Ukraine's Soviet Legacy
Written 2005, last update: Aug. 7, 2010
It's hard to write about Ukraine's life and society without feeling out of date. On the one hand, things are the same as they always have been. The culture's the same, the people are the same, the economic problems are the same. On the other hand, there are great expectations of major changes in the country in coming months and years. The Orange Revolution has become a symbol of the shift in Ukraine's society and mentality. Nonetheless, there are aspects of Ukrainian life and society that are long-lasting and unlikely to change in the immediate future.
In fact, just two months after the Orange Revolution (early March, 2005), there is already some disillusionment with the new government. Even leaders who recently declared all the "right" values demonstrate the authoritarian leadership pattern and Soviet-style non-transparency and behind-the-scenes trickery. Many government workers are scornful and use intimidation. The unjust and cumbersome Ukrainian (Soviet) government machine was and is Ukraine's biggest obstacle to socio-economic development.
Nonetheless, Ukrainians' civic awareness is steadily rising. As a result of the Orange Revolution people are slightly less apt to tolerate injustice. Maybe there will be more "revolutions" in the future, leading to a gradual democratization of society.
Despite recent developments, much of Ukraine's society is still very much dominated by memories of its Soviet past. In informal conversations people frequently mention the Soviet Union directly or in passing. People compare the way things are done now with Soviet times and try to understand Ukrainian life today by analyzing the Soviet roots of Ukrainians' behavior and attitudes. This effect is much stronger in the central and eastern regions of Ukraine that were added to the Soviet Union earlier than western Ukraine.
If you go to Kyiv and look around, at least 90% of the structures you see around you were built under the Soviet Union (note: by 2008 this proportion is clearly dropping, but still very high). If you go to smaller towns around the country — except for parts of western Ukraine — that proportion rises to 95 or 99% The buildings, the roads, the fences, the factories, the squares, the parks, the transportation, the infrastructure — everything was created by the Soviet Union. There are countless towns that are so stagnant that literally nothing has been built since the fall of the Soviet Union. Even in dynamic Kyiv the active construction that is taking place today is a drop in the bucket of what the Soviets built. Ukraine's society and economy have not yet come close to reaching the level of organization that existed in Soviet times.
The Soviets, much like the Egyptian pharaohs, left behind them grandiose monuments to the power of their state. Even after many of the Lenin statues have been torn down, the number of solemn oversized monuments in Ukraine is impressive. They are especially noticeable in small towns where nothing seems to be happening. These imposing cement and metal monuments were and still are a constant reminder of the grandeur of the Soviet empire and the littleness of its citizens. I am working on a collection of photos of Lenin from around Ukraine.
Although some things about the Soviet Union were oppressive and unpleasant to think about, at the same time the Soviet Union was a land of opportunity for many. It was a great place to be a scientist, for example. It was possible to travel all over the USSR (half of Asia and Europe!) for free to attend conferences, seminars, and participate in research and expeditions. Travel was inexpensive and very many ordinary people crisscrossed Eurasia on ordinary business and travel. Today's taxi driver in Sevastopol used to drive trucks through the Siberian tundra in the wintertime. Today's housewife in Kyiv grew up on Sakhalin Island next to Japan. The fine arts were well-developed and well-funded. Living in the Soviet Union gave you the chance to be a part of something big. As a well-known Soviet-era song goes:
My address is not a house nor a street,
My address is "the Soviet Union"
A downtrodden people?
For decades Soviet and post-Soviet societies have been famous for their self-criticism (even self-debasement) and cynical attitudes towards government and commerce. Foreigners have often noted how negative people are in Ukraine about their own country and mentality, and how low the national self-esteem is. The prevailing sentiment here has been that a nation's people (any nation) are just pawns in the hands of all-powerful governments. They project this attitude onto other nations as well; a large segment of the population, for example, finds it natural to assume that the U.S. government organized the September 11th terrorist attacks itself.
Ukrainians, Russians, and other post-Soviet societies, albeit the Baltic states, have lived under authoritarian governments for generations. The average person's distance to power is very great. People are used to leaders like ex-presidential candidate Yanukovich who only appear in public before the masses in carefully orchestrated situations and are protected from public inquiry by layers of bureaucracy and carefully controlled information channels. People are used to paternalistic government where one begs for handouts and personal favors instead of using standard codified procedures. Paternalism and the resulting bribery and corruption have a two-way relationship. Not only is it an integral part of the system, but it is embedded in the average citizen's mentality as well. Someone who is used to asking for favors as an underling immediately turns to handing out favors once he gains a position of power.
At the same time, "soft" procedures (as opposed to strict adherence to the rules) are not always a bad thing, since a softer approach sometimes allows greater fairness and following the spirit of the law rather than just the letter. For example, the December 3, 2004 Supreme Court decision to demand a repeat election run-off has widely been recognized as a fair and just resolution of allegations of election fraud. At the same time, many legal specialists have said that while the decision was fair, the legal basis for it was rather weak. Fairness and compromise seem to be a part of Ukrainians mentality as well as paternalism and distrust of government.
"Ukraine is not Russia" (Kuchma)
"Russia is our eternal strategic partner" (Yuschenko)
Because Ukraine was a part of the former Soviet Union and, before that, a part of the Russian empire, many people worldwide associate it with Russia. The two countries' histories, cultures, and languages are indeed intertwined. The western part has less of a common heritage with the Russia than the eastern half, of course. Approximately half of Ukrainians prefer to speak Ukrainian, a Slavic language that shares roots with Russian and Polish, while the other half considers Russian their mother tongue. The majority of Ukrainians are bilingual, easily understanding both Ukrainian and Russian.
Ukrainians' psychological ties with Russia remain very strong — especially in areas where the Russian language predominates. Russian TV stations are available all over the country, many TV shows from Russia are shown on Ukrainian TV stations, and Russian literature, music, and culture generally still have an allure for Ukrainians, though the two cultures may have grown apart somewhat in recent years. The existence of a common language and culture for so many Ukrainians is also a big factor in their relationship to Russia. Imagine meeting someone from halfway across the Earth (say, Vladivostok) who happens to share your language, idioms, thinking patterns, and sense of humor. That is what it means to speak Russian and have connections with Russia.
On the other hand, Ukrainians have a European-sized country, while Russians are ever preoccupied with their hopelessly large territory, ethnic issues, keeping order in the Caucasus... These territorial differences will probably cause the two nations to continue slowly drifting apart in coming decades, especially now that Yuschenko has declared that Ukraine will move towards the European Union. However, Ukraine has long been a "buffer state" and will likely remain one for many decades to come. It cannot afford to take sides or turn its back on any of its stronger neighbors.
(Added in October, 2008)
After Russia's recent conflict with Georgia, the situation has grown more complex. There are fears that Russia will support separatist tendencies in Crimea and pursue the creation of a new, pro-Russia state on the peninsula. The historical logic of such a state would be evident: Crimea was "arbitrarily" given to the Ukra inian SSR by Khruschev, and the peninsula has a different history and ethnic makeup than the rest of Ukraine. Four years of never-ending political crises and mutual accusations have left Ukraine's government weak and bereft of a clear political philosophy or foreign policy. Now both Georgia and Ukraine are viewed by the West as crucial players in a political showdown between NATO and an increasingly self-confident Russia.
(Added in August, 2010)
With pro-Russia leaders now in power — President Yanukovich and Prime-Minister Azarov — the tables have turned yet again. It seems likely that EU membership and particularly NATO membership are highly unlikely anytime soon (they were dubious to begin with), however, the country will continue to pursue closer economic and diplomatic ties with the EU insofar as it is practical. It is also clear now that in the long-term Ukraine will remain dependent upon Russia for energy and will make concessions to Russia when necessary to continue receiving that energy, even if politicians' public rhetoric seems to defy Russia. Ukraine's "borderland" status seems as well-entrenched as ever.