Kiev | In the Shadows of a Stadium

01 August, 2011

INDEPENDENCE CAME TO UKRAINE in 1991 when Speaker Stanyslav Hurenko put the motion to vote with these immortal words: “Today we will vote for Ukrainian independence, because if we don’t we’re in the shit!” Spiffier, don’t you think, than Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny”?

But since then, it’s been endless political turmoil. The country has essentially been split down the middle: the eastern provinces turning to Moscow as their saviour, while the western provinces seek out the European Union for salvation. And the disagreement between the halves has created the rift valley of their politics. Privatisation, as in much of the former Soviet Union, has led to the rise of the oligarchs, which makes our own crony capitalism pale in comparison. As a result, Ukraine’s population has lost millions, largely through illegal immigration, to the glories of the European Union (and Bollywood) as well as through Ukraine’s significant contribution to white slave trafficking. A Schengen visa and a 4x4 handbill stuck to a phone booth in London are the tickets to prosperity.

So, to make up for the less than stunning performance of its economy, the country’s leaders—along with those of neighbouring Poland—successfully bid to co-host next year’s UEFA European Football Championship, sold to the population on the lie that EU membership would be offered on a platter if only the country were to stage an outstanding mega sports event. A third of the country’s budget has reportedly been allocated to build the stadiums and create the infrastructure to run the championship in a style befitting a candidate member of the EU. Meanwhile the breaking news is that the Eurozone is collapsing because Greece is on the brink of a mega crash brought on principally by the extravagance of the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

It is to debate whether hosting a major sports event is good for a nation’s health that I have been invited to Kiev. With me against the motion is Liepollo Lebohang Pheko, an ebullient South African activist who has been totting up the social and economic costs to her country of having hosted the FIFA World Cup last year; opposite us in favour of the motion are Lord Peter Mandelson, best described as Tony Blair’s Kapil Sibal, architect of that New Labour disaster, the Millennium Dome, and driving force behind the thought that snatching the 2012 Olympics for London might compensate for the embarrassment of not having found any weapons of mass desctruction in Iraq, seconded by Markiyan Lubkivskiy, Ukraine’s Suresh Kalmadi. A pre-debate poll of the audience goes heavily against Liepollo and me: 66 percent in favour of the motion, 21 percent against, 14 percent undecided. We wade in. To our delighted surprise, Liepollo and I are repeatedly cheered; the other side is heard out in silence. Then comes the astounding post-debate verdict. Totally reversing the initial results, 52 percent vote Liepollo and me the winners, Mandelson and companion are vanquished at 41 percent, and only seven percent are unable to make up their minds.

As the results are announced, Mandelson berates the Sudanese-British moderator for having taken the vote before his closing two-minute remarks and walks off in a huff without so much as shaking our hands. We really have nothing to learn about parliamentary etiquette from such Westminster boors. I suggest Mandelson shift from being Blair’s poodle in the House of Lords to becoming SS Ahluwalia’s understudy in the Rajya Sabha.

Actually, Kiev is the last place we should have won this round. For part of Ukraine’s lore is the story of their football team, Dynamo Kyiv, which was challenged to a football match by members of Hitler’s armed forces a year after the Nazis invaded and captured Ukraine in 1941. At half time, Dynamo, renamed ‘Start’ during the occupation, was ahead of its Nazi rivals, notwithstanding the semi-starved condition of its players. An SS Officer stormed into Start’s changing room to warn the players of the serious consequences that would follow if they did not let up. Unfazed, the redoubtable Ukrainians were so far ahead in the second half that the German referee blew the whistle to end the match in advance and declare the outcome null and void. Then, true to their word, the Germans arrested members of the team and sent them to the Syrets labour camp, just a few hundred metres from the ravine of Babyn Yar, where many were then shot dead. To make up for the outrage of having won the debate the previous day, I went to do my prayaschit at Babyn Yar. It is now a peaceful, green, undulating park, and the ravine in which the Nazis brutally massacred 100,000 civilians, a third of them Jews, including little children, lies buried under the Metro station.

World War II haunts the city, as do memories of Stalin’s Soviet Union, which thought nothing of compelling this Eastern European breadbasket into the dreadful famine of 1932-33. Millions died of starvation when peasants were forcibly dispossessed of their produce to finance Stalin’s Industrial Revolution. In the past decade, Kiev has been painstakingly rebuilt to restore the architectural glories of St. Sophia Cathedral and St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery as well as the Golden Gate, which dates back to 1037 AD. The Ukrainians seem intent on wiping out the memory of what was for them the dreadful 20th century; but the past comes back to haunt them in unexpected ways. Returning from the Chernobyl Museum—Chernobyl is but 100 km from the capital—ruminating on whether we were not ourselves storing up a dozen Chernobyls, my driver, Dima, tells me that a few weeks after the meltdown there was a knock on his door and the police told him that as he was young and fit, and his wife both educated and trained, they would have to go to Chernobyl to do their duty by the nation. Their compensation was a mere warning that the radiation exposure they suffered would require one operation after 15 years and another after 22 years. Dima’s eyes are stark as he tells me he does not know how much longer he and his wife have to live.