York gallerist Greg McGee recalls life in Kyiv in 1997

As the world watches tensions mount in Kyiv, York Art Gallery owner Greg McGee looks back on the 10 months he spent teaching in Ukraine aged 21 in 1997.

If you were to play word association in 1997 and add “Kiev”, the answer would invariably be “Chicken”.

At 21, leaving on a coach trip to live in Ukraine for ten months, I had an equally bleak view of my destination city.

I was going there to provide cultural contact and conversational skills to 50 young people. It was an unpaid role and my plan was to take a summer break on the Black Sea.

I chose Ukraine because although it had a long and rich history, it was – at that time – a blank canvas.

I knew Kiev (the now preferred spelling) had been a communist city in the USSR for decades, a fact that had its own dark sheen, but my young man’s antennae had also picked up the sense of a city born here, right now.

Leaving Spice Girls Britain for a city of possibilities was an easy choice to make.

My first impression was that no one in Kiev had ever heard of Chicken Kiev. The second

was architecture. Planners in the USSR were not known for their brilliance, but the Soviet insistence on sameness was surprisingly offset by huge examples of rococo and detailed facades.

Even amid its post-World War II makeover, Kiev had its eye on maintaining some sort of balance, it seemed.

Although Lenin’s statues peer out from street corners, they looked more like a necessary acknowledgment of recent heritage than powerful political symbols.

Greg, second from left, with friends in Kyiv

Lavishly Baroque churches, full of worshipers now that the state’s anti-religious persecutions had waned, stood alongside colossal war memorials that made 1998’s Angel of the North in Tyneside an A-level art installation .

The underground metro stations, among the deepest in the world serving one and a half million daily passengers, displayed in mosaic the chronology of the kings and saints of the medieval glories. Zoloti Vorota station was enormous, a replica of the giant fortifications that failed to prevent the invading Mongol forces of Batu Khan in 1240.

Black Mercedes sedans disgorged budding mob men on street corners to buy caffè Americanos.

It is this hesitant desire to merge its old, recent and emerging identities that distinguishes Kiev at the end of the century.

Towns across the UK were just beginning to embrace seamless anonymity, with the same anti-social bookshops, cafes, chain pubs and bachelor parties that dilute them to this day.

Kyiv was just game to see where the chips were falling. The bookstore that made me feel so welcome in January was a Drum and Bass nightclub in February; the Mexican restaurant was a cocktail bar in March. Literature was a source of pride, with Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita of Kiev having inspired The Rolling Stone’s Sympathy for the Devil.

York Press: Enjoying cafe culture in Kyiv - Greg is on the far leftEnjoying cafe culture in Kyiv – Greg is on the far left

For 30p each week I watched the basic regime of operas and ballets at the National Opera of Ukraine with local artist Dima and his team. We had all become friends and relaxed with Ukrainian beer (Obolon! Sweet, rich, grainy) in new bars and clubs afterwards.

There was no denying the wave of independence that had accelerated since the fall of the Iron Curtain five years earlier. There was a certain nostalgia in some quarters for the harsh certainties of the Soviet era, but increasingly the mood around coffee, tea, vodka or McDonalds was the excitement that came with closer assimilation with Europe, whether that meant being part of the EU or NATO. .

The end of the most complicated century in this country’s checkered history must surely bring with it the dawn of a new era of quiet prosperity, we thought.

The millennium was going to be a big deal for the young Kyivites: they had been patient and philosophical, and they were finally entitled to the turn of the wheel that had eluded them for so long.

The Russians begged not to agree. The 2014 invasion of Ukraine surprised everyone with its suddenness and the annexation of Crimea was as scary as it sounds.

If anything deserved to help lead Europe’s new cultural journey, it was Crimea. A simple overnight train journey from Kyiv, I traveled with fellow teachers Claire and Crichton and ended up staying there through the summer of 1997. Hitchhiking from Yalta to Alushta via Sevastopol, we slept on pebble beaches and bathed with locals, swam at night with wild and free people in the subtropical Black Sea who helped me create my very first email address in internet cafes the next day. We bought individual cigarettes from babushkas and drank beer from kiosks with stuntmen who had worked on ITV’s Sharpe, enjoying the stories of how Sean Bean and his co-stars partied harder than anyone they’ve ever met.

If you want Alexa to paint you a picture of a happy, hopeful 21-year-old man on the cusp of a new chapter in a country on the cusp of a new millennium, ask him to draw me in Crimea, summer 1997.

York Press: Greg, centre, enjoying a break in the Black SeaGreg, center, enjoying a break in the Black Sea

This beach now belongs to the Russian Federation. You can’t take a train trip from Kyiv without being prevented from returning to Ukraine, so best not to take that trip. Images of Putin stare at huge billboards, promising to make Crimea the spa paradise of the Soviet Union.

To help drive home his point, Russian warships bristle on the shores of the Black Sea.

The separatists, once a minority and now, according to the “official” referendum, a 95% majority, are once again welcoming the warm wing of Mother Moscow. Annexation is a utopia for the nostalgic separatist who saw only a meaningless culture of elimination in the friendly new dawn of the EU that my friends and I raised a glass of vodka to 25 years ago.

Annexation and invasion are very comfortable bedfellows, and Dima, my former companion in Kyiv, watches current events unfold with a numb sense of inevitability.

Already since 2014, there have been 14,000 deaths as separatists continue to take control of western regions.

Tanks and Russian troops are massing on the border. Fear is the main emotion I expect when I ask him how he is doing this week. Dima, like me, runs an art gallery. His response is a very Ukrainian potpourri of acceptance, indifference, vigilance, irritation. “Our leaders tell us not to panic. We try to tell our customers not to panic,” he says, unintentionally paraphrasing Dad’s Army.

“The Russians say ‘don’t panic.’ But the UK sends its prime minister, Canada sends its defense minister, the ambassadors flee. So you know what my clients are doing? They’re panicking. It’s not good.

York Press: Greg, center, stands by the Fatherland Monument in KyivGreg, center, stands near the Fatherland Monument in Kyiv

In Kiev, cafes remain closed, shops close and the economy suffers. Long accustomed to being used as pawns in transcontinental chess games, many Ukrainians prefer not to know how to panic, a survival instinct carved out of 1,000 years of conquest.

The 25 years since Dima and I shared a beer in Independence Square is only a glimmer of light in comparison. Dima chides: “A lot can happen in Ukraine overnight. Please keep asking people to think about us. Awareness is good, panic not so good.”

Dima had planned to come to York for the first time this summer, a plan that was scrapped. He hoped his first stop would be a pint in York’s oldest pub, Ye Olde Star Inn.

His second? “I have to try British cuisine. Book me a table at a restaurant that serves chicken Kiev, I heard it was very good.”

Greg McGee is a photographer and charity director who co-owns the McGee Art Gallery in Tower Street, York, which he runs with his wife Ails. They live in York with their three children.

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