Article Title: Classified



Karl Marx Avenue (Wikipedia Sourced Photo)



[Important: Do not read this article unless you are authorised to do so.  I repeat, do not read this article without proper authorisation.  If you are unauthorised, please exit the page now.]

“Always think of what is useful and not what is beautiful.  Beauty will come of its own accord.” – Nikolai Gogol.

They weren’t marked on rail timetables but the train would stop there.  There was no indication on bus routes apart from the name of a tiny village nearby or a kilometre marker.  There was no demarcation on publicly available maps and as for postal delivery letters and parcels had to be addressed with the name of a nearby city as a code.  I’m referring to the cities that didn’t exist, the cities where residents underwent security checks before moving in and were sworn to secrecy thereafter concerning their classified addresses.

What follows is advice for the traveller: what to do when facing that particular predicament of having nowhere to stay in a city that sort of didn’t exist.  Secrets can’t substitute, after all, for a watertight roof and a pillow.

During the summer I reached that “place”, the one that, well, I’m not entirely convinced I should name, but as it’s acknowledged and open these days I suppose it might be okay to write it just once.  Wait.  It might be better to put it in square brackets: [Dnipropetrovsk].

Home to over a million people, that place was once a key centre for the nuclear, arms and space industries of the Soviet Union, the reason it was closed to foreigners until the 1990s.  It’s an attractive place, or non-place, set on the meandering bank of the majestic Dneiper River that roughly divides Ukraine into east and west.  It’s a location of slight undulation surrounded by rich agricultural land of the sort that led Ukraine to be referred to as the bread basket of the Soviet Union

The “city” itself is a typical Soviet showpiece if slightly more polished than average: it has its Lenin Square watched over by a Lenin statue; the broad tree-lined, tram-lined Karl Marx Avenue is there, at several kilometres in length; and the Karl Marx traffic lanes are separated by a parkland strip where artisans set up easels to sell paintings and stalls for handicrafts, and there are benches for loitering and street food to enjoy.  In summer the Karl Marx strip has a fairground quality.  In another park is a collection of old Soviet tanks. 

That “city” is the third in Ukraine to have an underground metro and it might’ve been one of the privileges that closed cities enjoyed.  Residents of closed cities were given salary bonuses and better housing in Soviet times.  But by 2002 when I was there, it wasn’t the city’s former secrecy that was the problem as much as a lack of reasonably priced hotels.  It was a difficulty shared across Ukraine, where the break-up of the Soviet Union seemed to have been easier than the break-up of Intourist. 

In the Soviet Union foreigners were restricted to state-run “Intourist” package tours and in each city would be at least one, generally enormous, state-run Intourist Hotel to cater for them.  Those hotels were still running and remained grossly overpriced with the cheapest room for perhaps US $50 per night and with that "city" having been a closed city there might not even have been an Intourist Hotel there.  But even if there was, the room rate would have been approximately half a month’s salary for my Ukrainian teacher colleagues.  I stood on Karl Marx convinced that I shouldn’t pay so much either.  Rather, I contemplated what Ukrainians would do: they would not be staying at any former Intourist Hotel. They’re much too street savvy.

After a few moments the answer found me: Ukrainians would stay with friends.  Problem number two: I had no friend in that “city.”

After a few moments the answer found me: I did have a friend in Kyiv who I’d always thought was clever enough to devise a successful peace plan for Israel-Palestine if she sat down for a few minutes with a pencil and a notepad.  She’d certainly given an impressive speech once at the Toastmaster’s Club.  Perhaps it would be worthwhile calling her? 

I collected kopiyok and hryvnia coins from my wallet, knowing that public phones ate them rather rapidly and there’d need to be a good number in hand to push in at speed for extra credit.  I dialled the phone number and you know, when I think about that “city” I also start to wonder if I should name said “friend.”  Who’s to say she isn’t classified?  Although, as she does tend to use her own name, I suppose it might be okay to write it just once.  Wait.  It might be better to put it in square brackets: [Stacia].

‘I’m in [insert city name here] and I have nowhere to stay,’ I said. 

‘Call me back in ten minutes,’ [insert friend name here] replied.

It was as a Soviet storyline, standing on the footpath waiting for ten minutes to pass.  I watched the comings and goings and without reason tried to look inconspicuous.  Ten minutes later with a new bunch of coins in hand I dialled again.  The answer, when it came, was all but Soviet-perfect! 

‘There’s a Daihatsu on its way,’ aforementioned friend said, ‘It’ll pull up where you are within five minutes.’  Needless to say I’d told her where on Karl Marx I was; needless to say that in Soviet times it wouldn’t have been a Daihatsu exactly. 

In the allotted time said Daihatsu did pull up at said curb in front of me.  ‘Hi, I’m Julia,’ said the driver, ‘You’ll be staying with us. Get in.’ 

The first stop was a stilt platform café on the river for light refreshment, and I’m told that the bridge across the Dneiper is 1.4 kilometres long.  I’m told that Julia’s mother is quite distressed that she won’t be able to talk to me: she only speaks Russian.

Thereafter we reached the family apartment, one of the Soviet many; and Julia’s parents, Sergei and Lidia have thought of everything: keys to the flat, access to the fridge, phone number, huge dinner, toothpaste available on the bathroom shelf and well, beer.  It was wonderful!  Lidia needn’t have worried about the communication: she fired off rapid Russian and although I couldn’t distinguish a single word, somehow the overall meaning seemed to get through; or at least, the gist.  It was just like my friend Jayanta’s mother used to do in Bangla in Kolkata.

Ukraine is said to have had eleven closed cities in Soviet days, and in modern Russia there remain forty-two, publicly acknowledged, even today.  Some are surrounded by barbed wire with watchtowers, with special security permits to be presented at checkpoints to enter.  Around one and a half million Russians still live in those “cities.”

Before leaving, Lidia kind-heartedly gave me a book, in Russian, duly inscribed on the inside cover in Russian Cyrillic lettering, as a memento of the short time we shared.  Although I can’t read it or the inscription, to me that little book is priceless.  Well, I’m not entirely convinced I should name the author, but I suppose as he is internationally renowned it might be okay to write his name just once.  Wait.  It might be better to put it in square brackets: [Gogol].

[Important: Do not circulate or discuss this article.   Forget what you have read.]


 
A Russian stamp featuring that author.
from Wikipedia





Also classified are the National Secrets of Kyiv to the westa meeting with Mrs Val to the east, or a bit further still.... go swimming with Osama.  Because it's best to keep busy.


This article also published in Star Magazine, here: Article Title [Classified]

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