Ukraine Between East and West

Posted in Europe | 04-Mar-06 | Author: Dmitry Shlapentokh

Ukraine - between West and East
Ukraine - between West and East
Ukraine is, apparently, different from other post-Soviet states on the West of Russia. Whereas the Baltic States are firmly attached to the West, whether a united Europe or America, depending, of course, on the situation, Belorussia is firmly in the Russian camp. At the same time, Ukraine is in the middle in its political/economic culture and geopolitical orientation. This division of Ukraine can not be reduced just to a division between the Ukrainian-speaking West and the Russified, Russian-speaking East. It cannot also just be reduced to the economic problems that in various degrees affect different regions of the country. The division goes much deeper and cannot be related to the linguistic or economic differences. It is caused by different political cultures that exist in the very matrix of Ukrainian society and, regardless of the recent turmoil, Ukraine will be uncommitted for years to come. My recent visit to Ukraine, where I was born and where I have a lot of relatives and friends—and my first visit to Kiev after more than 30 years—induced me to make such a conclusion regarding Ukraine.

Economic Problems: the Aftermath of the Revolutionary Era

In many ways very similar to Russia as well as the vast majority of post-Soviet states, Ukraine has experienced serious economic problems. The Orange Revolution and, of course, the present-day gas supply problem with Russia have made the situation worse. Almost all revolutions have followed a similar pattern. They erupted in many ways because the majority of the people wanted to improve their living conditions. Yet, usually the opposite happens: the economic conditions for the majority deteriorate. The “Orange Revolution” is no exception. While Kiev is externally a glittering city, much better looking than 30 years ago, the external signs of prosperity seem to be deceiving; at least, this was the view of quite a few of the people whom I saw in Kiev.

One of my casual acquaintances, a young woman, stated that people expected drastic improvement of living standards but nothing happened. Life actually became worse. A man whom I met near the historical museum in Kiev, as well as a relative of mine, complained that the economy had not become better but actually worse because of the rise of the price of food. A young archeologist, a casual acquaintance, also complained that there was a rise in prices.

And, life for all Ukrainian provincials—as is the case with most of the post-Soviet states— is much harder than for residents of the capital. One of my interlocutors in Kiev told me that the great buildings and the well-dressed young women in Kiev should not deceive me. One should move a few miles from Kiev, he said, and the picture would be absolutely different: everything is absolute neglect. His story is collaborated by what one could see on Ukrainian TV. In Odessa, for example, the vibrant resort area of the Soviet era, the sewers and pipes break every year creating floods that overwhelm the first floor of many buildings. This has gone on every year, and there has been no help.

While all provincials experience a hard time, the industrial and mostly Russian-speaking East and Southeast are hit hardest. A Russian woman from Nikolaevsk, whom I met in the subway, stated that if she would vote now, she would never vote for an independent Ukraine and supported Marx’ statement in 18 Brumaire that “nations are similar to women. History never forgives the moment of weakness when any scoundrel could take advantage of her.” She said with gloom that during the Soviet period, the Nikolaevsk sheep-yard produced good sheep but that now everything is gone. She acknowledged that there were some foreign investments but believed that they would never make much of a difference and that the place would never be as prosperous as it was during the Soviet era. She also believed that the economic situation would deteriorate, and the major reason for this was that Yushchenko had removed most of the directors of the enterprises. She implied that even those enterprises that were in private hands had changed. management. My interlocutor stated that this was done because of political reasons and that this was a wrong decision because all of the people were, indeed, people of high qualification and knew their jobs well.

Another of my interlocutors, from industrial Donbas, has the same gloomy vision. She bitterly complained that people in Donbas are hard-working and should not be compared with the lazy people in Kiev and West Ukraine. Indeed, when, during the Orange Revolution, they were engaged in endless demonstrations—and seemed to be paid for their political activities—while the people of Donbas continued to work. But now they were badly affected by changes. Unemployment is rising; and, for this reason, the level of crime in Donbas is much higher than in Kiev.

While the industrial base of Ukraine is in serious trouble—at least from the view of quite a few of those whom I met—Ukrainian agriculture seems to be past the point of no return. One of my distant relatives, a sturdy Ukrainian peasant in his early sixties, has a very gloomy picture of village life. According to him, there has been a dramatic decline along all fronts

Growing popularity of Yanukovich as a result of economic stagnation
Growing popularity of Yanukovich as a result of economic stagnation
Of most importance, at least from his point of view, is the problem with the basic infrastructure. Ukraine is not a dessert. Still, irrigation has played an important role in the South of the country. My relative travels extensively and testified that the irrigation has been destroyed; and he implied that he could hardly see a way that it could return to normal. While the collapse of the irrigation system could explain the problems with agriculture in some areas of Ukraine, it cannot explain all the problems with Ukrainian agriculture. Indeed, in most places in Ukraine irrigation is not needed. Still, it makes no difference; and quite a few places—at least if one believes my relative—look as if they had experienced the horrors of Civil War (1917-1921). Yet, today, it is not marauding bands of Red or White but a market economy that ruins Ukrainian agriculture. According to my relative, there is a lot of land that is not cultivated at all. The fields are abandoned and not because of bad soil, but because production of anything is unprofitable. The villagers have no money to hire machinery, for the price of everything, especially oil, has become prohibitively expensive. This is also a problem with selling their stuff, for their agricultural product is too expensive and noncompetitive in general. As a result, the villagers have only the amount required for personal needs. In fact, most of the villagers engage in a self-sufficient economy. They produce only the amount of food that they need for personal consumption, thus returning to the economic arrangements of the Middle Ages. For this reason, Ukrainian agriculture has suffered a dramatic decline from Soviet times. There were 300 cattle and a huge number of pigs in my relative’s village during the Soviet era. Only 30 pigs are left now.

Economic decay has followed the drastic decline of the quality of life. Medical services, for example, require money, and villagers can not afford it. Clubs and the library—the sort of communal centers during the Soviet era where people could gather to socialize and read––were closed. Drunkenness is rampant. As a matter of fact, the man’s 51-year-old wife had died from drunkenness. Still, for him, the abundance of alcohol was the major achievement of the regime; and he remembered with dread Gorbachev’s anti-alcoholic campaign.

For these reasons, privatization/de-collectivization—hailed by Western advisors as the road to high efficiency—has led to the opposite result, a mortal blow for Ukrainian agriculture. And the finishing process of de-collectivization, i.e., the transforming of the land into private land which could be sold, would just speed up the process of de-population and the further decline of Ukrainian villages. My relative stated that after the abandonment of Kolkhoz, he got a big piece of land but that he would be glad to sell it; and this desire is shared by quite a few of his neighbors. They simply need a law that would allow them to do so.

The state bureaucracy: between Europe and Russia

While the economic tribulation of Ukraine, especially serious problems with heavy industry and, in particular, agriculture, make her quite similar to Russia, Ukraine’s political culture is not identical to her Eastern neighbor. On one hand, Ukrainian bureaucracy/state machine as a sign of civilization that makes it quite different from what one can see in Russia. On the other hand, one cannot see the traits in the Ukrainian bureaucracy that can be easily equated with what one can see in the East.

The way the police/militia deals with the public is quite different from what one can see in Russia. In Kiev, one could always approach the local militia without fear. In Russia, I usually carried a passport, for the militia could ask you to show it. One of the participants of the political meeting told me that he was not afraid that his tents, which he abandoned during the night, would be stolen or vandalized. Moreover, he told me that the militia guarded his tents during his absence. Not only the militia but even the successor of the Soviet Secret Police (KGB) behaved in Ukraine quite differently than in Russia. In Russia, talking with representatives of the FSB, the Russian successor of the KGB, would have been a great problem. In Ukraine, it was not a problem. I tried to work in the archives of the former Soviet KGB. I was told that I needed to receive permission from Sluzhba Bespeki, the successor of the KGB in Ukraine. I waited not more than an hour, and the representative of Sluzhba Bespeki politely provided the needed information to me.

There were other symbols of Ukrainian authorities’ efforts to make Ukraine a Western-type society. There was, for example, descriptions in English, English translations of the names of scientific institutions and government offices on the doors. There were other signs of a civilized society: the absence of sexually explicit advertisements; politeness of the people, even of rough-looking youth; and there was an apparent respect for the elderly. A young man would help an elderly person to cross the street; and in subways,the young stand up to give seats to the old. The benefits for pensioners, such as free use of public transportation, which were abolished in Russia recently, were preserved; and the conductors of the city buses did not even ask old people to show their documents that proved that they, indeed, are eligible for a free ride. There was also a general concern about the convenience of the general public in the city; at least more so than in Moscow. For example, TV was installed in subway cars.

While there were signs that Ukraine, indeed, wanted to be a part of Western-type society, there were quite a few signs of the opposite. While in the capital, the bureaucracy, or at least part of it, tried to behave in a sort of civilized way, the story seems to be quite different in the provinces. And here the behavior of the local Ukrainian bureaucracy is not much different from that of the Russians and could mistreat defenseless folks mercilessly.

In 2005 GDP growth decreased to 2,6%,  compared with 12% in 2004
In 2005 GDP growth decreased to 2,6%, compared with 12% in 2004
Upon visiting the representatives of Sluzhba Bespeki, I saw a group of petitioners. “Are you German?” an elderly woman asked me. I told her that I am not, and we stuck up a conversation. She told me that she was an ethnic German and that her ancestors had lived in a small Ukrainian town for 200 years. In fact, this was proven by no one but the Office of Rosenberg; Rosenberg was a Nazi governor of Ukraine during WWII. She proudly displayed the copy of the document, which proved all of this. Other German documents dated from 1942, apparently from Rosenberg’s office, produced a detailed description of the town where she had lived, with the names and ethnicity of the residents. While her family had lived under the Nazi regime, she claimed they did not collaborate with them because they were dedicated Catholics and hardly appreciated the Nazi practices. Moreover, her mother had saved quite a few of the local Jews. Her older brother had served in the Red Army. Still, they were a subject of repression under the Soviet regime just because they were Germans. After the collapse of the USSR and up to the present, they still could not live in peace. And this was the reason why they were looking for justice. There were several reasons why they had trouble under the late Kuchma. One was that they wanted to vote for Yushchenko and could not stand the blatant falsification of elections which was orchestrated by Kuchman supporters who did their best to make Yanukovich president. It is clear that their political stand was one of the reasons why they were in conflict with the local authorities. Still, the most important reason was different. Their church and nearby cemetery had occupied a very nice piece of land, which was coveted by the local authorities who wanted to privatize the church and cemetery for their personal needs. The authorities had destroyed the church and desecrated some of the graves. She and other Catholic locals fiercely protested and organized picket lines. The authorities were infuriated. Here, they immediately recalled that they were ethnic Germans, and for that very reason were Nazis and threatened to kill her and her family. By threat, they pushed her to emigrate to Germany, which she did not want to do because she stated that she was Ukrainian; her ancestors had lived here for 200 years. At the same time, she took the threats of the local thugs seriously; and this was the reason why she had come here to Sluzhba Bespeki asking for protection. She also sent a fax to the German embassy. She told me that Germany had sent money to help the local Germans, but all of this money was usually stolen by the bureaucracy.

In the provinces, the Ukrainian bureaucracy seems often to behave without restraint. In the capital, these cases of arbitrariness are not as widespread but still not uncommon.

I asked the man who sold coffee on the streets about rackets. He stated that this was the case in the early 1990s but now all of this had disappeared because the authorities had put in prison all of these criminals; and he praised the local militia. He implied that the militia might ask for “donations.” But when he found out that I am from the USA he did not elaborate.

The bureaucracy’s treatment of the general public was also sometimes quite similar to what I saw in Russia. My encounter with Kievan archives could serve here as an example, In most archives, the employees were quite cordial and helpful. However, this was not always the case.

I had visited the Manuscript Division of the National Library with expectations of the same cordial treatment that I have experienced in other Kievan archives. The archivist looking at my American passport exclaimed that it was a great honor that their archive was visited by an American professor, especially one who was born in Kiev and who visited the place of his birth after more than 30 years of absence. She accepted my passport and the letter of introduction from my university; and I soon found the documents that were of interest to me. When I requested them, she all of a sudden abruptly told me that she could not hand over the documents because my letter of introduction did not have an official seal. I told her than in American universities no seal is usually attached to a document and that the seal would not change anything in the nature of my letter. Still, she was adamant and showed me letters from other foreign archivists that had the required seal. She added with almost a sadistic smile that I could go to the American embassy and the Ambassador could put the state seal on my letter. After this, I could surely be admitted to the archive. The woman definitely took a sort of sadistic pleasure in treating me in such a way.

The Ukrainian army, similar to that of most Russian armed forces, is hardly a viable institution. My relative stated that the army was absolutely rotten. The people who had an education or where physically fit tried to avoid the army, which absorbed the worse human material. It seems that quite a few Ukrainian soldiers have no desire to fight for the cause and others who see only the incentive to fight––cash. This idea was conveyed to me by one of my relatives with whom I discussed the various international events, including the Ukrainian/American relationship and the war in Iraq. He was quite critical of the war.

Still, he believed that the Americans should have no problems hiring Ukrainians as soldiers if the money would go in their pockets, not in the pockets of Ukrainian generals. Thus, he was convinced that he believed that there was no other force to inspire the soldiers as well as cash, and he had no doubt that Ukrainians would be indestructible if they would be paid well.


Thus, Ukraine is deeply divided. And this division is not just between regions, West versus East but goes much deeper in the political culture of the country. And Ukraine’s geographical/geopolitical position just reinforces it. One could assume that this Ukrainian ambivalence would not change radically in the near future, regardless of all the political turmoil that could befall the country.