James Delingpole

Calling all British tourists — Ukraine needs you!

The inhabitants of Kiev are brave in the face of a tanking economy and the fighting in the east

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

23 May 2015

9:00 AM


‘What the hell’s going to happen to your poor country?’ I ask the man in the flea market not far from St Sophia cathedral (Delingpole tourist rating: total must-see).

‘What do you think?’

I shrug. ‘Partition, maybe.’

The man shrugs back. We agree that what Putin is doing in the east is appalling. But he’s not terribly enthused by what the Americans are doing either. ‘They want to arm us. But you know where the fighting will take place: here,’ he says, meaning Ukraine in general rather than Kiev in particular.

‘You could leave,’ I suggest. ‘Your English is good.’ (Unusually so. Communication is generally quite hard in Kiev if you don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian.)

‘Where? To Europe?’ He says the word with mild contempt. ‘Ukraine is my home. It’s where my roots are. It’s a nice place.’

I like this man. I like most of the people I’ve met on this flying visit. Their economy is tanking — it has contracted 6.5 per cent this year — and so is their unpronounceable currency, the hryvnia. Those soldiers who go to fight in the east actually have to pay for their own uniforms and weapons. A pretty, bright, educated estate agent who was earning $3,000 a month six months ago tells me she has seen her monthly income fall to just $1,000. She is thinking of emigrating with her husband and two children. To Canada maybe, where there is a large Ukrainian community.

But for most escape isn’t an option. And what I admire about these people is the stoicism and dignity with which they’re bearing it. As a rare tourist these days, you’re a sitting duck. They could be all over you, begging, touting, trying to find new ways to rip you off. Instead they maintain a polite distance, friendly enough if you need them — apart from the frosty Communist-era babushkas — but never desperately effusive.

The guy in the market is a case in point. I’m looking for second world war memorabilia, German ideally — which he won’t sell on principle and anyway, he says, is all faked. Instead he tempts me with an obviously original Soviet officer’s uniform — £160 — a damn fair starting price, given that I could sell it at home for about four times as much. He’s very honest about which of his wares are replicas and which aren’t. And he doesn’t push: if I don’t want to buy, fine.

If you’re into disaster zone arbitrage, now is a great time to visit Kiev. The prices are low and getting lower (an espresso will set you back 30p; a beer not much more), though the restaurant food is at best average and everywhere’s almost empty so you do worry about the freshness with such poor turnover. I tried the chicken Kiev for obvious reasons. Don’t. But do try the syrniki which are more delicious than pancakes made of curd cheese and raisins have any right to be.

And you get the tourist sites almost to yourself. In the spooky, eerily intense caves beneath the Lavra monastery complex — a place of intense spirituality since they were first inhabited by 11th-century monks — it’s just you and the Ukrainian faithful, the women with their heads covered with scarves and their legs with rented long skirts, kissing the sarcophagi of sundry mysteriously preserved saints. By flickering candlelight, you sometimes glimpse the blackened desiccated flesh of a saint’s hand protruding from the ancient fabric of their ornate burial garments.

I’d also recommend the vertiginous zipwire plunge across the River Dnieper. ‘Woah,’ you say to yourself. ‘Ukrainian safety standards.’ But at just £6 a go, you really can’t not do it. If you survive (you will just close your eyes on the bit where you’re over the main road with all the whizzing traffic) you’ll find yourself in a lovely tranquil wooded area, with a fine sandy beach running the length of the river bank, and see ordinary Ukrainians at play.

Fishermen sit by their rods; couples canoodle; old men play dominoes. What they have in common, you might notice, is that they’re all finding ways to eke out the time without actually having to spend any money. Because, obviously, they’ve got no money. These lovely people are stuffed.

Before I came to Kiev I could afford to be callous. ‘The last thing we want is western Ukraine in the EU because all the productivity is the industrial east. As for the east, if Putin wants the Russophile part of the country, let him have it. What’s our interest in expending blood and treasure to protect this borderland basket case?’ I used to argue.

But I don’t feel so indifferent any more. Though I haven’t got a solution — does anyone? — one thing I do know is that these people need your tourist dollar. The sweet, eager-to-help young girls you see staving off boredom at the reception desks of empty hotels and restaurants; the young men running the myriad stalls selling coffee that hardly anyone in this coffee-addicted country can afford to buy. They deserve better than this.

No, you’re not going to get shot down by a missile. (Everyone’s first worry.) And the broad avenues — a weird confection of Soviet-era grim, Blackpool rococo, kitsch monuments and decrepit 19th-century grandeur — feel safe to wander, even at night, despite the mild menace of the odd bored paramilitary or oligarch with obligatory heavies. It is, after all, what all the young locals do on warm summer evenings, getting their free entertainment from the excellent buskers doing tight rock covers or singing plaintive Ukrainian folk songs to rapt, appreciative crowds.

In fact, if we’re honest, there isn’t a great deal else to do in Kiev other than to wander, stopping for the occasional beer or coffee or roll of souvenir Putin bogpaper. But that too is part of its charm. No pressure. Just go.

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Show comments
  • Fried Ch’i

    Nations as diverse as Greece, Italy and Portugal cannot print their own currency. It ruins them. Ukraine can, it also ruins them. Now, what does that tell you about the relevance of money printing capabilities in corrupt societies?

    • HaHaMrWilson

      A gold backed currency, that might be a start…

      • flipkipper

        Gold backed, hilarious. Do cretins like you have any idea how much Gold there is on this planet in relation to the exponential explosion of paper gold and derivatives? Amateur.

        • dalai guevara


    • dalai guevara

      It tells us nothing other than that inefficient and corrupt societies are…. inefficient and corrupt.

  • Cymrugel

    ooh that sounds good – a holiday in a potential war zone!
    You’re a bit of an idiot aren’t you Delingpole?

  • Mikronos

    Somebody forgot about the best part – some of the finest world-class sex tourism on the planet. (A benefit of ‘hard times’.) Just stock-up on cosmetics, smokes, real money (US dollars) and ‘laissez les bon temps roulay’.

    Did we mention the 30p beer? It could cost even less when you get there, same as the girls, now that Angela has stopped them going to the EU.

    • davidshort10

      I think we understood the sub-text of this article written by a middle-aged public schoolboy.

  • James Deviller

    it’s actually quite dangerous for foreigners now in Kiev. The EU/USA loving Ukrainians hate us for encouraging them to get into this mess and the EU/USA hating ‘eastern leaning’ Ukrainians hate us for starting this war…imagine you are a man in Donetsk who lost his brother or mother in the war..he blames western Europeans and Americans. So what do you think he wants to do to Americans/western Europeans when he sees them? That’s right, he wants to kill them or at least beat them to a pulp. As someone who lives there, come, see how long you survive if you don’t know where you should be walking to be safe…..

    • serguei_p

      You either never been to Ukraine or you are paid Putin’s “professional blogger”.

    • Scradje

      You clearly have never been there.

  • James says he doesn’t have an answer. Neither do I. Our entire Western philosophy and culture preclude us from ever coming up with a solution which is at once feasible and acceptable to all parties. We do it all the time, too: naïvely bringing ancient warring parties to the “bargaining table”, more out of some misplaced noblesse oblige than any realistic hope for peace.

    It never works. And we never learn. The only ones who are ever going to sort this out are them.

  • yuri tsebriy

    I second that Kiev is not a safe place currently, attacks on foreigners are a daily occurance. The Police constantly hassle you for jaywalking, or they try and extort money from you in various scams. In addition there is almost nothing to do there. The women are not worth the bother, they dont see foreign men they way many think, they like to just drain as much cash from you as quickly as possible

    • Fried Ch’i

      F e * k me sideways. You have listed your own personal priorities quite eloquently there. And you took special time out to register a profile and tell us all about your personal priorities. Very well done!
      And then you upticked yourself, which is a thing only I am allowed to do. Ergo, you must be a JD apostle if not the man himself.

    • Scradje

      You seem to be confusing Kiev with Moscow. You have clearly never been to Kiev.

  • revkevblue

    Yea great go on holiday to a place run by Nazi lovers.

    • Scradje

      A breathtakingly stupid comment.

      • dado_trunking

        JD attracts this kind which is hardly surprising. MyRightPenguin is my favourite idiot of the lot.

        • Scradje

          I see he is a kipper, one of the many ‘kremkippers’ on disqus who are open admirers of the invader and mass murderer, Putler.

          • dado_trunking

            Putler, very nice. Is he the one married to Hitlin? Kremkippers is an absolute gem. You ought to cash in on that one.

          • Scradje

            He earned that pejorative from Ukrainians, Georgians as well as fellow Russians long ago but consolidated it with the Crimea land grab, which was expedited precisely on the Sudetenland model, right down to the phoney ‘justification’. Have you ever wondered why so many of the victims of his death squads are Jewish? Have you wondered why all of the leaders of the Donbas occupation are neo-nazis inspired by the genocidal maniac Aleksandr Dugin? Have you ever wondered why his keenest supporters in Europe are all eurotrash fascist parties? There is a large faction of kippers on disqus who post adoring comments about him; ‘the kremkippers’. These are people who belong in the BNP, not in a supposedly freedom loving party.

          • I see you are wrong. Is this your habit? Or a hobby?

          • Scradje

            It is you who are wrong. My reply to dado referred to a very nasty slur from the poster revkev, who is a self declared kipper.

          • In that case, I stand corrected. revkevblue would seem to be deserving.

        • I see you are training to be an idiot. Unfortunately you haven’t been able to reach this level yet and so are confused about the whole issue.

          It’s a pithy you can only manage half wit.

          • dado_trunking

            Now now beagle – hold your horses.
            It is quite evident that it is you and your kind that are confused. You prove it every day, day in day out.

          • Angry Viking

            Please don’t be abusive. Fenbeagle is a senior citizen. Someday you too may well be old, confused, and incontinent.

          • dado_trunking

            Only too happy to twist that one’s arm when guiding him across a busy dual carriageway. I could always be a nice Jedi and leave him to his own affairs when we reach the central reservation couldn’t I?

      • revkevblue
        • Scradje

          Yes you are hopelessly wrong. There are no fascists in govt in Ukraine. They have had two elections since then. There are none in parliament. Ukraine has less fascists than any country in Europe. Russia on the other hand swarms with them. Indeed the active ideologue behind the Donbas occupation is the genocidal maniac Aleksandr Dugin. A man whose ‘philosophy’ is so admired by Putler. The biggest fascist party in Europe, FN, is owned, bought and paid for by Putler. Why do you think all the eurotrash fascists are so fond of Putler?

  • συκοφάντης

    James, the most pressing question for the supporters of good culture is not the price of fascist Putin uniforms but whether Shakhtar could beat Liverpool after drawing against Munich.

    • huw


    • dado_trunking

      The Euros are long forgotten. England didn’t win, again.

  • rtj1211

    Mr Delingpole

    You would never have gone to the door of US Big Ag and say: ‘oy you lot: you getting your hands on prime Ukrainian Agricultural Land is not justification for making a whole nation’s life a misery and starting another civil war’. You’d lose your job at Breitbart if you had. But that’s what this is all about. EU- and US-based corporations (maybe Chinese too for all I know) getting their hands on another economy whilst getting taxpayers’ to pay for the wreckage created.

    The solution is ridiculously simple but politically impossible: the EU, the USA, Russia and any other aspiring powers keep their dirty fat arses out of Ukraine for starters. The EU explain respectfully to the Western Ukrainians how hard it will be for them to achieve EU status in under 25 years and how it would not benefit ordinary Ukrainians who want to live in Ukraine to even try to do so. Mr Putin to ensure that a sensible trading position can be established for Eastern Ukraine with the Russian Customs Union such that the economy of Eastern Ukraine can remain stable without causing diplomatic ructions. All of Ukraine, the EU and the US accepting that trying to undermine the status of Russia’s traditional warm-water naval fleet is the behaviour of mentally-subnormal dorks and warmongers. Mr Putin accepting that trying to salami-slice Ukraine, any of the Baltic States, Finland or anywhere else is tantamount to becoming a total pariah in all world economic bodies, from the UN to the G7, from the World Bank to the IMF etc etc etc.

    Live and let live is what all normal ordinary people want.

    It is what ‘ambitious’ ‘powermongers’ must stop at all costs, since their raison d’etre as powermongers would disappear at a trice if they allowed it…….

    • M P Jones

      Well spoken that man!

    • Fried Ch’i

      This is good, buddy – agricultural land. I have a very good bloke farmer friend from Uni times who was going to buy Baltic farmland in large quantities when it became available back in the days. Why did he not go for it in the end? Have a guess.

      How about Britain sorts its own farmland issue. The level of neglect and reluctance to farm here is absolutely astonishing.

    • Scradje

      The ‘dirty fat arses’ there are the Russian occupiers. They need to get out; they have no business in the independent unitary state of Ukraine. They have so far murdered 6500 innocent civilians and 1200 Ukrainian soldiers at unknown cost to the occupier. Mothers of dead Russian invader soldiers have been ordered to keep their traps shut or lose their pensions and/or their liberty.

  • Des Demona

    Apparently there are a lot of Russian ”Tourists” there at the mo.

  • rationality

    Good timing. I’m off to the Ukraine and Belarus next week. I’ve had a few problems getting a visa from Belarus as they have this radical belief in protecting their borders. Crazy isn’t it? I’m really looking forward to meeting some people in Minsk as never before has the concept of freedom from appealled so much.

    I go to Kiev afterwards so thanks for the tips. I’m going to Chernobyl on Thursday as that seems like the right thing to do. Can you believe its 60 miles from Kiev? It does look cheap there. I certainly am no friend of the EU so I’m interested in what the Kievans have to say. After seeing all those empty East European cities with all their young living in the West I know the EU is no good. One of them is the missus but she wants nothing to do with this trip unfortunately.

    • Bonkim

      Watch out – parts of Chernobyl is still hot and the contamination has spread far and wide – also look after your money and don’t get fleeced by the Kiev Mafia.

  • Bonkim

    O.K but we don’t want to go to Kiev.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    This place (along with other bits of the former USSR) would be on my list of countries I have no interest in visiting, if I’d even thought about it. I only ever consider the word “Ukraine” when noting yet another Ukraine-based cybercriminal trying to hack my website – seems to be a significant local industry.

  • 1664averygoodyear

    All very well and good James. But tell us what we really want to know – how many prozzies did you scuttle and how much did they set you back?

  • Baron

    When you weren’t looking for German WW2 memorabilia, James, it didn’t occur to you to talk to Oles Buzyna or Serhij Suchobov, both well-known journalists in Ukraine not unlike you here? If it didn’t, just as well, they were murdered in mid-April. Their sin? They were pro-Russian (not pro-Putin though), and were two of the eleven prominent figures (so far) in the last three months who ‘committed suicide’, got shot, died suddenly, the police aren’t keen to investigate, the local MSM cautious, the public prosecutors prefer riding in expensive cars they could never afford on their salaries ….

    A shoddy piece of journalism this, next time try harder.

  • pearlsandoysters

    This is a very strange piece of an article. The author seems blissfully unconcerned with the very real complexities of the politics on the ground. I guess that no one in their right mind would politely sideline the issue of law & order. The bucolic description of dignified locals awaiting for their patrons to rescue them from centuries old Moscow tyrants does not match the scenes of pure, un diluted violence during the upheaval, nor does it sit well with revolutionary fervour & terror against those who dare to disagree. Literally torn between the West & the East, currently, the country is a very unlikely destination to saviour the Slav culture unless one wants to witness the social experiment on a massive scale or studies the emergence of nation states.

  • pp22pp

    I’ve heard the Crimea is nice. I’d rather support the local economy there.

    • Scradje

      It was nice. Before it was illegally occupied and before the Ukrainians and Tatars were persecuted, intimidated and driven out. It is now a fascist oblast, run by Putler’s placeman, a Moldovan crime boss named Aksyonov, nicknamed ‘goblin’ in the underworld from which he comes. A man who enjoyed 4% electoral support prior to the invasion.

      • pp22pp

        Ukraine of course being a model democracy.

        • Scradje

          That’s right, it is. Your attempt at irony was misplaced.

  • Scradje

    ‘As for the east, if Putin wants the Russophile part of the country, let him have it. ‘
    There is no Russophile part of the country. They are Ukrainians; 50% of them speak Russian purely because they had to live under Russian occupation for so long. If you are referrring to Donbas, before Russia’s invasion 38% of the citizens of that region were ethnic Russians. Many were Yanukovich supporters but hardly any were/are secessionists. There is no civil war, there never was; only a Russian invasion led by neo-nazis from Russia named Girkin, Borodai and Pushlin.

  • Ivan

    A friend of mine created a video about Kyiv, Ukraine. Maybe this will be attractive to younger UK people: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wb2lHVuVThQ

  • Urmii Kar

    Totally loved your write up..would like to read more of you where can I find your writings James Delingpole you’re amazing!!!