half awake and half a world away|
[Most Recent Entries]
Below are the 14 most recent journal entries recorded in
|Wednesday, April 26th, 2006|
|Saturday, May 22nd, 2004|
|New Contact Information
I leave Brovary tomorrow morning for four more days of administrative hoo-hah and hanging out with my cohort. On Thursday, we meet the US Ambassador and are sworn in as volunteers, finally shedding the "trainee" designation that hangs like a scarlett letter. I will write up my final thoughts on Pre-Service Training after I arrive at post.
Here is my new data as of May 27th;
Entrepreneurs Association "Perspectiva"
c/o Michael Kreidler
Komunalnyi Pereulok #7
Sovietsky, Sovietsky Raion
AR Crimea, 97200
I won't trouble you with the digits until I get there and figure out for myself (demystifying the phone system here damn near requires a PhD). I have been steadfastly resisting, but if the situation warrants it I may get a mobile phone (my first!) here. It is possible to send text messages via the Web to mobiles in Ukraine for free, and many volunteers have found this to be quite handy.Do Vstrechi
|Saturday, May 15th, 2004|
I have been working on the following entry for about a week now with much dissatisfaction. Time has been evaporating, and practically every last minute is accounted for as we near the close of our Pre-Service Training period. I hope to insert one or two quick entries before I become incommunicado on the 23rd, though as you may have noticed, there is no such thing as a quick entry from me.
Spring has sprung, and the transition could not have occurred more rapidly. I returned from my site visit in late April to find Brovary awakened from its winter slumber and having assumed a new identity. What seemed so dim not long ago is now in living color. The tulips have popped, the winter root vegetables have yielded to fresh produce, and the kashtani
(chestnut trees) carefully lining every street are in full bloom. The spring rains, the downpours which bogged down the advancing Nazis by choking off vital supply lines, have been light this season, and the weather has been perfect. Kyiv is alive with activity, as outdoor cafes and beer gardens now dominate the landscape of the city's main thoroughfares, providing an excellent vantage point for some prime people watching. I have been going into the city at every given opportunity, whether it be to take in a film, a Ukrainian national team football match (for 1 HRN, or 20 cents, might I add), or simply with no agenda at all. It is the most splendid time of the year, and I feel very fortunate to be in Kyiv witnessing this transition as I likely will not have such an opportunity in Sovietsky (that is, of course, unless some of you choose to visit me at this same time next year and provide me a reason to spend some time in Kyiv). :)
We have recently exited the consecutive May holidays: Den Truda
(May 1st, International Labor Day), and Den Pabyedi
(May 9th, Victory Day). Over this period, the country slows to a halt as families gather and enjoy an extended vacation, with many returning to their ancestral country homes for a change of scenery. It is a time of relaxation, remembrance, and celebration.
International Labor Day has lost some of its significance following the breakdown of the Soviet Union. For many younger people now, as in the United States, it simply represents a paid holiday. However, for those with a more vivid memory of the way things were, it is a day of nostalgic significance. The peaceful May Day rallies throughout the country numbered roughly 750, as communists, socialists, and other activists marched in solidarity to honor the struggles of labor worldwide. Twenty thousand elderly war veterans swathed in medals and other pensioners assembled in Kyiv, clinging to symbols of a bygone era such as the Soviet flag, portraits of Lenin, and banners with communist exhortations. Across Ukraine, the demonstrations collectively voiced a viewpoint shared by many of the elderly pining for the certainty of Soviet times: we helped build a once mighty nation, and this is the thanks we get? The grieving process has been slow in Ukraine, which is evidenced by the not only the persistence of, but the popularity (over 20%) of the backward-looking Communist Party. Many of the elderly will simply continue to grieve until they ultimately pass.
For those with less of a political agenda, May 1st is a time to relax and enjoy the advent of Spring. One of the most common ways of doing so is by trekking into the woods for a picnic featuring shashlik
, the succulent Ukrainian version of a kebab. The shashlik
tradition is one of numerous leisure activities indicative of a more communally oriented society. Entire extended families schlep their wares into the forest on foot, lay out several adjacent blankets in a clearing, and create their own movable feast. Though metal skewers are available, it is more customary to fashion a makeshift grill and utensils out of green saplings. Shashlik
is often paired with samongon
, a potent home brewed variant of vodka distilled in many a Ukrainian kitchen that ranges from very tasty to absolute rotgut. The feasting goes on for hours, and typically ceases when there is no more to drink. While to the casual observer this may hardly seem different from many a backyard barbecue in America, the behavior of Ukrainians varies widely from similar family gatherings in the states. In my experience, the Ukrainians I have gathered with are far more openly affectionate with one another in a warm and endearing way. A mother strokes the hair of her grown son, and brothers and sisters wrestle playfully with one another, all in a manner that feels quite different than in America. A good shashlik
outing warms both body and soul.
I had the opportunity to partake in another tradition of rest and relaxation held dearly in this part of the world, the banya
(sauna). The incredibly connected Natalya Bagmut, a host mother of a fellow trainee in Brovary mentioned in a prior entry, pulled some strings and arranged for the sauna to be made available to us after hours na sharu
(gratis). Though I had never been to a sauna before, I was aware that each culture that values it has its own seemingly unique interpretation of the communal bathhouse. The Russian version differs in that a beryozhevy venik
, or bundle of birch twigs, is used to repeatedly thrash the body, detoxifying the skin in a most aromatic way. When the 80 degrees Centigrade becomes too stifling, a plunge in a cold pool follows, which sends a shock right through one's system. After toweling off, about five to ten minutes is spent lounging on a cedar chaise while drinking tea, playing chess, and engaging in light conversation. The entire process is then repeated several times. Though our entrance was free of charge, the luxury of the sauna is not typically cost-prohibitive, which makes it accessible to most middle income Ukrainians.
was a site to behold, and in my case, was made even more entertaining by the fact that I was repeatedly flayed by Natalya's 18 year-old son Roma, an exuberant bodybuilding enthusiast and frequent workout partner of mine who dreams of competing in America. My first lashing was somewhat comical, as I struggled between the cracks of the branches to muster the words in Russian and communicate that he was applying too much force. After about five of six iterations, I had the scars to prove it, which I naturally displayed the next day as though they were a badge of honor. Anecdotes aside, it actually was rather therapeutic and I look forward to engaging in this communal activity upon every invitation.
Incidentally, about six weeks ago, I wrote of the disappearance of the central monument of Brovary, which I prematurely attributed to the ongoing process of removing all things Soviet. As it turned out, the World War II-era fighter plane was only temporarily relocated, which I discovered accidentally when I stumbled upon the completion of a new pamyatnik
(monument) in the central park of Brovary. While I intended to study Russian in the park on a spring day, I quickly became fixated on observing the crude manner of installing the pamyatnik
along with about 50 other individuals. The closest comparison I can draw is the raising of the framework of an Amish home, where the suspense builds about whether or not it will be able to stand freely in the end. In this case, the gentle Amish are a group of grungy metalworkers being barked at by a squat foreman working under the watchful eyes of city administration members. After two hours and several botched attempts, it finally held. The plane received a fresh new coat of paint and assumed its new posture ascending toward the heavens just in time for the May 9th Victory Day celebration.
May 9th commemorates the successful defense of the Russian motherland and defeat of Nazi Germany during the Great Patriotic War, a conflict which claimed the lives 27,000,000 Soviet men, women, and children (8,000,000 of which were Ukrainian). So much of the national identity of the Soviet Union was borne of this struggle, the defining event in its history. No family escaped the tragedy. In light of this, the traditional displays of military hardware during the Soviet era on May 9th are quite understandable – it was a source of great pride, accomplishment, and security for people who had experienced death and destruction on a scale unprecedented. While there are still large processions in Moskva and Kyiv, gone are the days when column after column of soldiers goose-stepped through the square behind missiles. May 9th is both a day of solemn remembrance of those who have passed, as well as a day to honor the living who fought to protect their homeland. Den Pabyedi
is an amalgam of both Memorial Day and Veterans' Day in the states, and it feels as though it has far more gravitas than those American holidays.
Opting to avoid the throngs of people at the procession in Kyiv, our language cluster instead took part in the local May 9th parade here in Brovary. While I am certain it was not nearly as impressive, it did allow us to be more closely connected to the parade itself. In fact, we marched in it, behind the flag of the old Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, as well as the Communist Party of Ukraine. Say what you will about the former Soviet Union, but it is hard to be a cynic or a revisionist on May 9th without offending people. It was not in the position to judge, but rather to honor the memory of arguably the greatest tragedy in human history. We took photos with medal-clad veterans and, through translators, listened to them speak. As is the case in America, this generation is winding down, and there is a popular sentiment among the elderly that future generations removed from the war will not understand their struggles and sacrifices. In many ways, their fears are justifiable. The first generation to grow up in post-Soviet Ukraine has no memory of the way things were. They are turning over a new leaf, though one can only hope that they do not forget the pages that precede it.
And thus, Spring has arrived. Young girls chalk the sidewalks and play hopscotch, the old men sit on a bench in front of the apartment complex and converse over a cigarette, mothers trot around their infant children in the park, and old women sell whatever fresh flowers are in bloom. Life is ordinary. There is no more or less inherent beauty in all of this than in parallel activities elsewhere around the world, and I feel it is naive to think otherwise. While I was not present to witness life here before the fall, I refuse to believe that everything described in this entry evolved suddenly over the past thirteen years. All of this reflects deeply held values commonly shared by many people here, part of the backbone of Ukrainian culture. Life has been hard here for many years, and remains so for a disproportionate amount of the population, but nonetheless it is for the living. People go about their daily lives in search of happiness for their kind. As I gain more exposure to life in Ukraine, I am realizing what I am certain everyone in the 25 cohorts preceding me have come to understand in their own way – in spite of our innumerable differences, we are so fundamentally alike in many ways. It is a pity that it has taken Americans and Ukrainians so long to discover each other.
In the past, very few Americans had an inside look at what life was really like here, and I am coming to believe more and more that this was not accidental. The Soviet Union did an excellent job of preventing the world from knowing what was really going on here, though the United States also did an excellent job of systematically ignoring the people on the other side. If we knew how people lived day-to-day – how they loved, cried, celebrated, and so forth – we may have been able to make parallel connections to our own lives. Our perceptions of the Cold War may have been very different. In a war of competing ideologies there was no room to empathize with the adversary. The United States did not win the Cold War. The entire world lost. People were guided away from learning about one another, and only in the recent past have the misunderstandings that were manufactured and allowed to persist in this part of the world become unraveled. I can only hope that something can be learned from this, and that similar misunderstandings currently in other parts of the globe do not lead the world on a path toward self-destruction.
|Friday, April 30th, 2004|
|From the Hundred Years' War to the...
The suspense was lifted two weeks ago when I learned that Sovietsky village (population: 12,000) in Crimea will be my home for the next two years. I have been assigned to work as a NGO Advisor to "Perspectiva", a local entrepreneurs association that promotes the expansion of small businesses. On the surface, this does not sound all too compelling until one understands the uniqueness of Crimea within Ukraine, as well as the complexity of the local context in Sovietsky.
The history of Crimea reaches far back through the years. In the West we are aware of Crimea's existence by virtue of the eponymous war, though I would venture to say that very few people – myself included until a short time ago – actually have an understanding of the historical significance of this region. Crimea has been at the crossroads of civilizations for over 2700 years, and every occupant from the Ancient Greeks to modern day Tatars have left their mark. This interchange has led to the evolution of a rich culture that is very distinct from that of greater Ukraine.
Tucked away neatly in the southernmost area of the country, Crimea enjoys a status shared by none of the other 24 oblasts
in Ukraine. It is an Autonomous Republic, a state within a state. Crimea became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1957 when it was given as a gift by Nikita Kruschev, himself a Ukrainian. At the time, many people in this predominantly ethnic Russian region protested this gesture, and ties to the Motherland still remain strong to this day. Unlike most other areas of the country which are moving in the direction of the official state language, Russian is the lingua franca in Crimea. My village boasts three schools, two of which are in Russian (the third is in Crimean Tatar, which means there are no schools in Sovietsky in the official state language). I even heard the term ruble
– a currency not in circulation here for over twelve years now – used when making a purchase in Crimea. At times, it can feel as though I am not in Ukraine.
Ukrainians are unanimous in their praise of the beauty of Crimea. The wide expanses of wheat in the southern steppe yield to the Crimean Mountains, one of only two ranges in this otherwise planar country. Nestled against the Black Sea shore, they look down onto fabulous resort towns that have been prized vacation destinations since Soviet times. With Roosevelt's health ailing in February 1945, the big three met at the seaside hamlet of Yalta and enjoyed its fresh air and stunning vistas as they devised the new world order. A few world leaders and countless lay individuals have made the southern coast of Crimea the premier destination in Ukraine and tourism the largest industry in the region. I have yet to see a Ukrainian photo album that does not invariably feature pictures of summer on the Black Sea, and rightfully so. They come for the weather, the mountains, the water, the beaches, the produce, the air, and the history. I feel very privileged to have all of this in my backyard.
While it would seem that this would be a much coveted placement within Peace Corps-Ukraine (and it is), such enthusiasm is not shared on balance by Ukrainians. Crimea is indeed beautiful, but few Ukrainians would actually want to live there. Everyone host country national I have spoken has echoed this sentiment, to the point where no one can endorse it without any reservations. There are several challenges unique to the republic, the lack of fresh water being the greatest day-to-day concern that affects people's lives. Beyond this functional matter, however, lies the one issue in Crimea that causes Ukrainians to balk when discussing the region – the Crimean Tatars. Descendants of the Mongol hordes that swept into the peninsula in the 14th century, they are Turkic peoples adhering to the Muslim faith who are an ultra-minority (.3%) of the population of Ukraine. It is vital to familiarize oneself with the Tatars in order to begin to understand my assignment, my community, and ultimately my next two years in Ukraine.
Like the term Crimea itself, Tatar is a word with which many educated people in the West only have a remote familiarity, conjuring up images of raw steak or fish sticks. What most are unaware of, too, is that they are an ethnic group nearly pushed to the brink of extinction in the 20th century. In May 1944, hundreds of thousands of Tatars were quietly deported overnight by Stalin for allegedly collaborating with the retreating Nazis. The entire Crimean Tatar population was loaded into cattle cars that steamed away into the night towards Siberia, the Urals, and primarily Uzbekistan. Over 45% are estimated to have never reached their destination, casualties of the deplorable conditions of hunger and disease during this forcible removal. Those that managed to survive were cordoned off in special settlement camps where life did not get any easier. With the Tatars out of the way, the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was officially abolished by decree. An ethnically cleansed Crimea, the least of the world's concerns in June 1945, was thus annexed by Stalin as part of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. "Ethnic Cleansing in the USSR, 1937-1949", by Otto J. Pohl
Two generations of Tatars separated from their ancestral homeland persistently struggled over forty years to preserve their culture. Only during Gorbachev's Perestroika
were barriers lifted from passports that prohibited Tatars from returning to Crimea. In 1985, and reaching apex in the late 1980s, Crimean Tatars exiled to Uzbekistan began returning en masse. In the absence of any official repatriation plan by the Soviet Union, the region could not handle the large influx of newly returned people to Crimea. The Tatars returned to find that they no longer possessed their former properties, that there were no basic social services or jobs available to them, and that they were now a minority in their own homeland. Small tent cities sprang up, and many people exercised squatter's rights on whatever shelter was available. Difficulties incurred during resettlement were further compounded during the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, when hyperinflation wiped out what little life savings most were able to bring with them. The signs of this are evident on the landscape of Crimea, where many houses were left unfinished, or those that were completed were shanty dwellings lacking water, heat, or electricity.
Stabilization has occurred over the past decade, though the integration process has been very slow. Unemployment is rampant in the Crimean Tatars community, estimated at approximately 70% in many locations. The Crimean Tatars – numbering roughly 270,000 now – are pariahs, slightly above Gypsies in the pecking order. The returnees lack Ukrainian citizenship, which prevented them from participating in the privatization of state property and still bars many from certain public sector services. Tatars are heavily discriminated against in many aspects of economic and social life. The UN has thus designated Crimean Tatars as a Formerly Deported People (FDP), and has afforded them a small amount of financial and technical support from the UNDP Crimean Integration Development Program. It is this very program that leveraged the seed funding which begat Perspectiva, the Crimean Tatar NGO that will play host to me for the next two years.
I will be working with Perspectiva on the entire gamut of organizational development and capacity building issues – strategic planning, project design and management, enhancing and broadening services, grant writing and fundraising, increasing membership, outreach, etc. – as they attempt to sustain themselves. The assignment does not look all too different than what several other volunteers received, though the local environment is certainly unique.
According to the dossier on my site, the potential challenges I will face in Sovietsky are as follows:
"This area of Crimea is characterized as depressed. Sovietsky is one of many places in western Crimea which is undergoing difficult times, due to the agrarian nature of this region and complete absence of production companies that can employ significant numbers of the population. It is also not on the coastline, and therefore tourism is not relevant for this part of the peninsula. Due to the small size of the community, the PCV will be isolated from general conveniences offered by the big city (fast Internet connection, developed public transportation, entertainment, etc.). Also, there are no other PCVs in the community. The PCV should be tactful and respectful towards the minority group, and try to understand current challenges of both groups of the Crimean population. Because the local staff and population has no command of English (one member of staff claimed to have "basic" level of English), it will be the primary responsibility for the volunteer to quickly master his/her Russian language skills. The volunteer will be attracting lots of attention as the first American to live in this village. The organization has high expectations as for professionalism of the PCV and is looking forward to welcoming a motivated, innovative, and charismatic member into their team."
In many ways, I suspect that my experience in Sovietsky will more closely resemble that of countries other than Ukraine in which the Peace Corps operates programs. The family that will play host to me during my first three months in Sovietsky lives in the Tatar district of town, where access to basic services is either scant or non-existent. The house lacks heat, gas, hot water, a refrigerator, and several other standard conveniences common in Ukrainian homes. The big question every morning is Vada yest?
– is there running water? – and more often than not, the answer is no. The best analogy I can come up with for the Tatar district in Sovietsky is that of a Native American Indian reservation. The village is a settlement of displaced people who were pushed from the most fertile lands and stripped of their resources, given access to few basic human services, and granted little hope of any opportunity for economic development. It appears that my days in the "Posh Corps", the affectionate nickname of PC-Ukraine, will soon be drawing to a close.
In light of this, every Ukrainian not on Peace Corps payroll with whom I have spoken has been nearly apologetic for my receiving Sovietsky as a site assignment, as this lifestyle is clearly not what they would wish for me to experience in Ukraine. I have been admonished time and time again about the Tatars: that they are not to be trusted, that they are greedy, and they their mission is to infiltrate Ukrainian society. One person even went as far in jest to suggest that I will convert to Islam by the close of my service. The widespread ignorance and misunderstanding of the Crimean Tatars is indicative of the paranoia of and aversion to all things Muslim in Ukraine, and more broadly the Arab world in general. The reality, however, is that few Ukrainians have ever really been exposed to the Tatar people in a meaningful way that has fostered a mutual understanding. Visiting Crimea in the summer, admiring the beauty of the Khans' Palace in Bakchisaray, and eating chebureks
does not make one empathize with the Tatars, just the same as dining on soul food, listening to hip-hop, and claiming to have "black friends" does not lead to the understanding of life as an African-American. Four days in Crimea during my initial site visit quickly dispelled many of these mistruths and myths.
At first glance, the Crimean Tatars do indeed appear very different from the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians. They are of Central Asian descent, and feature characteristics such as a darker complexion and uniformly black hair. They are named Enver, Ismet, Gulnara, and Fatima, not Sergei, Oleg, Oksana, or Tatiana. They speak Russian, but cling to a native Tatar language is only now slowly reemerging. Their cuisine widely differs (and far less bland, thankfully) than typical Ukrainian food. The largest house of worship in Sovietsky is a mosque, not a Christian church. The Tatars celebrate a separate calendar of holidays from that of Ukraine, and hold numerous traditions sacred that are alien to the lion's share of the Ukrainian population. All such hallmarks of Crimean Tatar culture make it very distinct within Ukraine.
However, I suspect that beneath the surface I will discover time and time again over the next two years that the Crimean Tatars are fundamentally no different than most other people in the world. I caught a few glimpses of their lives during my brief initial visit that underscored this notion. The Tatars have earned the reputation as being incredibly industrious, undoubtedly forged by their experiences in the past 60 years. My coordinator, Elnur Aliev, is the embodiment of this, and through a week of close contact with him it is apparent that his struggles have not extinguished his ability to be passionate about life. He is incredibly humorous, sincere, and frank in a way that most Ukrainians I have encountered thus far are not. Despite ten-hour days at the office, Elnur separates himself from work every afternoon to spend time with his ailing 76 year-old mother, a survivor of the Tatar deportation and encampment. It takes but a cursory survey of the Aliev family photos that have endured to understand the humanity of the Crimean Tatar community. They work and they play, they laugh and they cry, they celebrate and they mourn, and most of all, they do it together. Elnur's desires, and those of every other Tatar I have come in contact with thus far, are consistent with those anywhere else in the world – to experience economic, social, and personal development, and to find sustainable happiness. Radical concepts are these, no?
My life in Sovietsky promises to be incredibly different than that of the other 59 remaining volunteers in my cohort. I will certainly not be privy to as many typical Ukrainian experiences (my days of eating borshch are numbered), though I will undoubtedly be intimately exposed to a culture that few people ever have the opportunity to witness. There is so much to be learned in Crimea. Given this outlook, I wouldn’t trade my placement for that of anyone else.
|Sunday, April 11th, 2004|
Much of the mystery shrouding our PST period will be revealed next week when we attend the Coordinator's Conference in Kiev.
On Tuesday, we will finally be informed of the Peace Corps' staffing decisions within Ukraine -- where we will be living for the next two years, and with what organization we are assigned. On Wednesday, we will meet our respective site coordinators from our host organizations and begin the two-year process of learning how to work together. After a series of workshops and seminars, we depart for our sites (in some cases, an 18-hour train ride) with our coordinators, which should be very interesting given our limited command of Russky Yazik
at this time. Upon arriving at our sites, we will then spend the next four days getting to know the people there and beginning an organizational needs assessment. During this time, we will be staying with our new families that will host us for our first three months at post.
It is a very busy time, one with few free moments to spare, though I have committed myself to helping design and implement a seminar at the conference. The topic is grant writing, something I have had much experience in over the past four years from both the perspective of a small NGO and a major private foundation. I wished to take a backseat in developing this, but they want me front and center to relate my experiences in grant writing and offer up my perspective. So I find myself in the position of having to speak for 90 minutes to 80 people during the very first seminar of the conference on Tuesday, with very little time to prepare and with many eyes of the front office closely observing. If it goes well, however, I will have made a name for myself at headquarters, which can only be beneficial in the long run. It is a lot of added pressure to be under in addition to everything else at the moment.
I will return to Kiev on the 23rd, which will make for an extended period of radio silence (which will likely be the case once I am at post anyway). At that time, I will share the news which I know will interest many of you.Paka
Pashka. Easter Sunday.
One misconception many of us volunteers shared prior to arriving in Ukraine was that these are a very religious people. When we think of the former Soviet Union, we conjure up images of lavishly ornate churches with the signature golden domes inspired by the natural form of an onion. Even the term "orthodox" itself implies some sort of strict adherence to doctrine. Nonetheless, most Ukrainians seem to be about as religious as the average Christian in America -- which is to say that twice a year (Easter and Christmas), they do their duty.
Easter is the most significant holiday on the Ukrainian calendar, though it is only reemerging from 75 years of dormancy. The feast tradition associated with Easter was carried on within the household, where widespread private worship did occur in Soviet times. The church was all but outlawed by the USSR. All pedagogical materials in schools and universities instructed people that there was no God, and that the communist state was most supreme and to be revered to the point of worship. People stopped going to church, for it could have costly effects on one's standing within the community. A party member could lose his/her position within and be blacklisted for being seen attending services, and proselytizing was a one-way ticket to Siberia. Many churches closed (the ballpark figure thrown at me was about 80%), and fell into a state of disrepair. The beautiful cathedrals so commonly associated with this part of the world were maintained more for their value as historical antiquities, and they widely ceased functioning as houses of worship. Only since independence in 1991 has latent organized religion reawakened in the former Soviet Union. After the fall, the missionaries rushed in, which has lead to greater religious diversity within Christian sects (and among some a mistrust of such foreign organizations that coax money out of Ukrainians). Just the other day I received a pamphlet on the marshrutka
from a Jehovah's Witness, something that would never have been seen here 15 years ago.
I had the opportunity to attend services this morning, but I passed. The more traditional services begin as an evening vigil and run for about eight hours, though many people elect for the "express" Orthodox service and arrive at 5 AM to have their food blessed. There are no pews in these churches, and seeing as how fifteen minutes in a Home Depot is enough to do my knees in, I was not relishing the idea of standing for up to four hours. And then it occurred to me -- if crippled old women can do it, that I certainly can be disciplined enough to as well. In the end, I elected not to go because of the language barrier. While the curiosity certainly is there, at this point the ability to comprehend what is actually transpiring is not. Also, I am a very irreligious person, and as such I did not want my presence there to offend anyone. I will spend two more Easters in Ukraine, so there will be other opportunities.
Instead, I woke up early at 7a and took part in what seems like the second most popular religion in this country, boxing. National icon Wladimir Klitschko, the heavyweight gold medalist at the 1996 Atlanta games, was fighting some chump named Lamon Brewster live in Las Vegas.
The brothers Klitschko are treated like Ukrainian heroes and are certainly an interesting pair. Tell me if you think they fit the profile of typical heavyweight prize fighters.VitaliWladimir
The 6'8" Vitali holds a PhD, enters the ring to Richard Strauss, and lists politics and chess among his diverse interests. The 6'7" Wladimir also holds a PhD, and interestingly enough, trained for a time here in the bedroom community of Brovary where I am currently staying. The brothers Klitschko moved to Brovary in 1986, and after encountering success on the world heavyweight stage, endowed a boxing school in town. I would like to check it out prior to leaving here in six weeks.
Dr. Klitschko had already scored a knockdown and was ahead on all cards through four rounds, but unfortunately he got hit with a flurry of punches during 30 seconds in the 5th that was his undoing. We turned off the television dejected, like so many other unsatisfying fights in the heavyweight class.
It looks as though I will just have to wait until April 24th, when elder brother Vitali (who was whooping on Lennox Lewis and ahead on all cards last July before a cut forced him to retire) gets his second chance at the vacant WBC title against Corrie Sanders (who has knocked out Wladimir before).
|Sunday, April 4th, 2004|
I had the opportunity to see a double feature last night at the Grand Opera of Kiev -- Bolero and Carmen...Spanish themed works, written by French composers, performed by a Slovakian dance company, in Ukraine. Hooray for globalization.
All of this for 20 hrvyna, or less than $4.
Despite escalating prices on consumer goods, high art still remains very accessible to the lay person in Ukraine. Whereas in the states the hoi polloi seldom rub elbows with the well-to-do at the opera or symphony, here it is not uncommon at all. Although class differences are becoming more and more painfully obvious here now that the playing field leveled by the communist state has disintegrated, most everyone can share in the rich cultural traditions that hearken back to Soviet times.
On balance, the people I have encountered here have a greater appreciation for the arts than in the states, though similar to everything else here it is changing. Greater access to western media outlets is helping to fuel the explosion of pop culture in Ukraine, one which seems entirely alien to pensioners who struggle just to subsist. Marketing is still a relatively new concept here, and the older generations have not spent their entire lives subjected to advertisements. It is understandable, then, that many older people do not fully embrace consumer culture and the dizzying array of choices it offers.
The babuska on fixed income, however, is not the intended recipient of these new messages. As in the states, in the eyes of the marketer youth is king. Young people represent the segment of the population most open to change, as well as the next generation of consumers in Ukraine who will enjoy far greater disposable income purchasing power than their predacessors. The young people in and around Kiev do not seem to differ that much from those in the states in their desires. They often look the same, dress the same, listen to the same music, watch the same movies, and act the same as American teenagers. Pop culture is their preferred language, one which converges them with the West.
While the development of popular culture may bring with it an expanded number of consumption choices, it can often come at the expense of other longstanding cultural traditions and shared values. Pop culture was not allowed to flourish under the Soviet Union, and society was prescribed to be homogeneous. Materialism as a value was abhorred. Now, at least in Kiev, pop culture is accelerating at such a pace that it is beginning to narrow the gap between here and the West. It comes at a price, though. Life is getting faster, and it feels as though this place is about to be fundamentally altered as technology brings people closer together, yet so much further apart. As Ukraine stands at the precipice of change, one is confronted with similar questions here as in the states -- does this represent progress, and if so, for whom? What are the opportunity costs of developing along this trajectory, and are they worth it? (Incidentally, I am not certain I will ever find a satisfactory answer for these questions, neither at present in Ukraine nor after many years of working in international development. I feel they are worthy of a life spent in pursuit, though.)
At last count, there are now 19 McDonalds franchises located in Kiev. What would you make of this? What do you suppose your average Ukrainian would?
|Thursday, April 1st, 2004|
|Fist in need, develop the taste...
Last Saturday, the Brovary city administration unceremoniously removed a monument of an early Soviet jet commemorating World War II from the town square. It had resided there for forty years and now suddenly it is gone, another casualty of the post-independence movement to de-Soviet public spaces. Apparently there is an impressive Soviet sculpture garden in Budapest assembled after the fall when former Communist icons were auctioned off to the highest bidder. Such is life in this part of the world, where everything from MIG jets to outer space voyages all have a price tag.
This is a sad indictment in many ways, but one indicative of the struggle in the post-Soviet republics to revise history. The general ideology reinforced from birth – the belief in an egalitarian ideal supported by the socialist system, the belief in the supremacy of the Soviet Union – failed in the end. What if everything you had ever been led to believe was “wrong” – where would you even begin to pick up the pieces? What should they teach children in school about their history? The newly autonomous former Soviet republics were suddenly forced to answer these questions and to revisit and rediscover their past. This was necessary in order to understand the present and thus begin to rebuild the future.
Kiev is the embodiment of post-Soviet reformation, a fairly cosmopolitan Eastern European city coming to grips with its recent past. I had the pleasure of visiting Kiev for the first time this past Saturday, and like so many major cities in the developing/transitioning world it is a study in contrast. Kiev has one foot firmly planted in both worlds. It is a stunning city perched atop three hills overlooking the Dnipro, rich in history, culture, and architecture. Its population ranks it 7th among European cities, just barely ahead of Paris. Kiev still bears visible scars of its Soviet past, though it is molting its crumbled shell quite rapidly. Sputtering Ladas coexist with the chauffer-driven Mercedes that are de rigeur for the newly moneyed class. Anything can be had in Kiev for the right price, from consumer electronics to political influence at the highest levels. While the demographics of Ukraine have shifted to where the country is both shrinking and aging, Kiev itself is growing and getting younger. The rapid accession to consumerism in Kiev is trickling throughout the country, and it represents a newfound sense of freedom which is changing the dynamics of the collective value system here in Ukraine.
The “danger” Kiev represents to newly arrived Peace Corps volunteers is that it can create a false sense of security because it behaves more like a Western city. The reality, however, is that the majority of Ukraine does not closely resemble Kiev at all. Much of the lifestyle Kiev offers is simply inaccessible to the lion’s share of the population, and many in the older generation downright resent how new values accompanying mass consumerism are eroding longstanding beliefs and traditions. The gravitational pull of Kiev is palpable, and I suspect I will soon witness the extent to which the capital drags the rest of the nation kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
Disposable income of any sort in Ukraine is a luxury held by very few, and as with the urban poor in America a grossly disproportionate amount of what little there seems to be spent on maintaining appearances. Women take cellular phone calls while fetching water from an artesian well. People wear the same set of clothes for several days in a row here, though many homes have televisions and DVDs on a par with those in the west. The beauty myth, like in most former communist countries, is firmly in place here, as the inspection of any bathroom reveals a multitude of personal care products comparable to those in the states. On balance, the lay person in Ukraine dresses much more formally in day-to-day life than we do in America. Much of this is simply a veneer, as there is little economic freedom lying beneath in spite of all attempts to gloss over this fact. I witnessed this firsthand in Kiev in a shopping mall on the main drag known as Kreshatuk.
It felt odd to be there, as many who join the Peace Corps are happy to leave behind such monuments to consumerism. It may as well have been a mall in California, or Minnesota, or Georgia. We all openly acknowledged that we did not come halfway around the world in the hopes of finding this, though we owed our location to our language instructor who doubled as our Kiev tour guide. After being served a heaping spoonful of surly customer service akin to that in the west, it was interesting to sit back and observe people while enjoying the respite. Very few people seemed to be purchasing anything of value over a certain threshold, and most seemed to be enjoying the time spent leisure shopping, which is an entirely new phenomenon here. Our own teacher confessed to frequenting the stores that vend perfume because she can try the fragrances on for free. The bottom line simply prevents many people from realizing such commercial transactions, and they are relegated to having their desires cultivated to a level beyond their capacity for fulfillment. Kiev can certainly feel like a window shopper’s paradise – look, but most certainly, do not touch.
I had a very revealing conversation the other day with Linda Wylie, one of the two Peace Corps nurses on staff here in Ukraine, about the dilemmas posed by development in Ukraine. She spent four years working as a PC nurse in Romania before coming to Ukraine, where she has now served for three years. Having witnessed much of the economic transition and the faltering of once superior public health systems in eastern bloc countries, I trust in her analysis of the situation here. Her no-nonsense demeanor makes her a hit with the volunteers, as she most certainly is wont to inform us of everything between the lines that the Peace Corps would rather not divulge (Did you know that a PCV in Ukraine was beaten to death in 1998? I most certainly didn’t…)
While I have not even been here for a month (and accordingly, my editorial commentary should not be taken as sacrosanct, wherein I truly lack the experience and qualification to adequately defend my assertions), Linda confirmed many of gut instincts and initial observations about life in Ukraine. Development in Ukraine, like so many other parts of the world from Laos to Lesotho, has been unevenly distributed and not experienced by many. The country is quickly approaching a tipping point, though many have already been left by the wayside during the rapid and rocky transition to a free market system. In some ways, it feels as though another ideology with plenty of flaws of its own has simply replaced the previous one. It is a far different vanguard than that which Lenin envisioned. People so eager for change are warmly embracing western values, perhaps without fully understanding their greater societal implications. Linda is aware of all this, and of the inevitability of it all. So much has already changed even in the past decade, and I imagine that ten years from now even more will be have been transformed. For better or for worse, the system of values in Ukraine is changing. It seems that little can be done to impede the impending advent of the transition.
Linda also echoed something which I have come to better understand and believe in over the past few years: development is fundamentally about enabling choice. It is about expanding the range of options one has available, and about empowering people to exercise their freedom by making decisions they feel necessary to affect their lives and be happy. It is becoming more evident now that I will likely spend the better part of the remainder of my life working to towards this end. Perhaps the greatest challenge I will face in the next 26 months will be to determine how to apply this in the Ukrainian context in a culturally appropriate manner without so-called enlightened western didacticism. Any changes will be the result of something springing from within my Ukrainian counterparts and will not arise from projecting my own values onto my colleagues. Though I choose not to measure progress by the array of cellular phone ring tones from which one can select, nor growth by whether or not a McDonalds has opened in the city, other people here may have sufficient reason to place value on such things in their own lives. Maybe we can arrive at a third way.
The most salient words Linda had to offer were about affecting change in Ukraine. The older generation here offers the most resistance to the transition, but they will be pushed further to the margins. Where a Peace Corps volunteer can have the greatest effect is in the hearts and minds of young people. Anyone sixteen or younger essentially has no memory of what life was like in the Soviet system. As Linda noted, consumerism for them represents a brave new world in which they can express themselves and feel free. All things western are revered, and even our status as Americans elevates us to a higher plane in their eyes – we get asked for autographs at schools, and whether or not we know Britney Spears or Eminem. These young people lack the cynicism of the older generations whose attitudes were forged like cold steel under the duress of the Soviet system. It is easy to be cynical in the face of societal changes which one feels powerless to affect, and while the economic transformation is ineluctable, these young people will soon be the inheritors of the transition. They will be poised to play an active role in attempting to shape their own society, an opportunity far greater than that of their predecessors. Perhaps the greatest contribution I can make here is to reach younger people and stimulate their ability to contemplate the changing environment surrounding them, as well as understand the potential opportunity costs of development.
Regardless of differing values, belief systems, or cultural milieu, people all the world over by and large have the same fundamental desires: to be happy, healthy, prosperous, peaceful, and free. Ukraine, I am certain, will prove to be no exception.
|Sunday, March 28th, 2004|
The Russian language uses the same word -- mir -- for both "world" and "peace"
What a novel concept.
Before I begin, I need to revise a figure I offered last entry – the famine of 1932-33 during the collectivization of farms in Ukraine claimed between 6 and 8 million victims. The death toll is on par with that of the Nazi genocide. There is a great book about this silent holocaust titled “Execution by Hunger”, in case anyone is interested. You can check it out here:Miron Dolot and Adam Bruno Ulam
Combined with the losses of World War II, the number of Ukrainians that perished from these tragedies between 1932 and 1945 was 16 million, over 30% of the population. An entire generation simply disappeared. The effects of this are still felt today.
Enough history for now…I’ll speak at greater length about the ramifications of this in future entries.
I am beginning to believe that women were largely responsible for the survival of society during Soviet times (and all around the world, really). Gender roles were, and still are, firmly entrenched here, and the demands placed upon a woman’s energies and resources was enough to make most women in the West shudder. They did it all and then some, and under the persistence of unending economic depression. Practicing extreme self-sacrifice, women rationed commodities, hoarded scarce products, utilized family connections to secure goods and services, and practically pinched the nickel until the buffalo shit. For many years the outlook was very bleak, though somehow the family always survived.
The effect on the individual woman can be seen in her face. The transition to a babushka is not a graceful one – the toil aggregates over time, and cruelly negates the beauty that was once so visibly evident. Every wrinkle the product of countless hours of labor, every line the same. Beneath the weathered surface lies a woman who has endured decades of hardships and has lived to tell.
For their struggles, women are honored in the former Soviet republics on March 8th, which is quite simply is Women’s Day. It is considered the first Spring holiday, and is symbolic of Unlike the U.S., it is not limited to mothers, but rather extends to women of all ages. Flowers, chocolates, and gifts are bestowed on all important women in one’s life. According to a recent poll, almost 50% were expecting to spend more than 300 HRN on the day ($60). It is a big deal here.
My host mother is very much the embodiment of the archetypal babushka I have just described. Ekaterina Olyanetska was born in 1943 in Chernigiv Oblast amidst Nazi occupation of Ukraine. She married at age 20, and gave birth to her first child, Yura, at age 21. Sixteen years later, she gave birth to her second son, Ruslan. She has been a homemaker her entire life, and supplements a meager pension by performing some minor administrative work on the side. Her husband Mikolai is forced to continue working at age 62, like many others who witnessed several thousand roubles of their retirement savings vanish amidst the collapse of the Soviet Union.
There is little that Ekaterina does not do, even as she advances in age. She continues to act all of the roles which she was prescribed at birth, performing all of the domestic duties that still fall on women (even working women) in Ukraine. She still makes many household items by hand, from rugs to jam. She sings in a traditional Ukrainian women’s choir, and with some verve, I might say. Ekaterina is also politically active, lending support to the campaign of reform candidate Viktor Yushenko by pamphleteering locally in Brovary. She is the eyes and ears of this dom of 120 apartment units – if something is going on here, chances are she knows about it. She is on the phone quite frequently, and never utilizes the caller ID to screen incoming calls. I’ve seen countless different faces pass through her front door, and none is dismissed without a hot cup of tea and some conversation.
In addition to all of this, she also waits on me hand and foot, acting as a second language instructor and providing two overwhelming meals a day with not a look of displeasure all the while. In the beginning, she doted on me like a small child, undoubtedly concerned for my safety. On the first evening I went to the gym, some 50 paces from the building, she waited the entire time outside in the cold, pacing up and down for over an hour until I finished my workout. I do my best to make things easier for her, or at the very least interfere less with her life, by doing my own laundry (mostly by hand) and helping clear the dishes. None of the other men in the house so much as lift a finger when it comes to matters such as these.
Perhaps the coup de grace, however, Ekaterina secured a computer and an 8-port hub for Peace Corps volunteers in Brovary to use in a private office in the basement of the building. She worked it so the “Internet class” in the building, which again is entirely teenage males playing action games, would remove one of its twelve machines and devote it solely for our usage. The cost: 4 HRN/hr., which is one hryvna less than the going rate. I am more than delighted to pay the full five hryvna simply for the convenience, but the idea of paying more than what is being requested seems entirely alien to her. I don’t suspect she has ever heard of the words “business plan”. At any rate, you all have Ekaterina to thank for my frequent updates, though there is certainly no guarantee that my Internet situation will be like this once I arrive at my site. Enjoy it while I can, I suppose.
I also have had the pleasure of witnessing another strong woman of limitless energy in her element – Natalya (Natasha) Bagmut, the director of the local youth center and host of a fellow Peace Corps volunteer in my cluster. She is the single mother of two bodybuilding teenagers (one a girl, I should add), and the head of a very musical family. She acts as a deputy on the city council of Brovary. She writes poetry (every accomplished person in this country seemingly writes poetry, by the way). Natasha has an incredible voice and is also an accomplished songwriter, having composed over 200 tunes including several for Ukrainian pop singer-cum-university president-cum-national politician, Mikhail Poplovsky.
Poplovsky himself is an interesting character worthy of a paragraph. The most apt portrait of him is that he is the Ukrainian version of Liberace. He adorns himself in the most garish get-up, and his videos are some of the most ridiculous things one can see on television here, legendary for their bad taste. Most educated people seem to think he is a total clown, but he has money, and in this country it begets power. Through personal connections, he ascended to the head of the National Arts and Culture University in Kiev, and via his popularity was elected to the Verkovna Rada, Ukraine’s lone governing body. Natasha’s devotion to Poplovsky is borderline slavish and visibly evident, though she is content to continue to write songs for him to sing even though she never sees a red cent. It keeps her connected, and has allowed her thick-necked son to attend Poplovsky’s university.
Apparently, knowing how to use the Internet makes one a computer expert. After a failed explanation about disposable toner cartridges (which required two calls to her 16-year old daughter Yana who speaks good English and, surprise, works and trains at the gym which leases from Natasha’s center), we sit for a few moments and talk. She serves me what is far and away the best cup of coffee I have had since leaving the states (it is all instant here, which has made a tea drinker out of me). A few moments later, a man I recognize from the recording studio at the youth center enters the room with a CD-R in his hand. After some back and forth in Ukrainian, Natasha stands up and yells “Salo!”
What has just arrived is a copy of a song composed by Natasha for Mikhail Poplovsky about salo, the quintessential Ukrainian delicacy. It is a sashimi-sized portion of raw pork fat with seldom a sliver of pink flesh, most certainly an acquired taste. Natasha wrote a little pop ditty about it, which Paplovsky sang at his Women’s Day concert while bikini-clad women went around the audience with trays of the dish. Unfortunately, she was unable to attend to concert, so this was the first recording of Paplovsky’s rendition which she heard. She puts in the CD, adjusts the volume to eleven, and leaps out of her chair in excitement. Within moments, I am roped into dancing like a fool and singing a tune whose only lyrics I can make out are in a chorus chant, “Oy, Oy, Oy, Oy!” Before I depart, I am to hear the Salo song four more times, including two remixed versions. I leave with three small Poplovsky calendars, each more ridiculous than the one preceding it, and a grin from ear to ear.Basking in the glow of Poplovsky
Divorce was uncommon in the Soviet era, though it has been on the rise ever since. Growing up in a single parent household has effects on mother and child alike, though the arrangement is of even greater difficulty in a resource-deprived situation. Trust me, I know. Natasha has her hands in seemingly everything in Brovary, yet she still manages to make it home in time to serve dinner to her children, as well as host a Peace Corps volunteer. She is the type of person for whom there are not enough hours in a day, and the operations of the youth center are a testament to her seemingly boundless creative energy. It is reaffirming to see a strong single woman succeeding in this milieu.
Years and years of scarcity and internal politicking within party ranks led to the formation of networks that can get one most anything if he/she plays the cards right. Part of the reason the shelves were barren for so long in Soviet shops was because people knew how to get what they needed to survive long before such products reached the end of the supply chain. Many of these networks still exist in Ukraine, and they are integral to the day-to-day operations here. This is how things get done. Natalya Bagmut is a product of this system. I tip my cap to her, as she has found a way against all odds to do what she loves and has worked within the parameters of the prevailing system to make a better living for her children.
PS--I have the Salo song ripped to mp3 now, and can happily send it along to anyone with enough disk quota in their inbox. My hope is that it may someday become a mainstay among peer-to-peer file sharing networks.
|Monday, March 22nd, 2004|
A few entries have been logged thus far, with very few details about my daily life at present here in Ukraine. I am certain some of you have already grown tired of the long, interpretive offerings, and some probably have ceased reading all together due to this. To those of you wondering what exactly I have been doing, this is your entry.
First, let me start by pointing you in the direction of the web site of a colleague of mine in Brovary. He is posting photos about once a week, and while some aren't very flattering (the lens never did love me), they should give you a sense of what I've been up to here in town.Don Handley's Web Log -- Peace Corps/Ukraine Photos
I had a second entry about Women's Day and the transition to being a babushka, but unfortunately it appears I have overwritten it on disk. I need to check my laptop and see if I can rescure it, for it would be a pity to have lost about two hours of work.
As I indicated before, I am undergoing intensive language training to become conversational – or, at the very least, not a muttering fool – in the next three months. What was initially slated to be 200 hours of class time will likely be less, as our instructor has retooled our lessons to account for the dynamics of the group. I still can’t converse beyond a few lines, though I am absorbing the language at a much greater pace than my counterparts. I have processed roughly one semester’s worth of grammar in two weeks, whereas at the other end of the spectrum, the slowest in our group still has incredible difficulty even picking up the character set and sounding out syllables. Along with one other colleague, I now receive between two and three hours of instruction six days a week. Coupled with the heap of extra domashnaya rabota (homework), language study occupies between six to eight hours daily.
In addition to the language component, we have been receiving technical training two or three times a week to better prepare us for working in Ukraine. So far, this has included visits to several organizations to learn about how they function, where they receive funding from, what services they provide to the community, what their shortfalls are, etc. Next week, we are scheduled to begin an internship at a local business center, though none of us are certain quite what this means. This internship will carry on until the close of Pre-Service Training and will culminate in a final project. The internship is to serve as an introduction to working at a Ukrainian NGO, as well as an opportunity to learn how to work with an interpreter. I have already secured mine – a sweet 16 year-old girl named Yulia, the granddaughter of a friend of the family who speaks English of which I am envious.
The first of the local visits was to an after school arts and culture center in my neighborhood. The Director of the center, the previously mentioned Natalya Bagmut, is a flashy woman of incredible energy that sets the tempo for this impressive establishment. After school centers were popular institutions in the Soviet era, though far fewer exist presently because of a lack of resources. The organization operates on a modestly successful hybrid model – it receives some local government funding, a few small sponsorships from the private sector, and it also leases out space to a handful of for-profit enterprises as well (one of which being Goll Gym, my adopted inner sanctum).
The programs offered by the center are wide-ranging and uniformly impressive. Children ages 5 -18 can enroll in drawing, painting, ballet, dance, martial arts, music, recording arts, voice lessons, and arts and crafts free of charge. The center survives due to the tireless devotion of a very talented and underpaid staff (the Director makes 350 HRN/month, or roughly $70), and is very much a labor of love. We had the opportunity to see the ballet group perform last week, my first such experience, and I must say it was remarkable. There were maybe eight or nine set pieces, each intricately choreographed and deftly executed. The prevailing thought in my head the entire time was about the sheer amount of time and energy expended in the production of this recital, which was intended as a progress report to local government officials. The group was fortunate enough to travel last summer to Lebanon to perform for the First Lady, and one could sense what a thrill this must have been for these young people, many of whom are destined to live and die here in Brovary.
We also visited the orphanage in Brovary, though despite agreeing to a specified time, neither the Director nor Vice-Director introduced us to its operations. Growing up an orphan anywhere is difficult; growing up an orphan here is hell. In lower income countries, foster care is non-existent and adoption is rare. Most of the children there were either abandoned, or their parents were deemed unfit by the state. The building is dilapidated and the interior is equally shabby, and these are young people whose great needs outstrip this society’s ability to provide for them. Myself and another volunteer may go back there on Sundays to play football or basketball with a few of the teenagers.
At some point this week we are to meet the mayor of Brovary, though like many things in Ukraine, seeing is believing. The “Insha’allah” mentality is firmly in place here. We shall see.
We had a session yesterday on the history of Ukraine, which was highly informative and interesting. I enjoyed sharing different perspectives with our presenters (who are also our language instructors) – it was fascinating to see of Ukrainian history through their lenses, as the information was given to them in the Soviet system. People here have an incredible sense of tact, perhaps the by-product of a totalitarian past where one’s words could lead to his/her undoing. It was amusing to listen to them delicately address the Stalin era with the grace and ease of a diplomat. We had to opportunity to look into the personal lives and experience of our instructors through numerous photographs, clippings, and honors from their youth. The session also produced some photos of myself in traditional Cossack garb (minus the shaved head and flowering moustache). I also learned how to make a mean bowl of borshch.Mikhail Teodorovich
March 20th has passed, and trainees are now free to visit Kiev. A group went from Brovary today, though I opted not to join them. Kiev can wait. There are more important things right now, such as digesting the language study. The two groups in Brovary are the closest to the capital, so it is no great undertaking to go and visit. I will inevitably make several trips there before I bid farewell to this burgh. I am sure it will be even lovelier in the spring.
All tolled, Peace Corps activities occupy between about twelve hours every day, far more than the standard full-time job. Worldwide, the first three months prior to swearing in are far and away the most difficult – the toughest time of “the toughest job you’ll ever love”. This is the period when most people either reaffirm their commitment to the life and the work or decide that they aren’t cut out for it. I think we have a candidate for the latter in my language group – Carol, the 69 year-old from New York City that exudes everything it means to be from New York. Born on Long Island, I know the type all too well. If her pulmonary edema doesn’t earn her an early trip home, her ability to adjust might preclude her from completing service. I would be amazed if she made it the full 27 months. I will speak at greater length about her and the others in my language cluster (which is functionally my social circle for the next three months) in a later entry.
As for me, I am progressing through this period quite well. I still struggle mightily with the language, but it is to be expected at this point. Though we are overloaded, I am filing much of it away into passive storage where it will one day require activation. Beyond that, I have few, if any, complaints whatsoever, though I imagine that I am somewhat unique in this. Most in my immediate surroundings are grappling with their own respective issues as they adjust. It is, in many ways, the most difficult thing I have ever done – a far more difficult transition than going away to Penn at 17. And yet, I’ve never felt better. It can be amazing when you realize that you still possess the ability to surprise yourself. It makes you wonder about what you may have missed out on, and what more you can accomplish.
|Wednesday, March 17th, 2004|
|Spanish bombs, yo te quiero infinito
I learned recently of a Peace Corps policy which states that all material published during one’s stint in the Corps is public domain and cannot be copyrighted. I am thus obligated to begin this entry with a compulsory disclaimer: the opinions expressed within this journal are those of Michael Kreidler and in no way officially represent the viewpoints of either Peace Corps/Ukraine or the federal government of the United States of America.
With that unpleasantness aside, “Let’s roll…”
I caught wind this week of the tragic bombing in Madrid, which to no one’s surprise was initially attributed by the Spanish government to ETA. The public outpouring of support was rather moving: 500,000 somber people huddled in the rain honoring the dead and posing a question we all asked ourselves on September 11 – why? I can imagine that for many people in Spain the war has finally hit home, though in Ukraine the “war against terror”, while grotesque and incomprehensible, actually coincides with the first peaceful time ever in this nation.
The burden of history weighs heavily upon the national identity and collective psyche of Ukraine. Situated at the confluence of several powerful kingdoms, the wide sweeping steppe was difficult to fortify and prone to invasion. Slavs, Poles, Mongols, Tatars, and later Russians all took turns occupying Ukraine (whose closest translation is “borderland”). In tsarist Russia, the Ukrainian language was prohibited to the point where it was an offense punishable by death. Ukrainian nationalism has been widely suppressed over time, though it certainly resided in the hearts and minds of the people here through the words of the 19th century poet Taras Shevchenko (every home inevitably bears his likeness in some form – my own residence has a wall-sized carpet of the bushy bard). Nationalism suffered a major blow in the 1930s when a famine was artificially engineered under Stalin to punish Ukrainian opposition to the Soviet system (the death toll equaling four million, a quiet holocaust of which few are even aware).
The jewel in the crown of the former Soviet Union, Ukraine served both as its breadbasket and its industrial workhorse. Hitler coveted its rich farmland and the heavily industrialized Donetsk basin in his push to the oil flats of the Caspian Sea. The devastation left by the “Great Patriotic War” (World War II, of which Russia bore the overwhelming cost – between 20 and 25 million dead by most estimates, or about one in every six Russians and roughly 40% of casualties globally). What followed was nothing easier. The communist state – that which Reagan’s dubbed the “Evil Empire” – practically crushed the will of the people, which even I can still sense in everyday life here. Independence finally arrived in 1991, but the damage of the 20th century was severe and will continue to linger on indefinitely. Ukrainians are a people with a deep sense of history, though Ukraine is a nation whose history is but a decade old.
Why have I gone through such great lengths to give you a primer on 1,000 years of Ukrainian history?
Because I would like for you to understand that the current post-Soviet generation is the first in the history of this land to ever be “free” – free of war, occupation, feudalism, famine, purges, and totalitarian control. Pause to think about that for a moment. This is the first time Ukraine has been “free”.
The ramifications of this newfound freedom are complex and difficult to comprehend, for both myself and Ukrainians alike, as the country lurches forward abruptly. After the wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled, the big question in this part of the world was, “Now what?” It is one still echoed by the majority of people here as the question has gone unanswered for nearly fifteen years.
The transition from state control to a market economy has been painful for an overwhelming number of Ukrainians. In the absence of a strict legal framework, people with old political connections brokered deals to ensure that the sell off of the state assets of resource-rich Ukraine ended up in the hands of a few firms and individuals. The result has been nothing short of oligarchy, with the people being bent over a barrel and fucked out of what was rightfully theirs. In 1996, checks went out to every eligible individual in Ukraine who formerly worked for state-owned enterprises as restitution for the auction of the assets to the private sector. Most people received about 40 hryvna (under $8). For many, particularly the older generation, the euphoria associated with independence has quickly dissipated. It has yielded to bitter resentment towards the individuals that sold the people down the river and thus ensured their lingering day-to-day struggle for economic survival.
As in the United States, the gulf between the insanely rich and the abject poor is widening. Functionally, there is no middle class in Ukraine, which in theory is one of the strategic goals of Peace Corps in the country – to provide technical skills that engender the development of a civil society. Our paltry stipend – 18 hryvna per day ($3.60), or the amount necessary to live at the level of our counterparts – is still more than twice the monthly salary of medical doctors. I am mindful of this in my interactions with host country nationals of all walks of life, particularly with the family with whom I am staying. Sadly, my monthly allowance actually makes me the breadwinner of this household.
Western-style capitalism has brought with it a more robust media marketplace, and with it the ostentatious affirmations of the good life. In stark contrast, BMWs coexist with crippled babushkas. Unlike the past, people can now see what they cannot afford. With a practically non-existent job market, every public service faltering and negative population growth, the social fabric of Ukraine is being stretched in a way different than in the recent past. Life under the communist state was shit, but through rather cold comfort the Soviet Union did provide certainty and a modicum of stability. Ukraine now looks to an uncertain future of rapid, uneven growth and development not experienced by the majority of the population. Many are left to question whether or not all of this is the price of liberation.
In spite of all of this, life in Ukraine is somehow better now than before. Commodity prices are relatively stable, and there is food to be found on the shelves. There are a few green shoots (more of which I will speak about at a later date). I feel somewhat privileged to be in Ukraine at this particular junction in its history, and that in some miniscule way I may be able to affect the ability of a few individuals to foster positive change for the betterment of this country.
I apologize for the pedagogic entry, but I felt it was important to provide some context as to the political, economic, and social situation here in Ukraine. This is the backdrop to my work and the environment in which I will be living for the next 27 months. Certain themes delineated here will undoubtedly be reiterated time and time again as I move further into my service. I do have another entry lined up – we’ve been doing some interesting activities as part of our pre-service training – and it should be posted soon.
|Wednesday, March 10th, 2004|
When I was about five years old my mother gave me an almanac, because she likely knew that I would spend hours memorizing facts in silence, thus creating some space for her. I used to know all of the flags for the nations of the world, though there was one that was notably absent – the Soviet Union. My brother, who was nine at the time, had drawn a small tank on the page firing shots at the Soviet banner and had crossed out the flag with ink. Never in my life did I ever think that I would be living and working in what was once so forbidden and on the other side.
After scoring a bottle of champagne gratis for my birthday courtesy of Lufthansa (which I proceeded to share a round of toast with about twenty volunteers) and leaving a box of Godiva on the plane intended as a gift for my host family, I arrived in Ukraine on March 3rd. I was part of a group of 62 Peace Corps volunteers sent to Ukraine with little idea of where we were heading, nor what we would be doing either. Nearly fifteen handlers rounded us up onto three buses, and once President Leonid Kuchma cleared the airport, we departed from the outskirts of Kiev. We spent the next three days at the Post Graduate Institute undergoing a rigorous orientation with limited free time and resources – a per diem of 18 hrvnyia, or roughly $3.60. On the final day, we learned both the make-up and location of our language clusters, the small functional groups of four volunteers who will spend twelve weeks together during the Pre-Service Training period. To my delight I drew Russian, though unfortunately I am the only person under age 50 in my language cluster.
Last Saturday we were shuttled to Brovary, a town of 90,000 roughly 20 kilometers northeast of Kiev which serves largely as a bedroom community for the capital. We met our host families in the central square – I am staying with Mikolai and Katyerina Olyanetska, a doctor and his wife in their early 60s, and their 26 year-old son Ruslan. They are an interesting couple, he a gruff man of few words (with some serious Moonraker action going on in his mouth, like most people over 25 in this part of the world, unfortunately), and she a effervescent babushka who is more than delighted to teach me Russian and stuff me until I am ready to burst. Ruslan works late hours at a customs house in Kiev (pronounced kEEv, you savages), and is rarely seen. On balance, the situation has been great thus far. There is far less activity in this household than in those of my colleagues, which affords me the space and time to concentrate on my language study.
Over the next twelve weeks, I will undergo 200 hours of intensive language training in four hour intervals, which roughly amounts to two years of university Russian. Upon learning of my cluster, I immediately flagged a potential item of concern for myself and relayed it to Peace Corps staff – whether or not a group of mature learners would be able to keep pace given the added difficulty of learning a new language at an advanced age. My suspicions we not unfounded – I am running circles around them, and am doing quite well at adjusting and absorbing Russian. I haven’t felt this advanced since first grade, in which I spent a whopping six days (though I swear I have been getting progressively dumber ever since). The character set is a major hurdle for many people, but the language behaves like Latin in many ways (a language which I rocked the casbah in a long while ago), and is easier than English in a variety of manners as well. Our language instructor Tatiana (who spent two years at Penn, oddly enough) has taken to given me extra assignments and making other minor adjustments to keep me engaged during the four hours daily. Few PCVs ever test at full fluency upon exiting, though I am determined to crush this language barrier and achieve that. If I play my cards right, I can attain fluency in Russian and proficiency in Ukrainian (and that is a big if…)
I had been in the country merely five days before I joined a gym – not Gold’s Gym, but “Goll Gym”, a mere 50 paces from the flat where I am staying. Like most western luxuries, it costs about as much here as it would in the states (110 hryvnia, about $21/month unlimited), which means that it is unattainable for the lion’s share of the population. It is one, however, I am allowing myself to splurge on – we are supposed to be living at the level of our Ukrainian counterparts (hence the paltry per diem), and the last thing I want to do is create any class-based tensions during my time here. My host mother’s eyes nearly rolled back in her skull when I told her I joined, fully aware of the relative cost (as a doctor, her husband makes just a little more than minimum wage, about 300 HRN a month, or less than $60). Economics aside, it feels great to be back in the house – Arnold famously quipped that the pump is like coming, and while I don’t even remotely hit that high, I am nonetheless thrilled to have discovered such a facility so soon. “Goll Gym” is of western quality, minus the treadmills and the disclaimers on every machine (which leads me to believe personal injury lawsuits are nonexistent here). I thought that if I wanted exercise in the winter I was going to have to go all Rocky IV, but alas this is not the case.
Beyond that, Brovary is a rather nondescript small city bearing the ugly scars of its centrally planned past. There is much I would like to photograph during the wintertime in neutral light, though I am uncomfortable with that at this point and that will likely have to wait in order to be culturally sensitive to my adopted community. You would raise some questions if some slack-jawed fuck walked up your street and started snapping photos inexplicably, especially if the camera he was carrying was worth nearly two months of your salary. I’m eating lunch on the cheap, because word travels fast in a community like this if a person is seen dining out every day. I’m sure they can spot me, though I happen to think I blend rather well – I actually had three fellow volunteer trainees (all women, strangely) ask whether or not I am of Russian descent. Just because I have short hair combed forward and I walk around with a scowl on my face it doesn’t mean I am Russian… ;)
Everything is new and interesting, as to be expected, though I feel remarkably well-adjusted and less green than most who have been in country less than a week. The novelty of Ukraine hasn’t entirely worn off, though I am somewhat amazed, I must say, in the way I am reacting to it thus far. It is in many ways what I expected, and despite entirely alien surroundings, a language which I speak at the level of a five year-old, and being half a world away from friends and loved ones, I feel fine. All of this is leading me to believe more and more that I am not only cut out for this kind of work, but that it may actually be my calling. The trip to Nigeria six months ago had a profound influence on me, and among other things it helped me to temper my expectations (or abandon them altogether) and set the bar low. There are phenomenal people doing tremendous work everywhere in the world against the backdrop of deplorable situations, and Ukraine is likely no different. It is in transition, though, and one can get a sense of this on the street here nearly every day. The ever accelerating rate at which change occurs, even in the West, can be staggering and psychologically displacing. Though I have yet to experience enough to make such judgments, I can sense what the pundits are referring to when they say Ukraine is at a critical juncture in its existence. I will certainly be commenting on this heavily in the coming years.
I start an internship next week in Brovary at yet another undisclosed location as part of the technical skills component of Pre-Service Training. We also have a closed door session with the mayor, too, and I suspect that I may be thrust into representing the group because I speak the best Russian thus far.
I apologize for the length of this entry. I could have spent the time filling it with trivialities and how numerous little things are different here, but that is conversation better saved for a bar or a hookah someday upon my return. I have such infrequent access (in part due to hordes of teenagers clogging up every Internet café and wasting the bandwidth playing first-person pursuit games a la Doom over a network) that I need to make it worthwhile.
If you elect to respond, please include any snippets of relevant news from stateside, FC Barcelona scores, etc., in addition to what is going on in your respective lives. I hear through the grapevine that John Ashcroft is clinging to life? The sucking sound you may have just heard is me being in a total vacuum.
PS—The women here are amazingly beautiful, though I will save my thoughts on that for a later time, perhaps when I am more qualified to do so. ;)
|Tuesday, March 2nd, 2004|
|This time I called to say good bye
If you are reading this, it is because you received an email from me. This means that I value you enough to have extended the invitation to peek into my world as it continues to develop in the coming years. It conveys no special privilege, but only that in one way or another, I consider you to be a "friend". I happen to think it is a pretty good place to be.
I make no promises as to the evolution of this journal. Like most anything during Peace Corps, one needs to set his/her expectations low. Whatever does end up making it in here will hopefully be content worthwhile enough for you to turn your head at your desk and read for a few brief moments. It's a simple message, and I'm leaving out the whistles and bells.
Thank you to the many people who played a role in helping me make it here in one piece. Names need not be mentioned, for you know who you are. It has meant a lot to me.
I haven't had much time to catch my breath in recent times, though this was able to hold my attention for a few moments. I have a distinct feeling that every now and again I will miss having access to things like this. Shop At Home Moron
I should get some sleep now. I just may have a compelling enough reason to get out of bed this morning.
-M Current Mood: indescribable