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New Europe

Day Eighty: Kiev

Independence Square, Kiev 
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Independence Square, Kiev. Discussing with Vadim Castelli, my friend from Pole to Pole, what we thought might never happen, Ukrainian independence.
Michael Palin - New EuropeDuring the filming of Pole to Pole in 1991, I met a man called Vadim Castelli on a train travelling through the USSR from Novgorod to his home in Kiev. Vadim was a Ukrainian nationalist, frustrated and helpless at being a part of the Soviet Union. I remember feeling sad when we parted, because I was free and he wasn't, I had a country and he didn't. I could travel wherever I wanted and he couldn't.

This morning, fifteen years later, I'm waiting to meet him at a café beside the Gap and Mothercare stores in a shopping mall in Kiev, capital of the Ukraine.

He looks as I remember him. Fair hair, beard neatly trimmed, but in his white T-shirt and black jeans he looks almost younger than when we last met. Certainly less anxious, less preoccupied. He tells me he's just done his own European travel series for Ukrainian TV, and from his description of the route, I'd say Vadim has travelled a lot further than I have.

I ask him what it felt like to be so suddenly precipitated into independence.

'First of all there was a feeling of bliss. A feeling like "God this is impossible that I've seen it in my life." Then there was a feeling of anxiety. For many people... the Ukrainian national idea had been eradicated, so many people felt part of that anonymous global community called the Soviet Union. All of a sudden you have to become part of something smaller, a part of a nation where you have to make your own decisions. Many people can't get used to that even today.'

We walk out onto Maydan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, and an extraordinary sight greets us. On both sides of Khreshchatyk, the main street that bisects the square, is a tented encampment. A medieval army with banners and emblems instead of weapons. Ukraine may have achieved independence but they're still fighting over what to do with it. As at the heart of most politics, the struggle is between reformers and conservatives, intensified here by the differences between Russian Ukrainians and Ukrainian Ukrainians.
Independence Square, Kiev 
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Not the Russian bear, surely? Independence Square is for fun and politics.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Eighty: Kiev
  • Country/sea: Ukraine
  • Place: Kiev
  • Book page no: 191

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