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Yulia and sacks of potatoes at her family home in TripolyePhotography by Amanda Jobsen

Once upon a time in Ukraine

When writer Stuart Griffiths and photographer Amanda Jobson visited in 2007, they found a tense country with frustrations bubbling under the surface

On the morning of August 23, 2007, my wife – the photographer Amanda Jobson – my two young children and I met my brother and his new Ukrainian wife, Yulia, at Heathrow airport. We were going on holiday to meet Yulia’s parents and stay at their home in Tripolye, a rural village southwest of the capital, Kiev. Yulia’s father, Gianna, met us at the airport; he hugged my son and showered affection upon him.

When we arrived at Yulia’s family home, her mother, Tanya, was waiting outside their modest self-build country home. Tanya was Ukrainian and Gianna was Russian; they were successful entrepreneurs with their own stationery business. We were shown the traditional Russian custom of drinking four shots of vodka – a ritual toast before every meal. My brother had met Yulia’s parents already, having married Yulia in a secret traditional peasant wedding complete with mule-driven carriage. Despite having travelled to the Ukraine more than a few times, his Russian and Ukrainian were pretty lame, and as Yulia’s parents did not speak a lick of English, she acted as a translator the whole time.  

Our plan was to photograph as much of Ukraine as possible and visit the seaside town of Odessa. Yulia suggested we remain local, but staying local meant staying at her parents' place. Already it was beginning to feel tense – Yulia’s family customs were very different to ours.

Yulia got a local taxi "friend" to drive us around, so as not to rely on her father all the time. One evening he drove Yulia and Amanda out for a girls-only visit to see her schoolfriends Anna and Luba, who lived nearby in Obukhov. Luba was the pretty one of Yulia’s friends; she had long dark hair, model features, stunning blue eyes and wore skinny jeans and tight t-shirts. Anna was unemployed and back living with her mother in a small council block that looked shabby and rundown.

They went off together to the woods, a place the girls frequented during the hot summer months; they drank bottles of beer and chatted about their journeys around Europe working away from Ukraine. Luba was still working for a magazine in Italy, coming back when she could – she seemed like the success story out of the three girls. But Yulia was married to an Englishman, giving her permanent residency in the UK. It gave her a sense of power among her schoolfriends, and they were in awe. “Many young people in Ukraine are desperate to stay in the UK,” Luba said. Anna added, looking angry: “We want a better life and we want to be part of Nato. I do not like Russia.”

“Many young people in Ukraine are desperate to stay in the UK. We want a better life and we want to be part of Nato. I do not like Russia”

Meanwhile, I stayed at Gianna and Tanya’s with my kids and brother eating traditional borscht and trying to explain with the help of a dictionary that back in England I worked as a journalist, which only made the atmosphere estranged. We began to feel Yulia only wanted to show us the nice tourist pleasant places in Ukraine but one couldn’t dismiss the industrial landscape in her back garden, where a huge massive cooling tower stood in the distance, pumping grey smoke into the atmosphere all day long. I mentioned that I was impressed by the communist-era cooling towers and how they really added to the scene, but this did not go down too well.

We returned to her parents' house. Gianna and I got on okay, despite not understanding a word each other said. We accepted each other using the universal dialogue of drinking. Or so it seemed, and I went along with it. Or maybe it was pure masochism – he was after all a former Russian soldier in the Afghanistan war and probably wanted to drink me under the table.  

During our last few days in Ukraine, we visited Kiev, where department stores were selling overpriced Prada and Gucci clothing and jewellery only the super-rich could afford. We visited the Arch of Friendship Between Nations, built in 1982 to honour a reunion between Ukraine and Russia. Wealth was all around and Yulia seemed proud of it.

On our final morning in Ukraine Gianna took us on the long drive back to Kiev airport. When we arrived at Heathrow I noticed a crimson liquid pouring out of my brother’s suitcase as he dragged it across the airport floor. It looked horrific, like he was lugging a dead body, but it was just the results of a jam-jar explosion. We never saw Yulia again after that. My brother and her went their separate ways shortly after. My brother mentioned she had become increasingly paranoid about the Ukrainian secret service being on to her, but the truth was, she fell out of love. She continues to live in London.

Recently, Amanda managed to get in touch with Luba and Anna via social networking, and asked them how they were dealing with their country's unfolding violence. “You know that saying about different stages of grief when someone dies – anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance?" Luba said. Anna: “This is when Putin saw his chance and the propaganda war and destabilisation push began. There was never chaos and far-right gangs roaming the streets in the west of the country, while in the east this is the norm in some areas now. The older generation in the east think that somehow the Soviet Union still exists, and will shower them with money if only Putin will invade, while the younger generation want to be like a normal country, with better living conditions and opportunities. In the west this means Europe, and in the east this means Russia. They want to be Ukrainian but with the same standard of life they see in these countries.

“It looks likely that Poroshenko (Ukraine's chocolate-magnate oligarch) will be voted in as president, so the country is waiting to see what he'll do. In short, the situation now is going to be an oligarch president with an unpopular government – pretty much what it was before the revolution, but with the addition of armed gangs fighting each other in the east! However, the government has handled it really badly, and managed to alienate a lot of the population in the east too. From the pro-Ukraine side, the revolution was a momentous event that was going to lead to a better country.”

Luba: “At that time pretty much everyone was in agreement that Yanokovitch was screwing the country. Elections were planned, and the interim government just had to hold the country together. Foreign mercenaries took no part in the revolution or post-revolution period, but in the east there are now Chechens, Ossetians and Russians fighting with locals. The best article I’ve read gives a fair view of the events, and a frank description of what has been happening. Add in the independent pro-Ukraine groups that have been created in response to the separatists and government inaction, and you have what we see today: lots of independent armed groups controlled by oligarchs, fighting each other in areas where the population just wants to get on with their lives and support neither side. The army is in the middle of all this, but made up of new conscripts who don't really want to be there either. No one is sure how to get the country out of this.”