Ukraine is undergoing profound change and is grappling with the challenge of finding its place, and identity, in Europe.
The Orange Revolution illuminated Ukraine, in the eyes of the outside world, with a fleeting flash of colour before the country faded away again into the grey of relative obscurity.
People from the western reaches of Europe, myself included, tend to see this former Eastern Bloc country, despite its size and proximity, as a single block with its neighbours and fail to notice the nuances of its own individual identity. My recent visit to the country provided me with the opportunity to see it in its own light.
The impression I came away with is that this is a society that has been undergoing profound change since it gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and remains in a major state of flux. Mass emigration and falling birth rates are already causing depopulation, with its attendant social side-effects, and the growing economic inequality sparked by economic liberalisation has led to widespread dissatisfaction.
“The redistribution of national wealth in post-soviet Ukraine has been accompanied by a considerable polarisation of living standards,” observes Iryna Prybytkova, a professor at the Ukrainian Academy of Science's Institute of Sociology. “Almost every second Ukrainian is not satisfied with his/her life in general.”
This situation is reflected to a certain extent in the topography of golden-domed Kiev. The Ukrainian capital, one of Europe's greenest cities and one of eastern Europe's oldest urban centres, has experienced a mushrooming of shopping malls, filled with top international brand names, and the town centre boasts a fairly wide selection of smart bars and restaurants, many of which are relatively empty, perhaps because they are beyond the reach of most people.
Not everyone is happy with the rapid changes. A Ukrainian photographer told me that he missed the old Kiev he moved to in 1982. Back then, it was much greener and less polluted, with no traffic jams, even on the busiest streets, where a car, probably a sturdy, box-on-wheels Soviet Lada, would pass every couple of minutes.
A colleague who visited Kiev in the 1980s noted how quiet and provincial it looked, despite its size, and how early the city went to sleep. He stayed at a hotel, one of the few in the city, which was part of a Soviet-era chain, and always ate at the same restaurant because he could find no other.
Interestingly, he mentioned the abundance of Soviet statues across the city. These have almost completely disappeared, except for the odd Lenin or the colossal Mother Motherland monument. Instead, the city has undergone a blossoming of Christian iconography – even the banknotes carry Christian symbols.
This is a reaction to the repression of religion during communism. One Ukrainian told me how the Soviet authorities banned public church services, arrested members of the clergy, and razed many religious buildings. In fact, the city's main cathedral, Saint Sophia, narrowly escaped this fate thanks to the guile of some sympathetic Soviet engineers who proposed to turn it into a museum. Official atheism seems to have made the population no less religious, and churches everywhere are full of pious worshippers.
The Soviet experience is living proof that fundamentalism is not limited to religion and that dogmatic atheism (which resembles religion in most aspects, save for belief in the existence of God) in its own way can be just as repressive and stifling as religion, if left unchecked. In contemporary society, we should not be focusing on whether religion or atheism is best but, instead, we should concentrate our energies on ensuring freedom of conscience for all.
The trauma caused by former Russian dominance during the Soviet Era has put major strain on the relationship between the two countries, resulting in conflicting impulses. On the one hand, Ukrainians regard Russia as a natural partner and ally – according to a Ukrainian survey, nearly 32% of Ukrainians believe that strengthening the eastern Slavic bloc should be the country's top priority – and over a million Ukrainians work in Russia.
On the other hand, Ukraine is striving to distance itself from Russia, mostly culturally but also in the economic sphere. Despite having a large Russian-speaking population (30% of its inhabitants), Ukraine has only one official language, and younger generations are growing up less proficient in the language than their parents. Ironically, despite the aversion to Russian, most Kievites speak Russian in their daily affairs.
This wariness and the fabled wealth of the west has caused Ukraine to view its future increasingly as being tied up with its EU neighbours. Some 43% of Ukrainians are in favour of their country joining the 27-member bloc and the political and business elite are also very keen on the prospect.
However, the EU – suffering from enlargement fatigue, concerned about the Ukrainian economy and weighed down by faltering new members such as Latvia – is less than enthusiastic and has only offered the consolation prize of closer co-operation as part of the of the European Neighbourhood Policy. The nearest Ukraine has so far come to EU membership is when it had the kitsch distinction of holding the rotating Eurovision presidency after wowing the rest of Europe with its Eurovisual Wild Dances.
Post-independence economic liberalisation, and its attendant wealth polarisation, has sparked a mass exodus out of the country. No one knows exactly how many Ukrainians live and work abroad, but some educated estimates put it as high as five million, a significant percentage of whom are there illegally.
Poor salaries are a major motivator: according to Prybytkova, nearly 40% of Ukrainians earn enough only to cover their basic food needs and essential living expenses. That said, there is a growing middle class, with another 40% counting themselves as being in its ranks.
With EU support, the International Organisation for Migration has set up centres for migrant advice which help Ukrainians to make informed choices when considering moving away and raises their awareness of opportunities closer to home.
Despite the remittances sent home by émigré workers, the brain drain has set alarm bells ringing. The deputy minister of the environment told me that there are probably more Ukrainian scientists and researchers working abroad than at home, with Ukrainian experts based permanently in some 93 countries.
“The government of Ukraine has acknowledged the problem of labour migration and the necessity to create conducive conditions for decent work opportunities,” Prybytkova explains.
Meanwhile, there are other Ukrainians who see a wealth of opportunities in the country, and are profiting from its rapid economic growth (7% in 2007). “I'm doing well here, so I don't feel the urge to emigrate,” said Pavel, known to his friends as Pasha, despite the fact he had studied international relations. “But I'm not an average Ukrainian. I've made quite a lot of money investing in real estate.”
Nevertheless, many Ukrainians I met feel that progress is not being made fast enough, and that the hopes raised by the Orange Revolution have been disappointed, although it has led to a greater sense of freedom than in neighbouring Russia. “Since we took matters into our own hands, a few things have changed,” Pasha said. “But we are an optimistic people and we believe the future will be better.”
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 13 May 2008.