Much Ado About Russian

Kyiv, December 2007

Red, green and yellow lights adorn Kyiv’s buildings – from its expensive boutiques to its listless housing blocks – to mark the end of the year. A sharp wind bites at my ears on days when I forget my woolly hat; the temperature has fallen to minus 13, but the only trace of the snow that covered the streets when I left two weeks ago is the white ice that fills the cracks in the pavement, like the froth on a cappuccino that has been left to go cold.

I am not the only one who winter has started to sink its teeth into: on my way to work each day I pass three dachshunds in the courtyard of my building, who seem less than impressed at being lifted from a warm floor by their owners first thing in the morning and a frosty, freezing pavement put underneath them instead. Ana bought me a thick black scarf as a New Year’s present, and I would feel like wrapping their long brown bellies in it if they didn’t have woollen jackets of their own.

The winter holidays bring out my neighbourhood’s eccentric side: one day as I walked home I passed a queue of six men on horses at the McDonalds ‘Drive Thru’, clip-clopping past the window to collect their food.

I spent two weeks at home over Christmas, which coincided with the time that I would have had to leave Ukraine anyway to collect a visa. Despite its Notting Hill address, the Ukrainian embassy in London feels unmistakeably Eastern European, as if the small room had been built from the same plans as all Russian post offices. I am sure that the same scene – a dusty wooden counter (with a smudged plastic window separating the public from the grumpy officials on the other side), and people waiting with weary patience for documents of their own – can be found from Cherkassy to Chukhotka wherever there is a form that needs to be filled in. Beaurocracy, too, knows no borders: I almost needed to bribe the lady to give me my passport back after I arrived for the second time without the correct receipt.

In the satellites of the former Soviet Union New Year is the year’s biggest celebration. The Communist regime banned Russian Orthodox holidays such as Christmas on 7th January, and the last week in December has taken its’ place as a time for optimism and overindulgence. People on the street seem less tense, perhaps soothed by thoughts of a couple of days away from work and a Mikhail Zadornov concert on television later.

Comedy and variety shows monopolise the TV schedule, glitzy broadcasts from Moscow with Russian cabaret singers singing their classics under soft lighting and wigs, or trendy young comedians satirising Ukrainian pop stars or the bad luck of Dynamo Kyiv’s goalkeeper.

It has been my third Ukrainian New Year, and with each one I have become a little more used to my surroundings. My Russian, which used to perplex and embarrass me in equal measures, is now something familiar and comfortable, like a favourite pair of felt valenki boots.

For New Year’s Eve we invited our friends Jared, Joel and Lyuda to a party at our apartment, and on the evening of the 30th I strolled with Ana around the Lukyanivska market to find some fresh food for a buffet. The market, usually filled with the sound of noisy haggling and rustling shopping bags, becomes calmer at night, the fruit sellers pacified by the cold air and only pointing out the ripest bunch of bananas on their stall when they sense an imminent sale. People were hurrying between the rows of tables, in search of pineapples, peppers, grapes, guavas, tomatoes, turmeric, mandarins, mangos, carrots and cucumbers. What was only grocery shopping for Ana was an evening out for me; I followed my nose to the tables of spices, tried to decipher their names from the loopy handwriting on the squares of cardboard beside them, and listened to the happy murmur of those stocking up for the upcoming feast.

Anything that we couldn’t find there (vodka and caviar) we bought from the supermarket. I left Ana to choose a Kievsky torte, quickly learning that the scrum around the cake shelf in a Ukrainian shop on the evening before New Year’s Eve is not a place for the unskilled or faint hearted. The next morning Ana prepared the food for the party. I was banished to the living room to watch another variety show.

When Jared arrived he had just returned from a week with friends in Budapest, a town that he compared to Kyiv with the words:

“All the buildings are colourful and classical, without any ugly Communist-era housing blocks. You can get a seat on a trolleybus without having your face squashed against the window. We found a room in a great hotel for $25.”  But then, realising his unfaithfulness to Eastern Europe’s shabby charms, he added:
“Their river isn’t as wide as the Dnieper, though.”

The kolbasa and caviar sandwiches had been polished off before Jared had finished his tales of Budapest. Stories, and vodka, flowed. Ana’s buffet was so well received that we were still in our flat at half past eleven. I began to worry that we wouldn’t make it to Independence Square in time for the twelve o’clock fireworks; we grabbed our coats and scarves, ran along the icy pavement to Lukyanivska metro station and rushed to the centre.

The pillars on the platforms of Maidan Nezalezhnosti metro station had posters for Nescafe and Nivea face cream wrapped around them, as if Kyiv’s advertisers had predicted the approaching week-long hangover and decided to cash in on our need to look and feel respectable against the odds. The five of us were still inside the metro at five minutes to midnight, where a little party had broken out on the escalators. The people of Kyiv – who on a normal weekday don’t look at you even if you step on their toes – were tipsily waving and blowing kisses to those on escalators going in the other direction. I was desperate not to be stuck underground at midnight, but, judging by the cheers from underneath us as we scampered on to the street, those who didn’t quite make it outside in time enjoyed themselves just as much as those who did.

We arrived on Independence Square with only a minute to spare. We ran towards the giant and generously decorated fir tree in the centre, and jostled for a space underneath it. As soon as President Yushchenko finished his speech, the crowd of more than twenty thousand looked up to the patch of sky between the angel statue and the Hotel Ukrayina, as hundreds of fireworks set the sky on fire.

Jared opened a bottle of sweet, cheap Sovetskoe champagne that we brought from home, and we each gave toasts from little plastic cups, our breath forming alcoholic clouds in the frozen air. As we tapped the cups together for the third of fourth time Ana tripped on a stone, and fell backwards into the Christmas tree.

More than a little tipsy, we staggered onto the metro again and went back to Jared and Joel’s flat in Livoberezhna, to continue the celebrations with some American friends of theirs. I barely managed to say hello to them and wish them a Happy New Year before passing out between the cushions of a familiar-feeling sofa.


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