Out of Ukraine: Where jokes about Leonid Brezhnev have no grave side

Andrew Higgins
Friday 01 July 1994 23:02 BST

KIEV - A sure sign that history is no longer stuck on fast-forward is Brezhnev jokes. I encountered the revival in a village off the road from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev to the city of Kharkiv. The name is Teplivka. The 1,100 Ukrainian peasants who live there call home the Lenin Collective Farm.

Ivan Kuzmenko and his friends were standing outside the village beer shack telling me how everyone on the collective used to live like a king: 'We had everything back then, everything.' Not entirely convinced, I asked whether Brezhnev really had provided such a fun-filled cornucopia? This was Ivan's cue.

It turns out that Brezhnev made one last request on his death bed - that he be buried face down. Kremlin aides demurred but Brezhnev was adamant. He explained: 'For the first five years after my death everyone will want to spit in my face. Face down, I'll be safe. Then, after five years, everything will begin to change. I must be face down so everyone can kiss my ass.'

Recent elections in Ukraine suggest the process is well underway, though it should be said that, even during the first five years, there was never much spitting. Elections in March made the Communists the biggest bloc in parliament. After the first round of a presidential poll last Sunday, the favourite to win is Leonid Kravchuk, who, aside from an overnight conversion in 1991 to the inviolability of Ukrainian statehood, seems to operate much the same way as he did while head of ideology for the Communist Party's Ukrainian chapter before independence.

Ukraine has seen two of the greatest man-made disasters of the century. Both were imposed by outsiders: Stalin's great famine and Hitler's invasion. Its economic collapse under Mr Kravchuk has led to fears of a third catastrophe. But what makes Ukraine so perplexing is that on the surface it can sometimes seem healthy. Though in the grips of an economic freefall that has cut production by nearly half over the past 12 months, the capital of Kiev boasts virtues long ago lost by its great rival to the north, Moscow. Streets are kept clean and, unlike the Bolshoi and many Moscow theatres, the Shevchenko Opera and Ballet and the Leysa Ukrainka Russian Drama Theatre do not sell all their tickets to hard-currency scalpers days beforehand. At the end of Kiev's handsome main boulevard, Khreshchatik, there is even a tidy little kiosk selling a relic of Brezhnevite stagnation sorely missed - the old Soviet national drink, Kvas, a brown fermented liquid tasting like soggy cardboard. It sells for 3,000 coupons a litre - about four pence. The Metro to get there costs 150 coupons, a sum so infinitesimal as to defy conversion to hard currency.

But how much longer can Ukraine defy what the World Bank tells us are laws of economic gravity? For the past year I have taken heart on each of my visits to Kiev from a message at Borispol Airport. It was put there by an Irish construction firm: 'We apologise for any inconvenience during reconstruction and modernisation of the international air terminus. The inconvenience is only temporary. The improvement will be permanent.' The sentiments would make a fine motto for the entire enterprise now underway from the Danube to the Urals. This time, I did not see the sign. The main hall of the airport has been shut down. Let's still hope the improvement really will be permanent in the end. Otherwise, Brezhnev will have no reason to turn in his grave. Face down will suit him nicely.

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