Letter from Ukraine IV, 2011

Privet (Hi) from freezing Kyiv for the fourth time

New protests kicked off the year 2011. The statue of Josef Stalin was blown up on New Year’s Eve in Zaporizha (western Ukraine). On January 14, a protest was held at the Presidential Administration building against recent arrests of mem-bers of nationalist groups who claimed responsibility for decapitating the bust of Josef Stalin in Zaporizha on December 28, 2010.  On January 17, citizens took to the streets to prevent the government from shifting the tax burden to small and medium-sized businesses.

New protests kicked off the year 2011.

Yanukovich was promising a five-year tax holiday for small businesses during the 2010 presidential election campaign and one year later, he’s accusing small business owners of trying to avoid paying taxes.  Furthermore, he promised to respect laws but rolled back media freedoms, banned peaceful protests and is said to have fixed the nationwide local elections.

Citizens took to the streets to prevent the government from shifting the tax burden to small and medium-sized businesses.

The events of Unity Day (Den Sobornosti) on January 22 have revealed how divided Ukraine is. The Kyiv City Administration received 20 applications for holding different rallies in Kyiv on that day. Civic leaders and Yulia Tymoshenko, for example, called on citizens to gather on Kyiv’s St. Sophia Square to support demands for early parliamentary elections. Yanukovich and his allies organized an all-day concert on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) where attendees were paid 120 Hryvnas to be there. But many people for some reason were not paid the bribe, so they stormed one of the Ukraine’s Regions Party offices and demanded their money.  It is really the terrible poverty that makes people to stay and hold the Ukrainian flag – they can earn 120 Hryvnas ($15) for standing seven hours on Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

Celebration of the Unity Day on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).

Attendees were paid 120 Hryvnas.

I spent most of the time at Tymoshenko’s rally where speeches were delivered, where folklore music and theater were played, where newspapers and pamphlets were given away and where Tymoshenko demanded parliamentary elections to be held this year or else a peaceful revolution will topple the president and his government.

Folklore music and theater were played during the Ukrainian national holiday of Unity Day.

Followers of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko gather together on Kiev’s St. Sophia Square to celebrate Unity Day on January 22. It was on this day in 1919 that the Ukrainian National Republic united with Western Ukrainian National Republic to form a short-lived state.

Supporters of Julia Tymoshenko applauding to former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s speech.

Moscow police have closed the only Ukrainian library in Russia, confident that now it can do so without objections from the Yanukovich government in Kyiv. Like the Soviet predecessor, the Russian government has never been supportive of the more than five million ethnic Ukrainians living in Russia, refusing to open any Ukrainian-language state schools even as it has complained about the closure of some of the many Russian-language schools operating in Ukraine. A small number of citizens demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs against the library closure.

A small number of citizens demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs against the library closure.

Did you close the Ukrainian Library? We will close Russian schools!

On January 27, a demonstration against political repressions was held by one of the grassroots organizations, the Tryzup (Trident – a Ukraine-wide nationalist organization) in front of the Ukrainian Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Kyiv. Seven activists of the Tryzub were arrested for beheading the bust of Stalin on December 28, 2010. Later on, more members of Tryzub were detained.

I do not like Stalin either. Am I a criminal?

Demonstration against political repressions.

The Kruty Heroes’ Remembrance Day on Jan. 29 has shown how Ukrainian the opposition groups are divided as well.  First, in the morning of that day Julia Tymoshenko and her supporters laid flowers honoring all of those killed at the Askold’s Grave in Kyiv. Later, the Ukrainian People’s Party with The Tryzub (All-Ukrainian Association) did the same. Why they didn’t do it together, only they know.

Who are the Kruty heroes? It all happened 93 years ago (January 29, 1918), when students fought the Bolsheviks, defending the Ukrainian People’s Republic near the village of Kruty where all of them were killed. Throughout the years, the true story of the battle was hidden from the view by the Soviet Government. Even today, Vladimir Putin the Russian Prime Minister is not happy about the Kruty Heroes Remembrance Day.

Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and her supporters laid flowers honoring Kruty heroes.

Remembering the Kruty Heroes, Kyiv.

Tymoshenko’s investigation continues and journalists and a small number of supporters always wait for her in front of the Prosecutor General’s Office no matter if it is snowing, freezing or raining.

A supporter of Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister, holds a photograph ofTymoshenko in front of the Prosecutor Generals Office on January 18. Prosecutors launched criminal cases against Tymoshenko, accusing her of abuse of power by misspending government money when she was in power.

Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is surrounded by journalists and supporters in downtown Kiev on January 25, 2011 before being questioned by investigators. Mrs. Tymoshenko stands accused of misspending some $280 million in state funds while serving as prime minister in 2009. Tymoshenko denies all wrongdoing.

Ukraine has a long way to go. And it will not be easy. Democracy remained elusive, the global corruption survey shows that Ukraine has the highest level of corruption among the Newly Independent States.  The Russian language and culture dominates in many parts of Ukraine (many, like Prime Minister Putin do not think it is a real nation); and there is no abiding law and order.

Ukraine has been carved up and suffered the two biggest tyrants known to mankind – Hitler and Stalin – and the paradox is that an explosion which destroyed a bust of the Stalin on 31 December 2010 is classified as an act of terrorism, instead of vandalism! Millions of Ukrainians have been murdered in war and forced famines. Two decades into its existence, Ukrainian still struggle for survival and nationhood.

Letter from Ukraine III, 2011

Privet  (Hi)  from Kyiv for the third time

When nothing is happening in the capital of Ukraine I roam the streets. The Kyiv Arch of Friendship symbolizing friendship between Russia and Ukraine stands near our house. The Arch is also called a rainbow or a Russian collar, depending on which political camp you belong to.

The Kyiv Arch of Friendship

The National Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) is a huge complex commemorating WW II. Pictured here are some fragments of the sculptural composition in the memorial complex. The reliefs symbolize the Soviet (Ukrainian) people rising up against the Fascists.

Sculptures at the National Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945).

I already mentioned that the authorities target opposition leaders and activists for investigation. Nearly a dozen allies of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko were arrested recently and investigations into her and allies continue at high pace. I showed my face at the Prosecutor General’s Office couple times when Tymoshenko went for her interrogation. Journalists and small number of supporters were waiting for her.

Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is surrounded by journalists and supporters downtown Kyiv.

These supporters are not paid, there is no one to take down there names, and no one organizes anything there. It is more likely that only the journalists are paid for their work there – as hopefully I will be if I sell some of these images!

A supporter of Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister, holds Tymoshenko photograph in front of the Prosecutor General’s Office in Kyiv.

When Tymoshenko arrived supporters greet her and journalists interview her. Both groups wait till she leaves the Prosecutor General’s Office. And journalists interview her again and supporters continue to support her.

Tymoshenko is being investigated for alleged abuse of power during her tenure as Prime Minister. Tymoshenko denies all wrongdoing.

One of Ukrainian’s most important religious holidays, the day of the Epiphany, was celebrated on January 19. Early in the day a church service is held, then after the water is blessed the faithful take their bottles home and keep the water all year, which is believed to keep their home safe. After that the brave ones dip in the freezing water to wipe away their sins, to keep out evil spirits and purify the soul.

I didn’t want to stay for this religious holiday in Kyiv itself, so I went to the village of Zhuravka, in the Chernigivsk region, which is two hours drive from Kyiv by mashrutka (mini-bus). I arrived just in time for water to be blessed.

People wait in line outside Zhuravka church during the festival of Epiphany.

People wait outside Zhuravka church to receive holy water. The water is kept at home during the year to keep the home safe from fire, lightening and sickness.

Blessing of Epiphany Water

It is very important to bath also in holy water to wipe away sins, keep out evil spirits and purify the soul. But there is no river or lake in Zhuravka. So I went with Larisa (an inhabitant of Zhuravka) on foot to the village of Polonki, about four kilometers from Zhuravka. Larisa sang religious songs during our walk. And she prayed a lot as well. She told me the story of her life.  I must say her life is not a very happy one. She was sent to Chernobyl right after the explosion to cook for the people who came to clean up after the disaster. She cannot have children, probably due to radioactive exposure. She married to man from Zhuravka, but he drinks…

Icy bath in the village of Polonki

Larisa takes a dip in freezing water on the Epiphany Holiday. It is believed that a dip into freezing water on January 19 will wipe off all sins, keep out devils and purify a soul.

After icy bath, we filled up one bottle with the blessed water and walked back to Zhuravka. I stayed over night at one babushka’s. I was fed and drank well, I was very glad to be there and that I hadn’t stayed in Kyiv; it was raining there and when I returned everything looked very grey and depressed.

“Samohonka” – home distilled alcohol.

Letter from Ukraine II, 2011

Privet from Kyiv again,

Victor Yanukovich, the Ukrainian president, wishes a Happy New Year to all Ukrainians. Hopefully, it will be better than the last one. But Ukrainians are not so optimistic.  Many young people would like to leave the country and each month it seems there are more pensioners and veterans who beg on the streets.

Victor Yanukovich, the Ukrainian president, wishes a Happy New Year.

It’s warm and raining and lamb’s tails are sold on the streets. And we’re only in the middle of January. There was a little snow left on the hill of the Park of Eternal Glory last week. A few teenagers tobogganed under a twenty-one meter obelisk tower which is over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  These kids hope that the snow will continue; winter is no fun without snow.  I also hope it will snow before the 19 of January, which is the day in of the festival of the Epiphany which would be much better with snow.

Park of Eternal Glory, Kyiv

Mikhaylina Kotsyubinskaya, the Ukrainian patriot, literacy critic and the fighter for the Ukrainian language died. She was 79 years old. Friends and colleagues gathered to say goodbye to her on January 11th at Teacher’s House. Yulia Tymo-shenko came too. Then a mass was held at the church and then the last goodbye took place at the cemetery.

Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko came to say he last goodbye to Mikhaylina Kotsyubinskaya.

The last goodbye at the cemetery

At the House of Teacher’s a letter of condolences was read. It was full of appreciation for   Mikhaylina Kotsyubinskaya’s work, appreciation for her fight for the Ukrainian language and culture and much more. I do not remember all as it was quite long. The letter was signed by Victor Yanukovich. As the letter was read, the hall rustled uncomfortably and some people screamed “shame”.  I was shocked too. It is true that Yanukovich lobbied in Ukrainian language during the presidential elections, but his first presidential speech was in Russian.  One might suppose that Michajlina was turning in her grave.

I went to the village of Buyarka on an overcrowded train. It was terrible, we were packed like sardines so I thank God, Buyarka is just five stops from Kyiv. While there I visited three young girls who opened a business with horses. They have eight of them, and if you would like to learn how to ride a horse or just have a ride, then Buyarka is the place to go, but perhaps in summer, when it will be more pleasant.

The horses had to be brushed, their ankles tightened and then we could ride.

The horses had to be brushed, their ankles tightened and then we could ride to the field.  Those of us who joined the activities on foot had to run after the horses. It was very windy and we were freezing even though it wasn’t below zero.

If you would like to learn how to ride a horse or just have a ride, then Buyarka is the place to go.

Riding a horse in the village of Buyarka, Ukraine

I should mention I have started a new photographing project called Living Rooms.  Here are some images I photographed so far:

Letter from Ukraine I, 2011

Privet from Kyiv,

It takes 24 hours by bus to get to Kyiv from Prague. I was lucky — our bus was half empty and all passengers had two seats and some even had four seats as I did. This was great as it meant I could stretch my legs across the aisle and sleep all night. Well, almost all night. A passenger in front of me reclined his seat as far back as he could so I was fully pinned to my seat in rather unpleasant proximity to the man’s sniffing. I cursed the one who invented reclining seats and believe they may be the cruellest innovation ever invented for travel in comfort.

I politely asked man if he could put his seat back and he screamed back to me that he can do whatever he wants and strangely enough, only when he realized I was not Ukrainian he moved his seat back to a normal position.

I went to Ukraine by bus last year and all the passengers were polite and friendly. Something seems to have changed. The New Year’s Eve celebration on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv had an entirely different tone than the last year when people were dancing, singing and enjoying themselves. This year they stayed quietly on the square, opening their sparkling wine and sipping quietly. No one applauded when the Ukrainian president, Victor Yanukovich, gave his New Year’s speech and no one seemed excited. The spirit rose a bit when the fireworks started and occasionally someone cried out happily in response to the lights and explosion.

The spirit rose a bit when the fireworks started.

One positive thing was that the weather was good – the thermometer was on zero. It seems to me that freezing weather in Ukraine is reserved for presidential elections and revolutions. The weather was great all week and on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) Ded Morozes (Grandfathers Frost), Snegurachkas (Snow Maidens), Zajchiky (Bunnies) and figures form different fairy tales encouraged passers-by to take photographs with them. They wanted Hryvnas 30 (USD 3.50). Children could ride on a Merry-go-round or in carnival trains for free. Or they could persuade their parents to pay for pony rides. Those parents who couldn’t afford any of the attractions at least bought a balloon or inflatable toy for their child for 10 Hryvnas.

Christmas Holiday on Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

Christmas Holiday on Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

On Maidan Nezalezhnosti the Christmas celebration was in full speed and in the metro underpass babushkas made the best of the holiday as well. More passers-by meant more chances to collect money for their medications. Others were also begging, such as a veteran from the Afghan-Russian war who asked me for money for alcohol. When I asked him about the war, he cried.

Not everyone was there with extended hands — some babushkas played the violin while others were singing. Some were selling Ukrainian’s art crafts and souvenirs.

A woman plays the violin.

Veteran from the Afghan-Russian war.

There was a demonstration in front of the Pechersky district court of Kyiv on January 5th where a criminal case has been opened against former Ukrainian Interior Minister, Yuriy Lutsenko. Yanukovich promised he will fight the misuse of power and impunity among members of the State apparatus. But it seems that criminal prosecutions are aimed exclusively at members of the opposition political parties.

About one thousand demonstrators, mostly pensioners, came to “support” Lutsenko. They held banners with slogans like “Today Lutsenko tomorrow you”, We want fair court of law. But these demonstrators were paid. They received about 30 -50 Hryvnas and the person who finds them received 30 Hryvnas and 5 Hryvnas more for each person he brought to the demonstration. Further, the organizer was paid 100 or even more Hrivnyas. Surprised? Don’t be, it’s normal in the Ukraine.

“Stop terror”

“Today Lutsenko, tomorrow you”

It was very cold this day with the therometer dropping to well below 0. The trial started at eleven in the morning and finished at about two afternon. While it was finished for Lutsenko at least that day, the demonstraters had to wait until six o’clock in the evening to collect their pay. The leader of the Batkivschyna Party and former Ukrainian Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, also came to support Lutsenko. She was not outside with the babushkas, of course. And it was probably she who paid these demonstrators.  Surprised again? Don’t be, this is normal in Ukraine.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Maybe the young generation can change things; maybe the young generation will be more honest. But for now, it seems they are busy with something else.

Letter from Afghanistan V


I am still in Mazar-e-Sharif even though my visa already expired – on July 15. I sent my application to extend my stay for another month, but the process is very complicated and slow. I had to send my application with a copy of my school certificate; as well as a letter from the Embassy where my Afghan visa was issued. And I had to have invitation letters from the Czech NGO (Non Government Organization) People in Need from Prague as well as a formal request for my stay from my hosts in Afghanistan. All these documents were sent to the Ministry of Economy (PIN is registered there) a week before my visa expired. From there the application will be sent to Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

A couple weeks ago, visas could still be issued in Kabul as well as in Mazar-e-Sharif and others large cities. Not any more. All foreigners must go to Kabul. The authorities make it very difficult for foreigners. They seem to want us out of the country. And I have no news from the Afghan authorities yet about my application, so I really hope I will get some news soon.

Did I complain about weather in the last letter? I did, didn’t I?  I guess it was too early; it was only 42 Celsius, nice and cool weather compare with what it is NOW! Believe it or not:  it has been 48°C the last three days, yes, forty eight in shadow. Our thermometer only registers until 50 Celsius…..it’s crazy.

It has been 48°C the last three days.

It’s not good to stay in the compound all the time, because you’ll go a bit nutty if you do. So I was lucky to have the opportunity to go on another field trip; even it was just for one day in the Toqay district, one and half hours from Kabul.  Uzbek people live there, and women (most of them) do not mind being photographed.

A pregnant woman.

The Afghan parliamentary election is scheduled to take place on September 18th (postponed from May 22nd).   The campaign which kicked off at the end of June will be a major test of Afghanistan’s political progress and security. Depending on how it’s run, the Sept. 18th balloting could be a major advance toward stability; or, if there is fraud on the scale of last year’s presidential elections, a big step backward.

A campaign billboard for candidate standing in the 2010 Afghan parliamentary elections.

In Balkh province my “mission” for the Czech NGO People is finished. In Kabul, I will document a teacher’s training and hope also to document the parliamentary election campaign. My last shoot was in the Toqay district, the ISNA (Income Stability in Afghanistan) beneficiaries: a beekeeper, agriculture nursery and wool processing.

A beekeeper

So goodbye Marghzar, goodbye Zare and Kishindeh. Goodbye  Mazar-e-Sharif, goodbye Balkh.  I am off to Kabul on Saturday.


PS. And I have almost forgot, my visa application is already at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I will have an answer about my status in couple weeks.

Letter from Afghanistan IV


The security situation has worsened in Afghanistan. It probably has to do with the upcoming elections. The Taliban are coming out, visiting rural areas and recruiting new members, especially young men and boys.  I couldn’t get around freely on my last trip to Zare because rumour had it that the Taliban was present. It is the same situation in Kishindeh and in the other parts of Afghanistan. We worry that the situation will only get worse as the elections draw closer.

Five people have been killed by suicide bombers attacking the office of a US AID-funded organisation in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz. In Kishindeh, one Pakistani and two Afghan engineers were abducted, were released after a few days.

We keep our heads down and consider our every movement, but continue our work. In Zare, a new farmer’s cooperation now has their new tractor with a drop-side-truck and wheat thresher from People in Need (PIN). A big ceremony was held, speeches were delivered and the wheat thresher was use for the first time.

A big ceremony was held.

Farmer’s cooperation now has their new tractor.

Wheat thresher was use for the first time.

Everybody was happy. We were happy that the tractor, drop-side-truck and wheat thresher arrived safely at its destination and that members of this new farmer’s corporation were happy having their new machines. It took seven minutes to thresh one bag of grain, whereas normally it would take one full day of driving several donkeys or cows in a circle to thresh this amount of grain.

A boy driving donkeys in a circle to thresh grain.

Husk must be separated from the grain.

The weather continues to be unbearably hot.  Our two dogs live during the day in our bathroom cooling themselves on tiles. In our office, an air conditioner works sporadically. It’s an endless struggle.

My feet are becoming like Afghan feet – heels dry and cracked from just wearing sandals in the hot weather and there is a constant thin film of dirt. I wear scarf, well, I am trying to wear a scarf. It always slides from my head and my hair is unveiled — not good in the rural areas. Ah! If I use safety pin, I look like Russian babushka.

Scarf always slides from my head and my hair is unveiled.

I wear also a long dress with long sleeves because women must cover their arms fully. I borrow one dress from a friend, and the second one I had sewn here in Mazar-e-Sharif.

There are three genders in Afghanistan: women, men and foreign women.  Foreign women have more privileges than Afghan women. They do not have to wear burqas, just a scarf. They do not have to hide their faces. They can eat together with the men, talk to them and even joke with them. And Afghan men have a great sense of humour.

In recent weeks, I documented the People in Need (PIN) mission, the Cash for Work (CFW), Food Facilities (FF), and the Water and Sanitation (Watsan) projects. Cash for Work gives payment to people who build roads. The Food Facilities program was building granaries and flood barriers. For Watson, I photographed pumps and the construction of water reservoirs.

A group of boys fill canisters at a water pump supplied by the NGO People in Need.

I am trying to extend my visa, but it’s a long and difficult process. I need a diploma from my school, a work permit, an invitation…..and I need lots of patience. I decided to apply only for exit visa.  Hopefully I will get ten days extra. My visa expires on July 15th so with these additional ten days, I will have to leave on July 25th.

I still have to photograph beneficiaries of the Income Stability in Afghanistan (ISNA). And I would like to go to Herat (city in western Afghanistan) to see Fraidoon, my Afghan friend. Still, many things to do in a short time, eh? Time is flying here; it seems to me I just arrived a week ago.

Letter from Afghanistan III

Salaam from Mazar-e-Sharif, salaam for the third time.

Weather is hot and hot and hot. The mercury in thermometer rises to the sky; today it stopped on 40 Celsius, tomorrow will climb to 42. Hot water is coming out of both taps. Potatoes are cooking under the ground and chickens are laying hard-boiled eggs. Ok, I am exaggerating, but it feels this way. And we sweat and sweat and sweat. OK. We shouldn’t comp-lain. Or I shouldn’t complain. What about Afghan women who wear the burqa over their normal clothing? The burqa is the blue, white or green huge piece of cloth where the air circulation is very poor and where women can barely see the pathway. They must be boiling under this synthetic cloth. And imagine, some burqas are even black.

I had to wear a burqa too. On my third trip to the field, we were passing a small town where a bazaar was in full swing. The street was busy with men on motorcycles, sitting in front of their shops, selling nans (nan is the national bread of Afgha-nistan. It is a flatbread and can be oval or rectangular), selling sheep or just wandering here and there. The streets were crowed full of men and we were only women there. Well, we were in a car, but still our drive driver gave the order: “Put burqas on!”

I was the last one who put it on. I was fighting with this unfamiliar piece of clothing – I couldn’t find front and couldn’t find the top. The ladies tried to help me; more hands were touching this blue monster and making it more difficult to put on. Finally (we already hit the street full of men) we managed it. I was under the blue burqa. There was just one mistake:  I wore it inside out.

Cooperation training for farmers

In Zare, I documented the cooperation training for farmers organized by the People in Need – Food Facilities.  About ten respected bearded men attended this workshop. The workshop was for five days, and this new cooperation will get            a tractor, a drop-side-truck and wheat thresher from People in Need (PIN).

From Zare I went to Marghzar, where Marghzar High School was officially opening with a big ceremony where officials like Mullah, the minister of finance and others as well as the PIN engineer, the PIN program coordinator, and other PIN members were there. And of course there were students, pupils, and teachers there too. After all, this school is for them.

Official opening of Marghzar High School

Pupils and students lined up in front of their new school where the ribbon was cut and speeches were delivered. The heat was so strong, one pupil threw up; my head was spinning and the students‘ too, I’m sure. After couple unbelievably long speeches they sat down. No water was offered to them.

Official opening of Marghzar High School

Marghzar is a beautiful place surrounded by incredible mountains. People are very friendly and you can walk freely everywhere. So I continue with my portraits using this pictorial landscape as the background.

A father and son.

A boy wearing a Pakul hat.

Two young men stand together holding hands, a traditional gesture of friendship in Afghanistan.

I was all week in Mazar working on my pictures. I also have a new web-show of the pictures. If you are interested, here is the link:


On Monday I am off again, I am going back to Kishindeh and to a new place:  Chakana.