Monday, May 28, 2012

Into Ukraine Via Chop: Euro 2012 and Soviet Art

I traveled in April with Natalia Gajdamaschko from Vienna to Ukraine by train. The itinerary took us to Budapest where we boarded another train to Záhony, a small Hungarian border town. There, we got into a small antique train that carried us a few kilometers to Chop, Ukraine’s border town. Changing trains in Záhony is required because the train tracks in countries of the former Soviet Union are wide gauge while the train tracks in Europe are narrow gauge. (Gauge is the distance between the two parallel rails of a railroad track.) Because track gauges differ, European trains cannot use the train tracks in the former Soviet Union and Ukrainian trains cannot run on European tracks. The explanation for the different gauges is, I have been told, that Stalin did not want railroads used for attacks from Europe or escapes from the Soviet Union. 

This is the train traveling between Zahony and Chop. When we took it,
it had the engine and two train cars
Aside from some anxiety about changing trains in Záhony, the passage into Ukraine went smoothly, if not entirely comfortably. Fortunately, travel into Ukraine has improved greatly since the 1990s when I often traveled there, sometimes in a vehicle and sometimes on a train. I made many trips to Uzhgorod via Chop as part of a project that the University of Georgia had with Uzhgorod State University, and each border crossing was attended by some anxiety.

This is the bridge over the Tisza River that separates
Hungary and Ukraine. The border station lies at the end of the bridge.
In those years, crossing the Hungarian-Ukrainian border was a chaotic and often unnerving experience. Independent Ukraine had only recently been created, and  border officials had been trained to serve the Soviet Union, which meant that they suspected most foreigners entering the country were, at best, smugglers and at worst were spies. Also, the border was very busy. Huge numbers of Ukrainians were traveling into Hungary and Slovakia, and many were smuggling something. They did so to survive horrible economic conditions. The Ukrainian economy collapsed in the early 1990s and the country robbed most people of their wealth through the sharp devaluation of its currency. Many Ukrainians found they could make money by selling cheap Ukrainian goods such as cigarettes and liquor in Hungary and scarce Western goods in Ukraine.

Heavy border traffic offered opportunities for border officials, even border guards, to make some much needed money. For a small payment, a car or small bus could quickly bypass the long line of vehicles waiting for their turn at the border. Also, for a few dollars or hryvnia, customs officials might overlook the extra bags, stuffed with things to be sold, a person was bringing into the country.

The unnerving part of a vehicle crossing into Ukraine in those years was the uncertainty of what was happening. The crossings were often at night, and the dimly lit border stations were dominated by scowling men in strange uniforms. One of them would take away your passport as you sat in silence imagining everything that could go wrong. After an unexpectedly long time, someone would return with the passport, and the car would drive a few feet forward to encounter another uniformed official who would make the driver open the trunk. After some tense conversation with the driver, the customs officer -- with a skeptical look on his face -- would wave on the vehicle. Then passing through a couple of checkpoints manned by young soldiers with rifles, you were relieved to leave the border.

In comparison to crossing the border by vehicle, entering Ukraine by train was more pleasant and less threatening. When you arrived at the Chop station, you joined the rush of people to go through passport control and customs. The first time you did this, you likely ended up at the back of the line because experienced travelers would spring from the train and sprint to the station. Nevertheless, despite the time it took to get through the border checks, entering the country by train seemed much more civilized than by car.

Chop Train Station Mural, Panel 1: The Revolution
Crossing into Ukraine is now much more coherent and less threatening. One reason for this is that fewer Ukrainians now travel regularly to Hungary, so fewer are returning either on the roads or trains. The smaller number of travelers is a result of Hungary joining the European Union. Ukrainians now need visas to enter Hungary, and the visas are not only expensive but difficult to get. The EU guards against Ukrainians who try to enter Hungary to work there or travel to other EU countries to search for work.

Also, fewer Ukrainians travel to Hungary to sell and buy good. The black market is no longer thriving. Fewer Ukrainian goods can be sold abroad because they are no longer a bargain. Also, most Western good available in Hungary can also be purchased in Ukrainian stores, if you can afford them.

Chop Train Station Mural, Panel 2: Building Socialism in the 1930s
The improved border crossing will be welcome by visitors flocking to Ukraine in June to attend Euro Cup soccer matches. The country is co-hosting with Poland the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship. This wildly popular quadrennial event will attract soccer fans from all over Europe. Those visitors will find that Ukraine is still a poor country with inadequate public services. Nevertheless, visitors can expect that Ukrainians will make them feel welcome. Visitors who take the time to see the historical and scenic treasures of the country will be impressed.

Chop Train Station, Mural 3: World War II
When traveling between Hungary and Ukraine by train, visitors will pass through the Chop, as we did in April. There, they will find a train station that looks now much as it did in the 1990s and probably much earlier. It has the design and feel of a Soviet train station. It is cavernous, dark, and unadorned except for a large mural along its interior walls. This huge mural is a relic of the Soviet Union, depicting its history from the revolution to the years before the dissolution of the empire.

Chop Train Station Mural, Panel 4: Space Travel, Modern Socialism
When looking at the mural, one of the few pieces of Soviet propaganda still visible to the public in this part of Ukraine, you can see “socialist realism” art depicting Soviet history as a story of the triumph of workers and a happy march into the future. Viewing the mural, I sometimes wonder what an extension of it would look like: how would the last twenty years of Ukraine be depicted in art form?

Just as it is difficult to find remnants of the Berlin Wall when visiting that city, it now difficult to find examples of Soviet public art and propaganda on display. Most statues of Lenin have been removed from public spaces. The hammer and cycle insignia has been chiseled from walls and fences. Communist Party slogans have been painted over. Thus, we can get a glimpse into this important element of Ukraine’s past only in places like the Chop train station. If you find yourself in the station, it is worth a few moments to step back in history by looking closely at the mural to see what the citizens of Soviet Union saw when they came to this train station during the last years of the empire.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Life and Times of Mr. Tspulich of Uzhgorod, Ukraine

From left: Natalia (daughter), Ivan and Ludmilla Tspulich;
From right: Oxana (daughter) and Danielka (grandson)
On Friday, April 20th, friends and family of Ivan Mikhailovich Tspulich celebrated his 80th birthday. He started receiving calls of congratulations early in the morning, and they continued throughout the day. In the early afternoon, his wife, two daughters (Natalia and Oxana), one of his grandsons (Danielka), plus other relatives and friends attended a lavish birthday lunch in his honor at a restaurant near his apartment on Grushevskoyo Street in Uzhgorod, Ukraine

Mr. Tspulich was born in the Zakarpatska (Transcarpathia) region in 1932. Without leaving the region, he changed citizenship several times. Initially, he was a Czechoslovakian (the region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I, then was shifted to Czechoslovakia by the Versailles Treaty). In 1939, when he was 7, he was briefly a citizen of a short-lived independent Transcarpathian Republic, but then became a Hungarian when it annexed the region. After WWII ended, the area was incorporated into the Soviet Union, and Mr. Tspulich became a citizen of that empire. Some 45 years later, when the Soviet Union dissolved, he became a citizen of the independent country of Ukraine.

Ivan Tspulich Makes Final Toast of the Meal
Being born in 1932, he was too young to be a soldier in World War II, but as a resident in the “Borderlands,” he  experienced the German invasion and the unimaginable horrors of the German occupation. He does not talk much about those years.

The woman he married, Ludmila Belous, was living in the Vinnitskaya region during the war, and she won official designation as a war hero for her bravery. When the Germans invaded the area, they occupied the house in which her family lived, and the family was required to cook meals for them with provided supplies. Putting themselves at great risk, they smuggled some of those supplies to Ukrainian partisans who lived in the nearby forest. To get the supplies to the partisans, Ludmilla (not yet a teenager) had -- avoiding the watchful eyes of the German guards -- squeezed herself through a kid-sized window in the kitchen to hide the foodstuff outside.

Young Ivan Tsuplich had an academic bent, with some mathematical talent. He also had a great desire to stay out of the Soviet army. After graduation from high school in the end of 1940s, he first earned a technical degree, then a college degree that qualified him to teach mathematics in public schools. He was sent to a rural outpost in the mountains to teach, but after a while there, a local officer in the Soviet Army -- seeing his talent -- took an interest in him and wanted him to be a soldier. After resisting the officer's entreaties to sign on, he was chilled to hear a direct threat: either enlist locally or the officer would make sure that he was drafted and sent to serve in depths of Siberia.  

Ukrainian Cutlet at the Birthday Dinner
Scared, he abruptly departed the village where he was teaching and moved to L'viv to obtain a draft deferral by studying for another degree. However, he arrived on the last day to apply for admittance to a college for the coming academic year, and it was uncertain whether he could gain admittance in the time available. After a couple of rejections, he was able at the very last minute to get on the list of students applying for admittance to the L'viv Agricultural University. In his application and subsequent discussions, he hid the fact that he already had earned a higher education degree, though his stellar performance on the oral entrance exams made some of faculty members suspicious of his background. He seemed to them too well prepared for his studies.

At the agriculture university, student Tsuplich was in his element. He claims that he figured out how to pass oral course examinations without preparing for them, so he rarely studied. To earn a few extra kopecks, he had, for a while, a side business of taking the oral college entrance examinations for less bright applicants. After a short record of success, that enterprise came to an abrupt halt after one day he (bearing the name of another person) came for an entrance examination and found the examiners included teachers whose classes he had taken when enrolled for his (secret) first degree. Barely escaping before he was exposed, he decided to give up that sideline.

He successfully completed his studies at the agricultural university, earning his second degree. By that time, the Soviet army had lost interest in him. He was assigned to an job in the Uzhgorod office of the Transcarpathia Region Ministry of 
Danielka (grandson) and Nazarchik (nephew) eat blinchike
Agriculture, where he worked until his retirement a few years ago. As he started his career, he joined the Communist Party. Settling down, he married Ludmila (a nurse who later became a physician) and fathered two girls, the first in 1961, the second in 1964.

Bureaucrat Tsuplich enjoyed his work for the agricultural office, managing the deployment and maintenance of large equipment used by the collective farms. As part of his job, he traveled often on the dirt roads in the rural areas of the region, for a while riding a motorcycle with a sidecar.  An amiable man, he made good friends with both his colleagues and with many of the farmers he met. These friends were valuable a few years later when he got into some trouble with his boss.

His position had its benefits, as did being a physician. In these positions, Ivan and Ludmila had access to food supplies that might not be available to others, and they sometimes received "gifts" of gratitude that helped feed the family. Another benefit of his position, the Tsuplich family lived for several years in a nice Uzhgorod cottage with a large lot on which they grew such things as strawberries and potatoes. The lot also had a small orchard from which they harvested fruit each year. In the front of the cottage, the family had lavish flower beds.

Comrade Tspulich tells a couple of stories that show the vagaries of belonging to the Communist party. According to him, one of the scariest experiences in his career was losing his Communist Party card. Apparently such a thing was a major transgression that could lead to severe punishment, including prison. Fortunately, after extensive searching and worrying for over a year, his wife Ludmila found the card in a hidden compartment of her purse.

Another story showed the dangers of offending a boss in the Communist Party. His career had a traumatic setback when one day at a staff meeting Mr. Tspulich got very angry at his boss and did something impulsive: he grabbed an ink blotter from the conference table and threw it in the direction of his boss. The punishment for this transgression was a fall from mini-paradise, including the loss of his job and the cottage. The family moved to a high rise apartment, and as his daughter Natalia recalls, had little to eat for a while except eggs, plenty of eggs. Their diet consisted of whatever could be made out of them. Sometimes Mr. Tspulich tried to fool his kids, who were begging for something to eat other than eggs: he would scramble eggs then put the scrambled eggs on a plate and tell them that they were mushrooms.

Natalia Tspulich (Gajdamaschko), High School Graduation, 1979
For a while he was unemployed, which was a precarious situation in the Soviet Union. However,  with the help of a friend, he was hired back at the Agriculture Ministry in another department.
Despite this setback in family circumstances, the Tsupulich family members lived comfortable lives in Uzhgorod, a Transcarpathian city located on the border with Slovakia and just a few kilometers away from Hungary. The Tspulich kids recall happy childhoods attending pioneer camps in the summer and annual family vacations, often going to the Black Sea.

The oldest daughter, Natalia, was a star in the local schools, something she attributes in part to her big eyes and a manner that pleased her teachers. She won all kinds of school awards, medals, and competitions. Her success paid off:  When she finished high school, she was rewarded with the ultimate prize available to students in the USSR, admittance to Moscow State University, the top university in the vast empire. Word of her admittance came near the end of summer as the family was on vacation in Sochi. She had only a few days to get to Moscow for the start of classes. With the help of her father, she made it to Moscow in time to enroll.

Ivan Tsuplich was reluctant to retire, but finally gave up his job when he was in his seventies. He has continued to enjoy life in retirement. He consumes with pleasure the daily grams of vodka that have warmed his throat for more than six decades. He puts on a tie and meets regularly with friends and former colleagues for drinks and conversation at a local cafe or restaurant. He and Ludmila have a dacha on the outskirts of Uzhgorod where they grow potatoes and vegetables and pick fruit from a variety of trees and bushes on the dacha grounds. He often walks the Carpathian mountains in ardent pursuit of prized mushrooms. He enjoys fishing. Though he has given up driving his old automobile, a spiffy, but aging Moskvich, he gets around easily with public transportation and rides from friends.

In the past 22 years, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he and Ludmila have done some things that were beyond their wildest imagination when they were Soviet citizens. They have traveled several times to the United States and to Canada, seeing parts of the world that were not accessible to normal folks living in the Soviet Union. They have one daughter and grandson living in Canada and another daughter and grandson living near Moscow, and they have regularly visit both. They are proud of their daughters’ accomplishments and greatly enjoy their grandsons.

I sure that Ivan and Ludmila Tspulich would have been happy to keep most aspects of the good old days of the Soviet Union. The transition from the Soviet Union was turbulent and left many people disillusioned and in poverty. Unfortunately, the political situation in independent Ukraine has not normalized, and the present thuggish regime is unappealing to most folks in Western Ukraine. Nevertheless, Ivan and Ludmila have been luckier than most with their lives after the end of the Soviet Union. Their daily living is now more convenient with appliances, such as a washer, and products from the West. They get better television programs to watch on their improved tv sets. They have traveled the world. Now, if they could just get water every day for more than a few hours, they could enjoy even more being citizens of the world.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Love Locks on the Uzh River Bridge in Uzhgorod, Ukraine

Locks on The Uzh River Pedestrian Bridge
The heart of downtown Uzhgorod, Ukraine, is a large, open square with buildings on three sides and the Uzh River on the fourth. On warm days, vendors bring small horses and kiddie cars to the cobblestone square, and for a small fee, youngsters ride or drive them under the watchful eyes of their parents and the wary eyes of pedestrians. From that bustling square, people can cross the Uzh River on a pedestrian bridge. The other side of the river has a small commercial area with vegetable stands, the best hotel in the city, and several restaurants. This bridge is usually filled with people during the day and early evening.

Walking on the bridge in April, I noted that it had an intriguing new feature that I had not seen in my earlier visits to the city: hundreds of locks had been attached to the bridge's railing along its sides. The locks came in all shapes and sizes. Most had writing on them in paint; some had words etched on them.

Naturally, I asked a local resident why the locks were there. The explanation was that it had become a tradition in Uzhgorod that after a couple got married, they brought a lock to the bridge, fastened it to the railing, and threw the key into the river. This action signified that the couple was bound together in love forever.
Slabid + Diana 

I don't know for sure if this story is true, but it is a touching (and optimist) one, so let's assume it is, accepting that the bridge over the Uzh River is adorned with the love locks of the recently married that bound them together for eternity. The keys to the love locks are deep in the river, never to be retrieved. (I can't help but  imagine the puzzlement of the fish underneath the bridge who have witnessed a blizzard of keys plunking into the water).
More Locks on the Uzh River Bridge

I left Uzhgorod feeling good about its bridge and its love locks. I guess I thought that maybe they are a unique feature of the city. However, I soon found out I was wrong. About a week after seeing the locks on the Uzh River bridge, I was in Salzburg crossing its pedestrian bridge. What did I see? Love locks attached to its railing! The Salzburg bridge has smaller and less distinctive love locks than the ones on the Uzh River Bridge, but it certainly has them.
Love Locks on the Salzburg Pedestrian Bridge

Seeing the love locks in both Uzhgorod and in Salzburg raised some questions that I cannot yet answer. Do all pedestrian bridges in European cities have such locks? Which city started this tradition and when? Do the locks signify different things on different bridges?
Elvis + Zenaida; Udo + Steffi Forever

These and other unanswered questions could easily change the nature of the locks on the Uzh River bridge from a heartwarming story about a symbol of eternal love to a social science research project, from romance to empirical inquiry, from poetry to prose. So, I will choose to ignore these questions and instead simply continue to recall the locks attached to the bridges over the Uzh and Salznach Rivers as interesting and optimist expressions of love.