Haska Shyyan: This is Who We Are

A meditation on Ukraine's tragedies and triumphs, joys and pains

“Independence Day. Ivan Franko Park Lviv. 2015. Photograph by Haska Shyyan.

The fact that you are holding this book in your hands, and even feel curiosity toward reading it, probably means you are interested in this massive land, situated somewhere between Europe and Russia. You probably still see it as terra incognita, and as part of mysterious Slavic space, with its intriguing and slightly wild soul. A cold territory inhabited by clones of Natalya Vodyanova where people speak a few similar languages, using Cyrillic to spell it all. Nevertheless, intuitively you feel that there must be something special and distinctive hiding around here. And also, you feel anxiety, wondering: how does a country that is at war live on a daily basis? Is it safe to land at its airports?

Or maybe not. Maybe you have traveled here enough times to learn that it actually can be pretty hot, is rather safe and yes, the trend for impressive eyebrows did recently expand across the region and female faces. And lumbersexual beards conquered the chins of young men. Maybe your knowledge of local specialities is even good enough to not get confused identifying the Ukrainian and Russian languages, hanging out with locals in one of chill and hip bars of Kyiv, which generously open their doors and summer terraces these days. In this case, you can be proud of the proficiency of a true linguist who cares about the letter “Ї,” which we tenderly carry in the name of the country (Ukraine is spelled Україна in Ukrainian— Ed.), as well as its capital. Although it does not necessarily make us naїve in our struggle for #KyivnotKiev [a campaign calling to spell Ukraine’s capital city as ‘Kyiv’ in English, according to Ukrainian phonetics (Київ), rather than ‘Kiev’ (Киев), in Russian phonetics— Ed.]. You will have quite a few confusing moments when opening maps of the country and cities. Sorry for that. But in the twentieth century, things were renamed so many times that it makes Chervonoarmyska, Bolshaya Vasilkovskaya, Krasnoarmeyskaya and Velyka Vasylkivska the same street, especially in the navigation inbuilt into the heads of taxi drivers. Вut anyway, be happy you have the luxury of avoiding listening to political analysis “exclusively from behind the wheel.” Even if you understand the language, pretend you don’t—these experts “in everything in the world” can easily provoke you to run away.

And you better not.

There are many things to see around this country, and usually, you foreigners are even more passionate than us locals in exploring remote and hidden treasures. I will share my individual suggestions, feelings and memories, trying to balance between my personal few pages for Lonely Planet Eastern Europe and a personal friendly chat that should help to encourage, intrigue, seduce and invite. I won’t go deeper into time than to glide over the Soviet era as, anyway, one young girl recently called it “ancient,” giving me more confidence about my own life experience. Our history of the previous century is not a piece of cake, especially when it gets segmented into puzzling pieces of human stories with all their secrets and shades of emotions. Grandchildren often unite the radically different political views and reflections of their grandparents, mixing deep, painful traumas with sweet nostalgia. And the patchwork of these stories is, at the same time, such a strong celebration of our diversity and unity. Ukrainian culture is strongly associated with its ethnic and rustic origins (and rightfully so), but its urban landscape offers a wide spectrum: full of objects of admiration from the cute heritage of Austrian and Polish architects to Soviet empire style, functionalism and brutalism. Folk elements coexist successfully with the strong industrial and city culture, developed under various influences of more and less tolerant empires. Being an urban creature myself, I will take you on a tour around a few beloved cities, telling stories through the eyes of friends who helped me to discover a lot.

Julia in Lviv

Julia is just wonderful—I don’t know how else I could start talking about her. She came over from Krakow, where she is doing her Erasmus. Who would not want to come from Barcelona to Krakow as Erasmus, really? Who would not go for a weekend from Krakow to Lviv! Or Lwow, as they keep calling it there [in Poland—Ed.]. Another confusion of letters and sounds. Julia was probably told that Lwow is almost like Krakow, but a bit quieter and cheaper. There’s no easyJet connection from the UK, if you know what I mean. So, she grabbed her backpack and sent a CouchSurfing request to me and my sister, received almost immediate confirmation and left her 35-square-meters room in a huge, old shared apartment. Julia is an adventurous girl, so she decides to take a pedestrian crossing in Shehyni, packed with smugglers of cigarettes and vodka, competing with each other over the number of gold teeth, place in the queue and odors hidden in the layers of clothes they use as smuggling tools. After smiling to an indifferent border officer and getting through the labyrinthine path with the rest of the crowd, Julia gets on a marshrutka (a minibus), when it is already dark. OMG, thinks Julia, where is this rusty yellow bus, floating like a submarine in the cold black October air, going to take me? The soundtrack is far from recognizable Beatles melodies, the driver is crossing himself when traveling by every church and statue of the Holy Virgin—the only enlightened islands…ah, okay, the petrol stations too…but there are more Holy Virgins. Front window decorations consisting of tons of weird stuff, from religious items to naked girls and fluffy toys, make road visibility even worse. The driver crosses himself again. Is he so scared to drive here? His face reflects the opposite—a peaceful experience is resting in his wrinkles. Even when the bus jumps over a new pothole whose location he does not yet know by heart. He does swear. Julia recognizes the Polish word “kurwa” in a longer list of unknown expressive obscenities. But his heavily suntanned forehead, his plump red cheeks, his tired gaze stay almost frozen. Even his lips don’t really move—the words come from the depths of his heart—only his strong hands, with stains of black soil and oil, twist the wheel harshly. The metal makes the sound of a dog being beaten, and some passengers sigh. Where is it going to take me?—Julia asks almost out loud. And instinctively replies to herself: C’mon Julia, it should be fine and maybe even fun. Ha ha, she still does not know my phone has only one percent battery life and a risk of not being heard in a loud bar. It is Friday night, after all. Although, my life in Lviv back then was an endless Friday night.

They have their morning cognac and try to flirt with us in a manner that’s as vintage as their faded coats.

Julia arrives at the train station at midnight, like Cinderella on a yellow pumpkin, except that this vehicle does not have more potential to degrade. The building is rather gorgeous; it seems like it is recognizable from one of the movies she watched recently. The city is more generous with the lights than countryside roads are. My phone is charged again, as not so many bars offer drinks after 11 p.m. This place is not as wild as you sometimes would want it to be, Julia. You won’t meet too many loud gangs hanging out ’til dawn. Instead, it offers the coziness of a hot meal, an uncorked bottle of wine and a soft sofa to sleep on. We chat for a few hours, and Julia becomes almost like our sister very quickly, so the next day, we decide to show her real Lviv, with all the layers of epochs, skipping the ticks in the boxes of well-promoted touristy “musts.”

We start in one of the coffee places that could easily be called dodgy, right behind the corner of the once-luxury George Hotel. The sculptures on the façade turn their butts and open their breasts to the cold October sun. The air is crispy, fresh and the light is golden orange. We roll our cigarettes outside; they burn our lips together with the shot of strong black liquid from an old-school machine. Men in their late 50s inhabit the place, with their elegant gray hair, torn violin cases and flutes under their arms. They have their morning cognac and try to flirt with us in a manner that’s as vintage as their faded coats. One of them even makes it to kiss Julia’s hand. And cheek. Her face blushes. He bows, like on the stage of an opera house, grabs aged sheet music and leaves to teach a new generation of orchestra players at the conservatory across the street. We go ahead to Rynok Square—yes, it is a “must,” but we still don’t skip it; we’re just going to watch it from different angles. A corner location is perfect for that. In a small, authentic Greek tavern—the owner settled down here for a few years and decided to share his cooking skills with locals. We grab some pitas and sit outside, as we’re offered a secret glass of ouzo as a compliment. The smell of anise, along with the sun which shares the last warmth of the year, takes us south. Soon, everything is going to get humid and gray, and in a year or two, most of the places we visit today will no longer exist, replaced by trendier ones. Such are the lively dynamics of cities like Krakow, but cheaper. Low-cost flights will soon land in a tiny and homey airport. Some locals will complain, some will be happy, but for now, Julia and the rest of us just move our chairs, meter by meter, avoiding the shadow. The ancient stones around have their own way of measuring time. One more century, with all its historical turbulence, is nothing for them. “They’ve seen Austro-Hungary, Poland, the USSR and, finally, Ukraine, and they will still find a little hole between the bricks to hide a little memory of Julia.”

Before sunset, we walk up the hill to see the city from the top. It is golden with all its churches and autumn parks. Coming back through proletarian industrial neighborhoods, which after the last wave of gentrification don’t look like such a bad place to live, we stop at the brand-new playground and get on the swing. “I love this city!”

Erdem In Kyiv

Erdem lands in Boryspil Airport and is happy not to look for a connecting flight and to discover his guitar was not damaged by Turkish Airlines. He has heard that this country is full of opportunities and wants to try outsourcing for IT, but also maybe cracking a deal with a small manufacturer of funky, colorful socks. Erdem is full of ideas and hopes, and after registering a LLC and getting a residence permit, his Dutch boyfriend is going to join him to settle down. I help him with bureaucratic practicalities—people all around the world find paperwork challenging, scary or even repulsive. The hot air outside can easily compete with temperatures in Istanbul, so it’s hard to believe that in six months time a warm parka will be necessary. A taxi takes Erdem across the bridge over the River Dnipro, whose waters are calm and magnificent. The car smells like cheap perfume, the music is a bit strange and the driver can not keep himself from pronouncing the word “devochki—girls” in a context Erdem does not understand, but guesses about. Nevertheless, he decides not to go into the details of his private life too much as he intuitively feels that taxi drivers all over the world can be very judgmental.

We meet at the hotel lobby, which is inhabited by the bright and young. Colorful hair (magenta, lemon, teal), baggy clothes, piercing and tattoos. Hipster culture blossoms here, on the terrace overviewing the roofs of Podil—a neighborhood that makes Kyiv feel like New Berlin more than others.

Café Sign “Khutin Puylo,” a play on the phrase “Dickhead Putin.” Lviv. 2015. Photograph by Haska Shyyan.

In the 2010s, this city was full of hardly digestible, tacky glamor, but underground night clubs hosting the best DJs, and not pretentious bars and cafés, take it further and further away from nouveau-riche bandit aesthetics, turning the place into a very vibe-filled location.

After discussing boring logistics and convincing Erdem that everything is doable without bribery, we start to research the funky sock market and discover that one of the brands designed in Lviv, close to the Polish border, is manufactured a few kilometers from the front line in Luhansk Region. Colorful threads 1,500 kilometers long connect people in the West and East and are also a reminder that we are a country at war. Erdem starts to ask. I try to explain. He listens.

“Annexation, invasion, separatism, occupation, IDPs—words that hardly correlate with the joyful crowd of youngsters chilling on the grass and kids splashing at the fountains, with the street food by the river and the white yachts floating back and forth.”

What can be better than a night train to Odesa in early September?

Erdem does not even know that communist monuments have been demolished within the last few years—I tell him this, too. He wonders why. Bathing in orange sunset, boys are playing football and girls are skipping in the synagogue yard, all dressed traditionally. Their fathers discuss some important issues after the service. Teenagers cosplaying as unicorns pass by; nicely groomed puppies bark at the street dogs and then sniff each other, wagging their tails.

I decide to share an interesting experience with Erdem, to make him fully understand if this city is made for him (or he is made for it).

We go to visit a cemetery. Not that I think it is the first place to check if you have chemistry with the city, but that’s where the play of immersive theater starts. I am not sure I would end up here on a different occasion, but that’s what is so intriguing about it. Graves are located in the middle of the city, behind the hospital built in the Soviet era. The disturbing quietness of the place is expected, but embarrassing at the same time. There is a tombstone in the shape of a football field, and Erdem picks it to start the journey, according to the instructions in the headphones. A group of 30 people becomes both disconnected and connected at the same time. This brave experiment takes us to an underground pedestrian crossing full of kiosks selling meat, flowers, lingerie and even manicures. We are clapping the crowd entering the metro—it’s a part of the game. Beep-beep. I pay with my phone to enter the station, increasing the rating of Ukraine as a contactless country. Couples are kissing on the escalators, and our group makes funny moves imitating ballet dancers. A Black guy with dreadlocks hops on the train, and we follow him, feeling so detached and so integrated in this flow of life while still wearing our headphones. Getting back up to the city’s surface, we find ourselves protesting in front of the administrative building and dancing at the entrance of a luxury department store. We end up on the rooftop, watching the central avenue of Khreshchatyk as a toy model full of tiny cars and people.

After the 12 kilometer walk is over, we are starving—the choice of seafood in the food court makes us greedy, and we cannot stop picking the shrimp and sashimi for takeaway.

Designer dresses are waving at us almost as humans: black with pink fish pattern, lemon yellow with blue unicorns; perfumes and makeup collections are trying to convince us of their importance. We run away empty-handed.

Full of sticky pleasures, the summer night leaks to the frying pan of the streets like pancake batter. We are eating peaches and raspberries while sitting on a bench. The city does not fall asleep, and we stay up till dawn too, changing places and company, getting to the dance floor at the abandoned factory, walking a new pedestrian bridge with a stunning view of endless perspective. “My mother taught me to do exercises for my eyesight,” Erdem says, concentrating on the detail very close and very distant. “I do it every morning. I will do it here. After jogging.” “Well, wait for winter to come, Еrdem, and let’s see where your ophthalmological meditation is going to take you,” I reply. And we both laugh. He definitely wants to stay. I recommend a handy application to order drinking water—they deliver within an hour. “Don’t drink from the tap, Erdem; it tastes like just it’s been pumped from the river! For everything else, this city is a great home!”

Stefania And Three Other Girls In Odesa

What can be better than a night train to Odesa in early September?

Our compartment is filled with girlish gossip and careless joy. We are lying in our bunks covered with crisp linens, listening to the wheels on the track, drinking ritual tea in traditional thick glasses with metal holders and exercising our wit about the most important things in the world. That is what the mood of the next three days is going to be.

Arriving at 6 a.m., after a two-hour power nap, I am still able to think the morning is glorious and assume that it would be not so bad to try and catch more of those, finally accepting the fact that there is a point in starting the day before noon.

We’re heading straight for the coastline, grabbing a few bottles of champagne on the way.

Summer night. Derybasivka Street, Odesa. 2020. Photograph by Haska Shyyan.

The beginning of the school year vacuumed up noisy kids and clucky mothers with lunchboxes from the beaches. Only a few aged, sun-tanned sardines and seals were left here and there. The warm saltiness and peaceful sand are almost just for us. Sweet corn and shrimp vendors pass by, completing our perfect picnic, which attracts a flock of hyperactive sparrows and a few lazy, mean seagulls. With the help of the sea breeze, our skin gets brown very quickly and we feel like queens of the beach until one of us notices the diva lying on the chaise lounge and putting pieces of watermelon into her mouth piece by piece. She is in her early 70s, at least. Fit and dark brown, with makeup and hair done in the style of the 1980s, she’s obviously spent every single day of the previous 20 summers here, in this bearable Odessness of being. She stretches, stands up and walks, full of grace, and then starts to run straight to the water, taking a long swim that wakes up the desire for competition in us. The salty water tickles our skin and leaves white straps all over when we let it dry, running along the tiny waves of the tide.

“I know what we’re going to do in the evening!” Stefania says. “Let’s sit on the promenade and read the prints on people’s T-shirts!”

We sign up for the game.

“Let’s meet in Paris!” insist the letters in glitters on the bosom of babushka. “BALI” her old friend silently declares in a large Panama hat.

It starts to rain.

The girl in the headphones does not care, she walks on by, singing.

“Let’s go to the Seventh Kilometre market tomorrow and buy ourselves T-shirts with the word ‘ODESA’ emblazoned on them,” Stefania suggests. “Not really sure they sell them there,” we reply in chorus.

The evening city gazes around like a woman who has sent her man sailing.

• • •

I could go on and on.

Like a car trip to Berdychiv with a French friend of mine, for example, just because Honoré de Balzac got married there. Or the Christmas adventure of a Mexican guy in Ivano-Frankivsk—the winter story is missing in this collection.

One can say that this patchwork of glimpses does not tell any story. Where is the tradition? Where is the culture, the national spirit? But these flashes are true and the real quintessence of all that. The diversity of daily life, mixture of languages, unity of generations, layers of epochs.

I’ve met so many coming here to discover.

To join the crowds of jazz, literature, theater, film festivals.

Trying to understand why people here can be insulted when you say The Ukraine, or ask if Russian and Ukrainian are actually different languages.

All these friendships keep helping me to explore my own country better, as many of them know it better than I do.

They are the ones going to Uman for a Jewish pilgrimage or to Pereyaslav-Khmelnytsky to see the parachute of Yuri Gagarin exhibited in the Museum of Space, located in an old church or traveling to Lutsk Soviet Bus Station as an example of unique architecture (oh yeah, who would have thought!)

I’ve met a Japanese man who was only interested in ticking off one box: taking a picture of the Tunnel of Love for his Instagram (good thing mosquitos are not visible in the photos).
A Mongolian man who traveled around the world for two years, survived in Africa and decided to challenge the Carpathian Mountains in winter. February is not the best time to enjoy the region, especially if you are not the biggest fаn of depression caused by sun deprivation.

There was an Irish biker who went as far as Kinburn Spit, a wild and remote national park by the sea.

I’ve seen a lot of adoration for the Ukrainian countryside in the eyes of travelers and a willingness to help with the introduction of garbage recycling.

I’ve met those who followed the fall of the Lenin statues under the law of decommunization, and visited Corruption Park, helping us to heal the traumas of the past and uncover the shameful present.

All of them tried to understand our revolutions and wars, share our tragedies and triumphs, our pains and sorrows, our joys and victories.

They made me look at our country through a magnifying glass, watching its precious little lives. Human pearls and diamonds, iron nails and sponges. You are welcome to join them and help us to discover ourselves even better!



Haska Kerosina Shyyan

Haska Kerosina Shyyan is a Ukrainian author of prose and poetry, translator, culture manager, producer of book trailers and podcasts. In 2019 Haska’s second novel Behind Their Backs became the first Ukrainian novel to receive the European Union Prize for Literature.

Discover the Ukraine that was—and the one that will be. Stranger’s Guide: Ukraine is among the most challenging and powerful volumes we’ve ever put out, featuring Ukrainian writers and photographers, many of whom are still in their country, others living abroad ...

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