Lviv: It’s not a place to go visit, it’s not a place to see things, you have to go experience it
Canadian Journalist Lee Reaney talks to Bohdan Nahalyo about living and working in various parts of Ukraine for 15 years, and why he loves Lviv
Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling, your weekly review of what’s been happening in Ukraine with a focus on a main issue. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv, and here’s a look at some of the stories that were in the news this week.
CULTURE and MUSIC
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FOCUS INTERVIEW: Canadian Journalist Lee Reaney talks to Bohdan Nahalyo about living and working in various parts of Ukraine for 15 years, and why he loves L’viv.
Nahaylo: My guest this week is Lee Reaney, a Canadian journalist based in Ukraine. He has covered Eastern Europe, based in Budapest and Warsaw. He is probably best known as Editor of L’viv Today, a wonderful monthly that comes out in that city and provides us with very rich and colourful information about what is happening in the city in cultural sense and in terms of the life of the city. Everything that a tourist and, I would imagine, an inhabitant of the city would like or would need to know. We will talk about this later.
Lee is also interesting because he represents that group of people who have moved to Ukraine in recent years and have tried to establish themselves here. So you can tell us a little bit about what it’s like to try to work in Ukraine, not having had a head start or rich father or a well connected link in the government, but to come and make it on their own. Welcome, Lee!
Reaney: Thank you very much!
Nahaylo: Let’s begin by asking you where you are from.
Reaney: I am from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Western Canada.
Nahaylo: What brings you to this fair country of Ukraine?
Reaney: I came out here the first time a very long time ago. It was in 2001. I came here on exchange program Canada World Youth. I spent three months in a small community in Western Ukraine in Rivno oblast in Ostroh. I just fell in love with it. My connections to Ukraine started then and I have been coming back ever since.
Nahaylo: Ostroh is a small place but it has a famous intellectual academic centre, the Ostroh Academy.
Reaney: Yes, they say it is the oldest university in Ukraine. It was first established in Ukraine but it was gone for a long time. After Independence they re-established it. That’s where I worked on two different programs.
Nahaylo: So why Ukraine?
Reaney: After I came out here the first time, I just sort of fell in love with the people, primarily, and the culture. Where I live in Canada there is a significant Ukrainian diaspora, so even when I went home I did not really leave. There were a lot of people interested in what I did here. There are a lot of opportunities between these two places, so I kept coming back. I had friends here and I had friends there. It came to the point where whenever I had enough money to go for a vacation, be it Cuba, Bahamas, or Ukraine. I would always come here, because I would just have more fun and enjoy the people more.
Nahaylo: And you have no Ukrainian origins?
Reaney: None. I would argue that now I do.
Nahaylo: But then you did not.
Reaney: No. I came here the first time when I was 21. The only thing I knew about Ukraine were the Easter eggs and pierogies and borsch. Perogies are varenyky, but in Canada we call them pierogies.
Nahaylo: …at the Ukrainian festivals in Canada, of course.
Reaney: And Ukrainian dancing, which is very popular where I come from. But these are very basic parts of the culture.
Nahaylo: When you arrived, did you encounter any significant cultural differences?
Reaney: When I came out here the first time, what I told my friends back home is that it’s a great foreign place to go first. In a sense that is very different but in some ways it’s the same. It’s still Europe here and it was even in 2001. But it’s a very different part of Europe you would get in Paris, London or Berlin. When I came here the first time I really noticed differences in personalities, differences in how people reacted to different things. I had lived here for six months on a program in 2005. In the family I was living with, there was a son, who was a very good man but he was an alcoholic. One of things I noticed was different was how the community treated this man, comparing how he would be treated as an alcoholic back home. For example, in the community people regarded him as a nice man, who has a problem. Where I come from Canada it does not matter if he is nice because he chose to have his problem. It’s just one of the examples of the different ways Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian people approach things that are very different from the way we do back home.
Nahaylo: How did you cope with the language barrier?
Reaney: The language is difficult, especially in a small community like Ostroh. There are 9, 000 or 13, 000 people there when the university is running. Before I moved there I picked up the alphabet, so I was able to read but I was incredibly shy. When I first moved out, I could say only a few sentences. The fortunate thing I had when I came out here before, was that there was no Internet. There was one place to use it in a community and it was always busy. So you had actually time in the evening to study. I brought a book with me. I did not understand the TV. It was difficult to speak with the host family members because they did not speak any English. So I worked at it and went through the book. I came up with a list of opposites and then I would have my friends to translate the words and that was very useful way in a sense if I could not remember one word I could remember the other. For example, I was learning I remember one word “pamiataty” which is to remember but I could not remember the word “to forget”. I know it now but at that time I did not. When you learn opposites …
Nahaylo: Did the locals regard you as someone strange? You weren’t rich. You were in a provincial area. What were you doing there? What were you looking for? Did they not find it strange that instead of trying to go to Kyiv or L’viv or Odesa that you ended up there?
Reaney: They honestly think that I am still a little bit odd. Most expats feel that. When you’re in Ukraine one of the first questions they ask when they find out where you are from is “Why Ukraine?” To be honest as an expat here when I meet another expats this one of the first questions I ask them as well. I think it’s a great question. Sure. In this whole town it was a little bit different because there was a program and a number of Canadians were there very early in the program. I made great effort to learn the language and set me apart from many other Canadians out there. I did ended up learning the language very well and was able to communicate and get different experiences than many other Canadians. For example, I had a friend who was drafted to the military and his family had invited me to go with them for the signing ceremony, and do a tour of the base. It was an incredible experience not many foreigners got at that time.
Nahaylo: Well, moving forward, since those humble beginnings here… You have managed to become the editor of L’viv Today. You have taken part in OSCE monitoring of elections here. You are well known in Kyiv in journalistic circles. How did you make that transition from … what I described as humble origins?
Reaney: You know, you just talk to people. See when I moved out here I knew that I wanted to write. I moved here to write a book. So I was looking for English language media to get some experience and that is I came across L’viv Today which I knew about even before I moved out here. I was fortunate enough, I started writing with them very early on after I moved here. And then two or three months later I became the editor and that has provided me with a number of experiences to meet different people. I can tell you that one of the major factors in where I am right now is my understanding of the language and understanding of the culture, which I think … especially when you come to Kyiv. You know, I lived in Ostroh, I lived just outside of L’viv for a number of years and it is a different experience, more rural experience. You hang around with a lot of locals and so you get a different opinion. You understand what they think about the news of the day. When you are in Kyiv, it is very easy to hang around with other expats, who have a different view.
Nahaylo: Yes, it is very cosmopolitan, I suppose. So, tell us about L’viv. You ended up editing fantastic publication, more on that in a second. But the city itself. Obviously, it wasn’t quite up to where it stands now. It was perhaps getting there or starting to get there. And this was I presume before the Euro football championship, which really was a catalyst in the development of the city. What were your first impressions of L’viv?
Reaney: L’viv is one of the favourite cities I have ever travelled to. I would actually argue that the UNESCO heritage [designation] of the downtown was when the city actually started seeing significant improvement.
Nahaylo: And when was that, roughly?
Reaney: That was in the early 2000s, 2004 maybe?
Nahaylo: So, that had an impact?
Reaney: Yes, surely. And if I were to show you my pictures from the first time I was there in 2001 until right after 2012, you can see how even Ploshcha Rynok, the main square in L’viv, has improved. The facades, the buildings have improved, streets. You know, L’viv is a very interesting city. When my friends came out here, I told them that it is unique in a sense that when you go to a place like Paris or London, people want to see the Eiffel Tower, then they want to see, you know, Big Ben or these places. L’viv has Ploshcha Rynok and Svoboda Prospect.
Nahaylo: Ploshcha Rynok that is the main city square…
Reaney: The main city square.
Nahaylo: … that is centered, built around the City Hall.
Reaney: Right, and the City Hall is also very nice because you can climb up to the top. L’viv is more of a city where you need to experience. You need to go to different restaurants. You need to people watch. You need to stop on a street and play chess with somebody, you need to go to one of the many festivals that they have every weekend. You need to go to an art show.
Nahaylo: So, you are talking about the ambiance, the feel of the city, its particular character that it has, which is different from other Ukrainian cities.
Reaney: Sure, it is a city to live it. You have to experience it. It is not something to see. You have to go out, you have to go to an event. You have to go to an art exhibition, you know, sit on a patio somewhere and change. What people in L’viv do, when I’m there, you sit at one place, and you go to another place, and you go to another place, all in one evening. It is very interesting. I go back probably two or three times a months on weekends. I am based in Kyiv right now, and every time I go there, there is a new restaurant, there is a new club, there is a new festival, every time I go back.
Nahaylo: And the tourists keep pouring in..
Reaney: They do. And not just from Western Europe, but from across Ukraine and, before the conflict, also from Russia. It is a very unique city.
Nahaylo: This is what you notice. I would say, even if not 50%, maybe even more 60% of Russian-speaking tourists and a lot of Poles of course, a lot of Germans I notice, Austrians, Jewish people from various countries. But many Russian speakers, especially from Eastern Ukraine were discovering a different kind of Ukraine, a city which symbolizes Europe for them.
Reaney: Sure, and I don’t think that is a new phenomenon. I would say that was partly the case during the Soviet Union. I have seen old tourist books from L’viv from the 70s where they have pictures. They are all in Russian and Soviet symbols are all over the place. And even at that time Russians came out to L’viv for a taste of Europe. I would not say that’s just a new phenomenon, but certainly I think the city has capitalized on that marketing.
Nahaylo: A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking to the publisher of L’viv Today Peter Dickenson, but we did not get into the nitty-gritty. Tell us a little bit about the philosophy behind the journal, what its aim is, and who is it aimed at?
Reaney: L’viv Today is a very unique journal in Ukraine. It is primarily focused on L’viv and Western Ukraine and it is, until recently, the only English language resource available in the area. It is not solely English language, it is bilingual with Ukrainian. And that also sets it apart from most of the other English language publications in Ukraine. So in L’viv, the reason that we do it bilingual is because it is not just for tourists, but it is for Ukrainians that want to understand the Western viewpoint, who want to understand what westerners like to read. And one of the comments that we get, because we have native English speakers write articles and we have native Ukrainian speakers write articles and they are translated. So you have one article about the same topic, about the same event and very different ways of saying things in Ukrainian and in English. So we get comments from teachers from Canada, from Britain, from Australia that they like to use our magazine as a teaching resource because of the differences between the languages. Not just directly google translated. It is not even the same sentence by sentence thing. The same information will be there, but said in a native way in Ukrainian and in a native way in English.
Nahaylo: What kind of balance are you trying to find in terms of the content, in terms of the themes that you cover?
Reaney: We talk about lifestyle in Western Ukraine. Certainly L’viv has an impression of itself, I think, and Leopolitans have an impression of themselves that we certainly highlight. I think that people in L’viv would argue that they feel that they need to represent the most Ukrainian ideals of Ukrainian culture. And we highlight that in the magazine. There are just an incredible amount of events that happen in L’viv every year, every weekend. And so we highlight all of those events. We typically stay away from politics more or less. It is somewhat difficult to do in this country, in this environment. But we focus on how to live life in Western Ukraine, what to discover. We talk about places to see, certain cultural things to look out for. What happened last month, what did you miss, what is happening in the next month, where should you take your family to. And it is a monthly magazine, which I think has led to our success, because it is a difficult market here in Ukraine. But we have a very big name in L’viv. We advertise at the football games for Karpaty. We advertise at Miss L’viv, L’viv Fashion Week…
Nahaylo: The jazz festival I assume, the book fair, yes I noticed that you have got coverage of that, and soon to be the first Mozart festival, connecting Mozart because his son ended up living in L’viv, if I am not mistaken.
Reaney: Yes: My understanding is that he did not, but I stand to be corrected on that. I don’t believe that he did. I believe that there is a bust of his son in L’viv that you can actually search for, which is a high point, if you could find that. But certainly there is a huge cultural life in L’viv and that’s centered at the opera theatre on Svoboda. There was a very interesting festival that just ended, I think, last month or two months ago, and I think that’s a ballet choreography festival. It’s the second year they’ve done it, and it’s just incredible. It’s young choreographers from across Ukraine that compete in new ballets, and you watch the final event at the opera theatre, and you know, there’s just so much talent in this country, especially in activities like ballet and to see it all together in one place. People in L’viv are very fortunate to experience this.
Nahaylo: So L’viv has become very much the show piece of Ukraine, how would you compare it to Kyiv? A very different city, much larger, very different history, but in terms of the vitality, the vibrancy that we see in Kyiv and what we see in L’viv, are they on par or is it simply a question of size that Kyiv is bigger, in terms of quality and what they offer, how would you rate the two?
Reaney: You know, it’s really difficult to compare because they’re so different experiences. L’viv, as I mentioned earlier, it’s a place where you are, it’s not a place to go visit, it’s not a place to see things, you have to go experience it. You know, when I take my friends from abroad around, when they come to Ukraine, you know, L’viv is a place where we just sit and chat and—
Nahaylo: Drink good coffee.
Reaney: Absolutely. We eat chocolate.
Nahaylo: Cherry schnaps.
Reaney: Yes, medovukha as well, which is a honey based shot, less than vodka, thank goodness. And there’s lots of things experience in L’viv, where as in Kyiv there is lots to see, to learn; there’s more of a variety of things to do in Kyiv. There is a bigger ex-pat community, which means there’s more events in English. There are sites. I took my friend to the World War II Museum at the Motherland Monument last week. The museum is incredible, it’s European class, it’s one of the nicest I’ve seen. It is massive, it’s something you can’t do in an hour or two, you have to spend a whole day or even longer there. There is sites to see, there are things to show, there are things you need to talk about. In L’viv, it’s a place where you need to just be out to see the different festivals, and there’s something going on every weekend, so you can’t choose a wrong weekend in L’viv.
Nahaylo: L’viv is a place to chill out and soak things in?
Reaney: And speak to the locals because they’ll tell you what they think of Ukraine. It is always fascinating, you’ll learn Ukrainian words or phrases that no one else in Ukraine will use. There are just so many cultural experiences that are unique to Western Ukraine.
Nahaylo: Okay, time is running out. It’s a wonderful publication, as I said before: colourful, well produced, great photos, great stories, well written. Just name two or three of your favourite pieces or ones you may have written yourself, which stories gave you a lot of satisfaction?
Reaney: Well, I’ve done a number. I cover sports quite a bit, so I’ve had the opportunity to cover, for example, Ukraine in France last year when they were at the Euros.
Nahaylo: Yes, we met in Lyon.
Reaney: Yes, Lyon. We went to the game there.
Nahaylo: As a Canadian, you’re a great hockey enthusiast.
Reaney: Yes, and we just had the World Hockey Championship here.
Nahaylo: Tell us just quickly, Ukraine, how does it rate in the scheme of things?
Reaney: They’re a strong team that needs a couple of foreign players, they need somebody that can score. They were competing against five other teams here, they ended up finishing sixth, so they are going down a division. But they were competing against teams that had five or six Canadians on them and they didn’t have one, and if they had one person who had a natural ability to score, I think they would do better. I’m going to be a little bit critical of the coaching as well, I think the power plays were some of the worst I’ve ever seen, but we can talk about sports another time.
Nahaylo: And just briefly about another hat or cap you’ve worn or wear from time to time: election monitoring. That must have been quite an eye opening experience seeing the political process at work here.
Reaney: Yes, I highly recommend it for anybody that has a background in politics. I’ve had the opportunity to see five different elections here from before the revolution, to during the revolution, to after the revolution. Across Ukraine, I’ve been from L’viv region to Kyiv region, to Dnieper region, to Mykolaiv region, and I’ve seen some very interesting things. It’s helped me learn about democracy back home, it’s helped me learn a lot about the problems Ukrainians face when they go up against the bureaucracy here, and it’s an eye opening experience for anybody who has had that type of interest.
Nahaylo: Okay, telegraphically, because we have to finish. I ask this of most of my guests, are we moving forward, do you see progress after all these years? Are you one of these people that sees us it as half empty, or as half full, or something that can be refilled at any stage, what is your take in a few words?
Reaney: Well, I can tell you that people in Western Ukraine are a little bit disappointed. They see where Poland has moved since independence in the past 25 of years, and they think they should be more or less in the same place. Certainly, I’ve seen this country grow, you know, since the end of the revolution, you’ve seen the formation of a singular Ukrainian identity, and that is foundational. It allows them to get past the politics of language, which, you know, that was the first 25 years of Ukrainian politics. You see new investors coming in, you see Ukrainian startups that are being bought out in the States, so yeah, it’s an exciting time to be here. It’s at the forefront of a new type of warfare, you know, you talk about hybrid wars or cyberwarfare, all of that stuff is happening right here, right now. And to see Ukraine get visa-free access for my Ukrainian friends here, and I’ve been here 15-16 years, that is a watershed moment in this country that I don’t think Europe fully understands what that means to the people of Ukraine. There are still things to be done, I mean, nobody has gone to prison for the things that were done at Maidan, but they’re working towards that, there’s institutions, the ombudsman. I think things are going in the right direction.
Nahaylo: Okay, Lee, thank you very much. That was very interesting to hear from Lee Reaney, a Canadian journalist who’s been here quite a long time. Came and has worked his way up from starting in a local community, learning the ways, the language of this country, and now he is an editor of L’viv Today, is often on election monitoring missions, reports on business issues in Kyiv, and a well-known figure in the ex-pat community as well, too. We thank you, Lee, for joining us.
Reaney: Duzhe diakuyu.
Nahaylo: My pleasure.
Meeting of President Poroshenko and President Trump
On Tuesday 20th June, Pres Petro Poroshenko paid a visit to the White House, and made a “drop-in call” on US President Trump. The meeting had not been announced far in advance, which was unusual for such a high-level visit. President Trump later said he had “ very, very good discussions” with the Ukrainian President. And President Poroshenko came away pleased from the meeting, saying that “we received strong support from the US side. Support in terms of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the independence of our state.”
Trump reassured Poroshenko that the US will not cancel sanctions against Russia. In fact, a few hours before President Trump made a joint appearance with the Ukrainian president before the media, there had been an announcement of new US sanctions. These sanctions target Russian, Donbas and Crimean, companies and individuals, for the ongoing occupation of Crimea and continued Russian presence in the Donbas.
President Poroshenko also had fruitful meetings with US Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence. At a press briefing, Poroshenko said that, arising out of the meetings just held, “very important agreements will be signed, including agreements on defense cooperation, including an agreement on defense procurement, and an agreement on military-technical cooperation”.
Ukrainian media were quick to point out the symbolic significance of President Poroshenko succeeding in shaking the US President’s hand ahead of Russian President, Putin, who is most likely to do so at the soonest at the G20 meeting, which is two weeks away. Russian media analysts, on the other hand, portrayed the “drop-in meeting’ as a diplomatic snub. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the imposing of new sanctions “regrettable”.
Not only did President Poroshenko visit Washington, but he also succeeded in paying a working visit to Brussels. There he met with EU President Donald Tusk and discussed ongoing support for Ukraine from the West, and the continuation of sanctions against Russia until the full implementation of the Minsk Agreement. On Thursday, these EU sanctions were extended for yet another six months.
Thousands of people gathered in downtown Kyiv and participated in the Gay-Pride Parade on the 19th of June. Police estimate that about 2,500 gay rights activists and human rights activists took part in the event that lasted about an hour.
There have been LGBT marches held in Kyiv since 2012, but not always successfully. This year, the Parade was reinforced by a massive police presence, approximately 5,500 police officers.
The police had sealed off a number of streets and did security checks on people entering the area.
A large group of anti-gay demonstrators tried to disrupt the march by gathering a counter-demonstration in the middle of the planned parade route, and tried to provoke scuffles. Major clashes were avoided by the police forming a barrier between the groups and redirecting the route slightly.
As Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Deyeva commented, it was very commendable work on the part of the police force.
There has been an overall intensification of conflict in the Donbas. Attacks by the Russian supported forces on the SMM have been noted and there has been a general increase of attacks on civilian targets. According to OSCE statistics, 45 civilians have been killed in the conflict since the beginning of the year. But this week along the front lines, 2 Ukrainian military have been Killed in Action, and 21 wounded.
This week, OSCE spokesperson described how OSCE observers of the SMM were threatened and attacked in Yasynuvata, which is in the DNR-controlled part of Donetsk. 2 armed men threatened two groups of OSCE observers, who were in vehicles at the time. They tried to break windows of the vehicles, pointed weapons at the observers and started shooting in the direction of the observers when they began to leave.
Ukrainian performers won a bronze medal at the Cannes Lions international festival this week. The winning piece was initiated by the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre, with composer Svitoslav Luniov and author Hennadiy Kurochka, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the tragedy at Babyn Yar, and is called “the Witness’. The Witness in question is the Wind, which saw these terrible events unfold. The emotional piece is performed as part of a moving installation by children, who sing and play instruments. Their motif is: “be the voice of those, who cannot speak for themselves”.
And another event brought long-absent artists back to Ukraine. The Museum of the Ukrainian Diaspora in Kyiv is hosting an exhibition called Artistic Ambassadors, supported by the Australian Embassy. On display are the works of six Ukrainian artists who emigrated out to Australia, 5 of them in the years immediately after the Second World War. Parched, sun-drenched landscapes of Australia alternate with iconic images of the Ukrainian life they left behind, or tried to recreate in their new homeland. Archetypical images distilled through memory and long distances.
And here’s a song for you. It’s called “Ой у лісі лісі,” which means “In the Forest.” A folk song performed by a new female vocal group, Yahody. Enjoy!
Next week I will be hosting the show and bringing you an overview of the news in Ukraine, international issues, and a feature interview. Tune in for a new episode. And we’d love to hear from you. Write to us at [email protected]. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Thanks for listening.
Interview transcribed by Larysa Iarovenko, Nykole King, Ilona Szieventseva, Max Sviezhentsev. Headlines and Culture, by Oksana Smerechuk. Music selected by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko.