From Ukraine

In Ukraine, the concept of central heating takes on a very different meaning than what I am used to. Getting the heating turned on once the weather becomes nippy is not a simple matter of heading towards the thermostat or radiator switch. Apparently, the decision to turn on the heating is controlled by some (quite possibly vodka-swilling) jerk sitting in a Soviet-era dungeon; it’s the jerk that gets to decide when you are cold enough to need heating.

Well, perhaps not exactly so, but nevertheless, that’s the picture I got when I realized that virtually all heating is centralized and controlled by a special government commission. I am told this is an old Soviet system that would be disastrously expensive to replace (and if there’s anything Ukraine lacks, besides decent public toilets, it’s money).

The capital, Kiev (some spell it Kyiv – which reflects he Ukrainian pronunciation, but I’ll use the Russian spelling, because I feel like it) is a charming place. The city vistas are littered with beautiful Orthodox churches which closely resemble lightly frosted tea cakes. Walking down Kiev’s centre, one comes across the most exquisite Byzantine architecture, topped by extravagant cupolas in bright colours such as blue, green and gold. Do step back for a moment and put the scene in context, however. The churches, chapels and cathedrals, are more often than not located in the midst of the most squalid of environments.

The breathtaking beauty of the soft arches and seemingly billowing domes contrasts sharply with the bleak horror of the Khrushchev-era apartment buildings. The monstrosities in question stretch on for miles, proud and defiant monuments to an era that, in many ways, refuses to die.

The Soviets, it seems, weren’t very keen on limiting visual pollution. Inside the stairwells of these apartment buildings one is often greeted with human stench, owing either to leaky plumbing, or, as it is more often the case, to some drunk’s tiny bladder. Thankfully, the centre of Kiev is diverse in style. There are pre-revolutionary buildings that have somehow survived WWII, or have been rebuilt in the period after the war. There are also, of course, Stalin-era buildings – functional and dignified

Ukraine, as you may have guessed by now, is an odd place. It does not fill the standard pre-requisites for a developing country. At first glance the infrastructure is nothing short of exquisite. But upon closer inspection one finds that the capital is rotting from the inside. Many of the streets are not well-maintained (the further one gets from the tourist attractions, the more obvious this becomes), the underground metro system is too small to support the growing population (I hear that four new stations are opening soon – let’s hope they quell the morning and evening “crush”-hour somewhat), and most of the trolleybuses and trams belong to another time altogether.

Capitalism has, nevertheless, come to Ukraine with a bang. The churches have come full circle from being places of worship in the pre-revolutionary era to museums after the revolution and now back to churches once more. Kiev’s many supermarkets and department stores are filled with consumer products (I can’t say the same for most rural areas I’ve visited, however). There isn’t a shortage of designer boutiques in one of the city’s more prestigious neighborhoods. But something is very wrong here and you need to look no further than the city’s bazaars to see the symptoms of a society in crisis.

The city’s bazaars are dominated by throngs of elderly women, “babushkas’ as they called, selling everything from raw meat to freshly picked flowers. The babushkas are a gut-wrenching sight. Having seen their savings get blown away due to hyperinflation in the mid nineties, many of these women have also lost their husbands to alcoholism. As families fell apart, the older generation became neglected. Their pensions, in most cases, do not cover their basic needs. I recently heard that in the capital, pensions were raised by the equivalent $1 – and wondered if this was some kind of cruel joke on part of the moneyed elite who run this country.

Meanwhile, instead of discussing much needed economic reforms, Ukrainian civil society argues over very trite issues. There is the question as to whether or not Russian should become an officially recognized second language, owing to the fact that about 40% of the population identify Russian as their first language. You see, in the struggle to assert a cultural identity independent of Russia in the post soviet years, Ukrainian was deemed the only official language of the state. The debate over language, however, lingers on, and the country locked into a bitter power struggle between the mainly Ukrainian-speaking west of the country and the Russian-speaking east.

The capital is stuck in the middle. For some unfathomable reason the question of national identity completely overshadows questions of economic growth and any tangible efforts towards liberalization of the market and development.

Naturally, to say that the Ukrainian people are lacking a certain joie de vivre is a great understatement. Years of stifling communism has left most of the population with a natural aversion to foreigners. Coupled with that is a strong xenophobic streak A vast chunk of the extensive organized crime network is dominated by individuals who trace their ancestry to the Caucasus; as such the indigenous populace is quite suspicious of people with darker complexions, as I understand it. There is also, I am told, a neo-Nazi movement that is becoming increasingly violent.

Perhaps I’ve come off as rather gloomy in my report. It’s important to note that this country is not without a certain allure. The ability of Kiev to retain its sense of community and smallness despite mushrooming to a (conservatively) estimated 3 million inhabitants is quite remarkable. Furthermore, no matter what people say, Ukrainian food is superb. Ukrainian nature is riveting – especially when Kiev’s many chestnuts bloom right before the cold hits. The capital ripples with cultural events, as do many other parts of the country.

After getting over the initial distrust, people can become quite warm and welcoming (besides whoever it was that refused to turn on the heating for a week). Overall Kiev has a certain quality that is hard to find elsewhere, and that is the ability to feel at home in this place, despite the difficulties of life here.

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