As I write this from a typical “Stolovaya” in downtown Kiev, Ukraine, I realize that I’ve developed an addiction to this country. Out of the 85 or so countries that I’ve stepped foot in my life, Ukraine is the only country that I have returned to no less than five times in the past five years. Of course, this isn’t just any country: I was born here. And in 1989, while the Soviet Union was breaking up into 15 different countries, I left my homeland and immigrated to America.
I first returned to Ukraine in the summer of 2011. After spending many years living in America and Latin America, returning to this part of the world was a truly surreal experience. Suddenly, everyone around me was speaking my native language, and I no longer needed to master a new foreign language like countless times before. Language is the gateway to culture, so it’s extremely rewarding to connect with the people in ways that you cannot if you don’t speak the local language.
Although I viewed Ukraine as a developing country, I never considered it to be poor. The word “poor” has always been reserved for places in Africa or Central Asia. Perhaps it’s also a result of living in the “developing” countries in Latin America. Countries like Colombia, Argentina and Brazil aren’t exactly as rich as America or Australia, but they’re very comfortable places to live.
Sure, you may not have some of the nicer amenities that Western countries take for granted like two-day Amazon shipping or on-demand food for your pet, but you’re still blessed with the standard stuff you need to survive: functioning infrastructure, good public roads, reliable public transport, running water (potable in Medellin), gas and electricity.
Still, putting a country like Ukraine in the same league as other “developing” countries like Colombia and Brazil isn’t correct either. The latter just feel richer than the former. In fact, when I lived in US, I knew many Colombian and Brazilian immigrants who repatriated to their respective homelands, but I’ve yet to meet anyone in America or another highly developed country who voluntarily returned to Ukraine or Russia. (Someone like me who’s making dollars and then spending them in the cheap local currency doesn’t count).
When Ukraine was part of the mighty USSR, it was considered “the breadbasket of Soviet Union” because of the sheer amount of wheat it produced. (Yes, the bread is really good here.) But that’s where its fortunes end. Unlike Russia, which is blessed with massive amount of important natural resources (e.g., gas and oil), Ukraine’s only advantage is geographical: it mainly serves as a buffer between its mighty eastern neighbor and Europe.
Another reason I didn’t realize that Ukraine is so poor is because I was mostly a fly-by-tourist, a foreigner—not a local. I arrived, rented a nice (and usually overpriced) apartment smack in the center, took taxis around town to coffee shops and ate at nice restaurants. I almost never viewed things from a local’s perspective.
On the other hand, if you have the misfortune of being a local, things are tough. Ukraine is poor. Really poor. The country hasn’t been stable for the past decade, but things really accelerated after the Maidan revolution in 2014. Not long after the—as some would call undemocratic and unconstitutional—change of power, several crucial things occurred: annexation of Crimea by Russia, a war in the eastern part of the country, and a devaluation of the currency, hryvnia, from a fixed 8 units to the dollar to around 29 (as of this writing).
Let’s talk economics. As someone who’s making dollars, I’ve found the capital, Kiev, to be one of the cheapest cities I’ve ever been to. I used to think that Latin America was pretty cheap. And, indeed, coming from overpriced places like San Francisco (where I lived for ten years) and New York City (where I also lived for ten years), Latin American cities are very cheap. But Ukraine is on a completely different level of cheapness altogether.
In the capital, Kiev, an Uber taxi ride is about half the price of a NYC subway ride. I can have a packed three-course lunch for the same price as a small sandwich in a Brooklyn bakery. A decent one-bedroom apartment costs a bit more than monthly Brazilian Jiu Jitsu membership in a good Manhattan school (hint: it’s about ten times less expensive than a comparable apartment in San Francisco).
That means that someone like me can enjoy a pretty great world city on a very comfortable budget, but for a typical local who’s earning $150-300 per month (the average salary in the capital, they’re much lower in the smaller cities), their options are severely limited, considering that all of that money would been eaten by rent.
The chief problem has been the collapse of the currency. In dollar terms, the currency has dropped more 3.5 times. Imagine having $3,500 in the bank which overnight turned into $1,000 without you even touching it. To be sure: you’re still paying for stuff in the local currency, so you still have similar purchasing power for locally produced goods, but anything that’s priced in dollars or euros (e.g., vacations to Italy, pair of Levis jeans, BMWs) is suddenly 3.5x more expensive.
Essentially, people are still working the same jobs, working the same hours, doing the same things, but are now getting three and a half times less income in return. That’s nothing less than a destruction of the cost of living.
Politicians are blaming the currency devaluation on “Russia’s aggression” and the ensuing war in the eastern part of the country. And while wars are such crucial events that they can be blamed for any instability in the country, it’s hard to buy this argument because a collapsed standard of living represents many insidious benefits as well. For one, it’s a wet dream of big corporations anywhere. They can hire labor and pay them a lot less money for essentially the same amount of work. That’s just a couple of levels above slavery.
One of the major themes of Ukraine’s post-independence history has been the severing of the country’s relationship with Russia (both economically and culturally) and the closer integration of the country towards the disparate collection of states called European Union.
The “Orange revolution” in 2004 was a peaceful event which signalled the initial power shift from the pro-Russian factions to the pro-European factions. Ten years later, the (more violent) Maidan revolution permanently cemented the pro-European position. Although there’s an opposition party in the parliament (every democratic government has one), there won’t be any kind of close relations with Russia anytime soon.
Politics is always a means to a some economic end. And the name of the game is the integration of Ukraine into Europe. Integration is a nice word, but did anyone bother to look up what this “integration” actually means? I have. And what it really means is that the country will be cut up into small pieces and then auctioned off to the highest bidder. Open borders mean people (i.e., the labor force) will leave the country and migrate to richer countries like Germany or UK, which is something that has happened to the Baltic countries (see how many Lithuanians live in London). The country will also be gutted of its natural resources.
Trade makes a lot of sense when both parties benefit. But the fact of the matter is that Europe doesn’t need much from Ukraine. Everything that Ukraine makes, Europe already knows how to make better and more efficiently. Europe (and America) only want two things from Ukraine: cheap labor and control of the land to serve as a buffer zone between EU and Russia. (The latter is more important than the former).
Many locals told me that Ukraine is being deforested with the wood being sold to Turkey at a steep discount, which then makes furniture and sells the finished product back to Ukraine for a nice premium. This doesn’t benefit Ukraine at all. In fact, it’s the kind of mercantilist relationship that was common between Spain and Portugal and their South American colonies.
Since I was so insulated from the locals, I didn’t realize that the country is experiencing a mass exodus. It’s one of those things that you don’t know until you start talking to people and asking the right questions. It all comes down to basic economics: getting a well-paying job is extremely difficult if not outright impossible here: unlike a richer place like New York or London, there’s just not enough capital and money to go around.
One option is to quit the measly paying 9-5 and start your own business. When you become your own boss and control your financial destiny, your income possibilities become limitless. The problem is that building a business in Ukraine requires a certain level of toughness and ruthlessness that few people possess. This isn’t America where you have the complete rule of law on your side. Things can be quite “unpredictable” for business owners here.
Thus, your other options are to either continue living on a meager income, live in modest conditions, or pack up and immigrate to a richer country where working in the same profession will afford you a nicer apartment/house in a nice city, a car, and many other amenities that Westerners take completely for granted.
So, why suffer in a country drowning in corruption when you can have a much higher level of living elsewhere?
While men typically don’t need much and can survive in the most rugged and minimalist conditions, women are always trying to see if there’s a way they can do better. Easily half of the women I met here in Kiev are eager to escape to the West—or pretty much anywhere where there are more opportunities—at all costs.
A solid strategy is to marry a Western man with the hope of beginning a new life in the Land of The Free. Another option is to move to a Western country on a tourist visa and then stay there illegally. When I lived in Brooklyn, NY, I’ve met a good share of young Ukrainian (and Russian) women working all kinds of odd jobs. I knew for a fact that lots of them were in the country illegally.
It certainly says a lot about the country when its vast female population is desperate to escape anyway it can.
Ukraine is one of the few countries that I’ve been to where I experienced this level of desperation. I didn’t feel this in Brazil, Argentina and other Latin American countries. I also didn’t feel it in Lithuania, another former Soviet Union republic. I suppose another country with a similarly dire situation is Belarus, a closed off country that’s probably even poorer than Ukraine; Russia is a bit richer with a higher standard of living, so its level of desperation isn’t as high as Ukraine’s.
That businessman who is making good money, but is dealing with mountains of red tape and tough-looking guys in black leather jackets coming over for “protection” is dreaming of moving to Australia and scaling his business there. That talented software engineer who’s making $300/month is dreaming of working for Google and making $10,000/month while living in sunny Silicon Valley. That beautiful girl is cringing at the prospect of having her kids grow up here, and would much rather raise them in EU or America where they’ll have much more opportunities and actually become someone.
The question I keep asking myself as I walk the wide boulevards of Kiev: whose fault is it? Who is responsible for the country’s current mess? Who can fix these problems?
The first answer is communism. As a country which was entirely isolated from the West for many years, and whose economy was entirely controlled by state planning, its industries never had a chance to develop to the level of their Western counterparts. They either made lots of stuff that nobody needed (and had to be thrown out) or made little of stuff that people did need (food, etc).
When communism collapsed and Ukraine became an independent country, it desperately needed to trade with others; state planning and Soviet trade block were a thing of the past. It suddenly found itself as an island surrounded by stronger trade partners on all sides (EU in the West and Russia in the East). Because its economy was so weak and undeveloped, it didn’t really have strong leverage and couldn’t negotiate a strong trade position. This naturally lead to its being exploited by other stronger countries. It was like a little baby who was abandoned by its parents and needed to survive in the tough streets.
But pointing fingers at the country’s past isn’t fair either; communism collapsed more than 25 years ago, and many countries (e.g., Baltic states) have successfully transformed themselves into prospering Western economies. I spent more than two years living in Lithuania, and I can attest that it’s a fantastic place to live and work. It truly feels “European” in every sense of the term.
The leaders of the country share the blame too. Ukraine is the most corrupt place in Europe. As they say, the fish rots from the head. That means everyone and everything below the president, all government organizations, are complicit in heavy corruption in one way or another.
Politicians must take responsibility for the war. No country needs a war, and a poor country teetering on bankruptcy like Ukraine needs it the least. If the politicians wanted, they could’ve negotiated a peace settlement that ended the war yesterday. They could’ve also avoided starting the war in the first place. The fates of the thousands of soldiers and their families are firmly in their hands. They decide the direction of the country. They decide how many lives are needlessly lost.
But there’s also a third party to blame as well: people. With communism long gone, and Ukraine being a democratic country, it’s ultimately the people who decide the country’s future. They vote for the president and members of the parliament. And, failing that, they can always take to the streets and demand reforms or a new government altogether as they did in 2004 and 2014. Corruption can only be so widespread at all levels of government and society if the people themselves believe that “it’s how the world works” and that corruption greases the wheels of the government.
Many locals have told me that it will take a generation or two before the country develops a new mentality, one that will force the government to become more transparent and less corrupt.
Streets of despair
As I walk around the snowy streets of Kiev, I can’t help but have an eery feeling. It’s as though the country is coming apart at the seams. There’s a worry and uncertainty in the air. The liveliness and vitality that was present during my earlier visits is notably absent.
Many questions cannot be easily answered. Will the currency continue to drop more and more? Will the war escalate? Will the financing from the Western countries in the form of debt dry up?
All of this shows a lot of uncertainty. The currency devaluation, the crisis and a lot of this other mess is far from some accident. It isn’t far-fetched to think that the currency devaluation was masterfully timed with the war. It’s classic capitalism: a small number of rich people is getting filthy rich at the expense of the rest 99% of the population.
If this was a random country in Africa, I wouldn’t really care. And who knows, there are probably many countries in Africa that are suffering from an unimaginable level of poverty. But this isn’t Africa. This is Europe. Even though I haven’t really lived here for many years, it’s the only country out of the 85 or so I’ve visited where things just click. It could be because I’m a local who speaks the language. It also could be something special about the people and culture as attested by countless foreign expats who have been living here for many years.
There are also bright spots on the horizon. The war seems to have subsided somewhat. Experts are saying that the currency has bottomed out, especially with the expected infusion of cash from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a sort of an international bank that lends money to troubled economies.
Most importantly, I’m noticing a younger generation resembling the Westerners in their creativity, productivity, and, most importantly, mindset. This means that in 10 or 20 years, this will be a very difficult country that it is today, a country that will have nothing in common with its communist past nor (hopefully) corrupt present. After all, Ukraine has one of the highly educated populations in the former Soviet Union. There are lots of scientists, engineers and technicians with advanced degrees. It’s my hope they’ll put their talents to work in this country and not somewhere else.
As a location-independent nomad, I should be bouncing around the world. It’s what I do. One friend suggested I hit up Bosnia. Another told me to visit Cuba before it gets polluted by American weekend tourists and McDonalds on every block. There’s also Burma which is gradually growing as an up-and-coming destination but without being developed as its next door neighbor Thailand. And then there’s Brazil, a magical country where I lived for two years, that’s whispering sweet somethings in my ears.
But as strange as it sounds, I’m here in cloudy and snowy Kiev, and I have very little reason to be elsewhere—even when it’s -30C degrees outside, and every day I’m fighting hard to avoid a stepping into a three foot pile of snow, while being surrounded by old, crumbling and decaying Soviet-era buildings. The other 84 countries seem like a world away.
As I sit in this Soviet-era “stolovaya” and eat my delicious “borsch,” I’m eagerly following developments and seeing how everything unfolds. Because from where I’m currently standing, it certainly can’t get any worse.
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