"Ukraine! You're going to the Ukraine on a holiday?"
Most people react the same way - an incredulous "Why are you going there?" And I have to agree that the Ukraine is not among Europe's top holiday destinations.
Until the Orange Revolution and the intrigue surrounding their recent elections launched the country briefly into the media spotlight, most of us on this side of the pond knew precious little about Europe's largest country. Like most North Americans my knowledge consisted of a handful of facts without any historical context. The "breadbasket of Europe," the "Cossacks," the "Charge of the Light Brigade," the "Chernobyl nuclear disaster" and the "siege of Sevastopol" seemed strangely unrelated yet each is a part of Ukraine's historical legacy. The more I read, the more fascinated I became with the Ukraine - an ancient society that has existed as an independent nation for less than 20 years. And what better way to learn more about a country than to visit it and talk to some of the people who live there.
We flew into Kiev and made our way to the Dnieper River where our ship, the Viking Lomonosov was moored. Olga, our guide for the next two weeks, met us on the ship and introduced us to her colleague Anna and several other members of the ship's crew. A native of Sevastopol, Olga has a degree in English Literature, speaks fluent Russian and Ukrainian, and works as an instructor and interpreter for the National Naval Academy. Anna, a history professor from Kiev, is both guide and ship's lecturer. Like Olga she works as a part-time tour guide during her holidays in order to supplement the meagre income from her full time job. In the Ukraine even those who are fortunate enough to have a job must struggle to survive.
In 1991, for the first time in its history, Ukraine became an independent nation. It has been 19 years of profound economic hardship fanned by uncontrolled inflation, poor job opportunities and mass emigration. During this brief period the population declined from 52 to 46 million and many of those leaving are the country's best and brightest. According to Anna, five million Ukrainians work illegally in Europe at menial jobs that give them a better living than they can achieve at home. And life expectancy is dismally low - 72 for women and 62 for men.
Ukraine means "borderland" or "edge," a fitting name for a country wedged between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland and Russia. Its history is tarnished with tragedy and repeated failed attempts to gain independence. In one of her lectures Anna relates the conversation between an old man and a visitor to his village.