“My name is Julia Nalivaiko and I was born in the USSR. When I was 6 years old, the Soviet Union collapsed. When I was 12, I moved to the other side of the world. Ever since, I’ve been asked the same questions”.
Thus begins the title sequence of my series Back in the Soviet Bloc.
Since I moved to Australia, I’ve realised how little reference people here have to former Soviet countries. Putin is easily their favourite (“So what do you think about Putin? Isn’t he mad?”), followed closely by borsch (“I LOVE borsch! My flatmate/co-worker/mother-in-law used to make it all the time), vodka (na zdorovye!), Russian brides (Eastern European women!) and the incorrectly named Babushka dolls (they are actually called Matrioshka dolls).
Not that I can blame anyone. Despite having emerged from behind the Iron Curtain almost 30 years ago, former Soviet countries maintain an air of mystery and foreboding. Russians might be some of the most numerous tourists at many of the world’s most popular destinations, yet tourism to the former Soviet nations is still limited. Travel infrastructure is still lacking and obtaining a visa can be complicated. Adding to the eastern bloc’s already inhospitable reputation is the Russian-Ukrainian crisis and its subsequent, less than favourable, media coverage.
It occurred to me that the former USSR is a region that is difficult to ‘cover’- it’s a place you have to UN-cover. After decades of isolation and anti-western propaganda, there remains a feeling of distrust towards foreigners, especially those who come wielding cameras, looking to advance their own journalistic agendas. And yet there is much to discover, and love, here.
I realised I could do something about this – I could be an intermediary between these two worlds. Born in Ukraine, raised in the West, I didn’t really belong to either. I sat somewhere in the middle and it was from this perspective I knew I could show this elusive part of the world, just as it is.
The result is Back in the Soviet Bloc, a 7-part series where I travel through Russia and Ukraine, exploring the countries and the people. From St Petersburg to Moscow to Kyiv and Odessa, I visit some of the most beautiful places, and some much less so. I meet people from all walks of life, from famous singers to homeless youths and retired soldiers. I dine at opulent restaurants, I try home-distilled vodka in a traditional village and everything in between.
The focus of the series is people, not politics, seen through a clear lens. And through this lens, we can glimpse the beauty and the humanity that lies beneath. As I’m invited into people’s lives and their homes, I hear their stories, and through their stories, a larger story emerges – that of the transition from a communist past to a capitalist future.
Truly unbiased journalism may exist in ideology only, but I do believe that with this series, we got as close to it as possible. We set out to create a series filled with heart, humour and warmth; without shying away from social issues, but rather looking at them with clarity and insight. So I invite you to join me on a trip to the Soviet Bloc, for an honest, intimate and colourful portrait of contemporary Russia and Ukraine.
The seven-part series Back in the Soviet Bloc takes Julia Nalivaiko to St Petersburg, Moscow, Suzdal, Kyiv, Odessa and Kherson, meeting everyone from Eurovision winner, pop megaslar Ruslana, to a group of homeless youths. Join her as she explores a rapidly changing region that is still a mystery to much of the West; explores local flavours in an episode devoted to food; and is overcome with emotion while revisiting her own past.
See it on SBS VICELAND Saturdays 5:40pm from February 9, on SBS Fridays 3:30pm from February 15 and then on SBS On Demand: