Monday, June 25, 2012

Breaking Ukrainian stereotypes

By: Matt Pentz
John R. Wilhelm Foreign Correspondence Intern

Before Euro 2012, Westerners had a skewed vision of Ukraine. The former Soviet republic is still viewed by many as inseparable to Russia, even 21 years after Ukrainian independence. Hosting one of the world’s most prestigious tournaments was supposed to clear up misconceptions.

Instead, they only got worse.

Tales of building delays and skyrocketing hotel rates had plagued the preparations from the start, and issues came to a head when photos of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko covered in bruises were leaked to the press. Tymoshenko’s supporters maintain that she was imprisoned purely because of the political motives of current president Viktor Yankovych, and the fallout from the alleged abuse was fierce. There was even talk of moving the tournament -- harrowing news for a young journalist who had already booked a flight and set up an internship in Kyiv.

Ukraine kept the tournament but their image woes only got worse. A BBC documentary shed light on -- locals say exaggerated -- hooligan violence and racial attacks in both Poland and Ukraine. Most teams, even those scheduled to play games in Ukraine, decided to base their squads in Poland and what was meant to be a national celebration was turning into a disaster.

All of these issues were on my mind when I landed in Kyiv a few days before the tournament but, from what I’ve experienced, these fears were overblown.

I’ve discovered a complicated nation with a multifaceted identity. It may be easy to simplify the narrative to fit the stereotypes, but Ukraine, even more so than anywhere else I’ve visited, is impossible to fit into a narrow definition.

Every time I’ve come up with a profound theory that sums up the culture, an opposite reaction blows my hypothesis to pieces. Originally convinced that the Yankovych-Tymoshenko drama had split the people into two camps, I’ve come to discover that the majority are just tired of corrupt politicians of any name. A dominant storyline had been the division between the western part of the country, desiring stronger ties with Great Britain and the United States, and the east, which wants to stay close with Russia. Many even said that the eastern city of Donetsk prefers the Russian team to the Ukrainian one. But Donetsk natives showed up and cheered just as vigorously for the home team as those in Kyiv did.

In a land of contrasts, the truth normally lies somewhere in the middle. Strangers can be distant but uncommonly warm once they consider you a friend. The masses can be pessimistic about the corruption of their public officials and still optimistic about the future of their country.

I’ve been in Kyiv for almost three weeks and needed half of that to get into the flow of everyday life. Once assimilated, I’ve picked up a few lessons. The language barrier is a challenge but not an insurmountable one. You can mime your way into getting a decent haircut, but may still have to blindly guess and hope for the best when ordering at a restaurant with a Cyrillic menu.

Mostly, I’ve learned that a city can have a Lenin statue and a towering monument to the Soviet Union and not be all that different from your own.

Being at the center of such a glaring media spotlight has exposed the fallacies of using stereotypes to cloud judgment and accepting the dominant storyline as fact. It is a vital realization for any international journalist and perhaps the most important takeaway from an incredible three weeks of football and culture in Ukraine.