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September 28, 2004

The Ukraine through the Eyes of Jim Hundreiser

Living Room Dialogue with Jim Hundrieser

Jim spent two weeks in the Ukraine last summer visiting a good friend who is in the Peace Corps in the town of Nikolaev. During the Soviet times, this shipping center on the Black Sea was regarded by the government as so sensitive that people were confined there and given few opportunities to leave it. It is therefore somewhat inbred.

His friend was working with women to develop businesses, mostly to provide services, such as laundries. She helped them develop computer skills and taught business practices such as how to screen employees. She also taught some people English.

The life style of the people was very meager. Everyone was given their home when the USSR broke up, but children are now grown up, housing is scarce, so living conditions are crowded. There is no public transportation and people often walk several miles to work -- when they have work. Jobs are also scarce and bribery is often involved to get one. Salaries are low, with a schoolteacher making $90 a month, for example. In the winter, heat is minimal, houses are kept at 55 to 60 degrees and there is no hot water. People have only a few outfits to wear over and over.

Old people and children were begging in the streets, sometimes reaching for your food in an outdoor cafe. He was advised not to give anything for fear of attracting a horde.

Sixty percent of the people say they would prefer to return to communism where everyone's basic needs were met and there was always heat and hot water, even though there were long lines for food, etc. Everyone could have a car, although you had to wait for it, perhaps three years. Many cars on the streets now are from the 1970s that people are managing to keep going. In general, people take good care of what little they have.

The buildings in Nikolaev were in a state of disrepair, although people invested resources in keeping up their own living spaces inside them. Construction in Soviet days was poor. Some days there would be no power or water.

As a college administrator, he was interested in schools. He did speak to some students in student life programs and found that they did not seem to have long-term goals. They seemed to have little hope for the future. When he spoke to English clubs, the questions they asked about the U.S. were along the lines of how much does cable TV cost.

Alcoholism is rampant. He saw an old woman selling beer and cigarettes outside of an elementary school, with children as young as 6 or 7 purchasing it.

Sunflower products are a big export and huge fields of sunflowers are beautiful.

Brides are another export. The customs form featured an ad selling brides. There was a marriage hall, wedding planners and lawyers outside of customs. About 100 American men a month come to the Ukraine for brides. When he visited Yalta there were many American men making contracts for brides. One told him he was going to buy two!

Jim kept money available for routine bribes to pay off police officers who could be expected to stop you for flimsy reasons.

Around 250 peace corps volunteers are in the Ukraine. Many become frustrated because they find the sites are not organized to utilize them well. They came under the illusion they were going to change the world and change is unbelievably slow.

Jim came home with an appreciation of what we have in this country. But he also has been asking himself questions about how all the material things he has relates to him as a person, and about his value and purpose.

The Dialogue: Mail Order Brides: There was some discussion about the mail-order brides and a question about whether they were abused here. Some seem to be kept in submission. A selling feature is that a woman will be a traditional wife who serves her husband and family. When in the U.S. if a woman is abused she will often not tell police because in the Ukraine police are not trusted. The few women who return to the Ukraine are blamed and considered failures. Families encourage their women to make this bargain.

The Peace Corps: How do the people in the Ukraine assess the Peace Corps? Do volunteers see the relationship as a mutual one in which they will learn something as well as impart some of the skills? Jim replied it all depended on each volunteer; some made good relationships with Ukrainians, others tended to be aloof and perhaps arrogant. There was one who spoke only English, although the volunteers went through an intensive, three-month language course before they were sent to the country.

There was a comment that the Peace Corps can be seen as an extension of Imperialist America. At one time volunteers in a part of Africa were suspected to be spies.

Influence of the U.S.: A group of women in their 60s asked him why Americans need so much. Ukrainians like American TV: The favorite program of the moment seemed to be Sex and the City. They were especially interested in the costumes, consumerism. People save up to eat at McDonalds. Service is great at McDonalds, which employs many people.

There was a comment that in the U.S. there is "great pride" in destroying Communism, but there was no infrastructure there to replace a controlled economy with a market economy. Since there had not been ownership, ownership was not a concept that was understood or valued.

There was a question about whether there was an effort to value and preserve Ukraine traditions. These were attacked in Soviet days. People are returning to churches somewhat, Jim said. It seems they have to create a new culture, though.

Final reflections or insights:

  • That McDonalds has made it to the Ukraine.
  • How many different cultures were part of the USSR that are now trying to establish their own identities with few resources. This seems similar to countries in the European Union and the question of whether the member countries will be able to preserve their distinctive cultures. The USSR subsumed so much.
  • The day-to-day struggle of people living one on top of another.
  • How difficult it is coming out of the patterns of Communism to learn new ways, for example how to be entrepreneurial.
  • The issue of women. Also what we can learn from the survival of the churches and a deep spirituality that was preserved despite repression under Communism.
  • How great a struggle everyday life can be in most parts of the world and how ignorant I am about other parts of the world.
  • Each person in the U.S. leaves such a huge ecological footprint. We could use less but it's hard to give up, to make difficult practical choices. Look at how difficult is was for us in NY after the last blackout. We are so used to comfort.

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