Westerner’s jeans to the locals could lead to unpleasant repercussions, perhaps even jail. So, when we arrived at Kiev, the first city on our tour, we were a little nervous.
That first day in Russia turned out to be quite memorable. The stone walls of the buildings in the city centre towered above us, monolithic and grey, as if lightly caked in the soot and grime of heavy industry. The people gave a similar dour impression; they looked as though they had been carved in granite by a soviet sculptor, both men and women wearing working men’s clothes. Seeing a stocky female navvy digging up the road only accentuated the dystopian overtones.
Tatiana, our guide from the Intourist state tourism agency, told us that Kiev used to be the capital of Ukraine – once an independent nation with its own customs and identity but now an integral part of the U.S.S.R. We would be seeing some of the local architecture and going to a concert of traditional Ukrainian folk music tomorrow, but this evening we would be free to explore the city as we wished.
After dinner, wandering through the streets near our hotel – apart from an all-pervading drabness, signs in the Cyrillic alphabet and ever-present posters of Lenin – everything seemed reassuringly familiar. The shops and offices, hotels and official buildings might have been transplanted from a colonial-era English city precinct.
Then we were approached by a young woman and 3 or 4 of her male friends. This group had more of a Western appearance than anyone else we had seen, and they spoke just enough English for us to understand each other. It turned out that they were university students and wanted to talk to us about life in the West. They invited us to their university and showed us into the canteen, where we had a cup of tea. We had hardly sat down when our hosts went into a conflab and announced that they had to deal with something elsewhere. They would be back shortly, they said. After a few uncomfortable minutes wondering if we were doing something illegal just by being there, we left the campus and returned to our hotel.
What became of that young woman and her friends I do not know but, when our trip was over and we came home, I was able to say, quite truthfully, that she was the only pretty girl I saw in Russia.
The following morning, as promised, we were taken on a brief tour of Kiev, where we admired the cupolas and gold leaf on a Russian Orthodox church. And, in the afternoon, we attended a concert by a traditional folk choir. My memory of that event is very hazy now. It was certainly a large ensemble – the choristers, all in traditional Ukrainian dress, completely filled the stage. But, mostly, I remember that the performance was superb. I had never heard so many unaccompanied voices in perfect pitch, in exquisite harmony and with absolutely flawless timing. The youthful me was forced to fight back tears so that my classmates would not notice how moved I was by the experience.
So, you see, I have a weak but personal connection with Ukraine. The tragedy unfolding in that country now has left me angry and distraught. Like millions of others around the world, I would like to lend my support to all who live there, but I am powerless to offer any practical help. All I can do is to add my condemnation of President Putin’s decision to invade the sovereign state of Ukraine and voice my support for the sanctions imposed on Russia by the Western powers.
I have watched videos of unarmed men standing in the path of Russian tanks heading for Kyiv, but the image that sticks in my mind is of a poster held by a small child at a protest meeting. The message was simple. Scrawled beside a drawing of a steaming pile of shit were the words, “Putin is poo!”. “Yes”, I thought, “out of the mouths of babes and sucklings” …
There is one more thing I can do. Here’s a playlist of songs with a Ukraine connection. It starts with a quiet solo piano piece titled Ukraine. In the context of the current conflict, it carries a note of great sadness and sets the mood for what is to come.
The second track reminds me a little of that concert in Kiev in 1971. It is religious music rather than folk and the choir is accompanied by an orchestra, but it hints at the powerful emotional effect that massed voices can sometimes achieve. And it has the defiant title, Mother of God (Ukraine).
Next, there are three pop/rock tracks: Ukraine Ways by Renaissance (folk/prog) from their Camera Camera album, Ukraine in the Membrane by Nuclear Power Trio (prog/metal) from A Clear and Present Rager, and Очима by ROXOLANA (pop/dance) from Ukraine Is. That last track title means ‘eyes’ in English.
Then, to finish, we have the choral version of Ukraine’s Glory Hasn’t Perished, which is the Ukrainian national anthem, and the Adagio from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 played by the Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra.
Let’s hope that Ukraine and Russia can put aside their differences and be friends again.