|Soviet-era naval murals in Sevastopol|
It succeeded. Ukraine, a decade-and-a-half after separating from a crumbling USSR, was a country that seemed to be making the first tentative steps towards its place in a modern Europe, the shadow of its vast Russian neighbour always at its side.
The events of the last few weeks have plunged the country – Europe’s largest, apart from Russia – into a crisis like those of the Cold War’s darkest days. The names popping up in the straps of the TV news channels and the sidebars of the newspaper articles are exotic reminders of historical pasts; Crimea and Balaklava, Feodosia and Sevastopol. They are names that echo with imperial ambition and Soviet sacrifice.
Ukraine’s too big a place to cover in just two weeks – the trip started in Kiev, Ukraine’s sprawling capital, and down to Crimea, then across to Odessa, the home of the famous Odessa Steps from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and westwards to Lviv, once Polish, now the heartland of modern Ukrainian nationalism. The east, the industrial region of coal mines and bustling cities like Donetsk and Kharkiv, would have to wait for another trip.
Ukraine was a joy to photograph. Kiev offered the unsubtle spectacle of Rodina Mat, the giant Soviet-era monstrosity looming over the Museum of the Great Patriotic War; Kiev’s residents had dubbed her “Tin Tits”. In front of the museum a pair of Soviet-era tanks had been repainted in gaudy colours. Kids clambered over the hulls and the crossed cannons raised to the heavens.
|Crossed tanks in Kiev|
Like Russia, Ukraine had inherited a massive railway system. The distances may not have rivalled Siberia, but large chunks of the two weeks were spent watching Ukraine sweep past the window on long-distance trains, getting out every few hours to stretch the legs and buy home-cooked food from the babushkas crowding the platforms. It was 15 hours from Kiev to Simferopol.
May in Crimea was warm but overcast, the air humid and rainclouds never far away. The resorts which would soon be rammed with Russian tourists were counting down until the start of the tourist season. Cloudy Crimea seemed to be listlessly waiting for summer to begin. Sevastopol was a former no-go zone; this former Soviet closed city was the home of the Black Sea Fleet, an arsenal of warships and airbases crammed with bombers and interceptors. When the USSR collapsed Russia and Ukraine squabbled over who got to keep what; the result, in 2006 was that Sevastopol’s fleet of warships now belonged to two separate navies.
|May Day celebrations in Sevastopol|
It was while I was in Sevastopol that news came through of a musician I had met several times dying suddenly; Grant McLennan of acclaimed Australian indie band The Go-Betweens. I read of his death in an internet café and left a message an online book of condolence, shaky with a hangover from a Saturday night in a Sevastopol club. I can remember that the harbour’s massed ranks of ships suddenly looked more menacing, and a line appeared in my head: “A Sunday in Sevastopol/before the sea turns red.”
|Independent Ukraine, USSR echoes|
A few years later, that haunting, hungover line had somehow been turned into a song, ‘Sunday in Sevastopol’, by The Verlaines, a New Zealand band led by my old friend Graeme Downes (it’s on their 2007 album ‘Potboiler’). Graeme’s brooding melody, buoyed by brass and strings, has been described as “suitably Crimean”; and hearing the song has always brought me back to that May morning on a Black Sea quayside. The last week seems to have given it an extra dimension. My hope is that Sevastopol – and the rest of Ukraine – enjoy another sleepy spring.
This post was originally published on Stephen Dowling's film photography blog, Zorki Photo. If you’ve not heard The Verlaines before, check them out. Their early 1980s output gathered on the early compilation ‘Juvenilia’ is amazing; the 2003 best-of ‘You’re Just Too Obscure For Me’ collected later material. Push comes to shove, my favourite album is 1993’s ‘Way Out Where’, where they briefly sounded like an Antipodean answer to Buffalo Tom.)
|A sailor at rest on a spring day in Odessa|
|Track-side snakc, Ukraine style|
|Revolutionary sculpture in Odessa|
|Old motors and Soviet trolleybuses, still a common sight on Kiev streets|
*Stephen Dowling is a London-based photojournalist specialising in music, reportage, portraiture and travel. You can find more of his work on his blog or follow him on Facebook, Flickr and Lomography.