Ukraine presented two faces, like those ancient Greek masks, when we were there in October: smiling toward western Europe on one side and toward Russia and the east on the other. Now, the country seems to hurtling toward a decision about which direction it really wants to go.
It is not going to be an easy road, either way, as the growing public demonstrations are showing.
We traveled from Odessa and Yalta on the Black Sea in the south to Kiev in the north, exploring much the country. Everyone we spoke with along the way was frustrated with the situation in the country. After 21 years of independence from the Soviet Union, the economy still was struggling and people were finding it difficult to make a living.
Everyone was equal under the Soviets, but some were more equal than others – as George Orwell pointed out. This class system still seems to prevail in Ukraine, with a minority thriving but the majority struggling. Some of the younger people seem better able to cope with the changing world. They have both the energy and the skills to meet the demands of a free market. Older men and women have, for the most part, been left behind. They are the ones we saw in menial jobs or behind tables and stands trying to sell souvenirs to tourists – sometimes, still, their own possessions. However, we also encountered young men who seemed restless and angry because they weren’t able to get a start on the ladder upward.
Some of the displays of merchandise that we saw reflected the schizophrenic attitudes of many people there. It was hard to know if they were glorifying the Soviet days or condemning them, if they were eager to embrace the West or afraid of it. Tee shirts, posters, memorabilia, art works, often gave mixed messages. Even in the National History Museum, the exhibits seemed to veer between points of view.
Most of those under forty want to embrace the West, join the European Union, abandon the patronage of Russia. To them western Europe means progress, hope for the future, the freedom to lead their own economic lives. They don’t want to be either beholden to or restrained by old ties to Russia. They also see the EU as way to escape the corruption still plaguing their country. They hope for a stable currency and fair wages once they become part of Europe. Above all, they yearn for a government that will respect them.
Some older Ukrainians, however, fear the West, its materialistic values and lack of morality. In Kiev, we saw a parade of priests and nuns and Orthodox Church followers marching on the main boulevard, carrying banners and passing out leaflets condemning homosexuality. As the New York Times recently reported, conservatives there worry about “European” values and equate the EU with loose living and perversion.
However, memories are long in this part of the world. Russia, after all, dominated the Soviet Union. It was there that the decisions were made that crippled the Ukrainian economy so that it would never become powerful enough to exist independently. And it was there where Stalin instigated the great famine of 1932-33, demanding that all Ukrainian grain be sold abroad to support industrialization elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Everywhere, people reminded us that more than seven million peasants, mostly children, starved to death in one year.
People also pointed out that when it was clear that the Soviet Union was collapsing the Ukraine Communist Party bosses were the first to personally embrace the free market and privatization of business and industry. As a result, some Ukrainians today definitely are more equal than others. This probably is why we saw clusters of big black cars and the husky men dressed in black who invariably came with them, while other people rode old buses and trams or drove ancient Soviet Ladas that were a joke 30 years ago. This is why we saw middle-aged and old women raking leaves in parks, standing guard in museums, scrubbing floors, peddling bottled water and cigarettes, and offering their old treasures for sale.
The Ukrainian people have been patient for two decades. It seems that the time for patience is finished. I hope that the men and women we met and talked with will find better lives as a result.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press.
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