And now for some less reflective, more pertinent thoughts on my recent trip to Ukraine (if you want the reflection and emotion, check out this recent post):
Several of you have expressed interest in knowing what it was like to be in Ukraine during this critical time in her history. Thus, below (nicely organized in bolded headings so you can skip to what interests you) are my impressions on the political situation unfolding in Ukraine. Before skipping ahead though, a couple of prefaces: 1) I was in Western Ukraine (not in the East, not in Kyiv, not in Crimea), and 2) the part of Ukraine I recently revisited has always been very patriotic and European/westward looking.
Finally, if you have any specific questions, post them below, and I’ll be happy to answer them, or to find an answer for us both!
Initial thoughts on how it felt to be in Ukraine:
Honestly, everything felt really normal. Daily life in the west, apart from an increase in the number of flags flying and a prevalence of political adds on television and on billboards, seems relatively unchanged. For the most part, life was going on as normal.
On my rides through Lviv, to and from the airport, and to and from my town of Sosnivka, I did see a lot of political ads. This is of course to be expected as, if all goes as planned, Ukraine elects a new president May 25th. I saw at least one billboard featuring Klichko’s face and muscular frame, a television ad promoting Yulia Tymoshenko and her iconic blond braids. More than anyone, though, I saw Petro Poroshenko’s face plastered everywhere. He’s the wealthy owner of Ukraine’s most profitable sweets company, Roshen, whose ubiquitous candies, cakes, and chocolates are in every shop and home in Ukraine. Also, although I don’t particularly remember seeing his ads, some people I talked to mentioned Oleg Lyashko as the candidate they favored.
One small difference I noticed on this trip was the prevalence of flags everywhere. On the streets of Lviv, they were all over the place: in shops, out people’s windows, and in restaurants. Many people also had ribbons tied to purses and bags.
How the west views the east:
The knowledge that the extreme west of Ukraine is an entirely different world from the extreme east has always been a part of Ukrainian mentality (in my experience). The east is more industrial, more Russian speaking, generally more Russian leaning, and more metropolitan. The west tends to be more Ukrainian speaking, more patriotic and nationalistic, more rural, and more EU/westward looking. These differences were even manifest in a sort of friendly rivalry between western placed Peace Corps Volunteers and eastern ones.
Thus, the divide between these regions of Ukraine has always been prevalent; now they are simply heightened and more frequently discussed. One thing that I do think has changed is the emotion associated with this divide in regional ideology and culture. During my time as a Volunteer, I felt that western Ukrainians tended to view themselves as more modern and even slightly superior for looking towards a European future rather than a Russian one. Now however, that sense of pride seems to have been replaced by a sense of sadness. Western Ukrainians didn’t seem angry or mad about what was happening in the east. They didn’t seem proud that this was not taking place in the west. Mostly, they just seemed saddened by the whole situation; all anyone really seems to want is to put rivalry aside, agree on peace, and resolve differences with calm.
Who are the separatists?
In international media, the separatists in eastern Ukraine (those occupying government buildings, staging protests, causing violence, etc.) seem to be viewed as possible Russians who have infiltrated Ukraine. However, everyone I talked to in Ukraine had no doubt in their minds that the separatists are definitely Russians who have come from Russia specifically to incite discord. There is no question. In the opinion of western Ukrainians, the separatists in the East are definitely Russians, and not Ukrainians.
Ukrainians told me time and again how they know that media outlets in Russia have been misrepresenting Ukraine’s situation and struggles. They told me that in Russia, Ukraine is being portrayed as a dangerous place for ethnic Russians. People in Russia believe that all over Ukraine, ethnic Russians and Russian speakers are being killed.
An anecdote regarding this: One of my old students moved to Russia about a year ago. A couple of months ago she revisited Sosnivka for visa/passport renewal reasons. After arriving and settling in, she told her old friends in Sosnivka that before coming, she was very scared to go back to Ukraine. She’d been hearing on the news about violence against Russians taking place, and she was scared of violence and hate being inflicted upon her. Obviously, this fear was unfounded. There is no such violence happening to my knowledge.
Other former students told me that in contact with friends and family living in Russia, they have discovered that certain youtube videos showing events on EuroMaidan and in eastern Ukraine are blocked and cannot be watched from computers using Russian IP addresses.
Ukraine wonders what the rest of the world sees:
Most Ukrainians don’t have habitual contact with people living outside of Ukraine (and if they do it is family living in Russia, where many Ukrainians immigrate for work). Thus everyone was very curious to hear what I knew and what I had seen on the news regarding events on EuroMaidan and in the east. People seemed surprised that I knew what was going on, that I wasn’t being fed false information, and that news was not being repressed in other countries as it is in Russia.
How people feel about Americans:
When I lived in Ukraine before, Obama seemed to celebrate star status among Ukrainians. People were enthralled with him in a positive way. On this trip, I did hear quite a few negative comments. Several friends told me to chastise him when I get back to the States and to tell him to hurry up and stand up to Russia and help Ukraine. He is definitely viewed a bit negatively at the moment.
“Everybody knows someone”
One of the direct quotes I remember a friend saying is that “everybody knows someone” who has directly taken part in protests, rallies, etc. Even in my far-flung little western town, everybody has a cousin, a friend, a neighbor, someone who has been to Kyiv or to the East to participate in ongoing events promoting movement towards the EU. And in the west, they are all very proud of this.
A touch of sadness:
Volunteers always used to talk about how Ukraine was almost making it on the world stage. They were so close to being a part of the western, developed world. But for one reason or another, something was always holding the country back. We would discuss this with a sort of melancholy, sadness, and disappointment. I never felt this sentiment reflected in Ukrainian counterparts until this trip. People seemed to feel a certain sense of disappointment in their own country, which is something I never remember sensing before.
I kept asking what people felt and thought about Crimea: was it still a part of Ukraine to them? was it lost? was it Russia now? I’d get very round about answers: “yes, it is always as a part of Ukraine” in the same breath as “Now people there are separated from their family that lives in a different country [Ukraine].” People seem to acknowledge that this part of Ukraine has always been different. They reluctantly seem to admit that they understand why Crimea was taken and that it will no longer be considered Ukrainian land. But they also seem (understandably) emotionally very attached to this land. I also heard concern voiced for the Tartar population there.
Multiple people referenced the belief that the east of Ukraine has never moved past being Soviet. Western Ukrainians believe that more people in the east than in the west look back fondly on soviet times, and this is why separatists have gained hold there. My friends in the west seem to think that the east has not had the opportunity to see what life in the EU could be like, since they are so far away from EU territory and so close to Russia.
As a Volunteer, one of the things I always sensed about Ukrainian culture is that no matter what (come storms, famine, or political upheaval) life moves forward. Daily life in Ukraine is still full of small struggles (there are kitchen gardens to plant, repairs to be made, farm animals to be fed, dinner to be made from scratch) so much so that world problems seem to take a back seat. More than anything, this was what I noticed on this trip. Although protests happen, separatists engage in violent tactics, and the country is brought to the brink of civil war, there are still immediate and local tasks that need to get done. The daily struggles of normal Ukrainian life still take precedence in the west. People are thinking, talking, and discussing the political situation A LOT, but normal daily life is what is still most acted upon.
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