29 September 2007

Kiev, Ukraine: some observations

Yes, I'm back -- having braved jet lag, weather delays, Republican-infested airport restrooms, and other such hazards of modern travel to return to Portland. My three weeks in Kiev left me with a lot to think about, but here are a few preliminary observations.

A two-language country

Ukraine is a country with two languages, but the situation is not like that of Belgium or Canada in which the linguistic division reflects two distinct rival ethnic communities. A better analogy would be Ireland, whose history parallels that of Ukraine in certain respects. Most of Ukraine has been ruled by the Russian Empire (in its Tsarist and then Soviet incarnations) for centuries, with the result that Russian has displaced Ukrainian as the native language of the population in large parts of the country. Today the east and south are solidly Russian-speaking, while in the center and west large numbers of people speak Ukrainian as their native language, though the bigger cities still tend to be more Russian-speaking; Ukrainian becomes more predominant as one moves westward. (I should add that everyone in Ukraine, as in other former Soviet republics, can speak Russian, which was a mandatory subject in Soviet schools; the distinction I'm making here refers to people's native language.) The situation thus somewhat resembles the relative positions of English and Gaelic in modern Ireland. And as in Ireland, since independence the Ukrainian government has been trying to bolster the position of the original indigenous language. Ukrainian is the sole official language of the country, even though many Ukrainians, especially in the east and south, do not understand it; and patriotic feeling leads many people to favor the use of Ukrainian regardless of which language is their own primary one.

This has led to an odd form of bilingualism. In Kiev, in every case where I could identify the language people were speaking around me in casual conversation, it was Russian. Most newspapers and magazines I saw, and most books for sale in bookstores, were in Russian. All street signs, identifying signs on public buildings, and similar "official" notices were in Ukrainian, as were the majority of business signs and advertisements. I was sometimes given store receipts and restaurant checks which were partly in Ukrainian and partly in Russian. Having stayed only in Kiev itself, I don't know firsthand how closely the situation in other parts of the country resembles this. At least, unlike English and Gaelic (which are only distantly related and are very different from each other), Russian and Ukrainian are closely-related languages and are very similar to each other, and a native speaker of one can probably make a good deal of sense out of the other, especially in written form, even if he has never studied it.

The linguistic division seems to fuel a difference in cultural and political orientation. The east and south are more conservative, more authoritarian, more dominated by a wealthy "oligarch" class on the Russian model, and more in favor of close ties with Russia; in Ukrainian political shorthand, these areas are "blue". The center and west are more reformist, more open, more accepting of Western values, and more in favor of ties with the West; they are said to be "orange". This also reflects the fact that western Ukraine spent less of its history under Russian rule -- especially the far western region of Galicia, which spent the Renaissance under Polish and Austro-Hungarian control and never fell under Russian rule until the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland in 1939. However, the geographical split is not absolute. People of either persuasion exist everywhere, just as American "red" states contain some liberals while "blue" states have some conservatives. Kiev itself is something of an anomaly; though apparently mostly Russian-speaking, it is an "orange" electoral stronghold.

(Note: the spelling "Kiev" is based on the Russian form of the city's name. "Kyiv", based on the Ukrainian form, is commonly used in English-language materials printed in Ukraine. I'm sticking with "Kiev" here purely because it's the common spelling in English.)

This land is my land

Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, is a Ukrainian city. This might seem like a trite observation, but it reflects a fundamental difference between eastern and western Europe.

I've written before about the presence in most major western European cities of large Muslim minorities which subject the indigenous inhabitants to high rates of violent crime, create a general sense of menace, and constitute entrenched cells of alien culture which are resistant to assimilation and challenge the long-established native cultural character and identity of those cities (for more on this issue, see here and here, especially all the links, and of course this essential book). I saw not a trace of any such phenomenon in Kiev. The only cultural and behavioral norms apparent in Kiev are those of the indigenous Slavic society. Kiev belongs to the Ukrainians, period, in a way that Paris or London or Amsterdam can no longer be said to belong unequivocally to the French or British or Dutch.

Of course, this is partly because Ukraine is poorer than western Europe and thus less attractive to Muslim (or other Third World) immigrants. Yet even if this were not the case, it is difficult to imagine Ukrainians or most other eastern Europeans tolerating an indigestible and aggressive minority bullying and threatening them on their own turf. In contrast to western Europe, where resistance to Muslim intimidation has usually been stymied by the sniveling and tremulous political correctness which dominates elite opinion, Ukraine shows evidence of a robust and unabashed patriotism more resembling that of (most of) the United States. Ukrainian cultural and military heroes of the past are proudly remembered with large public monuments and with portraits on the national currency; the country's independence in 1991 is commemorated with an exuberantly gigantic monument in what is now called Independence Square, the heart of Kiev, dwarfing the other structures there (I was also told that each year's party-like independence day celebration lasts a full week); people wearing clothing with the distinctive blue-and-gold colors of the national flag were common enough to be noticeable. I saw nothing at all reminiscent of the sickly western European tendency to downplay national heroes, symbols, and identity out of fear that they might "offend" someone.

The beautiful people

One of the things that struck me most strongly about Kiev was the great physical attractiveness of the young people, especially the women. Part of the reason for this was straightforward. As one can confirm by looking around any crowded street or mall here, the majority of Americans are overweight, many very seriously so; even among people under 30, the number who are overweight is quite substantial. I saw hardly anyone under 30 in Kiev who was overweight at all; a remarkably high percentage of the young women had the kind of figure we have come to think of as almost impossibly perfect because it is relatively rarely seen any more in our own country.

And yet there was more to it than a simple matter of not being fat. Stunningly-pretty faces were everywhere, as if I had happened to arrive in town at the same time as a models' convention. I've been to many different places around the world, but have never seen a place where such a high percentage of the population seemed so well-favored in looks. I can think of no obvious explanation for this. Perhaps Ukraine simply got lucky with the random global distribution of genes.

Sadly, beauty proves fleeting. With advancing age, the country's meat-heavy diet and shocking rates of smoking and alcohol consumption take their toll; among middle-aged people, excess weight becomes more common, and people over 40 generally look less healthy than their American counterparts. We know from our own experience that smoking and drinking can be curtailed over time with vigorous public-health campaigns, but in these respects Ukraine has a long road ahead of it. I often saw people drinking beer in public as early as 7:00 AM, and these were not derelicts, but ordinary citizens. Stronger drink is also routinely consumed in eye-popping quantities. Smoking is also much commoner than in the West, and does not appear to be nearly as stigmatized. These things are true of most Slavic-speaking cultures, not only Ukraine. And, tragically, the people pay for these habits, not only with the loss of looks and health, but with life expectancies among the shortest in the developed world.

Forgive us, for we knew not what we did

One place I visited in Kiev was an open-air museum displaying Soviet military hardware used in the war in Afghanistan, complete with a memorial to the soldiers from Ukraine who died in that war (Ukraine, of course, was part of the Soviet Union at that time). To me, as an American, this memorial aroused complex feelings. At the time of that war, the United States supported the Afghans against our superpower rival, the Soviet Union. The logic of doing so at the time was obvious, yet I could not help remembering the wise words of Oriana Fallaci, who reminded us that it was actually the Soviet Union that was on the side of civilization in that conflict, fighting against something dark and medieval and barbaric which by its very nature presented an existential threat to everything non-Muslim, including the West. We found out, much later, just how right she was. If we had sat on our hands and let Afghanistan be absorbed into the Soviet Empire instead of lapsing back into the chaos that allowed the Taliban to transform it into a jihadist haven, would September 11 ever have happened?

The Soviet system needed to be overthrown. If it had not been, Ukraine itself would not be an independent and democratic nation today. But in the Soviet case the problem was only a matter of the political system; there is nothing inherent in Slavic culture that makes it hostile to our own. Being in Ukraine, I could see how much we have in common with people like the Ukrainians and Russians -- in contrast to those whom we helped fight against them in Afghanistan.

Other points

-- Ukraine is one of the most welcoming countries for American visitors. An American staying for less than three months does not even need a visa. Passport control and customs at Kiev's Boryspil Airport were the fastest and simplest I have ever been through in any country. Crime is much lower than in other eastern European countries, partly due to an intensive campaign to reduce it. In marked contrast to western Europe, I never ran into any anti-American hostility.

-- One unnerving thing about walking around Kiev is the fact that cars routinely park on the sidewalk. Kiev was never designed to cope with the sheer numbers of cars which swarm through it today, and the supply of normal parking is pitifully inadequate. The sidewalks, however, are invitingly wide (the sidewalks of Khreshchatik, Kiev's main street, must be fifty or sixty feet wide). Not only are sidewalks all over the place choked with parked cars, but it is common to see a car pull out of traffic, mount the curb, and cruise slowly along the sidewalk among the pedestrians, looking for a free spot to park. This is not as dangerous as it sounds, but it takes some getting used to.

-- Aside from World-War-II-era monuments, the main relic of the Soviet system is a very erratic grasp of the concept of customer service. Restaurants seem to have done best at moving away from such habits, and eating out was always a pleasant experience; at the post office on Volodimirska Street where I went to buy stamps, on the other hand, I was treated with rudeness worthy of the most arrogant tinpot bureaucrat to be found in any Third World backwater.

-- People do not smile much. This is simply a cultural habit and does not reflect unfriendliness, but it's something that visitors need to be aware of lest they misinterpret it.

-- I want to say thanks to "Wali" from Donetsk for taking me around the Pechersk area, talking me into trying vodka, and everything else you did, even though I know there's not a chance in Hell you'll ever read this.

So there you have it. I'll be posting more over the next few days, and will of course also be watching the outcome of the Ukrainian parliamentary election tomorrow.

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