A home for heroes

Alyssa McDonald discovers a corner of Ukraine that has withstood empire, Stalin and 21st-century adv

If it hadn't been for the Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko in her white leather flying suit, suspended in space beside a satellite and the words "Ukrainian Breakthrough", it would have been easy to walk through the city of Chernivtsi and forget which country we were in.

Chernivtsi is the capital of Bukovyna, the region that lies between the Dnister and Prut Rivers in western Ukraine. This small area variously belonged to Moldavia, Austria-Hungary and Romania before it was absorbed into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1945. The resulting mixture of cultures makes it unlike anywhere else in Ukraine - or outside it, for that matter. Yet Chernivtsi is seen as a sort of patriotic heartland because of the literary heroes to whom it has been home.

As an election observer attached to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), I found myself in Chernivtsi for fairly arbitrary reasons. Even if I'd been choosing a holiday destination, I probably would have been put off visiting the town if I'd known beforehand about the 15-hour overnight train journey from Kiev. We travelled first class, which meant windowless, four-berth sleeper carriages smelling vaguely of the greasy garlic sausage served everywhere in Ukraine. So, by the time we arrived, I wasn't feeling especially receptive to the town's slightly run-down charms, or the affections of the various stray dogs and cats skulking around outside the station. It didn't seem like a very good sign that Danylo, the interpreter I had been assigned for the trip, seemed to prefer his notoriously unlovely industrial home town, Dnipropetrovsk. "It's tidier there," he said.

Then again, tidiness isn't everything. Not many places, Dnipropetrovsk included, can offer a candy-pink cathedral - and Chernivtsi's cathedral pales in comparison (literally) to its green, Viennese-style theatre. The whole town centre has an Austrian flavour - not just in its buildings, but also its squares, which had names such as Elisabethplatz before Stalin's arrival, and whose gardens, in the early autumn sunshine, were still in bloom. This prettiness is sporadically interrupted by imposing monolithic buildings, a reminder of Chernivtsi's Romanian past that Danylo could have done without. It turned out his mother was an architect, and his hulking frame housed a sensitive soul. "Functionalist," he almost-swore at each one as we passed.

As an antidote, he took me to the Yuriy Fedkovych University, an overwhelming European-style confection, topped with a multicoloured tiled roof and hundreds of little chimneys and turrets. It is a source of pride for Chernivtsi residents because of its association with Ukraine's literary heroes - it was named in honour of a prominent local writer whose work was the catalyst for a renaissance of Ukrainian patriotism, and was also the alma mater of Ivan Franko, one of the country's foremost authors and radicals. The building's own adornments were outdone only by those of the many brides hanging around the grounds posing for photos. I counted seven during my 20-minute visit, in every possible variety of wedding wear, from traditional meringue to a more revealing corset-and-sarong combination.

Central Chernivtsi has suffered so little war damage that, to see anything Soviet-looking, you have to get out into the suburbs and find the grim concrete blocks of flats that Nikita Khrushchev had built throughout the USSR. I was wrinkling my western, middle-class nose at the buildings known in Russian as Khrushchoby - "Khrush-slums" - when Danylo pointed out how much easier life is in the tiny urban flats than the region's more aesthetically pleasing but remote villages. The voters at polling stations outside Chernivtsi proved his point. Heading south towards the Carpathian mountains took us into pretty countryside and village halls where the old ladies passed a single pair of glasses to each other to assist them in completing their electoral slips.

Chernivtsi's population used to be as mixed as its architecture - a broad spectrum of Romanian, German, Russian, Ukrainian and Jewish - but now there are very few residents left from minority groups. After 1950, most of the Romanian population fled or was deported. And although about half of the town's Jews - who once numbered 50,000 - lived through the Second World War, most survivors emigrated to Germany or Israel afterwards. Now less than 1 per cent of Chernivtsi's population is Jewish. In recent years, however, it's not just minority groups that have been getting smaller: roughly a quarter of the population has travelled abroad seeking work - and higher wages - moving particularly to Spain and Portugal.

Still, the standard of living in Chernivtsi is pretty good, mostly because of the Kalynivsky Market. This is a mile-wide tangle of stalls selling everything and anything, packed with thousands of shoppers and more than a few pick pockets. Set up by local people after Moscow's economic collapse, the market has created a solid middle class and a stable local economy in Chernivtsi that few parts of Ukraine could compete with, though wages in Kiev are still about twice as high. The town's wealth explains why it has been a stronghold for President Viktor Yushchenko's relatively moderate Our Ukraine party. But it is not hard to guess which party was running the most active, and expensive, campaign this time around.

Visiting the local party headquarters of Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko, I was given not just a poster of her with her satellite and another of her in national dress, but notebooks, stickers, calendars, T-shirts, a baseball cap and a small enamel lapel pin. Danylo found this glut of promotional materials ridiculous, but he predicted that plenty of Ukrainians, especially those in the rural areas, would be more impressed. The results proved him right - Tymoshenko won 1.5 million more votes than at last year's election. Still, I'd like to think that Chernivtsi was not seduced. After all, it has a pretty good record when it comes to resisting modern marketing techniques: it is the only regional capital in Ukraine, says Danylo proudly, without a McDonald's.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China