Ukraine trip

“Interesting” is such a blasé and overused word, but “interesting” is in fact how I would describe our trip to Ukraine, in addition to “beautiful” and in some cases “slightly difficult in a post-Soviet way”. Several European friends saw my photos and said they never realized how much there was to see in this country which is so close to them, yet still very seldom visited. Ukraine is not easily described. It is roughly the size of France or Texas and feels very much like separate countries:

  • (Far) Western Ukraine was part of Austria-Hungary until World War I, then part of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania until World War II. It was the heartland of Jewish Europe before the Holocaust and then emigration to Israel and the U.S. The city of Lviv was a capital of Polish culture comparable to Krakow. Czernowitz was  a Jewish cultural capital.
  • Kiev – the Orthodox Vatican *and* a mini-Moscow.
  • Odessa – formerly Russia’s Jewish and humor capital;  ethnic melting pot of Mediterranean peoples and Russians; half Russian, half Mediterranean in feeling
  • Crimea – originally populated by Turkic people (Tatars) who were expelled in the 1940s and replaced mostly by Russians
  • Eastern Ukraine – which we didn’t visit – the industrial, Russian-speaking, and highest-income part of the country.

Czernowitz (Chernivtsi)

Czernowitz (pop. 240,000) was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bukovina. If “Bukovinian” had been an ethnic group, Bukovina probably would be its own small European country of 1 million people today. But Bukovina was split between Romania and Ukraine, so Czernowitz has a ghostly feel of someplace that used to be somewhat important and is now forgotten – even by Ukrainian standards. It is the only city we visited without, for example, any Western rent-a-car agency. The airport has only 3x weekly flights to Kiev and to Timisoara, Romania, on the aspiring regional carrier Carpatair. Before World War I Czernowitz was ethnically Jewish, Romanian, Ukrainian, and German. Everyone spoke German plus their own language – which fascinates me – I mean we were as far east as Bucharest, and they spoke German here 100 years ago! I had a map from the Baedeker travel guide of 1900 or 1910 with all the German street names and landmarks and was fascinated to follow them.

Here were the forgotten synagogues, one now a cinema, the other empty. There was the Jewish hospital (empty). Here was the Rathaus on the Ringplatz, still a city hall but now the square was the “Centralna Plosha”.  The Volksgarten was still there, now the “Taras Shevchenko Central Park of Culture and Rest”. Siebenbürger Strasse (Transylvania Street!) was now Holovna vultisa, “Main Street”, and Austria-Platz and now Franz-Josef-Platz were now Cathedral Square, with its prominent Soviet war memorial. And there was the University, once the palace of the “Metropolitan” (like an archbishop) of the Orthodox Church – eclectic architecture if I ever saw some. Here were the old villas of the upper middle class in what was Gartenstrasse, now named Frunze street after a Soviet general. Czernowitz was a major center of Jewish culture and of the Yiddish language. (More about Jewish Czernowitz)

It was also the home of Sidi Tal, the designated “only major star” of the otherwise suppressed Yiddish-language theatre and song in the Soviet Union. Sidi Tal mentored Sofia Rotaru, one of the Soviet “pop divas” and still a major star today. Videos:

Click for pictures of Czernowitz (Chernivtsi)

Or watch as a video and enjoy the Barry Sisters’ “L’Chaim”

Kamyanets Podilsky

We took a daytrip to visit this castle 2 hours east of Czernowitz. This had been Russian territory (Bessarabia) even before WWI and WWII. On the way we stopped at Hotyn castle, which had been Polish before WWII! There were many Polish tourists here on bus tours. Our driver refused my tips.

Ivano-Frankivsk (Stanislau)

This was also a heavily Jewish city in Austrian Galicia, which passed to Poland after WWI.  It used to be called Stanisławów in Polish. Also interesting for its remnants of Austria-Hungary, but not as interesting as Czernowitz.

Drive through “Romanian” Ukraine and “gypsy king” mansions

The folks along the southern border of Ukraine with Romania are heavily Romanian-speaking, though you’ll find almost no sign in the language. In a seemingly random town we found the most bizarre collection of recently built mansions – think McMansion in the American suburbs but even bigger. Later we found out there was a border crossing to Romania in the town, so we can only assume this is money from gypsy kings (thus the large families) which needed to be invested outside of Romania for tax evasion reasons. We continued through the beautiful Carpathian mountains, well, more like hills, to the province of Carpatho-Ruthenia. It had been under Hungary in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and after WW I, it passed to Czechoslovakia.


Uzhgorod would probably qualify with Ivano-Frankivsk as “not really *that* interesting” except that it was the capital of the only province of Ukraine which had actually been part of Hungary. So we enjoyed one day exploring the architecture of this old small city. We also passed through Mukachevo, nearly as big, with its remarkable castle and city hall, on the way to Lviv.

Click for pictures of the Carpathians, including Ivano-Frankivsk, the Romanian border, Uzhgorod and Mukachevo


Lviv is really a destination in itself, a mini-Prague or perhaps Krakow (which I haven’t been to). Full of remarkable churches, utterly walkable. It is famous for its coffee houses and strudel, but we were impressed to what degree – this was the best coffee and strudel we’ve had anywhere – though I haven’t been to Vienna since I was 19 and don’t remember much. What a pleasant, relaxed place to hang out. Also many theme restaurants: literature, a Masonic lodge, Jewish Lviv, etc. Synagogue hunting wasn’t so successful here — the Nazis blew them up. Lviv is clearly the capital of “Ukrainian speaking Ukraine” and feels like the capital of a medium-sized European country (which it may well be, one day, if Ukraine splits up).

Click for pictures of Lviv


Kiev has two faces – (1) where the Russian/Ukrainian Orthodox religion began, full of churches and monasteries (2) mini-Moscow: Stalinist subway and wedding-cake architecture, relatively expensive, polluted, wealth (though nothing like Moscow), poverty, aspirations. It writes in Ukrainian but speaks Russian.

Click for pictures of Kiev


Odessa is in southwest Ukraine developed as the Russian Empire’s Black Sea port, mostly in the late 1800s. Many to most people here have darker hair and eyes, and indeed we read that this was not only the Russian Empire’s most Jewish city, but also a melting pot of Turks, Italians, Greeks, Arabs, etc. It feels like a cross between Russia and the Mediterranean with many outdoor restaurants and cafes. This may be the first place in Russia & Ukraine where people smiled on the streets. They were very relaxed. Odessa apparently deteriorated until well after the collapse of the USSR, but now most of its landmark buildings have been renovated. Together with Lviv it’s the place I would most recommend to my friends.

Click for Odessa pictures

Or watch as a video and enjoy the traditional Odessa Jewish song “Sem’ Sorok” by the Leir Sisters (Сёстры Лайр)

About 2 hours north of Odessa is Transnistria. When the USSR collapsed, the Moldavian SSR became an independent country. Moldavians are Romanians by a different name. The Russian speaking eastern sliver of Moldova – Transnistria – declared its own independence and fought a war with Moldova. It still controls this territory. We visited for the novelty. In fact the capital Tiraspol is similar to any smaller Russian city of its size (160,000). The streets are still named after Lenin, there are some renovated buildings and shops but mostly not, and the main attractions are war memorials, parks and statues. Only here there is a “national bank” printing Transnistrian rubles, and its own flag, stamps, etc.

Click for pictures of Transnistria


Before Catherine the Great acquired Crimea for the Russian Empire in the late 1700s, the Crimean Tatars ruled this peninsula. Their language is very close to Turkish. Russians poured in after 1800, and Stalin expelled the Tatars in the 1940s, making Crimea mostly Russian. This place looks like the American Southwest, along a beautiful Mediterranean coastline. We visited Sevastopol, still the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, with a compact core of Russian Imperial and grand Stalinist buildings. Yalta, a very nicely renovated, even upscale seaside resort. And we visited the palace of the Crimean Khans in the town of Bakhchysarai. Many Tatars have come back to Crimea since the 1990s and have set up B&Bs and restaurants in the town. A trail leads to a cave city on the top of a mountain, inhabited for over 1000 years, Juft Qale (Chufut-Kale).

Click for pictures of Crimea

Language – different everywhere

The Ukrainian language is not spoken across the Ukraine, far from it. Ukrainian is very close to Russian, something like Spanish and Portuguese. It has been a standardized written language only since the mid-1800’s. It is based on dialects of western and central Ukraine, which was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before the 1800s. Central Ukraine incl. Kiev passed into Russian hands and Russian became the language of the cities. Western Ukraine incl. Lviv became Austrian, and German and/or Polish became the languages of the cities, while the countryside spoke dialects that resemble Ukrainian.

Other parts of Ukraine (eastern/southern) were populated by people who came from all over the Russian Empire and therefore these parts were always mostly Russian-speaking. This includes Odessa, the Crimea, and the southern third of the country,  and the eastern third including the cities of Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, and Donetsk.

Even in Kiev where 75% of people say they “feel Ukrainian” as a nationality, the language of the Empire dominated over any adoption of the Ukrainian language — 75% of people say they normally speak Russian for everyday use. Overlay onto this complex situation the imposition of Ukrainian as “the” national language across the whole country. So even in places where you never *hear* Ukrainian and you are in a completely Russian-speaking environment, you get Ukrainian on your government signs, road signs, on some national advertising campaigns, or for example, on the McDonald’s menu.

So what you get is shades of grey,  and different percentages of spoken vs. written Russian vs. Ukrainian, in each place in the country. There were also differences between “formal signs” (e.g. “ODESSA CHILDREN’S SHOE STORE”) and informal ones (lettering in a shop window, handwritten notes, chalkboards, etc.)

The formal sign on top (Tire Services) is in Ukrainian. The supplemental information stuck to the window below (opening hours etc.) is in Russian.

Lviv: thou shalt not speak Russian

Lviv is entirely Ukrainian and you never hear Russian and never see it. Even the welcome signs in ten languages at the airport explicitly exclude Russian! However, I spoke only Russian to service personnel there and never had a hint of their not liking it, even though one hears that Lviv is very anti-Russian. Of course, many Ukrainians cannot speak Ukrainian either – so they would be in the same situation as I was. The answers from the waiters and shop assistants there were always in Ukrainian, so I would only catch words, which was usually enough. Not unlike the situation when Spanish-speaking people go to Brazil, speak Spanish, and are answered in Portuguese.

A bit more Russian…

You heard a bit more Russian on the street in Chernivtsi and Uzhgorod – and perhaps 20% of informal signs would be in Russian.

Kiev: Russian is heard, Ukrainian is seen…

Kiev was similar visually – only maybe 20% of informal signs were in Russian, but almost everyone was speaking Russian.

Odessa: mostly Russian, but…

In Odessa, all informal signs were in Russian, but a surprising number of more formal private signs were in Ukrainian even though Odessa is known as Russian-speaking.

Crimea: just plain Russian

Finally the Crimea, which is officially Russian-speaking, virtually everything was in Russian, except for government signs and national chains. I understand this is also case in eastern Ukraine and its industrial powerhouse cities of Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk and Kharkiv.