KHARKIV, UKRAINE - It is the largest statue in the entire Ukraine, a towering reminder to those here of an era, a culture and a political philosophy that has been left in the rear view mirror.
When you first walk into Kharkiv’s impressive Freedom Square, the first thing you see is the monument of Lenin, the former Russian leader. It was first constructed in 1964, decades before the Iron Curtain came crumbling down and long before folks here could enjoy the freedom and independence they have now.
Times certainly have changed in the 48 years that have past since that statue first went up, haven’t they? In fact, if the Lenin statue could talk, it would tell you that itself.
And who knows what it would say at the scene that took place just 15 metres in front of it on Saturday afternoon.
There, just a free kick away, were thousands of people in the UEFA Fan Zone, the majority of whom were Dutch fans clad in orange getting cranked up for the Netherlands-Denmark game later in the day.
A band played on a huge stage. Tents splashed with corporate logos such as Coca-Cola were sprinkled throughout the Square, a sign that capitalism is alive and well and flourishing in the Ukraine. And, front and centre, were soccer fans wearing outlandish garb, none more bizzare than the five Netherlands supporters who were dressed as bright orange carrots, complete with green leaves at the top.
What would Mr. Lenin possibly have thought about these characters?
Welcome to Euro 2012 in Kharkiv, a place of contradictions where the Lenin statue has been smothered by L’Oranje.
Patrolling all this chaos are dozens of police officers, packing guns and nightsticks in case hooligans rear their ugly heads.
So far, so good.
“All has been fine,” says one officer in broken English.
That could change quickly. The threat, it seems, is always there at these big events.
In Poland on Wednesday, fans watching the Dutch practice uttered so-called “monkey chants” aimed at the team’s black players. Two nights later, Russian fans were captured on video beating and kicking stadium stewards after Russia’s decisive 4-1 victory over the Czech Republic in Wroclaw, Poland. And, earlier this week, award winning British journalist James Lawton, a correspondent for QMI during EURO 2012, was mugged in Kiev.
Here in Kharkiv, the public is constantly reminded by the international media of the images of hooligans pounding Indian fans into a bloody mess at a May 2 Ukrainian Premier League match. For the majority of people here, who have welcomed fans and journalists from all over the world with warm hearts and open arms, they claim that incident is not a true representation of the citizens here.
For the most part, the reception has been gracious.
It has also been expensive.
Let us assure you: Reports of the price gouging going on here have not been overblown.
Having arrived here late Thursday night, a Toronto Sun columnist paid $180 for a nice room at the Kharkiv Palace hotel. The next day, the price went up to $925 per night.
The alternative? A one-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor of a building.
To get inside the joint, you type in a code on the lock of a door splattered with graffiti. The ensuing dimly-lit stairwell has extinguished cigarette butts on the floor, The walls are stained and, in some spots, crumbling. Windows are broken.
The apartment itself is clean enough, thankfully. There is just one thing that is perplexing.
Just above the bathtub faucet is a metal cabinet with the words “GAS NOT TO SWITCH OFF!!!” written on the outside of it. We’re not sure what it means, but you can bet that sucker will not be touched.
All this for the less-than-econimical cost of three-plus bills a night.
Yes, the North American sport of the “Cash Grab” has been taken to a new level here during Euro 2012.
If it could talk, the famous Lenin statue would be the first to tell you that.
After it finished trying to figure out what would drive people to dress up as carrots, that is.