Friday, 10 January 2014

The Missing Link: Part 1.1: Konotop

world-map konotop


Ever since I heard the classic Army of Lovers number ‘Carry my urn to Ukraine’, I just knew that I had to go to that special place one day. After all, it takes a special something to inspire a group of uber-camp transvestite Swedes to write a pop classic. Only problem was, first time I went there they arrested me, locked me up in a dingy cell, (worse still, shared with my brother), and then sent me packing to Moscow. But it takes a lot more than that to hold Uncle Travelling Matt down and so now I’m back, stood on the very same station platform as the one that I was arrested on a decade earlier.

‘Under the banner we march in the rain,

Like when you carry my urn to Ukraine.’

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue



1.1: Konotop

1.2: Chernobyl and Pripyat

1.3: Kiev

1.4: Kiev to Odessa

1.5: Odessa

1.6: Bolgrad

Moldova and Transdniestra

2.1: Bolgrad to Chisinau

2.2: Chisinau (I)

2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

2.4: Chisinau (II) 


3.1: Iasi (I)

3.2: Iasi (II)

3.3: Suceava

3.4: The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

3.5: Targu Neamt, Agapia and Sihla

3.6: Suceava to Viseu de Sus

3.7: The Mocanita and Viseu de Sus

3.8: Viseu de Sus to Bucharest

3.9: Bucharest (I)

3.10: Bucharest (II)

My Flickr Album of this trip





Konotop station looked pretty much as it had done ten years ago save for a lack of officious border police which, for me at least, was no bad thing. I was tempted to go and investigate the building in which the Sibling, Hazel and I had been held whilst they tried to extract money from us but in the end I did not – it is not wise to tempt fate.

ML004 Konotop Station: On the left is the building where we were imprisoned

Outside the station Konotop appeared to be an almost moribund kind of place. Although the station buildings were ridiculously large and grand, as if belonging to some major mercantile city, beyond them were some kiosks, a road with tramlines and probably the most overgrown and dilapidated park I have ever seen. I wandered into it, past the ruin of a statue pedestal to a large bureaucratic building which turned out to be some sort of administration block for the railways. The only attempt at good citizenship was a small area of mown grass in the corner of the park where some swings and a climbing frame stood. It seems that we hadn’t missed much all those years ago.

I made my way back to the street and found a post office open. I entered, bought some stamps so that I could send the Sibling a postcard from the scene of his worst-ever travel experience, and then asked where the centre was. Then it all became clear: I had to take a bus or a tram as it was over a kilometre away.

Ukraine has few buses but in their place many marshrutki (singular: marshrutka). These sound exotic and exciting but are basically ageing minibuses that are not exotic and exciting at all. Still, I remembered the word – two years before in Georgia they’d called all their knackered minibuses by the same name.

The pulsating heart of Konotop was, in reality, not particularly pulsating. It was a crossroad of wide, largely traffic-free streets. To the right led away a pedestrianised shopping street with a rather naff statue of a horse with the date 1637 on the pedestal[1] but on the left, far more to my taste, was the town hall with a statue of Lenin in the gardens in front of it. Most of the communist world seems to have torn down their statues of the bald bringer of world revolution, but in provincial ex-Soviet towns they often remains and when they do I love to use them for a photo opportunity.

ML005 The Revolution lives in Konotop!

In the centre of the main street were groups of schoolchildren practising for a parade. They waved multi-coloured flags and marched around like little soldiers under the watchful eyes of their teachers, several of whom I wouldn’t have minded being ordered about by. Under the equally wise and powerful eyes of Lenin, it was all rather Soviet and I wondered what the big occasion was.[2]

ML006 YMCA, Ukrainian style

I walked down the pedestrianised shopping street but that petered out after a couple of blocks and I found myself amidst a group of concrete apartment blocks. Realising that I’d exhausted all that Konotop has to offer and still had several hours to kill before the next train back to Kiev, I returned to the shops, spent an hour in an internet café and then shopped around for bits and bobs like a pen, some cigarettes, (I’m not a smoker but they’re great for striking up friendships on trains), and a postcard of this sleepy little town to send to the Sibling. That done, I then hopped on an incredibly slow tram back to the railway station where I ordered some snacks from a stall and then retired to the station itself to muse upon what I’d learnt about Ukraine so far.

ML007 The shopping street with the naff horse statue

Looking back to 2002 and I can recall very little about the long journey from Moscow to Konotop. Admittedly some of it had been through the night and I was pretty fed up on train travel by that point having come all the way from Qingdao in Eastern China on them, but even so, there must have been something to see and so this time, fresh and eager on the trip out from Kiev to Konotop, I’d been determined to drink it all in.

At the end though, after a good three hours on the train, I again felt cheated for I’d seen – and learnt – very little. Once out of Kiev and over the Dnepr with the ruins of another bridge bombed during World War II by our side, it had been one long haul through a flat and empty land. For the most part the tracks had been lined with trees causing all views to be blocked by foliage,[3] but when they did open out all that was revealed were huge flat fields, some cultivated, some not, and the occasional village of wooden bungalows. For the entire hundred and fifty miles or so not a single town of any significance was encountered.

ML008 Typical village seen from the train

But then maybe we can learn a lot from all this absence. We can learn that Ukraine, like Russia and most of the other former Soviet states, is under-populated for only under-populated lands have few towns and fertile fields left unfarmed. That might make more sense too when one considers the country’s recent history: millions died during World War I, millions more killed in the bloody Civil War which followed and during which Ukraine was the focus of some of the worst fighting and atrocities, (Kiev for example, changed hands no less than five times); millions more dead a decade later in the purges and the Holodomor, the feminine engineered by Stalin and then after that the unbelievable carnage of World War II in which you had a choice of dying in battle, starvation as either a POW or civilian, being worked to death in a Nazi labour camp, being worked to death in a Soviet gulag or simply being shot for being a Slav/Gypsy/Jew/Communist/ Collaborator/you name it, they shot you for it. Few places suffered more than Ukraine during the war, (although we’ll save most of that for later), and even with victory declared that wasn’t the end of the suffering for then there were more purges until Stalin’s death in 1953 and an ongoing civil war between the Soviets and the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army who were finally defeated only in 1956. After that, disasters such as Chernobyl and crushing poverty since the collapse of the USSR, things have been better, but as the population grew more educated under the Soviet education policies, the birth-rate dropped and ever since independence there has been negative population growth. So yes, in many respects an under-populated land should come as no surprise.

But it many other respects it should be a huge surprise, for despite all those factors, the rich black earth of Ukraine is some of the most fertile soil on the planet and with large, flat plains it is easy to farm. Look across the globe and humans always congregate where the land is good, for feeding oneself is perhaps the most basic and immediate of all human needs. Yet here in Ukraine, where the land is not just good, it is bloody brilliant, there is nobody home and instead vast swathes of incredibly fertile farming land are left with wild grasses growing on them. That is strange and, if you think about it for a moment, quite disturbing to see, particular when one can travel to countries such as the Philippines or Mali and find over-farmed infertile land unable to feed a burgeoning population. Still, ever the optimist, it might offer some hope for the future challenge of feeding the world’s unsustainably exploding population: start farming the land that we’ve got. To my (admittedly untrained) eye, it seems that Ukraine could increase its agricultural output by a third simply by sowing all those empty fields and hopefully by doing it she can earn herself some much needed income.

All those huge empty fields, all those wide empty streets, all those oversized Soviet Era trains on their wider-than-usual tracks and all those spread out towns with the centre an unnecessary tram ride away from the railway station. Ukraine is big, incredibly so, incomprehensively so. Being from tiny, over-populated Britain this is not just hard to comprehend, it is impossible. I am used to one village following another, towns and cities merging into one another, a land of fifty million which can be traversed in under four hours. In Ukraine though, it takes much the same time to go from Kiev to Konotop passing naught of significance en route and covering only a tiny distance on the map. Yet compared to its vast neighbour Russia, Ukraine is densely-populated and compact; that place really is a vast and empty expanse stretching all the way from Europe to the Pacific Ocean. It always makes me laugh when friends of mine come back from the USA and wax lyrical about the size of the place and distances involved when travelling across it. “You can’t imagine it!” they declare. Trust me, if you’ve journeyed through the former Soviet Union then you can, for five or six USAs could fit into the old USSR which always had a smaller population than its capitalist rival. It is said that the landscape profoundly influences the character of the people who live in it and it is for that reason that I, the son of a tiny, intimate and over-populated island will always have a degree of incomprehension when dealing with my European cousins in Ukraine, Russia or for that matter, even the USA.

 Next Part: Chernobyl and Pripyat

My Flickr Album of this trip

[1] This may be to commemorate the establishment of the settlement in 1635 by Ukrainian Cossacks. There is a legend about city name saying that when Tatar cavalry was moving through the region a lot of people and horses drowned in the swamps thereabouts. So the area was named “Konotop” which means “swampy land where horses drowned”.

[2] Later research indicated that it was probably to mark the end of the school year.

[3] This was a deliberate Soviet policy to shield potentially sensitive sites from the curious eyes of passing train travellers.

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