I first had the good fortune, or luck of the (UEFA Cup) draw, to visit Ukraine in 2005 for a football match. In the lead-up to the visit I and a group of fellow Hibs supporters had an idea to help some less fortunate kids at a TB sanatorium in Dnipropetrovsk with gifts of toys, football shirts, warm clothes, trainers and winter boots.
It was a visit that, unknown to me at the time, would become a pivotal point in my life. After returning from Ukraine there was an overwhelming feeling from the supporters who had visited the city to try and do more. By the start of 2006, the Dnipro Appeal Charity had been formed and there had been a second visit.
Since then the charity has helped hundreds of vulnerable children and orphans in Dnipropetrovsk thanks to the financial support of the football community, a child sponsorship scheme and other fundraising events. Children have benefited from Christmas pantomimes, days out and weekend trips to Kiev and Odessa. The last trip that was made was to Crimea (http://dniprokids.com/sevastopol-trip/). Now the kids must be wondering if they’ll ever be able to go there again.
I view Ukraine as a very proud nation, similar to Scotland in many ways, steeped in history and traditions. They have been invaded more often than I have time to mention, and yet every time I’ve visited I have found the Ukrainian people to be nothing other than friendly and helpful.
That first visit was not long after the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution”, which was meant to signal a step forward for the country especially in the fight against corruption. By the time we had started to make annual trips things seemed to be moving in the right direction. There seemed to be genuine moves towards more freedom and fewer restrictions each time I visited. Unfortunately over the last five years I have seen a steady deterioration in the Ukrainian economy, with food costs and living costs rising way above normal inflation rates.
The Dnipro Kids charity also had an insight into the corruption levels when it was funding an operation for one of the orphans. The head surgeon spoke with me privately of his concerns that the hospital would never see the money should it be paid through the “official” channels. Instead he suggested that Dnipro Kids purchase a much-needed blood coagulation machine for the hospital and he would organise the “waiving” of the surgery costs. The charity purchased the machine, which has hopefully saved many lives since, and the surgery costs were waived. It was clear that it was not uncommon for money to be filtered away from those who needed it most. So in recent months, when the Ukrainian people decided enough was enough, it came as no surprise to see the level of emotion shown in Kiev.
There is no East/West divide among the Ukrainians I’ve been speaking to. Firstly, let’s expose this myth about Russian-speaking Ukrainians all being loyal to Mother Russia. The Russian propaganda machine is in full flow at the moment, speaking Russian does not make you Russian. Almost all of the Ukrainians that I have met are Russian speakers, but if you want to tell them that means they are Russian, and not proud Ukrainians, then I’m standing well back while you say it.
The overriding feeling among the people I’ve spoken to is hope for the way forward and a confidence that Ukraine will emerge a better place. Many realise things are likely to get much harder before they get better, but they are ready for the challenge. As one friend said to me: “Which politicians would dare to be corrupt, after what happened at EuroMaidan?”
As for the situation in Crimea and the Ukrainian cities to the East, the Ukrainians I have spoken with don’t agree these areas are “a lost cause” and that Russia is welcome to them. It’s unlikely the outcome will be recognised by the Ukrainian people. To repeat what one friend said, “We think about the Russians as invaders, and as the people who do not want to make our life improved”. Many seem to view the possibility of a return to “Soviet” times, and governmental control from Moscow, as a step backwards. They want to move on, and move forwards.