Friday, 2 May 2014

Alumni of the Month: Tony Ellis's recent trip to the Ukraine

It was a strange time to visit Kiev, the chaos of the Ukrainian peoples uprising has temporarily settled to a purposeful but peaceful occupation of Maidan square and the imminent May elections are the topic of most casual conversation concerning the countries immediate future. The conflict in the east is too far away to be seen but is felt and stories of displaced Ukrainians from Crimea are beginning to filter into city life.

It was this strange quiet at the centre of a looming storm that I walked the city, struck by how normal everyday things were going on, business as usual. A music video being shot outside St Sophia Cathedral, Tommy Hilfiger jeans being browsed by the ruling rich class in the city centre's American style malls. Oligarch money many say; A train ride though a vast flat hinterland only made clearer the sense of polarisation of this country’s wealth. A clear example of how organised crime can abuse a capitalist system as easily as a communist one. Visible signs of conflict seemed even further away here; a peaceful, if difficult, agricultural life seemed uninterrupted.

When walking the city I was surprised to see how many of the public gatherings and protests were being dominated by a fascist right wing groups.  Always front and centre, singing the loudest, highlighting their presence. These groups, predominantly made up of teenage males are an unusual and worrying element, only because they give Putin a political hot potato to throw west. Importantly they are a tiny minority in this vast and complex country, and really only represent an outlet for a few understandably, if seriously misguided, angry young men.

Putin's illegal invasion of Ukraine still goes unchallenged in any effective way by the west; blacklisting a handful of Russian businessmen was a singularly limp response that even the Tory controlled BBC still has trouble reporting with a straight, shameless face. While visiting the city I was determined to photograph what I saw, not a version of what I saw to promote one side as right or wrong. I have to say having talked to many people living here I was even made even more aware of how pro-Russian most of the international reporting has been from  CNN, Sky News and the BBC One Ukrainian man I met said “I cannot even watch the television because it is all lies".
Much of our media continues to avoid the simple fact that Putin and Russia are handpicking the parts of Ukraine that they want, invading it, seizing key buildings and claiming a right to the land in order to protect "Russian speaking Ukrainians". Most of the people I met in Kiev speak Russian and not one of them expressed and interest in being Russian, living in Russia or indeed wanting Putin's 'protection'. The situation was described brilliantly by a political cartoon I saw depicting a Russian Bear hooking salmon out of a river and telling the fish that it was saving it from drowning.

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