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One Ukrainian Summer by Viv Groskop review – young love in the birthplace of Zelenskiy

One Ukrainian Summer by Viv Groskop review – young love in the birthplace of Zelenskiy

In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, author and podcaster Viv Groskop found herself dreaming of a train trip she made as an undergraduate in 1994. The three-day journey took her from St Petersburg, where she’d spent frozen months grappling with Russian grammar as part of her study year abroad, to the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih, where a guitarist she’d fallen for had promised to take her on tour with his band, “Ukraine’s answer to the Red Hot Chili Peppers”. When the train finally crossed the border, it was fields of sunflowers that greeted her, “a glorious blur of yellow against the blue of the sky, like a firestorm”.

The trip becomes the fulcrum of this redolent, wryly honest memoir, in which she comes of age and chases love while striving for immersion in a region that was recalibrating its own identity, newly liberated by the collapse of the USSR to pursue its passion for Levi’s and all things western. As Groskop recalls: “People were anxious and sad and humiliated all at once, but also overexcited about Uncle Ben’s and Bounty.”

Language barriers and youthful naivety give rise to plenty of comic escapades and a few hair-raising ones too, a quasi-kidnapping among them. “Nothing in Russian was ever what it seemed, and everything had multiple identities which everyone took for granted, but did not explicitly explain,” she writes. Her “summer of love” with handsome, ultimately unknowable Bogdan the guitarist will prove just as frustrating, a halcyon interlude in Odesa notwithstanding.

A single question darkens – and deepens – a narrative whose charm otherwise lies in its intelligent lightness of touch: could the current war have been foreseen? It’s not something that Groskop or her new friends – either Russian or Ukrainian – would have been able to envisage at the time, she believes, despite Kryvyi Rih being the birthplace of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, while one Vladimir Putin worked in the St Petersburg mayor’s office, near a flat she stayed in.

Back in Britain, she encountered a recurrent essay question: what caused the fall of the Soviet Union? Three decades on, the answer she offers with the benefit of hindsight is chilling: “What makes you think the Soviet Union has collapsed?”

Source: theguardian.com