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Word Travels - Esrocking Ukraine by Robin Esrock
Esrocking Ukraine
by Robin Esrock / Published October 31 2008
Excerpt from Robin's blog at
Kiev, UkraineI've got my glow on in Chernobyl, where the Geiger counter is crackling over and I swear my feet are burning a hole right through my shoe. It's the final leg of Europe, if this can still be called Europe, certainly not according to the European Union, yet. Ukraine, second largest country on the continent, not to be confused with Russia, that other behemoth who likes their borscht. Shit, Moscow used to be a principality of the Rus, who governed out of Kiev, and I wonder if ancient Rus women wore high heels and paint-on jeans too. From the uncanny civil order of Slovenia, we are met at the airport by a chainsmoking shark-eyed guy who speaks zero English. The airport is a picture of chaos, which is nothing compared to the lobby of the Hotel Ukraine. The location is smack dab in the perogie overlooking the main downtown drag of Independence Square, and the building towers with faded Soviet glory. The receptionist grunts, barks in harsh quasi-English commands, as welcoming as a pitball covered in razor nails. Maybe she is related to the driver. There's a strip bar in the lobby and the key is with the attendant on the 13th floor. I hand her a paper and she points me to room 1305, which has the charming look, smell and decor of a Ukrainian matriarchal prison. A small single cot bed crammed against the wall, 70's chairs, an empty fridge, a TV set with a broken remote control, and a wide window offering a view fit for kings. Oh, and a rotary phone, which actually hurts the finger to dial out. I'm in the Ukraine for a week, and I've got so little time to get dialled in.

KievI am here to cover two stories: Chernobyl, site of the infamous nuclear disaster, and an ex-Soviet missile base that once housed intercontinental ballistic thermonuclear warheads, well capable of ruining your day. This is some pretty heavy stuff, I admit, but there's no time to hit the beaches of the Black Sea and tourism is not exactly exploding in the country. My calls to the Tourism Office were met with a deep grunt and indifference. That being said, I hit a week of perfect weather, clear sunny days and warm, fragrant nights. The crowds are out, seemingly consisting of women dressed up for the runways of Milan. "Ukrainian girls, they are the best no?" says Olga Number One, who resembles Cameron Diaz in a ballroom dress. Olga Number Two pulls out her iPhone to prove it, showing me a series of her modelling photos. "Actually, I'm more partial to Brazilian and Argentinean girls, there eyes are softer," I reply, just to piss them off. Incredible and abundant Ukrainian talent notwithstanding, the people watching in this part of the world is exceptional. Fashions are slammed together like peanuts and gum (together at last), mullets and style, Eurotrash and money. After a disastrous start to its independence from the train wreck of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian economy is enjoying is 7th straight year of solid growth. Ukrainians bought more new cars than another other country in Europe last year, and you can see them on the streets of Kiev. Preposterously prosperous vibes groove from the Buddha Bar, where a bottle of Heineken costs $12. This part of the world, in nouveau riche clubs like this, they have dress code, and face control. Restaurants offer burnt or bland food at a cost far exceeding its value, the only consolation is in the beer, which is good and cheap the way good cheap eastern European beer should be. Although English is taught in schools, nobody seems to be able to speak it, and there's not a solitary sign to help out the few tourists wandering about. There are also no postcards to be found anywhere, ruining an unbeaten 20 country run of collecting them. People are too busy making money, or more accurately, looking at the few people who actually are.

Gotta love the People Chain. Jenja works at my sponsor Ryders Sunglasses in Vancouver, and she was born in Kiev, so she gives me her cousin Vlad's number, and an email or two later, I join Vlad and his friendly wife Anastasia for some beer and bunker chow. It's been a week in the country already, and they're the first young hip folks I've met with a brilliant command of language, and a natural thirst for travel. "India wasn't too tough for us," says Anna, "we're used to overcrowded trains and buses, things not running on schedule, corruption..." If she can compare Ukraine to India in all seriousness, then so can I. But then you get the Buddha Bar and the horrifically overpriced Double Coffee and the department stores and iPhones and $400 handbags and this ain't New Delhi, no sirree. Then read the cover story on the Kiev Post, about the mayor selling out large tracts of land to private parties for a fraction of their worth. Corruption runs so thick here, it would be rude not to try and pull a fast one. Politically the President and Prime Minister are at each other's throats, and there's real concern about the Russian bear flashing its claws in Georgia. Putin apparently told Bush that Ukraine isn't a real country, conveniently forgetting history and sending blue and yellow nationalists into a tizzy. But you know what, I'm impressed with this country. They had the third largest arsenal of nuclear warheads in the world, and you know what, they decided to dismantle every last damn one of them. A nuclear bomb would pretty much insure their safety (and possible destruction) but they did it anyway, and to find out more, I headed off to an ex-Soviet Missile base.

Robin Esrock in UkraineAbout fifteen years ago, I would have received 3000 volts of electric fence and 72 warning bullets in my chest for daring to visit this top secret base. Guards were instructed to kill all intruders. Today the Museum of Strategic Missiles welcomes tourists to visit a genuine nuclear missile silo, complete with a 12 level 50m deep underground command centre. Scrap the image of a massive room glowing with screens and dozens of nerdy balding types. The command silo is crammed, narrow, tight, frigid, sterile, and soul crushing. Working 6 hour shifts 24 hours a day, two officers would remain ready and alert, anticipating the phone call authorizing them to launch the missiles. Life is so far removed down here you'd want to destroy the planet just to relieve the boredom. And with enough equipment and resources to survive 48 days without coming to the surface (as well as carefully designed hydraulics designed to withstand a nuclear attack), you'd emerge as one of the few survivors left on a planet torn to shreds by atomics. A former colonel, one of the guys with the finger on the button in subterranean hell, was my guide. He looked like your average bloke, so it was hard to imagine he could have been responsible for millions of murders. But years below under that sort of pressure had taken its toll...he refused to sit in the co-pilot chair for a shot. Any officers who showed the slightest bit of mental or moral issue was immediately transferred. Not everyone can follow orders knowing they'd literally end the world. Outside, my bones chilled from the sheer mechanical wickedness of the place, I came face to face with a massive black thermonuclear missile, disarmed of course, called the CC-18. NATO calls it Satan. Known as the world's most sophisticated and ruthless weapon, it can deliver a payload of 10 warheads (each 50 times more powerful than the bomb that exploded over Hiroshima), and is practically indestructible. Built and still in use by the Russians, it can reach the USA within 25 minutes. Never have I felt such evil emanate from a lifeless machine. Walking beside it confirmed the very existence of hell. Hope there is, that countries like Ukraine have disarmed their nukes, and the remaining superpowers have reduced their warheads from the odd 70,000 they had during the cold war to the odd 10,000 they have today. Fear that just a handful of them would wipe out every milestone humanity has achieved, indiscriminate of faith, gender or political view. Besides the Cuban Missile Crisis, there have been four other near miss incidents, all caused by human or computer error. Somewhere in the US, China, Russia, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, Britain and North Korea, there are two men sitting in a bunker. They are bored, they are tired, and they have their fingers twitching, inches away from the button.

 Continue reading Robin's report at his website:

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