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ALISTAIR HEATHER: Kindness, respect and trust – my memories of Ukraine and my hope for friends there

Hitchking in snowbound Ukraine introduced Alistair to the kindness of its people.
Hitchking in snowbound Ukraine introduced Alistair to the kindness of its people.

My first experience of Ukraine was hostile and frightening. The second was remarkable.

As the vast tract of land finds itself in Russia’s crosshairs once again, I’ve been reflecting on the humans I met, and the things I saw.

I arrived by freight ship in the fog bound port city of Odessa.

On the boat, I’d palled up with a wee convoy of Georgian truck drivers who were taking vegetables to Belarus.

They’d drive me as far as possible then I’d move on.

The Ukraine police were wild bandits, I was told.They’d pull over any passing freight and demand bribes.

So we hung around in the port all day, waiting for nightfall.

With the winter being cold, there was less chance of the polis being out in the middle of the night.

Only when the sun set did we begin our journey.

We sped by night on minor roads.

One utterly corrupt polis caught us as we snuck along.

His flashing lights lit up the night, turning the white snow blue.

The driver I was sharing a cab with cursed and cursed and cursed.

The tattie-shaped polis fined the driver a fat stack of notes for running a red light.

People sing the national anthem at a Day of Unity in Odessa, Ukraine on Wednesday February 16, 2022. AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

No such thing had happened.

But had we not handed over the dough, the driver told me, we’d have got locked up for two days, or until our cargo of vegetables began to rot, then released without charge.

It was not my last scrape on my first visit to Ukraine, and I was happy to wish the place farewell and cross into Poland.

Freezing cold and human warmth

Crossing back weeks later, heading home to Georgia, Ukraine caught me in a severe cold snap.

Dozens froze to death in one night.

The homeless were being sheltered as an emergency.

I was hitchhiking once again.

Alistair on his travels in Ukraine.

I had made it past Chernobyl and was continuing east along a country road, stomping along the tarmac shoulder in the snow to keep warm.

The snow was really battering down.

A snowplough roared by every 20 minutes or so, attempting with diminishing success to carve a black line through the fresh snow.

After an hour, it dawned on me that I wasn’t getting a lift.

The midwinter sun was already falling from the sky.

I panicked.

I needed a big truck going a long way, one heavy enough to handle the storm.

A cooling tower at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Photo: Shutterstock.

Then a local passed, slithering slowly by in the piling drifts.

A surprise honk of the horn, and they took me aboard.

Hospitality in a Ukraine in crisis

The storm really blew in, and I ended up passing three happy nights and days in the company of Igor and his family.

Obviously, me and Igor spent that first night getting absolutely tucked in about a bottle of vodka.

His lovely partner happily ladled out tasty soups, breads, pickles, and we smoked umpteen cigarettes.

Ukrainian vodka means many of Alistair’s snapshot from the trip are this blurry.

Igor wasnae allowed to smoke in the hoose, so we’d stick on massive padded onesies and step out into the storm.

As the time passed, I helped his daughter out with her English homework and learned loads about Ukrainian culture and religion.

They told me of a country in crisis.

They told me that, whilst there was an amount of prosperity in some cities, there was widespread devastation in the villages.

Dozens of nearby villages had recently been declared dead, struck off administration lists as their final inhabitants had walked away.

Igor himself worked away in Germany, and was only back for the holiday season.

Economically forced migration is the norm.

Yet I found a culturally rich place.

Igor and his wife picked me up, they later explained, because it was a saint’s holiday and they were firmly convinced that God had thrown me upon them as a test of their charity.

Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells

When the storm abated, we emerged to find a winter wonderland.

Orthodox Christian spires gleamed gold in yellow sunlight, and the village was happed up in a cosy coat of fresh powder snow.

Me and Igor pulled his young kids along in sledges for a while, then went out to visit a Christian shrine.

St. Michael’s golden-domed monastery in Kiev. Photo: Shutterstock.

It was a sanctified well.

The waters, they explained, protected you against stomach complaints for the year.

There was a long line of heavily dressed villagers holding jars, pots and pans, old cola bottles, waiting their turn to decant the well’s waters.

Many of them would have an invalid at home in need of the remedial liquid.

A few bams got the crowd cheering by appearing in their underpants in a hatchback.

There was a fountain by the well, with a pool deep enough to bathe in.

These two guys, peely wally but gallus as you like, came out of their car slapping their chests to get the circulation going and taking the adulation and laughs of the crowd.

Then in they plunged, to water that was surely well below freezing.

Amazing. It made the Broughty Ferry Dook look like a splash in the Med.

Apparently it’s part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Epiphany.

Igor and his happy wee family drove me into the nearest town and stuck me on a bus that took me right the way to the Ukrainian border with Romania.

Ukraine deserves the same respect now

I’ve always held very dear the actions of Igor, his family and the various other cheery souls I palled about with in Ukraine.

The place is flat broke, that’s true.

The police and other institutions certainly were corrupt during my visit, and remain so to an extent.

It was an ethnically divided state, with a Ukrainian/Russian split roughly along west/east.

It is, in short, vulnerable.

I write this only to say that when I, a guy fae around here, got caught up in a terrible storm there, I was treated with extreme kindness, respect and trust.

I’ll be remembering that as Russia and the West decide what happens to that vast country, and the many many good people within it.