Where would you go to shoot a documentary? Wouter Massink, a 22 year old filmmaker from the Netherlands, surprised me with an idea to go to Ukraine for several days to make a documentary. I know Wouter through couchsurfing- during his studies in Brussels he was constantly hosting people from all over the world in his small student room. We were sitting in the city centre, drinking beers and discussing Wouter's recent trip to Africa, when he told me that he was going to visit Ukraine for a couple of days as part of his next project. His plan was to go from Doel in Belgium to Prypjat, the Ukrainian city famously evacuated during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
People I know who travelled to Ukraine for the first time and visited touristy cities like Lviv and Kyiv always had very positive impressions, but Wouter's trip was quite different from the norm. He and his friend Peter drove through small cities and villages, often couchsurfing to save money on hotels. As a filmmaker who makes documentaries on social topics, Wouter had a chance to see the country and its citizens as they are and to evaluate the situation without having a particular political stance. A few weeks later he came back and shared his impressions with me.
"After entering Ukraine from the Polish border we noticed how slowly but surely the landscapes changed- they became more real."
Vast uncultivated fields, beautiful villages, lots of poverty- these things are familiar to me as a Ukrainian.
Wouter was surprised with the openness and hospitality of the people.
"Most of them continue living their normal life, being worried more about the extreme inflation than about politics. No one is happy when there is no food on the table. It seemed young people didn't care about the war on the east of the country, at least unless it touched them or their relatives personally."
He was impressed with a story of a young girl whose 38 year old father had been mobilized to go to fight in the East.
Wouter and Peter were constantly afraid that their car would be stolen, so they put some scotch-tape on the bumper to make it look older. Later they realized that it was not thieves but the Ukrainian roads that were actually dangerous for the car. The roads were so bad that several times they even had to come back to a highway in order not to end up in the middle of nowhere without spare tyres.
"Ukrainian policemen are not as corrupt as they say. No one stopped us without a reason even though we had a foreign number plate"
Often they had to enter the buildings where excess was forbidden; nevertheless they were lucky not to get into trouble with police.
Although Kyiv and Lviv are the main tourist destinations, for Wouter and Peter these were just stepping stones on the way to the abandoned city of Prypjat, 3 km from Kyiv. In Kyiv they visited Maidan Square where already two pro-European demonstrations have taken place.
"Maidan Square looked like nothing had happened there, only a few broken windows and signs of fire on the walls of the administrative building. Now I am going to tell you something really interesting ..."
Within a week of President Yanukovych fleeing to Russia, his palace with 4 square kilometres of grounds was turned into a museum.
"You should have seen it, Olha. We've been walking through the forest, then a view on the Dnipro river opened before us and a large boat was standing just there, without an owner...What else could have we expected? Than we saw a place where he kept ostriches, a car collection, a huge park-probably one of the most beautiful I have seen in my life. When we entered the palace, we saw a piano standing in the living room. The guard said it belonged to John Lennon. Your President had good taste, maybe a bit too bombastic".
It was interesting to hear from Wouter that the service staff were still there, continuing to carry out their daily tasks. While people in Ukraine and abroad are suffering the consequences of a conflict with Russia, the world carefully created by President Yanukovych continues to function perfectly.
"Even though Prypjat was supposed to be the climax of our trip, it wasn't. We felt ourselves like tourists. The abandoned palace was much more interesting than an abandoned city."
Landscapes of Prypjat- similar to scenes from Andrey Tarkovskiy's movie 'Stalker'- didn't impress Wouter that much. While Chernobyl is now consigned to history, events at Maidan Square and the ongoing conflict with Russia are situations that everyone can relate to. No one would probably care about the conflict between Ukraine and Russia if it didn't present a direct imminent danger to the rest of Europe.
"In Ukraine they also don't care about the farmers in Netherlands who suffer losses because of the trade limitations imposed by Russia on EU products."
In today's globalized world we are all related and yet ignorant at the same time.
"I couldn't have imagined that the difference after crossing the border would be so striking. After entering Poland I realized that I am home. The EU- with its standards- created a feeling of a home, and I was happy to come back".
Crossing a border physically, by car, gave Wouter a possibility to see the contrast between Ukraine and the EU. Poland entered the Union not such a long time ago, but the difference between two countries is already dramatic, even though during its accession to the EU Poland had many similarities with Ukraine, including a communist history.
Ukraine is a state of contrasts: contrasts at the border with EU states, contrasts inside the country and its society. Recent Parliamentary elections showed that Ukrainians want changes.
With a 52.4% turnout, the majority of the population voted for the pro EU parties and for new faces in the Parliament- young activists, media workers. It's hard to say how and when the conflict in the East of the country will end. It's consequences already have a wide-reaching global influence. An important question is whether the EU should build walls to protect itself or rather look at the situation realistically and do everything possible to break those walls- the walls of contrasts and ignorance.
Harsh austerity measures imposed by the government in Westminster have led to a dramatic increase in the number of children in the UK living in poverty. Whilst corporation tax has fallen significantly in the past three years, 71,428 people were forced to use charity food banks in Scotland between April 2013- March 2014 to feed their families. The fact that poverty is rising whilst unemployment is falling demonstrates the growth of the phenomenon of the ‘working poor’- a severe injustice and one that highlights a fundamental problem with my own country’s continued loyalty to a neoliberal economic ideology.
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The appointment of the new commission - which happens only once every five years - is currently underway. One of the advantages of a traineeship at the European Parliament, whose MEPs vet potential commissioners' suitability for their post through a series of hearings, is the opportunity to witness these proceedings first hand.
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