What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “Ukraine?” For most Americans, Ukraine, is automatically associated with Russia. It’s an obvious mistake as a carryover from the “U.S.S.R.” Ukraine officially declared itself an independent state on August 24, 1991. The U.S.S.R. ended on December 26, 1991 when the Supreme Soviet voted to dissolve.
Yes, Ukraine is independent and full of people to meet and sites to see. Getting to know new friends is the bonus when visiting Ukraine.
No, this is not a paid endorsement of Ukraine. I just want to share what I’ve learned about Ukraine and it’s culture since my adventure started 14 years ago. So, when I refer to culture, what is that exactly? The simple answer today is everything you can think of! I could take the time to refer to historical culture. That information can be found anywhere.
I want to share my own first hand knowledge and experiences of real Ukrainians. First things first. What’s “Culture?”
The definition of the word “Culture,” can be a little confusing. First, it can be defined as a reference to the historical past. Second, beliefs of a society along with what people know and how they behave. Third, customs, individual attitudes, morals, values and goals.
Let’s leave the past in the past except for one fact. Most Ukrainians identify with traditions.
Family, holidays, celebrations and even superstitions are all part of the foundation of how they think and live life today. Most of our friends believe that it’s important to find time to respect traditions born from the past. Spending time with family on holidays and celebrating special occasions can sometimes seem like a daily event.
More fun stories from Bill and Larisa
Ukrainians have a saying! (Loosely translated) “There are holidays for holidays and everyday is a holiday!” Did I forget to mention that Ukrainians have a great sense of humor?
So, what are the beliefs in Ukrainian culture today? Most strive for the same things in life as you do. Stability, happy family life, money, good job, own a home, have a car. Aren’t these the dreams of most around the world? That’s if you’re speaking about this generation up to the age of 60.
For pensioners here, they might think much differently. Many of the older generation wish for the past when stability was a common word. The time when decisions were made for you. You had a place to live based on your job or social stature in society. You know? The time before the fall of the wall.
In today’s world, there are no easy answers. Just like in most democratic societies, hard work and planning for the future are keys to success.
In the early nineties, life in Ukraine was real tough, if not impossible. When the wall fell, everything as Ukrainians knew it, was completely turned upside down. Worse yet, nobody could plan for the future. It was all about daily survival. Where to live. What to eat. A job that actually paid money that was worth something.
Those who experienced that turbulent time, understand what it takes to survive in the most difficult and challenging circumstances.
For most Ukrainians today, life is good, but could be better. Ukrainians are willing to work for what they have, but they must conform to the way things get done. By International standards, Ukraine is considered a second world country.
For most, the standard of living only improves if one is willing to work hard. Often this is accomplished by accepting contracts for work in other countries. Many men and women work in neighboring countries for short periods of time. Unfortunately, the wage standard in Ukraine is less than what is required to fulfill most Ukrainians dreams.
Ukrainians want to be treated with respect. They want to have the freedom to travel. They want the same opportunities afforded to others more fortunate.
Ukraine has undergone many changes since the early nineties. As a young country, there are many unknowns. Having been told countless stories of challenges and impossibilities, I understand how lucky I am to have grown up in America.
Learning another culture will be a life changing experience no matter how much you learn. Piece by piece, I’ve worked on the Ukrainian culture puzzle for the past fourteen years. When America and Ukraine are compared as countries, there are three main differences.
The Rule of Law! Trust in government. Trust in the courts. The Rule of Law!
Freedom! Freedom of speech. Freedom to travel without restrictions. Freedom!
Opportunities! Jobs. Education. Business ownership. Opportunities!
I’d like to finish with a short story. I have many stories to share that are unimportant to most. However, if you are one who’s lived and experienced tough times, you’ll appreciate this as retold in my words.
This story brought tears to my eyes the first time my sweetheart shared it. My wife, Larisa, has told me many stories from the nineties. A challenging time for Ukrainians.
A Bag of Walnuts & A Train Ride To Moscow.
In the nineties, times were tough. Especially the early nineties. In many ways, Ukraine could be compared to the wild, wild west. There were more jobs in the big cities, but getting paid was a challenge at the very least.
If you were lucky enough to work anywhere, come payday, a handful of something was better than nothing.
If you received money, that was the exception. If you were paid with a bottle of champagne, you could pop the cork and celebrate right on the spot or do the next best thing.
The barter system was alive and well during those unpredictable times. If you worked in a textile mill, you were paid with a bag of socks. Working in a bakery, got you a loaf or two. You might have even received a couple fish, a box of chocolates or coupons in place of hard cash.
What about two fish, a bottle of champagne, a box of chocolates, a pair of socks and coupons? You get the idea. The plan was to eat it, drink it, wear it or barter for what you needed.
With time and the right contacts, you could trade for something that might be more useful than a closet full of stuff.
Things were even tougher in the villages. Thank God, bartering was alive and well there too! In fact, it still is. Trading what you grew for sugar, rice, salt or flour was the general practice. Of course, if you were lucky enough to have a walnut tree or two, a good harvest could fetch top dollar. Oops, I mean Rubles or Karbovanets now known as the Grivna.
Shelling walnuts is always a family affair. Everyone gathers in a room with a heavy blunt object and a piece of wood.
It was October 1994 and time to sell those walnuts. Just one small challenge. Where to sell and how to get there. Add to that the need for a large bag of some kind. Think of a super large duffel bag known in Ukraine as a kravchuchka. Just one problem. You couldn’t buy a duffel bag in any shop. There weren’t any available. Even if you could find one in a big city, it would cost more than the walnuts would sell for. So, time to turn that old blanket into a duffel bag.
Larisa is the seamstress in the family. She’d just finished University with a degree in fashion design or something close to that. My wife is so creative! Back then, they had a mechanical hand-me-down sewing machine. You know? The type with the hand crank that is tough as nails and lasts forever. It took a day or two to put all the pieces together.
Larisa’s mother (Luda) knew friends in the village that also had walnuts to peddle. Two sisters who had relatives just outside Moscow were planning a trip to sell their walnuts. It wasn’t their first time. Not a big deal if you live down the street. That would have been easy. Larisa’s family home was located in a small village in the south of Ukraine.
By train, that trip north to Moscow was an eighteen hour, one way journey. The ride from the village to the train station was one hour by bus. I think that same bus is still in service today!
Forgetting the fact that private citizens transporting goods for sale across the border was illegal. Doing it by train was a total no-no. That is unless you paid the porter a little cash to look the other way. The other challenge was the border patrol. They always entered the train to verify documents.
Anyone found out to be transporting goods for sale could be removed from the train and have their stuff confiscated.
Hiding all your baggage under the bottom bunk was the only way to have a chance at getting through the border. Each room has, what is known as a “Wagon,” there are 4 beds. Two below and two above in very tight quarters. Just barely enough room for four passengers let alone huge bags of contraband.
No doors. Lot’s of feet stretching into the isle. Thank heaven, everyone made it safely to Moscow.
After spending the night in a small flat on the outskirts of Moscow, it was time to sell, sell, sell. The ladies made their way to the area outside a market and then split up. With walnuts and a small cup, they started selling to anyone walking by. The market was not a food store. It was the local market with dozens of sellers.
Clothes, fruit, vegetables, jewelry. Just about anything you can imagine. It’s called a “Renok.” Translated, it means “Street Market.”
It took six days for the ladies to sell all those walnuts. Not sure how much they brought in, but you can use your imagination. It surely wasn’t a king’s ransom. Time to head home. Another eighteen hour train ride that was thankfully, uneventful.
Luda recalls catching a glimpse of a few sights from the train window as it passed through the city. The Kremlin, and a huge stadium. It was her first time in Moscow. It was her first trip to Russia.
Larisa’s mother was gone for nine days. She returned with enough money to buy some food and pay the gas bill. When you think about where you live and all the difficulties you’ve faced since birth, know this! Learning another culture and the challenges others have endured, helps everyone to better understand and appreciate life.
If you are privileged to meet and get to know others from around the world, pass along their culture and life stories.