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What can you learn about Ukraine from two decades of travels?

Scottish photographer Simon Crofts tells The Calvert Journal about the many trips behind his latest project, Expectations, a poetic reflection on Ukraine. 

I have been visiting Ukraine for 22 years, and these pictures were taken just over the last five or so. It took a painfully long time to understand what I wanted to photograph.

I started travelling to Ukraine regularly when I was living in Moscow working as a lawyer through most of the ’90s. My then wife was a Ukrainian citizen with Russian roots, and we were regularly visiting my mother-in-law, Larissa, in southern Ukraine as a family. Later I lived on the other side of Ukraine, in Poland, through most of the Noughties. There was a completely different view of history projected in Moscow compared to in Krakow, particularly regarding the events of the Great Patriotic War (Second World War). In Ukraine was a third perspective, and in Britain a fourth. It was a tug-of-war for ownership of collective memory.

As a foreigner coming to Ukraine, this national crossover was what struck me most. As an outsider slow changes can be more obvious than if you are living in the middle of them. Expectations plays with connections and ideas in Russo-Ukrainian literature, recollections and of course images. This might not be the most diplomatic time for a reminder about Ukraine’s common connections with Russia, even in literature. Some people have an understandable desire to look at Ukraine on its own terms, not in the shadow of its bigger neighbour. But does it really matter whether Bulgakov or Gogol are called Ukrainian, or Russian? The importance of Chekhov can hardly be denied, and he lived just over the border and wrote about the Ukrainian steppe. Literature and ideas transcend shifting geographical borders.

The “expectations” are individuals’ aspirations, this feeling of exhaustion, of running on a perpetual hamster wheel where everything seems to repeat itself and never seems to get anywhere. It might be the expectation of a functioning social structure without corruption; disappointed expectations of working in an industry that is economically unviable (coal in Donbass?). It might be hoping for a new fridge, or a fairytale dream of living without a constant struggle with bureaucracy, of escape from the tyranny of the propiska. The title of the project came when my ex-mother-in-law Larissa described Ukraine as “a land of endless expectations.”

It is best to describe what you see. In Russia during the 1990s as a lawyer I witnessed up close how industry restructured or failed to restructure, the failure of the privatisation effort that was supposed to be “quick and dirty” but turned out to be just dirty. A lot of this was mirrored in, and had a huge impact on, Ukraine – the privatisation there differed in details but otherwise followed a very similar model, and the emergence of local oligarchs or mafia power groups associated with financial industrial groups went along similar lines too.

At a time when Ukraine has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, it might seem strange, on the surface at least, to seemingly ignore the conflict. Ukraine has been subject to a media circus for the last two years. When Syria came along it disappeared from the headlines almost as quickly as it had appeared. Without wanting to be impolite, let’s hope it doesn’t have reason to come back for a long time. Ukraine was, when no guns were being fired, the most ignored part of Europe. This project is about not ignoring Ukraine, not allowing it to be defined by conflict, to maintain interest beyond the news.

The project is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. There is constant change and endless room for argument whether changes are for better or worse. There is at least hope that some expectations will be finally satisfied. Why not?

Expectations is available to order now here.

Text and image: Simon Crofts

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