The stop in Myrhorod is just for two or three minutes. In a matter of seconds, some passengers are rushing out of the cars, others are jumping in almost on the run, and the train moves on. Taxi drivers are trying to persuade the newcomers that it is a long way to go to the city center and offer a ride for just 15 to 20 hryvnias. What is a “long way” for Myrhorod residents may seem close by to inhabitants of a big city: the Myrhorod Resort Authority, the main local reference point, is three kilometers away.
“Downtown? You’re on the right way. Just go straight down Gogol Street,” says a woman who is hurrying to work. She strongly advises us to visit the spa – to partake of salubrious mineral water and feast our eyes on the landscape. She knows nothing about the course of the election campaign in the city. “I’m just back from the village. Been there on vacation for three months,” she says.
Myrhorod awakens slowly. The main transport on the streets is the bicycle.
“A CITY IN THE CITY”
You can see very few people in Myrhorod on the eve of the elections. The central street, named after Gogol, runs across the whole city and houses a post-office, a marketplace, a supermarket, a few cafeterias, a sport bar, a pizzeria, and the main entrance to the Myrhorod Resort Authority, a “city in the city” bounded by the river Khorol.
There is a portrait of Yanukovych next to sky lanterns in a shop window. “Why do you need to know how much we sold? Maybe, you are the president’s agent and are assessing the worth of what we have sold?” the shop asks with suspicion. Yanukovych is a household name here. Myrhorod residents are unanimously saying that the resort belongs to the president’s son.
“Yanukovych the younger was once hanging around here. They held a closed-door meeting, but no one knows what they decided,” local journalist Mykola Marchenko says.
The resort essentially differs from the city: well-cared-for and clean parks, paved paths, a clean river beach, even though it is of season now. A hundred years ago, when a resort was founded around the mineral water spring discovered by Dr. Zubkovsky, Myrhorod turned from the Gogolian “provincial town N” into an important recreational center of the Russian Empire.
A CITY THAT DOES NOT VOTE
In spite of the city’s resort status, most of its residents are used to living off the home-grown vegetables. They spend a major part of their free time in vegetable gardens. Mykola Marchenko, whom we met on The Day of elections, had also worked in the countryside on the eve.
“So many people on the streets today? Don’t be misguided: they will all disappear by the lunch time. This is in no way connected with the elections. Ask one or another if they are going to the polling station. Most of them will say they are just strolling or going to the marketplace,” the journalist says.
Myrhorod residents do not like to vote. In 2010, only a tenth of a more than 40,000-strong population of the city voted to elect the mayor – the turnout was just a third of the voters.
The election results in Poltava oblast usually reflect the way the entire Ukraine votes. In 2004 they supported Yushchenko. Now they are steadily supporting the Party of Regions and the Communists.
A FORGOTTEN FAMINE
Why do they vote for the Communists? Anatolii Pliashnyk, a drug-abuse doctor and, at the same time, head of the Freedom party’s district organization, says that it is usually the retired military who vote Communist. “Even though there was a total famine here… All villages were studded with ‘black plaques,’” the Freedom activist says. “The people who were able to put up resistance were starved to death, and the rest were deported to Siberia.”
Perhaps the only thing that recalls the Great Famine in Myrhorod is a memorial complex, Harvest of Sorrow, unveiled in August 2011.
“This is also the birthplace of Hetman Danylo Apostol of Left-Bank Ukraine,” Analolii recalls the glorious past. “The boldest Cossacks lived here. Even Golol’s Taras Bulba had a Myrhorod colonel as prototype.”
The Cossacks’ descendants vote for the Communists not only due to dissatisfaction with the current government. “We once had a country indeed! And now… Even the elections were a feast, but now there’s no music, nor gaiety. All is so boring and bland,” says nostalgically a woman who has just come out of the polling station.
“I have voted for the Communists. Although I know they will waive their votes in the Rada, I will prefer to see them rather than the current ones,” another woman picks up.
THE POWER OF TEACHERS
The Party of Regions has, above all, educators as its stronghold in Myrhorod. This is a Soviet-era tradition, Anatolii Pliashnyk explains. “Eearlier, if a teacher-training institute student did not bear the Komsomol badge, he or she was expelled,” he says. The mayor, the chairmen of the district administration and council, and many school principals also have a white-blue party membership card.
“It would all be all right, but in the past two and a half years our agricultural district’s council has been discussing only two issues – hospitals and schools,” MP candidate Yurii Kovalenko says reprovingly. “They’ve closed seven schools, even though teachers are in power!”
Vasyl Tretetsky, who twice was the city mayor, regards the ruling party’s victory as reflection of the district’s poverty. “The living standards are so low that you can buy an individual with a ration packet,” he says. “You can even see this by the way galoshes are sold at marketplaces. It is the government that has given these people nothing – it only speculates on their poverty.”
NATIONALISM IN A CLOSET
Shoppers come to a seeds store on Gogol St. from time to time. The seller Mykola politely welcomes them, tells about the particularities of Dutch onions, and gives tips about the quality of sand for cacti. You can see a Stepan Bandera portrait and a calendar with UPA symbols through the half-open door to the closet.
“When they see Bandera in my closet, they say I’m a Banderite,” Mykola says. “But I don’t care. I have a viewpoint of my own and don’t need to listen to anybody. I also have a UPA flag in my car. Why should I be afraid of anybody in my own land?”
Next to the computer on the table, there is a little yellow-blue flag and a new book, Victory or Death, by Ivan Patryliak with a bookmark somewhere in the middle. “If anybody would like to know more about our liberation movement, I can advise to read this book. Things are very clearly structured in it,” the seed seller says. He tells us about the godfather of his child in Feodosia, who was so disappointed with the ruing party that he decided to vote for Freedom. “He phones me and says: ‘You know, I want to vote for Ukraine. It is clear even in the Crimea that there’s nobody else to vote for,’” he said.
There are mostly middle-aged and elderly people at the polling stations. They come to vote single or in pairs. Those who are very old but do not want to vote at home are accompanied by their relatives. The young can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
The 20-year-old Vika got an education in Poltava and works now as manager at a Myrhorod firm. She is glad to speak to the visiting journalists because her leisure is usually a walk down a 200-m-long segment of Gogol Street from the Silpo supermarket to the resort authority’s entrance.
“Many of us vote for the ‘regionnaires’ here. I previously did not know why my parents supported Yanukovych and the Party of Regions. Now I know: people vote the way they were told at their workplace. I was so glad when I switched on the TV set and saw no political advertisements!” she says.
We ask Vika who she is going to vote for.
“I don’t know… Maybe for, what’s her name, Natalia Kovalevska. I saw an advert of her. Maybe, for her. Or for Kulinich – he is good, he handed gifts to children on September 1, he has built playgrounds,” she says.
Oleh Kulinich ran as a self-nominee in the 147th first-past-the-post constituency. Well before the elections, his civic organization, My Poltava Region, would dish out “humanitarian gifts” to voters and organize excursions for children. On The Day of elections, in spite of the ban on campaigning, we got hold of the newspaper Moia raionka which carried a big full-length photograph of the candidate on the last page and a long interview under the headline ‘Anti-advertisement.” As a result, Kulinich managed to win the elections in Myrhorod.
HEALTH COMES FIRST
By contrast, activists of a young people’s organization, I Want to Live, are not going to vote. They say politicians are only bickering with one another and do not like this country altogether. For this reason, young people do not care about their future and hit the bottle.
“Can I possibly vote for a sportsman who advertises beer?” the organization’s activist Kostiantyn asks indignantly. “The young need good role models. And our city is a resort. They are used to seeing well-off vacationers – as a result, they want to have everything at once, but they don’t want to work. It is far easier to swig beer than to go in for sport.”
I Want to Live organizes community work, anti-drinking campaigns in schools, and soccer competitions. The organization’s activists hope to change the situation in the city on their own. They do not trust politicians too much. They say they will surely go to the polls when worthwhile politicians come.
This text was written as part of the activities of the Political Reportage School, a master’s degree course project in journalism at the Ukrainian Catholic University, financially supported by the Ukrainian Media Project (U-Media) of the international non-governmental organization Internews.