Wednesday, November 23, 2005


I just had the chance to visit Kiev for the first time yesterday. Now first of all, Americans these days get to go to Ukraine without a visa so for me this was really excellent. I remember that several years ago Ukraine was one of the most unreasonable countries to get into charging something like $300 for the first three days. I still remember haggling with the ambassador trying to get at least a small reduction: “My family is from there. I just want to go to that region and look around. I don’t want anything from you.”

“Oh Mr. Goodman,” He replied, “There are so many people and all of them have such interesting stories to tell.” Nice guy yea?

But this is not the case these days. These days Ukraine has decided to try and make a play to get into the European Union and with this decision has come a willingness to accept outsiders (even Americans) in with a little less opposition. In any case, I was finally going to get in and aside from the thrill of actually getting to see a tiny bit of Ukraine, I was thinking that the experience might make for some good food insofar as concerns this yes or no to Europe argument which is so interesting here in Belarus in the year leading up to the Belarusian elections.

Kiev seems as though it was built to feel like a small town while at the same time being able to accommodate as many people as possible. Or maybe at one time a thousand years ago it was a small town that just wouldn’t stop growing. Or maybe it was just greed that smashed everything together so tightly. The old buildings are very tall and the windy streets much narrower than Minsk. At times you get sort of a claustrophobic feeling…well, maybe this is not the right word. Perhaps a better way to say it is to say that there is a “closeness” about the place, a tightness. Certainly real estate spaces up and down the gentle hills have been made good use of. But all in all I would say that Kiev is an attractive city with lots and lots of interesting architecture and some cool views around the riverfront.

And people were friendly enough in their way. I guess what this means is that people were personable in the way that most eastern Europeans are in that they don’t fight the connection. But in general it seemed as though people have a lot on their minds but do not seem to have any outlet that might satisfy. There is a tension, unhappiness to the place. Or maybe it might be better said as being a suppressed urgency.

I had a few chances to speak with people, my being (an American) from Belarus of course being something immediately interesting to talk about, and during this I was of course asked my opinion of the “new” Kiev. I mentioned what I just said and there was 100% agreement that there was indeed something up, everybody understood this, but explaining what the problem might be came out differently for different people. Some people simply blamed the weather for their blues; it was about zero with a lot of snow the day I was there. Others said it had a lot to do with uncertainty over what the future might bring, there have been many changes over the last few years and that this has played with peoples expectations for the future. Others saw it as being attached to the current political situation because the new president has seemed a bit wishy-washy by old standards (as an aside, one security guard noticed that concerning Belarus, when the president speaks to Belarus he says we are brothers and we must keep strong economic sides but when he speaks to the Europeans he says that the political situation with the northern neighbor is appalling). And still others complained simply because they like to complain; “This is Ukraine, we always complain. It is what we do!” But basically the two threads that ran through everybody’s thoughts was that living in Kiev “feels” differently then it used to and that life now has a different weight and texture to it. And that it is defiantly about the European money.

And at this moment in time the Europeans are defiantly there in Ukraine and with them all of the bells and whistles that come along with their business. You see this pretty much the minute that you cross the border because there are many, many of these gas station/cafés with their multicolor, high definition logo’s and interesting architecture along the road. The town center these days is all glossy storefronts and hyper clean floor and shelf space, specialty shops, knick knacks and do-dads and lots of gadgets and widgets and nifty stuff to buy and take home. Even the workers in all of these “upscale” places tended to have an over scrubbed, over dressed appearance; ‘Men in black’ suits and ties for the men and tight sweaters, tight slacks and tight hair for the women. And of course the town’s prices were logically high; they must be go along with all of the shimmer and sheen. Obviously this is not the Soviet Union anymore.

I think it is very hard to tell the difference between glitz and glamour and a solid fundamental economic policy. I mean, yes, the city is clean, the buildings seem well kept (In the business center anyway) and people seem to have cars and nice clothes and don’t appear to be particularly underfed. But what is also equally obvious is that none of these new businesses have any connection to Ukraine other than their being situated in Kiev. The ownership of these businesses is obviously from the west; the prices are certainly western and directed towards westerners and are easily out of range of the locals who still are being paid in the $100 to $200 a month range. And in this comes the complaint from the locals: Where is our deal? What do we get from all of this?

I suppose the answer to this question from the government’s point of view would be that foreign investors pay more taxes and the money from these taxes “should” eventually go towards the social good. They also might say that there was nothing under the old situation, these westerners wanted to invest, why shouldn’t we let them? And of course, this is exactly the European argument. But at the same time the Ukrainians (having read Marx) absolutely understand that the basic facts about these businesses are that they are only for the benefit of the foreign investors and not for the benefit of the locals, this new European money is not going into small businesses or opportunities for Ukrainians and profits from these Eurobusinesses go straight back to Europe. You can even mention that European businesses create conflict and competition with local organizations or that the people that work for these European entities are working without any vested interest in the companies they are working for (and of course the companies have no vested interest in them). All of these last few items by the way were staples of life in the former USSR. And though in a lot of ways Ukraine is on the same track as Poland was a few years ago and as Hungary was a couple of years before that in that they are trying to join the European Union, unlike Poland and Hungary, who existed only as satellite socialist countries, Ukraine was absolutely a part of the Soviet Union, they were a part of it, believed in it and lived the life.

Regardless of the confusion though, Europe did come to Kiev and as I said, there is unease in people over it. So as far as feeling bad about it goes, I guess it is just a matter of knowing what you want and then asking for it. The folks in Kiev are adults, they know they are responsible for the things that they do. And this is how it looked to me; just a bunch of people living with their choices in as calm a fashion as possible. Or maybe it is just Post revolution blues. Pete Townsend wrote about this many years ago when even the thought of cooperation between east and west was impossible. He had a lot to say about the before and after of political transitions:

We’ll be fighting in the street
With out children at our feet
And morals which we worshipped will be gone.
And the men who spurred us on,
Now sit in judgment of our wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song.
I tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution,
Smiling green at the change all around,
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
And then I’ll get on my knees and pray
That we don’t get fooled again.

Or perhaps better way to some it up is to tell an old joke from around here. A bunch of Eastern Europeans are sitting around, having a little drink and talking about what has happened lately with their countries. And in this minute an American walks by. “Tell us about America” someone shouts to him and with that the American replies: In American we say that anything is possible. And everybody nods at this. And then one guy stands up and says: “In the Slovak republic we say that while it may be possible, it is also really, really difficult”. Taking the cue another stands: “In Hungary we say that it is possible for some but not for others”. And then rest in turn began to comment: “In Czech it might be possible but you must be related to someone very rich and very stupid.”, “In Poland it is possible but you have to know who to bribe”, In Lithuania it might be possible and then again it might not but either way, we do not think about it so much”. By then all were standing but for the Belarusian who was still calmly sitting right where he was. And when he noticed that everyone was looking at him, he just shrugged his shoulders and said “We know it’s impossible; what can I do?” Funny right? But maybe now there is another variable to the joke that adds that the Ukrainian stands and says “We were told it could be possible, but now we are wondering if it really wasn’t all just a bunch of bull.”

In any case, as for me and the folks I was riding in the car with, the quiet on this side of the border felt really nice early this morning. No more shiny billboards, no more noise, just private homes, fields and forests. And this was especially true as we came over the bridge and back into Pinsk; nothing but yellow buildings, a few quiet streets and new fallen snow. “It is quiet isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yes it is” Replied Vova our driver. We were both smiling. “It is just a quiet little town. This is home.”

“Yea.” I said, “You’re right. It’s good to be home.”

End note: Dmitry Karpezo of Kiev (who wrote the comment below) has some really excellent photography of Kiev on his "dkarpezo" blog. If you would like to have a look, please just click the link.

More soon...