All eyes were on Ukraine this past month during their surreal election period. No one believed that a comedian who had played the president in a popular TV show would actually become president in real life. The question arose; would life imitate art? Yes, as it turns out. Volodymyr Zelensky, the now globally famous Ukrainian president-elect, won by a landslide. In fact, the largest margin by any president in Ukraine, ever. Another country ticks the ‘unexpected result’ box. It certainly is a trend these days.
I initially flew to Kyiv to cover the first stages of the election and to find out who was supporting Zelensky. I soon realised I was in a city weary from politics. Still wearing the scars of revolution, war and corruption, Ukraine was clearly wounded from all the lies spluttering out of the same old politicians’ mouths. Her citizens had lost all trust, having believed the current president, Petro Poroshenko, would make rapid changes to the system after the 2014 Maidan revolution. When his promises of eliminating corruption and ending the war in the East didn’t materialise, people were quite understandably upset. So, when a young, funny, relatable comedian from television announced his decision to run for president at the end of 2018, it is little wonder that people started flocking to him. As was explained to me, “He has no experience in politics, but he has no experience in corruption”, something few of Ukraine’s political candidates could attest to.
For many, Zelensky was the new face of politics they had been waiting for and since they had seen him play the president on his TV show Servant of the People, which was also the name of his political party, they knew what to expect from him. In his campaigns, which primarily utilised social media, Zelensky successfully channelled the same character he portrayed on television. After it was announced that he and Poroshenko were the final two candidates, Zelensky released a slick video on his Instagram where he walked purposefully into the €500 million Olympic Stadium, resembling a cocaine-fuelled city banker coercing a client, to the background of upbeat rock music and the occasional slow motion tracking shot. In the video, he challenged Poroshenko to a debate in the 70 000 person stadium, despite having declined all previous political debates. Within 5 minutes of being posted, the video had been watched over 300 000 times and proceeded to go viral over the following days. It was in this moment that Zelensky had effectively won. Now he was in total control, re-designing and altering the political playing field, cornering Poroshenko so that no matter how he responded it would pale in comparison to Zelensky’s charismatic presentation. If he responded in the same fashion as Zelensky, then it would seem out of character and people would quickly call him out for being a phoney, yet if he responded in his typical, professional manner then he would come across as the same-old boring politician clinging onto the past in the face of a new, exciting opponent.
Zelensky, or rather his team, had successfully forged a new reality that blended the exhilaration and slickness of television with the accessibility of social media and somehow convinced people that this reality was more honest and less fake than the one they currently inhabited. And because Zelensky was used to this world, he could manoeuvre himself through it with ease, fully adopting the personality of his character. Poroshenko was left behind, unused to this new game, hoping that in the end his experience would prevail over Zelensky’s personality. But Zelensky still had one last trump over Poroshenko. Whilst the incumbent president was clear about his policies, Zelensky took a gamble, one that would ultimately pay off despite the huge risk. In a country dominated by binary identities, Zelensky was a blank canvas for personal beliefs. He was deliberately ambiguous with his policies, revealing most of them towards the end of his campaign. For the most part, they didn’t differ much from Poroshenko’s: he vowed to end the war in Donbas, to push for a strong independent Ukraine separate from Russia, and openly supported the de-communisation reforms. These are views held by the majority of the country, they are nothing new at all; in fact you would be hard pressed to find people who disagreed with these notions. But Zelensky’s personality and refreshing approach meant that his sincerity was taken more seriously than Poroshenko’s. In this new world, he’s the most honest man in Ukraine.
It may be of no surprise that Zelensky had a large base of young supporters. His campaign certainly targeted the Social Media generation, captivating some of the mid-20s voters I met, including many protestors who took part in the Maidan. Curiously the post-Maidan youth seem to be less politically engaged than the generation before them, which is perhaps why they largely supported the least political politician. For them, Zelensky is the clean slate that has the potential to fulfil the Maidan vision of a corrupt-free, European-integrated Ukraine. Poroshenko, who was a noticeable protestor during the Maidan, may have been able to secure the votes of an older generation of ardent nationalists who stood alongside him, but the younger generation feel betrayed by his lack of action and are more likely to be open to change than those who were alive during the Soviet Era. In fact, a lot of young people don’t let politics obstruct what they want to do. Having grown up in a politically unstable time, particularly during the 90’s when communism was collapsing around them with horrendous consequences, they are more comfortable with political uncertainty. Instead the wave of hope and possibility from the Maidan transitioned into their daily lives, whilst the recent arrival of cheap airlines and visa-free travel within the Schengen Area has offered the opportunity for many young Ukrainians to travel easily in Europe and bring back new ideas and opportunities. There has also been an explosion in the Ukrainian tech industry, with programming offering a viable opportunity to make money, as well as the chance to work for international companies. Simultaneously, start-ups and co-working spaces are prolific in major cities such as Kyiv and Lviv. This means that young people feel they have opportunities to realise their dreams and ambitions, regardless of Ukraine’s political situation. Indeed, for many the more connected and integrated Ukraine becomes, the only way to go is up, regardless of who is steering the country.
So if Zelensky is the fresh-faced, clean slate that Ukrainians have been dreaming of, why is there such a big controversy around his victory? Indeed many are championing his success as a victory for Ukrainian democracy; a big middle finger to the corrupt politicians who normally run the show. Well, as it turns out, there is a shadow looming behind him that can’t help but cast Zelensky in a rather dark light. It belongs to an oligarch, Ihor Kolomoskyi, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessmen. He has his fingers in numerous juicy pies, one of those just so happens to be the media conglomerate 1+1 Media, which airs Servant of the People. This combined with his friendship to Zelensky is enough for people to suspect that the comedian isn’t really going to be leading the country away from its undemocratic oligarchic rule. In fact theories have been floating around that Servant of the People was a pre-empted ploy fathomed up by Kolomoskyi in order to gain power from Poroshenko, who he had a falling out with in early 2015. It’s not a totally implausible theory, particularly in Ukraine where oligarchs wield an unhealthy amount of control. Either way, there is enough evidence to suggest that Kolomoskyi and Zelensky have some kind of partnership, but the fact that people are willing to look past that reveals the actors popularity lies more with the faults of Poroshenko than his own policies. In the end, only time will tell if Ukraine improves post-Poroshenko, or if the country has simply elected a new face, masking corrupt oligarchic rule.
Romania, like a lot of its neighbouring countries, is going through a rough post-communist transition. It hasn’t quite achieved the democratic values of the European Union and in fact seems to be heading back down a dark, oppressive path. I arrived in Bucharest late in the evening, having been in contact with a group of art activists for the past three weeks. My main contact had informed me that a small, informal protest would be taking place that night. As the crowded airport bus drove into the city, the sound of a few people chanting caught my attention and a group of protestors standing in the middle of a large roundabout soon came into view. I looked on, captivated by this peculiar scene of no more than 200 people chanting angrily in the midst of a busy road, holding up cardboard signs and Romanian flags. Yet when I turned back to my fellow bus passengers, hardly anyone had even looked up from their phone. The odd glance was cast, but no one was focussed on the demonstration quite like I was. After spending a week in Bucharest I soon realised why. This had become the new norm.
The wave of protests began in January 2017, ever since the newly sworn in government attempted to sneakily slide through some rather corrupt laws. What particularly caught people’s attention, was the effort to decriminalise corruption cases of under €40 000, meaning that politicians would be able to take money out of public funds without having to give a reason, if it was equivalent to this value. Furious citizens immediately took to the streets, kick-starting a movement unlike anything the country had witnessed since the 1989 revolution, which resulted in the fall of the nationalist communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of Romanians across the country protested throughout January and February, as well as members of the diaspora in Europe, America and Australia. The mental landscape of Romania has been permanently altered by these events, particularly in Bucharest, where large protests in August resulted in hundreds of people being tear gassed indiscriminately and excessively by riot-police, after fights broke out near the front barriers. Everyone I spoke to had something to say about the corruption in the country and the on-going protests. It wasn’t an off-topic conversation as one might expect, particularly when coming from a reserved British background. Instead taxi drivers, hostel workers, tour guides and of course the artists were all eager to get deep into the topic. It’s certainly sparked something off in the urban general public.
Surprisingly, people were not afraid to talk negatively about the government in public. On a free morning tour around the city, courtesy of Walkabout Tours, (highly recommended), our guide took us through the fascinating history of Romania, ending with the current protests and government corruption. Like many others in the capital, she alluded towards the similarities between the existing government and the old communist one.
‘Go and tell your friends about what is happening in Romania’, she passionately ordered the vastly international group, despite being right in the centre of the city. Whether or not the government is arrogant enough to not care about what the people think or say, or that by allowing people the freedom to openly criticise, it creates some kind of democratic illusion, I’m not sure. One thing is clear though; the citizens of Bucharest are desperate for a change and have little fear of their government.
Outside of the capital, things seem to be a little different. Whilst Bucharest is a typical, post-communist metropolis, filled with cool cafés, art galleries, fantastic restaurants and unique Bauhaus, communist architecture, rural Romania remains a different story. Driving through the often sparse and frankly quite dull countryside Eastwards, towards the more magnificent Danube Delta, small villages are randomly scattered everywhere. Most seem to only be home to either the very old or the very young, whilst others are semi-abandoned or predominantly Roma. Cars are still principally used, however it isn’t unusual to see people travelling by horse and cart and there are even signs in the towns that have a horse and cart symbol, equivalent to a bus or motorbike symbol over here. A photographer in Bucharest had informed me that this region, the South East, was much poorer and far less developed than the North or West of Romania. It’s also an area that holds very high support for the government. More so than any other region.
After successfully arriving in the Danube Delta, a vast nature reserve where the Danube river carves through the land, creating a serene world of islands and lagoons, a boat carried me to a small fishing village right on the coast of the Black Sea. With only a population of 797, it is a tight nit community, effectively isolated from the rest of the country. Around here, fishing and tourism are the main sources of income, with a hefty flow of middle and upper class Romanians and international tourists, descending upon the tiny village in the heart of summer. With no cars penetrating the still sea air and cows freely roaming around, life is simple and idyllic for those that choose to live here. Although in the winter, the freezing sea breeze and lack of income means that those left behind are no strangers to hardship. Even though it’s a tourist hot spot, it still remains fairly un-developed, aside from the trendy new four-star health and water-sports resort. It’s about as far off from Bucharest’s intense concrete jungle as you can get, with absolutely no sign of any government discontent. I mean, why should there be? For many people in this region, political life seems irrelevant. The actual impact of a change in government to their own, personal life would probably be minimal. Few have the luxury to contemplate politics when life is hard enough as it is. Over-fishing has led to a drastic decrease in supply, whilst many youths are leaving to pursue other careers or a better life in the cities. In this isolated area, political protest is reserved for those who have the time, money and effort to travel, something most fisherman and farmers don’t have.
Although I’m speaking solely on my experiences in the Danube Delta, it is a known fact that other rural regions face similar issues. Villages are slowly dying as people leave to find better work, whilst the older generation are stuck in a limbo between communism and capitalism. They grew up with the belief that the state would look after them when old age finally took its grip and were unprepared for the sudden switch to capitalism. As a result, rural Romania is crippled with poverty. During election periods, politicians are known to travel to rural and impoverished communities and offer up a small amount of money, food or even just oil, in return for a vote. It’s a tactic that is also extensively used in Russia and Hungary, cementing the corrupt politicians in place, even if they have a huge number of critics. For those protesting, it’s a distressing and frustrating sight to see their fellow citizens and sometimes even family members get manipulated in this way. State controlled media pushes out disinformation, sweeping people up in their lies, whilst those impervious to such propaganda, frustratingly attempt to convince others that it’s ‘fake news’.
Perhaps frustration is the best adjective to describe Romania's situation. It rings throughout Bucharest, injecting itself into the people’s disposition. There’s frustration at the blatant corruption and manipulation, frustration at the lack of opportunities, despite the potential for Romania and to top that off, frustration at the little change the protests are making. It seems no matter how hard they push, the government simply push back, exhausting the protestors. Fortunately there is some change in the mentality of the people. At the start of October, a referendum opting to redefine marriage to only being between ‘a man and a woman’, essentially banning the potential for same-sex marriage, failed to come to light thanks to a successful boycott. It revealed the progressive route Romania is going down, however at a cost of $40 million, the referendum was simply a waste of money and a distraction from the government corruption. Even in a small victory, the taste of frustration bitters the celebration. Nevertheless, the majority of people I spoke to remain sanguine about their activism and won’t stop protesting until a significant change comes to Romania.
From November 2013 to February 2014, Kiev was burning with revolution. I remember seeing it take place on the news. People fighting, buildings on fire, police beating and then the snipers killing. Over 100 people were killed in the Euromaidan revolution and many more were injured. All of Ukraine joined in, but Kiev was ground zero: the front line. I wanted to see how Ukraine had changed within those four years, and if the outcome was a better, less corrupt society. Unfortunately things still seem despondent. The country is currently in the midst of a hybrid-war with Russia in the Eastern region of Donbas, resulting in over a million displaced citizens. Tens of thousands have been killed, and pretty much everyone all over has been affected in one way or another. It's a forgotten war, put on the back-shelf alongside all the others. Like every conflict, it's incredibly difficult to understand the true context and emotions as an outsider. This is after all, a region which was united with it's aggressor for 72 years.
On my trip, I attempted to understand the situation a little better. However, only being able to speak English put me at a disadvantage to fully understanding the pro-Russian agenda, and most of the people who speak English favour the pro-Europeans. I started off in Kiev, talking to activists, soldiers and revolutionaries to get their opinion on Ukraine's current state. Despite the economic downfall, the war and the countries divide, most young people I spoke to were incredibly optimistic. They were aware that the revolution hadn't succeeded in disposing of a corrupt leader, but felt that people's mentality had changed for the better. Ukrainians were becoming more active in social and political work. Thousands of new NGO's have popped up, and an interest in politics began to simmer into the youth. Many feel that the revolution is in fact still going on, and are continually fighting for their goal of integrating 'European Values' into society.
Outside of Kiev, however, others weren't as optimistic. Some were anti the revolution entirely, feeling that the war and poor economic state were direct results from it. Others still maintain a Soviet identity, and believed the following de-communisation reforms to be a personal attack. These beliefs have split the country in half, and it's hard not to describe the situation as being pro-European/ pro-Ukrainian vs pro-Russian. Travelling through the country, you see this concept of Ukrainian and European identity being pushed forwards. In Kiev, all marks of the revolution have been cleaned up, although posters of those killed have been plastered onto the Maidan monument. Covering the remnants of a burnt out building hangs a banner proclaiming "Freedom is our Religion" in English, with a less prominent Ukrainian translation on the side. Driving into the capital, you are greeted with a large Eurovision sign and in the centre lies touristic attractions such as dressed up Minions and a "I LOVE KIEV" sign. It has all the hallmarks of a European city trying to bring in tourism. All over the country, even in the South-East city of Kherson, where Russian support is more present, you see the national colours painted on anything. From bridges to benches, blue and yellow subtly invades your vision. I believe this is down to the country wanting to reinstate it's own identity, and separate themselves from their Russian neighbours. Ukraine doesn't have as strong a historical identity as other post-Soviet countries like Lithuania, Poland or Georgia. Instead it's been under control of various empires throughout much of it's existence. At one point being part of Austro-Hungary, the Kingdom of Poland and obviously the Russian empire. It's only been truly independent for a length of time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now many are pushing for a strong, Ukrainian identity, away from Russia and it's Soviet past.
Ukraine is full of great beauty and the countryside changes vastly throughout the different regions. As Europe's largest country, (excluding Russia) you have everything from mountains to beaches and even a desert. From the buzzing Kiev, I travelled down to Kherson, where the collapse of the Soviet Union has left a mark on the city. Much more neglected than Kiev, many of the buildings are in disarray, stuck in a communist time capsule. It still has some beautiful streets, and the countryside surrounding it is reminiscent of England's West Country, but the atmosphere of the city is stagnant, almost lost. South of the city are a number of islands where life is slow and peaceful. There's no road, so travel has to be done by motorbike or tractor. The residents spend a lot of time fishing, and gardens are filled with vegetables and fruits. To an outsider, it's an idyllic way of living. However, the winter must be tough, and it's no wonder that many of the residents move back to their apartments in the city. The final city on my trip was Odessa. Built by French and Italian architects in the 19th century, Odessa is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in Ukraine. As any in-depth film fan knows, it is home to the Potemkin stairs, famous for the pram scene in 'Battleship Potemkin'. It's much more guided towards tourists, thanks to its sandy beaches and large hotels. As usual, the outskirts are much more Soviet, with high rises everywhere. But on a nearby suburban beach, I found some interesting life. Fishermen spend their days casting, and a community has built illegal houses actually on the beach itself. Life changes vastly over this fascinating country, and at times it's hard to imagine a conflict is taking place only a few hours away. My series of photographs hopes to show the other side of a country currently at war, and the beginnings of a change that will alter is political and cultural course: the transition from Soviet to capitalist.
War, revolution, civil unrest; these are all the things the youth of Georgia have grown up with. That's not including the generation before them who had to endure the Soviet Union and it's collapse which led to an era of gangland warfare. It's no surprise then that Georgians are some pretty hardened people, who can make jokes about the darkest of times. They are also the most hospitable, welcoming people I have encountered anywhere in the world. The nations of the Caucasus' are famed for treating guests like "gifts from God". Indeed, wherever I travelled, even in a run down village in the middle of nowhere, there was always someone willing to offer up a beer, some food, and a (stilted) conversation. Even some kind junkies gave me a lift back to my hostel, politely asking if I wanted to pick up any "marijuana, coke, or heroin" on the car ride.It's a pretty great place to go as a traveller.
Georgia can best be described as one of the most mythical, hidden countries, aided by it's extraordinary history and scenery. It is said that Jason's golden fleece came from the gold rich kingdom of Colchis, today part of the West coast of Georgia, where sheep skin was used to collect gold from rivers. Even travelling around the most mundane parts of the country still feels as if you are in Tolkien's Middle-Earth. Unsuspecting castles and cities carved into rock-faces rest amongst stunning hills and mountains, completely untouched by tourism. The spread of Christianity within Europe began here and as a result churches from as early as the 5th Century still remain intact. It feels ancient. Their language is one of the oldest in existence, with the alphabet resembling the closest thing we have to Elvish! Their culture is strong and so is Georgia's national identity. One of the reasons I believe that the country is so nationalistic is down to it's geography.They were surrounded by immense empires; Turkey, Russia and Persia. Georgian men were known to be skilled warriors, thanks to their culture of knights, and were enslaved by the Persians to be used as generals in their armies. Russia on the other hand, attempted to force out the Georgian language, replacing it with Russian in the 19th Century. This didn't go down so well, as seen when a Russian priest claimed that Georgian was a language for dogs, and was promptly stabbed to death that evening by his Georgian students.
In more recent history, the country gave birth to the leader of the Soviet Union, Josef Djughashvili, later known as Stalin. Still a much debated over figure in Georgia, you can visit his birthplace and home town, Gori. A rather suitably named place for a man who led a bloody rule. Although the communist years were hard on the people of the country, I was informed by Georgian friends that it wasn't as I had imagined. Georgia was the party place of the Soviet Union, and people used to travel here to have a good time, something that is still very much present today. Georgians are excellent partiers, and definitely know how to hold them. The capital, Tbilisi, has a very cool clubbing culture, with some very unique venues. A new semi-Western subculture has influenced the youth, and I wouldn't be surprised if in the next 10 years it takes on a Berlin-esque vibe. However, we missed out on peak clubbing season, and instead experienced a Georgian house party on the first night of our arrival. My friend spent the whole day cooking traditional food, and guests arrived along with their homemade wine and Cha Cha (a lethal flavoured vodka) in abundance. I managed to impress her group by holding myself well with the Cha Cha, and not throwing up in the toilet, like my British friend. Although, I soon learnt the rule that if you leave something on the table, such as your fresh packet of cigarettes, that means it communal and will be shared out amongst everyone in need of a smoke.
The sharing culture is actually very important, and I realised that people will share anything; whenever and wherever. On one occasion, walking through the hills around a castle, we stumbled across a family having a picnic. They invited us over, offered us food and filled up a hollowed out rams horn with wine. They made a toast, downed the wine and then filled it up again, repeating the process another three times, making our walk back down the hill much more pleasant.
The country has become less violent in the past decade and really is a wonderful place to visit as a tourist if you are interested in extraordinary history, good food and spectacular countryside. That's not to say there isn't still a lot of trouble in the country. Gang culture and politics are still very much intertwined. I thought of writing a piece about it, but out of respect for those I met, I won't. However whilst I was there, a mafia boss was executed in the centre of Tbilisi, in the middle of the day. Someone told me that they suspected the currently exiled former president, Sakkashvili to be behind it. Whilst incidents like this are less common now, it's still no surprise to anyone. Outside of the capital, tensions in the region of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still ongoing. I expand on this in my Untold comic series, if you would like to know more about the current situation. Otherwise I throughly recommend the country as a place to visit, as long as you are respectful with good manners. Etiquette is very important and you may find yourself in a lot of trouble if you go wrong!