Friday, September 2, 2016

Ukraine Part 1: Corruption Perfected

The Ukraine was colorful, flavorful, soulful and definitely worth a visit

Michael’s recurring nightmare has him standing at an ATM in a city where we don’t speak the language, inserting his card, following the instructions, entering his pin number and … not have any cash come out.

Well, it finally happened in Lviv, Ukraine on our first night. And there was no English translation option on the screen so we had no idea why the transaction did not go through. We were certain there were enough funds in the account. So we tried again. Same result.

We found a woman nearby who spoke English and she did her best to help us. With her looking over our shoulders we tried again for a third time. She wasn’t sure why we were having trouble, but sort of shrugged in the end and said “It’s Ukraine. Anything can happen when it comes to money.” At that point, we had potentially made three withdrawals with no cash to show for it and worried our bank was busy withdrawing funds from our account.

Not sure what I am trying to explain here - maybe that the ATM ate our money!
We found another ATM and we were able to withdraw 5,000 Ukrainian Hryvnia ($187 USD ) and more importantly, when we checked our account the attempted withdrawals at the first bank did not result in any transactions. Дякувати Богу (“Thank God” in Ukrainian using the Cyrillic alphabet). 

But I should probably back-up and explain why Michael, as our Chief Travel Planner (and a person endlessly fascinated with post-Soviet-era Europe) had us going to the potentially dangerous country of Ukraine in the first place. Two reasons: It added another interesting country to our list, and it was one of the 15 Republics that made up the USSR until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. And, wouldn’t it be exciting if we could visit them all? Sure, why not?

On the lookout for signs of Soviet occupation
The original plan was to just dip across the border from Poland and explore the old city of Lviv which until 1944 was actually in Poland. But in doing research, Mr. Campbell  became convinced that the capital city of Kiev was also safe to visit since the fighting between Ukrainian rebels and Russian troops was in the distant Eastern part of Ukraine 400 miles away  from Kiev.

Fortunately, I didn't see this map or the warning below until after we left Ukraine.
He did his homework and here what he found on the U.S. State Department website:

The situation in Ukraine is unpredictable and could change quickly. U.S. citizens throughout Ukraine should avoid large crowds and be prepared to remain indoors should protests or demonstrations escalate.

 No problem.

One way to avoid crowds in Kiev was to show up to a football match at the wrong stadium
But what really convinced him to add Kiev regardless of risk was discovering there were day-tours to the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant which sounded like a must-see destination for the Senior Nomads. I'm not sure I would have come to the same conclusion - but I am glad we did it. More on that later. 

So, living life on the edge, Michael booked our travel from Lviv to Kiev on Ukraine Air -  which could also seem a little risky to some (me), but the travel planner was comfortable enough that we ended up taking three flights on UA in the weeks to come.

Our stay in Liv was interesting. It seemed like a city just waking up after a long, troubled sleep. There is a lot of beautiful architecture behind the grime and neglect that followed WWII and a long Soviet occupation, but we saw great progress being made to renovate historic buildings and spruce-up public spaces. Most of the stunning Orthodox churches in the city had also been restored to their original golden glory and new restaurants and retail stores had opened around the main square where we were staying.

We've been in dozens of Orthodox churches and they never cease to amaze us.

Our Airbnb experience was a classic example of “trust the pictures” in the listing. This wasn’t the first time in EasternEurope that we found the entrance to an apartment building and it's dark, fuggy stairway off-putting. But this time when we reached our apartment on the fifth floor the extended family living next door had spilled their furnishings onto the landing and parked their grizzled granny into a chair at the top of the stairs. It was almost too much.

You can't judge an Airbnb by the building - it's what's behind the door that counts. Just keep saying that to yourself.
Once we got past that awkward moment and stepped into our apartment we found a modern, newly renovated oasis. The flat is owned by two brothers - one lives in Chicago and was our main contact, the other lived nearby and met us. He spoke no English but we were able to understand the basics using Google Translate. If we needed anything we contacted the brother in America via Skype or email who then relayed our needs back to his brother in Lviv. Here's the listing: Lviv airbnb

The market was amazing - too bad I couldn't cook in our apartment.
If you skipped the supermarket you could have a great time stocking-up at markets like this.
We knew before we arrived that there was very little in the kitchen as far as dishes and cookware were concerned because we had asked. But we were not prepared for just how little. There were three plates, three bowls, three cups, and an equal number of knives, forks and spoons and an electric kettle. That’s it. Now, after 113 kitchens, I’ve become adept at making do - but this was beyond a mere creative challenge. We offered to purchase the basics and be reimbursed - and we could have done that, but in the end as our host explained, and we found to be true, eating out here was cheaper than eating in. So other than breakfast, I took a break from cooking for a few days and enjoyed it very much.
Rubbery little dried fish were offered as a snack at the bar.  No thanks!
Things got better when the grilled pork arrived with lots of dill covered potatoes and brown bread

The only other issue was noise. The apartment had large windows facing the main square and the trendy new "craft" brewery just below our window was serving beer and pumping music until 2:00 a.m. and the after-party went well beyond that. Many mostly happy, singing, drunken college-aged Ukrainians kept us awake. And for our Saturday night entertainment, there was a brawl between a dozen or so patrons - most of whom were too drunk to actually land a punch but had a good time trying. We were happy to move on to Kiev.

If you can eat it in the Ukraine - you can probably pickle it.
Michael had high expectations for this next week and we had several excursions planned. There would be two walking tours - one in the old city and one centered on the Soviet occupation and the revolutions in 1991 and 2014. There would be an all day trip to Chernobyl and an afternoon touring the home and grounds of ex-president Viktor Yanukovych.

But first we met Igor a self-proclaimed ambassador of Kiev. We had arrived too early to check into our Airbnb so the driver our host sent to collect us from the airport, dropped us at a typical state-run Ukranian restaurant that served an inexpensive breakfast buffet. The driver kept our bags and would meet up with us later at the apartment. We worked our way through a line of unusual offerings including whole pickles, jellied eggs, and pizza, and then collapsed in a booth.

A nice young women doing her best to translate the breakfast offerings.
There were about a dozen or so other patrons in the large dining area that was divided into various themed alcoves, we were in the Pagoda section as opposed to the Egyptian section (you’d have to experience a Soviet restaurant to understand). In the booth across the way sat a slightly disheveled, but dapper gentleman in a light blue blazer jangling with military medals. He had salt and pepper gray hair and an impressive mustache. He also had a small electric candle with a purple flame, a glass of water and a collection of sugar packets on the table in front of him. Occasionally he would open a sugar packet and pour the contents into his mouth with a satisfying smack of the lips. He’d also got up several times with his candle to make a few laps of the restaurant. On his way back from these excursions he’d bring a fresh supply of sugar packets. Once, he stopped to formerly introduce himself and presented me with a scrunched-up piece of yellow and blue ribbon (the Ukrainian national colors) as a welcoming gift. His name was Igor (unpronounceable last name). During his booming introduction we plucked out “Welcome my county”, “love America”, “Happy you come” and “sit?”

Igor looked a little like this fellow - perhaps a long lost relative.
We responded politely but declined to have him join us. 

After watching for a while we realized Igor must be a permanent fixture in the restaurant because the staff seemed to benignly ignore him as he pilfered sugar and introduced himself to other guests. But here’s the best bit, when he wandered off it was to set his candle down on a table where the diners had just left and eat their leftovers. We left most of a large, very dry cinnamon roll on our tray and sure enough before we got to the door, Igor had settled himself happily in Michael’s still warm seat! We saw him again about an hour later in his knickers taking a shower complete with singing and soap in a nearby fountain. This was going to be an interesting city!

From there we settled into our very nice Airbnb - although once again the building entrance, and this time a small, green cage-like elevator made getting to the front door challenging. But also once again, the place was lovely and had a great view of the city skyline. Kiev airbnb

We said a little prayer every time the cage door clanged shut.
  Both of the Kiev walking tours were really interesting. There was no end to the history that stretched back millennia - but just the events of the past 15 years will be enough to keep history buffs delirious for another hundred years. We were here to focus on that more recent history.

The 2014 Euromaidan protests took place on this square just around the corner from our Airbnb.
The Ukrainian people are fiercely proud of their hard won independence
Earlier I mentioned making cash withdrawals. Well, let’s just say nobody in the Ukraine could withdraw cash like the former president (currently living in exile in Russia) Viktor Yanukovych - only he used the country’s treasury as his personal ATM. The man so epitomized corruption that his former residence is now called The National Museum of Corruption. We just had to see it. Here's an eye-opening New York Times story about what was left behind when Yanuovych fled: Link

It's hard to fathom just how much money Yanukovych stole from his country.
With the billions in cash that he extorted from every conceivable source he built himself a lavish mansion on 134 gated acres that included a zoo, a lake, a helicopter pad, a golf course, and  indoor and outdoor tennis courts. And the man doesn’t even golf or play tennis! All this for himself and his mistress. Poor Mrs. Y was left to pout in a castle on the coast - one of several more official residences spread throughout the Ukraine and Crimea. 

There wasn't a single inch of the house or the grounds that wasn't absolutely perfect.
The first thing we learned was in order to get to the complex you drove about ten miles out of the city on a stretch of sleek modern highway. Until two years ago, that road was off limits to the public - it was for Yanukovych’s official (and personal) use only. Once we arrived at the high walls buzzing with security cameras and our driver, who was also our guide parked the car, we spent the afternoon touring the grounds and various buildings. We were then able to take a special tour inside the house with six other curious tourists. Unfortunately the tour was in Ukrainian and we could tell we were missing the juiciest bits of the story, but a fellow tourist helped translate as best she could.

The boxing ring. Who has a boxing ring? A man who has everything, that's who.
 The tour started in the sports pavilion in the private bowling alley. From there we passed through the observatory to take a look at the indoor tennis courts, and a full-size boxing ring. In the next wing we toured a fully equipped surgical operating room and a dental suite (I’m not kidding), two different types of saunas, several opulent massage rooms, a cryonics pod* and a gilt-mirrored work out room filled with every piece of exercise equipment ever invented.  

*Note: in case you aren’t familiar with cryonics and want to add a pod to your own rec-room here’s some information:

Michael checking out a shower covered in intricate mosaics.
From there we headed to the seven story house through an elaborate, mosaic-lined underground passageway leading from the sports complex to the lower level of the housing the billiards room and a private movie theater. Another passage led to the enormous kitchen, also a stand-alone building. No doubt another tunnel led to the the garage displaying his multi-million dollar collection of over 100 rare cars and motorcycles.

We wore booties to protect the floors and preserve this shrine to corruption.
The main entry staircases with inlaid marble trimmed in gold.
As for the interior of house, I could write another 1,000 words but truly words can’t describe it. The Merriam-Webster definition of the word “incredible” seems to sum it up -- “too extraordinary and improbable to be believed.” The exterior and interiors of the house are wood - unusual in itself. The floors are either elaborately inlaid marble or wood. Most every inch of the walls are carved, the chandeliers (one of which cost over $1,000,000.00) are cascades of crystal. The private chapel was filled with priceless Orthodox icons, the bath fixtures are solid gold and every stick of luxurious furniture was hand-crafted. It was a modern day Versailles. The grounds were no less elaborate.

Our view towards Kiev from the master bedroom balcony
Here are Michael’s notes as background:  Ukraine gained their independence in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like many of the other former republics, the governments that followed were full of imperfections so revolutions and turmoil was the order of the day. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 set the stage for the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014 when then President Yanukovych fled to Russia in the middle of the night. While he was president, it is said, he built this house/palace using public funds. Like most autocrats in this part of the world, he did not allow Ukrainian citizens anywhere near the property and it was shrouded in secrecy and rumor. However, the moment he fled the country the people stormed the gates to see just how their president had spent their money. Miraculously the house wasn’t ransacked too badly and guards were able to take control. Almost everything is exactly as it was after Yankovych fled - minus the valuables that could be carted away at the beginning. He tried to burn most of his most damning personal records or sink them in the pond but most of them have been recovered and are being painstakingly documented. 

Yanukovych had his food tasted and was scared to ride in his helicopter for fear it would be shot down.
Remember, this is the man that Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manaforth worked for and was paid many millions of dollars to keep in office. Need we say any more about that?

Perhaps our reaction to Yanukovych’s world of insatiable greed was so profound because we’d spent the day before touring Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear accident in history where thousands of Ukrainians suffered (and still suffer) from the Soviet government’s incompetence, and the appalling cover-up and disinformation campaign that followed.

I will write a “glowing report” on that adventure next time! 

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael

The Senior Nomads


  1. Incredible opulence! Thank you for sharing this amazing place with me, although I am so glad he's in exile. What the people could have accomplished with that money. You are truly adventurers and are visiting places I never dreamed of. :-)

  2. Wow. My wife and I have been following your travels since nearly the beginning, and love your perspectives. Can't wait for your book to be available!

  3. Once again a fantastic post!
    I always learn so much when I read your articles...very well written & extremely insightful!
    Thank you so much!

  4. Very interesting, as always. I'm glad to be traveling "along" with you.

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