Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Divided Yet United

The popular narrative when Ukraine is being discussed in Western media is about an east/west divide between the Russophile east and the Europhile west. As generalisations go it's pretty accurate: there is indeed a split between an ethnically Russian, industrial (with the smokestacks to prove it), richer, urban east and the Ukrainian, agrarian, poorer, rural west. (Interestingly though, the west of Ukrainian is the only part that isn't undergoing a demographic meltdown as low birth rates and high death rates in the east are leading to Ukraine having a significant population decline - in the top 5 in the world according to the UN.) This was highlighted in recent years by the so-called Orange Revolution and the subsequent political crises and falling outs with Russia, followed by the return to power of the pro-Russian faction last year. Although the political factions may seem very different at first glance, all Ukrainians I have spoken to, regardless of background, are united in their mistrust and disgust for them and mainly regard them as varying shades of shit. The problem is corruption that permeates through all levels of bureaucracy, from the humblest pen-pusher right to the very top. Everybody is in it to line their own pockets irrespective of the knock-on effects. I've heard from people that in order to secure a civil service job it is not uncommon to slip a small envelope worth five times the annual salary, with the expectation to recoup the capital investment through kickbacks. The people with the power to do something about this sad state of affairs i.e. the politicians, are also the ones who profit most. One example is Yulia Tymoshenko, one-time leader of the Orange Revolution and ex-Prime Minister, who tries to portray herself as an ordinary woman of the people, living in a simple house in Dnipropetrovsk, despite, in fact, being one of the richest women in the country thanks to some dodgy energy deals in the 90s. They would rather remain big fish in a small pond, and jealously guard their interests, rather than letting the country open up and flourish. It's a crying shame as I doubt that I have yet seen a country that is so underperforming to its true potential: an abundance of natural resources and an educated and cheap workforce right next to the biggest single market in the world. The country should be raking it in.
The giant statue of Lenin in Kharkiv's central square still dominates. He is perhaps one of the figures both Ukrainians and Russians feel a similar affection towards.
From what I can gather (though I would love to get the viewpoint of somebody on the inside, especially from a Russian perspective) it's a case of a clash of nationalisms: the Ukrainians want to assert their identity and make a break from Russian influence by imposing their language as the only official one. This doesn't take into account the "reality on the ground" whereby a large number of people are Russian and would like their language recognised (a significant number of ethnic Ukrainians also have Russian as their first language). The weird thing for me though is that Russian-speakers generally say that they don't understand Ukrainian and that the two are not mutually intelligible, but I have difficulties telling them apart, and when I see them both written down side by side the differences seem to me to be very minimal indeed. Be that as it may, on the Russian side I also feel there is perhaps also this desire to be part of a Great Nation, one that is listened to and makes its presence felt on the world stage, such as Russia now, or its Imperialist and Soviet incarnations. It is this ambivalence to the Soviet past that has jarred the most with me whilst here. Most people do not want to go back to it, but then again they do not see it as a totally bad time either (and particularly amongst the older generations there is a certain nostalgia towards the security afforded by the collectivist system), despite the deportations, Holodomor, repression and other privations. In Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany as soon as Communism fell its outward symbols - street and place names, statues, plaques, etc. - were speedily removed. Here most towns still not only have a Lenin Street or Square, but also Lenin monuments and various other Communist street furniture, and hammers and sickles still abound on plenty of public buildings.
Despite these internal political divides, there are still many things that unite Ukrainians: a love for strong liquor, genuine hospitality (often these two are strongly linked - see below) beautiful women and suspect fashion among them. For many Ukrainian men there is no such thing as too early for having a drink and, especially in bus stations in remoter corners of the country, the familiar waft of alcohol breath is not uncommon at any time of day (following the old maxim that "if you stay drunk you can't have a hangover"). In such a state Ukrainians are expansive and gregarious to excess and will not take "no" (or нет) for an answer. On one such occasion an older guy, slightly worse for wear for drink, accosted me on the evening bus to Sharhorod. After latching onto me he offered to let me sleep at his place, an offer I reluctantly accepted i.e. after saying no a dozen times in various ways I just thought it would be easier to go along with him that to refuse. His house ended up being in a forgotten little village half an hour away from town (his son gave us a lift) and he wouldn't let me go to sleep without a couple of shots of vodka (the brand was called Khlebny Dar, or "Bready Gift" - not confidence-inspiring). The next morning as I was preparing to get the first bus out of town at 7am he insisted I have another couple for the road. Luckily his long-suffering wife came in at that point and started giving him an earful, which provided me the opportunity to slip away uninebriated. I was thankful for the experience though, as it gave me a warts-and-all glimpse of village life, far removed from the hustle and bustle of bigger towns and from the corrupting influence of paved roads.
Ukrainian women are also legendary for their beauty with the false, or so I thought, stereotype of the mail-order bride. So I was surprised to find on the In Your Pocket guide to Kiev (as close as you'll get to an "official" guide) multiple adverts for bridal agencies catering for all tastes and pockets. Being a bride is seen as a legitimate career option by many Ukrainian women (though, given the opportunities, it may not be that unreasonable) which means that many women here are incredibly groomed, preened and attired. High heels are de rigeur, regardless of pavement quality, or lack thereof (seeing many of these women totter around on improbable heels makes me wince in sympathy), tight, figure-hugging hipsters abound as does peroxide and industrial amounts of foundation. Tied in with this is the popular pastime of posing for photographs. Every park and scenic spot in Ukraine is cluttered with women posing, breasts jutting, heads tilted back and legs alluringly crossed as their boyfriends (although sometimes also girlfriends will suffice, should a boyfriend not be at hand, in which case they will usually switch photo-taking duties) snap away. I imagine their photo albums at home are full of pictures featuring the same pose with alternating backgrounds. Although the practice is quite odd to me I've begun comparing it with the western extreme where a lot of women are unhappy with their body image and refuse to have their photos taken, no matter the circumstances. Perhaps this Ukrainian version of unabashedly strutting one's stuff, irrespective of what it really looks like, is perhaps psychologically healthier (though I imagine some happy medium would be best). At least people here are content with their bodies and just let it hang loose (sometimes a bit too much for my tastes, especially the older guys who don't mind a pint or four).
A Ukrainian women in the typical walk-in-the-park pose.

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