The Ukraine

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.

The Holodomor

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.

Court Case Ignites Public Outrage at Corrupt Justice System

Serhiy Sternenko - Wikipedia
Sternenko in courtroom awaiting sentence

On February 23rd a young Ukrainian political activist named Serhei Sternenko was sentenced to seven years in prison. Sternenko was charged with participating in the kidnapping and torture of one Serhei Sherbych, director of the Odessa branch of pro-Russian political party “Rodina”, in April of 2015. 

The judge’s sentence was met with shouts of “Shame!” from onlookers in the courtroom.

Before the trial began Sternenko made a statement to his supporters, “If today’s ruling is illegal, then it will be the beginning of the end for these people. There are hundreds of you here today. They don’t understand, that if they trample on human rights and make such political sentences, that instead of hundreds there will be thousands, tens of thousands, and if need be, hundreds of thousands.”

A Political Sentence

Sternenko and his supporters state that his trial and sentence are politically motivated, initiated by powerful politicians to silence him and others who speak out against the government. Sternenko accuses Andriy Portnov, former head deputy to the office of President Yanukovych, for taking part in the case against him. Portnov returned to Ukraine after Volodymyr Zelensky won the presidency.

Viktor Yanukovych is the former Ukrainian President whose rejection of the Ukrainian-European Association Agreement sparked the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014, in which pro-European Ukrainians took to the streets in the capitol, demanding Yanukovych step down. Following months of bloody protests that resulted in the deaths of over 100 individuals, Yanukovych fled the country and a new government was formed.

The fact that Andriy Portnov, who formerly served in pro-Russian President Yanukovych’s administration, was allowed to return to Ukraine when the new President Zelensky came to power ads fuel to the rumors that Zelensky is secretly a pro-Russian actor.

Not all Ukrainians support Zelensky as president, and despite his landslide victory with over 70% of the popular vote in 2019, his popularity is waning. The past two years have shown that he is at best inexperienced and at worst corrupt. The former comedian turned politician’s long-time connections with oligarch Igor Kolomoisky have worrisome implications. Kolomoisky is a former politician and owner of one of the largest Ukainian Banks, PrivatBank. PrivatBank collapsed in 2016, with Kolomoisky being accused of embezzlement and fraud, only to be bailed out by the Ukrainian government at $5.5 billion.

On a related note, on March 5th President Biden’s new administration went after Kolomoisky, placing sanctions against him and his family members.

Uproar Against a Corrupt Justice System

Sternenko’s sentence on February 23rd had people out in the streets protesting its injustice. In Kyiv, along Khrestschatyk street and in front of the president’s office, protesters gathered to voice their discontent. The police barricaded several streets in order to isolate the president’s office from the crowd. Skirmishes between police and protesters erupted and several people were wounded and more arrested.

The second round of protests on the 27th was much more peaceful. This time, police limited themselves to guarding the president’s office and didn’t put up barricades. Thousands of protesters closed off several main streets in their march to support Sternenko. Demonstrators held signs with such slogans as, “Send Venediktova (head prosecutor) to retirement”, “Free Sternenko”, “We won’t be frightened”, and “Spring has come, they planted the wrong ones (imprisoned the wrong people) ”. 

The protesters have several demands including Sternenko’s release, a stop to the political prosecution of Ukrainian political activists and volunteers, and a restructuring of the justice system, beginning with the Ukrainian High Court.

Future Implications

Although these protests did generate a lot of public attention and debate, there are few signs that the protesters’ demands will be met. The latest protests took place on March 9th, where Sternenko’s supporters joined with others to protest new judicial appointments to the Ukrainian High Court. These latest protests were barely covered in national news sources and had a much smaller turnout than the previous ones.

In the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see if these protests continue and if Sternenko’s case will inspire further criticism of the corrupt Ukrainian justice system.

Links to photos and further reading:



Mind Pops

I’m sitting here, trying to think of something to write about. They say everything comes from somewhere. Lately, while filling out Amazon reviews or writing yet another blog post about word press plugins, I’ve been struck with vivid memories of my childhood. A car ride down a well-traveled road, a field, the face of a childhood friend, images popping up in front of my face in the middle of writing boring content. 

What could explain this strange phenomenon? I did a little digging and came across the term, “mind pops”. These seemingly random words or images come to people more often when they’re doing routine tasks, like brushing their teeth, or when they’re not very concentrated on the task at hand. They are said to arise from associations with a stimulus, be it a word, sound, sight, smell, and may lie dormant for hours, even days before surfacing. 

In my case, this would explain why I’ve been having so many images of roads back home pop up in my mind lately. I’ve been reviewing auto parts lately, a lot of shocks actually, and almost every new review I’ll write the words “road” or “rides” at least once. The road to Grand Detour passing the turn to school, coming out of a curve on Nine Curves Road, the road to Grandma’s house, all pop up in my mind as vividly as when I last saw them. 

Listening to music, writing boring, repetitive copy, the mind does tend to wander. I guess these “mind pops” are evidence that I’m not all there when writing such stuff. It’s not like I’m trying to think of something to distract myself from the drudgery of work, it just happens. They say that creative people have them more often. That’s comforting. 

Another explanation for this phenomenon is that mind pops might be the building blocks of hallucinations. To test the idea, a professor and her colleagues conducted a survey of 31 healthy adults, 31 depressed adults, and 31 schizophrenic adults about their mind pops. All the schizophrenic adults said they had experienced them while six of the depressed adults and five of the healthy ones had never experienced one in their entire lives. What’s more, the schizophrenic adults said they had them around 3 or 4 times a week, while the depressed patients had them only once or twice a month and the healthy once every six months. 

Even if it’s only one study, the evidence suggests that mind pops are more common among the mentally ill than the healthy. There’s not enough evidence to suggest a connection between the sudden memories and hallucinations. As for me, it’s got me worried. I’m either an artistic phoenix awaiting his glorious rebirth, or I’m setting down the blocks to my own future, padded cell. 

Birthday Wishes

In the few years that I’ve lived here, I still have yet to master the art of wishing someone a happy birthday in Ukrainian. They put a lot of effort into it and each wish is at least a paragraph long of flowery language. I’m still not sure if they prepare it beforehand or if it just comes to them naturally after so many years of well-wishing. Wishing the person health and happiness is mandatory, and most people also add something about all your dreams coming true. Here’s an example to illustrate my point. 

“On this bright and happy day of your birth I want to wish you a happy today and a cheerful tomorrow, beautiful dreams and may they all come true! May every day be filled with good moods, warm feelings, and meaningful work. Happiness and joy to your house, health and blessings to your family, motivation and creativity. May the sun shine in your window and happiness in your heart!”

Try coming up with something that good by yourself. The last time it was Zhanna’s birthday I memorized a quick verse but still stumbled through it. She appreciated the effort in any case. 

Ukrainians love wishing each other well and on birthdays and holidays you’re sure to get an earful. Of course you’re expected to say something too, but even when I’ve prepared in advance I’m never able to mutter more than a few short sentences. This is probably because by the time I get the chance to make a toast we’ve already downed four or five shots of cognac and/or vodka. 

Besides wishing each other happy birthday over the phone, Ukrainians also like to send one another gif bouquets and cute animations. Some examples are shown below. 

Goldfish make wishes come true. The idea comes from a fairy tale by Russian poet, playwright, and novelist Alexander Pushkin, in which a fisherman catches a goldfish that promises to fulfill his wishes in exchange for its freedom.

A classic Slavic image of good times. Nothing like a bottle of cognac to celebrate one’s birthday with.

Of course you can always send someone birthday wishes in the form of a creepy rabbit or some such other furry creature. That always puts me in a celebratory mood. Is it just me or does the bunny have a malicious look in its eye at the end of the video?

This bunny freaks me out

Going to celebrate Zhanna’s grandma’s birthday today was a little different than the birthday celebrations I’ve gotten used to here. She had a stroke a couple months ago which paralyzed her right side. The last time we saw her her left hand was working well but she spoke in halting speech. Preparing to visit her today, I completely forgot to prepare the appropriate birthday wishes. When we arrived she was laying in her bed propped up on a pillow, just like the last time we saw her. I bent down, gave her a kiss, and wished her a happy birthday. The thought of making the traditional grand wish didn’t cross my mind. Zhanna did the same, and so did her father when he arrived a few minutes later. Everyone said a simple “happy birthday” and that seemed to be enough. She was happy to see us and broke into tears whenever someone telephoned her to wish her a happy birthday. I don’t know what they said and if they gave her a full paragraph of wishes or just a few short words, but I know she appreciated it.