These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Meet the neighbours: Ukraine

By James Thomson

    An entertainment venue in Uzhgorod, just over the border from Slovakia.
 An entertainment venue in Uzhgorod, just over the border from Slovakia.
 Photos by James Thomson

Among all Slovakia's neighbours, Ukraine is the poor relation in more ways than one.

First, and most obviously, it is simply poor. Shackled by the legacy of Soviet economics and the mindset it encouraged, many of Ukraine's almost fifty million people struggle to make a living. The disparities in income between them and its handful of billionaire oligarchs makes Slovak society seem positively egalitarian.

It is largely ignored by the media, save for the occasional story about smuggling, illegal migrants, gas supplies, or Chernobyl.

The decision-making elites of both countries are distant: Ukraine's is the furthest border from Bratislava, which faces decidedly west; from the point of view of Kiev, Slovakia is just one of its smaller and less significant neighbours.

Tourism, compared to the other neighbours, is almost non-existent. Crossing the border is made sufficiently time-consuming by both sides that late-night runs to buy cheap fuel and cigarettes are the main reason for most Slovaks to go.

It is an indication of the priority that trade has over tourism between east and west that the only broad-gauge railway link, allowing trains to pass smoothly into Slovakia, runs directly to the U.S. Steel Košice plant, carrying Ukrainian iron ore from Krivoy Rog: there are no passenger services on the line.

Yet almost all of Slovakia's fuel supplies come via Ukraine, as the gas crisis at the start of 2009 highlighted.

It is, by a considerable margin, Slovakia's largest neighbour. A handful of Slovak entrepreneurs have already launched forays into what could be a huge market.

And Ukraine and Slovakia have a surprising amount in common.

People in eastern Slovakia and western Ukraine frequently speak the same language, Ruthenian. This is not really so surprising: Slovakia and western Ukraine were once part of the same country.

Galicia was part of Austro-Hungary, along with Slovakia, until 1918. After that, what is now Zakarpatiya (then called Podkarpatská Rus) became part of Czechoslovakia (it was annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II).

Architecture in the Carpathian region of Ukraine, the numerous Soviet eyesores aside (they are even tattier than Slovakia's communist-era legacy), can be strongly reminiscent of Slovakia's.

The practicalities of going there have become simpler for citizens of the EU, USA and Canada, who no longer require visas to visit as tourists. It has a number of exceptional destinations to attract them, though the tourist infrastructure and customer service, especially outside Kiev, are somewhat more eccentric than Slovakia's.

A train leaves most days of the week from Bratislava and other Slovak cities to Kiev, taking around one day. While the border crossing is no quicker than by road, the ride is comfortable and the views of Ukraine (and Slovakia) are excellent.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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