Ukraine update

It’s been a while since I posted anything new on this blog. Since I’ve just returned (to western Europe, at least) from a trip to Ukraine, and since I’ve had a few requests to share my impressions, here they are. This is not a scholarly analysis, and it avoids the vigorous debates going on among political and sociological observers — which, from the outside, may appear as “glass half full, glass half empty” polemics. It is just a general overview rooted in my years of visiting this country. 

When I first visited Ukraine 27 years ago, as a grad student and Canada-USSR Scholar, people looked downtrodden, store shelves were empty, everyone spoke Russian and looked at me with puzzlement or even disdain when I spoke to them in Ukrainian (which happened to be my mother tongue, spoken in my house when I was growing up in Toronto). Behind closed doors, they were friendly, gracious, curious (if sometimes cautious), and they pulled out all the stops for visitors (as far as food and drink goes, anyway). I was a poor grad student, but I had western currency with which I could go into the western currency store (which most Ukrainians didn’t know about or weren’t allowed to enter) and buy ground coffee (it was Nescafe), which they appreciated as gifts.

Kyїv (then “Kiev”) was a bedraggled late-Soviet city, and the rest of the country was worse: alcoholism ran rampant, shelves were often emptier than empty. I remember whole shelves of nothing but pickles in small town grocery stores. But a lot was changing — 1989 to 1991 were perhaps the most exhilarating years for those who were excited by the prospect of change — but hopes weren’t really supported by any detailed conceptions of how to do things differently, and there was certainly trepidation about the road ahead. Media was monotone and press freedoms nonexistent, but new forms of organization, both for protest and for self and collective expression, were emerging spontaneously and becoming powerful. That was exciting.

I’ve visited almost ten times since then. And despite the wild oscillations of Ukrainian politics — the carve-up of state resources among clans of oligarchs followed by struggles among rival groups, the mass mobilizations and street revolutions of 2004 and 2014, a war with Russia on the country’s eastern border — I’ve seen a fairly steady drift toward western “developed country” norms, with the same kinds of opportunities (too many of them to mention) but also the same kinds of problems — grotesque wealth gaps exacerbated by neoliberal economic policies, political corruption, overdevelopment, revanchist right wing populism, and the like — as anywhere else.

Kyїv today — that’s now the officially recommended spelling, transliterated from Ukrainian rather than Russian, and sounding like a two-syllable version of “cave” (“cay-eve,” rhyming with “naïve”) — really does feel like a normal western city. People are busy but, for the most part, the ones I met seemed more optimistic and forward looking than in the past. They still complain about their politicians, but less than at any time I remember.

They read. Bookstores are busy and full of books in translation, from pop bestsellers by Elizabeth Gilbert and Ayn Rand (yuk) to the collected writings of Noam Chomsky, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. (I look for the latter kinds of things, so my perception might be skewed; I don’t know how widely read they are, but at least they are available.) Language isn’t an issue anymore: I heard as much Ukrainian spoken as Russian in Kyїv, and books by Ukrainian language authors are now front and center on store shelves, not hidden away like a minority taste.

There’s fast food, great food, fast cars (still too many, but not as overbearingly so as in the pre-Maidan heyday of nouveau riche conspicuousness), traffic jams, rampant development, shopping malls, and all the rest. Restaurants are as good as anywhere. The media landscape is pluralistic and lively (if still not always a safe occupation). And best of all, for a western tourist, the value of the Hryvnia is so low now that one can spend almost nothing for most things you’d want. That’s not great for most of the locals, but people in Kyїv mostly seem to work, buy things, and live what appear to be middle class(ish) lives. Twenty-seven years ago, that had been a dream for many.

Beyond mere “normality,” Kyїv is also an extremely lively and “happening” city, with extraordinary things to do. Art galleries are busy: the Art Arsenal, the largest contemporary art gallery in the country, had a massive and masterfully curated exhibition of poster art from the last few centuries. The Pinchuk Art Gallery, named after the oligarch who took the Rockefeller route (unlike his peers), was showing a powerful exhibit of work by Christian Boltanski, Jenny Holzer, and Berlinde De Bruyckere on the theme of Baby Yar (Kyїv’s infamous Holocaust site), and a detailed and enlightening exhibition on the early 1990s Kyїv art group “Paryzhska Komuna,” named after the squat on Paris Commune Street where many of them had lived. The Molodist Film Festival was showing art films from around the world attended by an audience that looked little different from audiences at film festivals in Toronto or Los Angeles.

The intellectuals I hung out with were eager to collaborate, as they have always been, but now are doing things I can envy (like the Visual Culture Research Center’s “School of Kyїv” city-wide arts biennale of last year). Urban ecology movements are alive and well and have even had some successes, with mid-level bureaucrats apparently more receptive to their arguments than in the past. Sexual minorities have attained some rights (so I hear), if only on paper. Progress, judged by the standards of liberal democratic (and sometimes, but more rarely, social democratic) expectations, may be slow and fitful, but since the last time I visited, well before the Maidan revolution, I think I saw a fair bit of it.

All of that said, I only visited Kyїv, the 3- going on 4-million strong capital and center of wealth, and (briefly) Lviv, western Ukraine’s largest city which with its beautifully renovated historic city center (a UNESCO World Heritage site) has become a tourist magnet. So my conversations with “average people” — let alone with southerners and easterners — were limited. The rest of the country is certainly not as well off. People who aren’t part of the middle class work hard, still drink hard, and might not make ends meet.

And that’s not to mention the war in the southeast, which people are very well aware of, and which takes its toll on the psyche and, I fear, on cultural politics in the country. That solutions to the latter don’t seem imminent also means that economically things aren’t likely to get better quickly either.

If the upshot sounds like “glass half full,” you can fill in the empty parts yourself.

 

Note: My trip included talks at Lviv’s Ukrainian Catholic University (on ecological humanities and the anthropocene) and at Kyїv’s Visual Culture Research Center (on Chernobyl, anthropocenic disaster zones, and visual culture), a visit to the Chernobyl “zone” (first time in 26 years that I’ve been there), and about as much else as I could fit into eight days. As I continue to work on things related to Ukraine, it’s possible this blog will become more active again, albeit with less of a Maidan focus. Stay tuned, if you’re interested.

16 Responses to “Ukraine update”

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  3. When I first visited Ukraine 27 years ago, as a grad student and Canada-USSR Scholar, people looked downtrodden, store shelves were empty, everyone spoke Russian and looked at me with puzzlement or even disdain when I spoke to them in Ukrainian (which happened to be my mother tongue, spoken in my house when I was growing up in Toronto). Behind closed doors, they were friendly, gracious, curious (if sometimes cautious freelancer tips), and they pulled out all the stops for visitors (as far as food and drink goes, anyway). I was a poor grad student, but I had western currency with which I could go into the western currency store (which most Ukrainians didn’t know about or weren’t allowed to enter) and buy ground coffee (it was Nescafe), which they appreciated as gifts.

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  11. Interesting observations. Thanks for sharing your perspective on the changes of the past 27+ years.

  12. Good to hear from you.

  13. Finally you are back.. I was waiting for a long time.. and Thanks for posting an update..

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