Stanislav Chernohor: "I dream that one day there will be a regional museum in Kramatorsk similar to the one in Katowice"
The opportunity to travel to neighboring countries without hindrance has had an effect people in the regions of Ukraine most distant from Europe – despite the war, they have begun to travel actively. The Ukrainian Week talked to Stanislav Chernohor, experienced traveller and head of the Community Development Foundation in Kramatorsk.
In your opinion, have inhabitants of the east of the country felt anything positive from the visa-free regime?
The introduction of visa-free travel gave an impetus to increase the mobility of the residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions. While it has not been difficult to get a passport for many years, there were problems with obtaining visas, especially when the regional capitals were occupied. Both purely psychological (will you get the visa or not) and related to spending time and money. We had to go to Kharkiv, Dnipro or Kyiv to get a visa even for neighboring Poland. Of course, few would do this just to go to look at European capitals for a weekend. Because it is more trouble than it is worth. But now, the percentage of those who decide to travel "on a shoestring" has really grown. Incidentally, a lot of my friends do not see it as a big deal any more – it is becoming a family tradition. A few years ago in the Donetsk Region, there were still a lot of people who had never left the area. For example, in 2015, our organisation launched an introductory tour around different regions of Ukraine for displaced persons. We were surprised by how "settled" the people were – almost everyone saw something outside the Donbas for the first time. Let alone more distant travels. And, of course, visa-free travel is another argument in this hybrid war for hearts and minds. No propaganda – that is just a statement of fact.
What is currently popular in your region?
As a rule, beginning tourists start with bus tours organised by travel agencies. Among the favourites is, for example, France, where there really is a lot to see. But while residents of the west of country barely consider Hungary and Poland to be abroad, the journey for people from the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions is increased by the length of our country, making it look like a real full-fledged trip. More often than not, due to the poor condition of roads, people prefer to get around our country by train (to Lviv or Kyiv), so direct bus services from our area are not very popular. I would not want to spend an extra day on a not very comfortable bus ride across all of Ukraine. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find that there are already regular routes from here to Wroclaw, which are in demand. Although, I think they are primarily linked to migrant workers. The visa-free regime has also turned labour migration from the Donbas somewhat westwards.
But many in different regions say that this is not for ordinary citizens, because it is still expensive...
From my experience, I can say that it is addictive. When you realise that there is no major obstacle to travelling, your range of desires automatically expands. You do not have to think about applying for a visa and keeping track of that process. You just get up and go. Unfortunately, people often come up with some reason why they cannot travel, although they spend even more money on all sorts of nonsense than they would have on an interesting trip with a load of new experiences. A night out in a restaurant can cost more than going to Europe. Let's count: 3rd-class ticket from Kramatorsk to Kyiv – UAH 130 ($5), the same amount again from there to Lviv, then UAH 30 ($1.10) for the train to Shehyni, cross the Polish border on foot and from there you have a pre-bought ticket for a Polish bus to Warsaw for 2 zlotys ($0.50). A night in a hostel costs up to UAH 350 ($13) and food in a cafe is the same price as in Ukraine, only the portions are much larger! The total comes to UAH 1300-1500 ($50-60) plus food for a weekend. By the way, I also started with Poland, then I wanted to see Italy and America, worked out a route around Turkey and then went with my sons to the Balkan countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania.
Is it difficult to organise your own trip?
The main task is to understand what you want. To see, feel and taste – whatever you want. Once this is worked out, time and discipline are needed to get hold of cheap tickets for the destinations where you plan to travel. My main rule for travelling is that cheap airline tickets are an essential requirement for a trip! Then when you have an exact date, you can put together a cultural programme and look for accommodation. This will definitely be cheaper and more effective, because you can choose an itinerary yourself, taking into account your preferences and interests. Once I went with my family to Turkey through a travel agency and we were basically sold just the hotel and we got to see all the interesting things another time, when we planned a route ourselves. Because there is more to see in the country than just the sea and the food. What is also very interesting is that you can bargain with local tour operators and go on different routes for much cheaper than in any tourist package. Now I see a trend – friends and acquaintances are very interested in my experience of economical tourism. They ask me about it and even write down tips. There are even plans to organise small tours for groups of people from the region who are actively getting involved in the traditions of independent tourism.
What about knowledge of foreign languages or other special skills?
I only speak Ukrainian and Russian, but I have no problems when booking tickets on websites from other countries or travelling. It is very easy in Poland especially, because you can understand almost everything. Moreover, the level of development of tourist infrastructure in European countries is many times higher. So do not be afraid, you will not get lost in any case. And you will get a completely different tourist experience: for example, museums that are not boring, but interesting. I dream that one day there will be a regional museum in Kramatorsk, for example, similar to the one in Katowice. Not hidden behind glass, but accessible to visitors: everything can be held, played with, studied and even heard. You lift the earpiece of an old phone and hear the real voice of a historical figure. This is a whole other world, although it hardly takes more money to create it. But it does give a completely different outlook.
I believe that expanding horizons through the experience of travel is important for people of all ages. But it is especially vital for young people: schoolchildren, students and young specialists. Nevertheless, they should be offered more than being kept behind a fence at separate summer camps in the same old Bulgaria or Poland – we must strive to immerse them into the social life of other countries. Show them interactive spaces, modern libraries, parks, cultural venues and successful examples of self-governance. So they can see what is done for ordinary people there and then desire qualitative changes at home. Now there are many more opportunities for this, especially for young people from the eastern part of Ukraine. My son, for example, went to the Study Tutors programme on his own, taking part in an interesting event in Poland alongside 60 others from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. You could see how the young people changed their views on local government, for example, as a tool for improving a community's well-being.
Maybe this should become a separate strategy then?
Over several years, I have been trying to convey to the authorities and donors of various programmes that officials and social activists should not be taken to other countries as if they were going on holiday. There has to be a system for this. If there is an idea, for example, the creation and development of public spaces, we should invite a specialised official from the regional authorities, more from cities interested in the idea and social activists who work in this field. So that afterwards they will each be able to arrange work on their own level with an understanding of what it all means. Instead of signing up random people for a trip that will bring no benefit in the future. Unfortunately, it is now widespread practice that grants for education and awareness trips are given to those who are only able to write attractive reports, but will never do any real, long-term work. Therefore, hope remains that ordinary people who have been given the opportunity to travel and see diversity will no longer want to be satisfied with standing still in the "Sovietesque" past, but will strive for a better life and demand the same attitude from the authorities.
Stanislav Chernohor was born in 1971 in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Region. He has a degree in Organisational Management and is a self-employed entrepreneur, public figure, journalist and head of a number of social projects in the Donetsk Region.