What is it about this country that makes people refer to it as such a hopeless, dangerous place?
Many people have the habit of using an unnecessary article when talking about Ukraine. I’m sure you’ve heard it referred to as “the Ukraine” in movies and television. I’m not aware of any other country that receives such grammatical exception besides “the Congo”. When mentioned like this in media, Ukraine is always portrayed negatively. Why is that? What is it about this place that makes people refer to it like it’s the end of the world?
Personally, I think it has something to do with Ukraine’s long history of tragedy and suffering. The terrible things that have happened here have left their mark on the nation. In order to help explain why this country has such a poor reputation, I wanted to share with you a few critical moments in Ukraine’s history that I think contribute to its national character.
A human-induced famine which took place in Ukraine and present-day Moldova from 1932-1933, the Holodomor is a tragedy whose effects are felt in Ukraine to this day. In an effort to alleviate a more widespread famine affecting the whole of the Soviet Union, party leadership, at the time under Joseph Stalin, seized Ukraine’s foodstuffs and redistributed them as they saw fit. As a result, millions of Ukrainians died from starvation. There is dispute over the number of victims, with estimates ranging from 3 to 12 million. The fact that the death toll varies so widely speaks to the enormity of this tragedy.
Why such a tragedy occurred is also debatable. Mismanagement of resources by the Soviet Union with terrible unforeseen consequences is one explanation. Another is genocide, with some scholars arguing that it was a deliberate move by Stalin to quell Ukrainian nationalist movements. Personally, I find it helpful to compare the Holodomor to the Holocaust. That is, an attempt was made by a few malicious individuals to destroy a targeted population and millions perished. As with many tragedies in the Soviet Union, it was hidden from the public and dismissed as a rumor, not being officially recognized by the government until the late 1980s.
Americans have heard their grandparents and great grandparents talk about the Great Depression. Of course, this event coincided with the Holodomor and was part of the larger depression happening in the entire industrial world. When my grandparents spoke about it, they always mentioned how little food there was and how precious things like candy or fresh fruit were in those times. Most of what they ate they grew themselves, on their farms and in their gardens. Sometimes they went to bed hungry, but most people had enough to survive.
As with the Holodomor, the Great Depression influenced the behavior and values of the Americans that went through it. I observed this in my own grandparents. Grandma Beaman was a strong, confident, self-assured lady who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. She was also a great cook. I have many fond memories of Sunday dinners in her apartment, piles of mashed potatoes and gravy and crispy fried chicken. She was on the plump side and maybe overate, but considering that she went through the only famine in America’s history, I can’t fault her for it. Grandma Betty also went through the Great Depression as a little girl. Growing up on a farm, she learned how to preserve the summer surplus for the long winter. She is one of the few Americans I know that is a master at canned goods. Here in Ukraine, they’ve been canning food for generations and many still do today. Whole tomatoes pickled in big three-liter jars, cucumbers, cabbage, mushrooms, and all kinds of fruit. If it’s edible, they’ll turn it into a jam and save for later.
This high value on food, this know-how on the farm, the garden, and in the kitchen that is the mark of our grandparent’s and great grandparent’s generations is maximized in Ukraine. Modern Ukrainians are descendants of those earlier generations that survived the Holodomor. I’ve observed that the older the generation, the stronger they express these values.
If you’re invited to a Ukrainian’s home for dinner, you can be sure you’ll leave with a full stomach. Of course, in America we also feed our guests and wouldn’t want them leaving our home hungry, but Ukrainians show much more concern for their guests than we do. Even if you drop by uninvited for a quick visit, your Ukrainian host feels obligated to feed you. Asking to be fed is perfectly acceptable, and your host will offer you whatever they have in their fridge. They will even cook something for you if there is nothing on hand. Their frankness about asking for food and willingness to share at first struck me as strange. However, once you understand how important friends are in this country, this behavior makes sense.
Collapse of the Soviet Union and Continued Legacies
Ukrainians talk about the 1990s with a palpable sense of sorrow. They describe it as a time when “things were very bad”. Rows of empty shelves in grocery stores, lines of people stretching around the block waiting to buy a loaf of bread, these are the kinds of scenes they describe when asked about the 90s.
It’s common knowledge that the fall of the Soviet Union had terrible consequences for its citizens. A seemingly bright future free of an oppressive regime quickly faded in the harsh realities of everyday life. Soviet money was made worthless and people had to struggle to survive.
Less commonly known is how people lived and got through this tough period. Bartering had always been a way to make ends meet during the Soviet era, and bribing government officials was the best way to make sure you got what you want. In the midst of economic collapse, such methods became more important than ever as Ukrainians increasingly relied on interpersonal relationships to survive.
Joining his hands and interlocking his fingers, my father-in-law described it as a kind of business arrangement that everyone was involved in. He had his friends and associates he could count on, others had theirs. If he helped a neighbor repair his car this week, he could rely on their help with another chore next week. In lieu of cash, food or alcohol was an acceptable payment. Everything had a relative value. Five kilograms of sugar might purchase you a bottle of vodka for example. Using bartering and reciprocity, Ukrainians survived this transitory period from old to new government.
Such systems of bartering and bribery learned during the Soviet regime are deeply ingrained in Ukraine to this day and can be understood as part of the cause of Ukraine’s biggest problem, corruption. According to Transparency International’s 2019 corruption perceptions index, Ukraine ranks 126 out of 198 countries. In comparison, Mexico ranked 130. Despite many reforms, the police and justice system remain untrustworthy. As in most other parts of the world, money fixes everything and the more you have, the more you can get away with.
When I first came here, I didn’t know how endemic corruption was in this country. Over the years I’ve come to understand it as inseparable from everyday life. The police and the mafia are one and the same and the biggest criminals are the politicians who run the country and steal what they can while they have the power.
I would describe Ukrainians as largely pessimistic, and I feel they have good reason to be. The many tragedies that they have endured, and I only mentioned a few, have made them so. New parties and politicians promising reform turn out to be just another version of the old ones. If all you’ve known your whole life is one disappointment after another, why wouldn’t you be pessimistic? The younger generations here are more optimistic, but maybe they just haven’t had the time to be let down yet.