Ukraine! Saying What Needs to be Said!


Ukraine!  Its time…time to say what needs to be said.  Time to tell it like it is.  I’m not sure you all know exactly what’s going on here.  Yes we get the varnished version from CNBC and CBS and CNN, but we just don’t get it.  It gets pushed off the front pages unless people are dying en masse or there’s a real live battle.  Yes, Putin is Hitler, the Russians are terrorists, the EU, NATO and the US are ineffective, it’s a lost cause, Yanukovych is Putin’s dog, it’s a civil war…we’ve heard plenty, but not much of it either tells the story or what’s really happening.  Let me spend a few entries ‘splainin’ what I see going on around here.  It ain’t pretty. Not at all.  As a matter of fact those that want to avert their eyes from the photos and videos I’m posting, go right ahead.  But please at least, read on.

Black Thursday, February 20th

You know the short story, over 100 killed on Black Thrusday, massive riots in Kiev’s Maidan Square with grandmas, grandpas, kids, lawyers, doctors, carpenters, laborers, students, all only 4 short months ago.  So here’s the last decade’s worth of “how did we get here” in 3 paragraphs or less.  Viktor Yanukovych, the fourth President of Ukraine from 2010 supposedly until 2015, famously left office the day after Black Thursday, escaping by the skin of his teeth!  His blusterous attack on Maidan on February 20th ended his Presidency, as he secretly found safety in the bosom of Mother Russia.  He remains a fugitive there today, less relevant with the new elections in May.  The War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague will have something special for him in the future I’m sure.  More on Yanukovych below, including photos of his multi, multi-million dollar estate in “What you Need to Know about Ukraine”.  So many cartoons around Maidan of Viktor and Putin doing all sorts of crazy things.  Here are some of the more sanitized versions depicting of course in an allegorical fashion, “they were in bed together”.  Ahhhhhhhhhhhh such good stuff!

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Yulia Tymoshenko the “Gas Princess” lost the election in 2010 by only a few percentage points to Viktor.  She was the first woman Prime Minister from 2005 – 2010 and co-led the Orange Revolution in 2004.  She was listed in Forbes Magazine as one of the top 3 most powerful and richest women in the world in 2005.  Gas!  She favors membership in the EU, free market, and reduction of ties to Russia.  Ah the rub!  Frankly no one in Ukrainian politics has staying power without being in bed with Russia.  Yulia was thrown in prison on my first visit in 2011 and was suddenly declared innocent by the Supreme Court the day after ol’ Viktor fled to Russia.  What a coincidence!  Stunning!  Amazing!

Petro Poroshenko the chocolate king was elected this past May as the fifth President of Ukraine.  He also served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2009 to 2010 and as the Minister of Trade and Economic Development in 2012. From 2007 until 2012, he headed the Council of Ukraine’s National Bank.  Yep so part of the original Yanukovych government.  In the last two week, he signed the contested agreement for greater cooperation with the EU.  He also has many factories churning out chocolate in Russia, employing many Russians and paying Russian taxes.  He’s a pragmatist, but as is with them all, also an “oligarch”.

Are you seeing a pattern here?  While we in the US accept that it takes lots of money to get elected to office, in Ukraine you must be part of the established State, which has been tied directly to Mother Russia since the time of Peter the Great’s in the early 18th Century, almost a century before our own Independence.   Yeah, it’s a Russian novel!

These photos are by others, posted on kiosks in Maidan Square to commemorate Black Thursday











So goes the elections, so goes the politics.  Read below in the “What you Need to Know” entry about the plight of the Ukrainian people.  The Cliff Notes are, they usually make around $300/month, no one normal can afford a car, everyone lives in flats with their entire extended family, the streets, metro and infrastructure are pre WWII with little money spent on any of it since Khrushchev’s time.  That coupled with an open internet and one of the highest college educated rates in all of Europe, trouble has been brewing for some time.

These are regular people in the streets, swinging pipes, shooting ancient rifles, wearing construction hard hats, walking around in fatigues, living on Maidan Square for the last ¾ of a year.  Regular people.  Unemployment has soared, poverty exploding, homelessness rampant, business failures common, boarded up stores everywhere.  I’ve met engineers and scientists and college professors that are living in those tents on Maidan all winter long, were part of the fight for their freedom.  I’ve seen children playing violin on the streets for money.  I’ve seen old men playing the balalaika for money and regular people begging in the streets.  The news media plays up the Russian speaking population as the catalyst, not true, everyone I mean everyone speaks Russian.

They want to be free, self determined, to enjoy the lives of the rest of the educated world.  Two sides.  The Ukrainian Nationalists don’t want to be a door mat for Russia any longer. They don’t want the oppression of economic and political freedoms that comes with the long repressive Russian government.  The Separatists that support becoming part of Russia don’t want to worry about money, unemployment, poverty or homelessness.  They want that huge iron clad safety net deployed as a foundation to their society.  It often relates to age, the ol’ Soviets want Russia and modern intelligencia on iPhones and the internet want the EU.  But it’s now life or death for them.  It’s complicated and convoluted, it’s volatile and dangerous.  When you’ve got nothing to loose, there’s nothing to loose!  It could blow any time dragging the EU, the US and most of the West into an anachronistic war.  Or it could just blow over.

Here are some links
RIGHT click on the link or you’ll loose your place:

Maidan in Photos

Eastern Ukraine last month


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The view from Kiev remains extreme…that the Russians have stolen Crimea, the crown jewel…that Russian military intelligence terrorists masquerading as Separatists operate throughout Eastern Ukraine, in Donetsk, Sloveansk and now Lugansk and Maripol.  In any case, the facts are that Russian military personnel, hardware and technology have openly supported or instigated the “Separatists”, terrorizing the countryside and blowing Ukrainian military planes and helicopters out of the sky with pin point accuracy.

The open boarders remain a sieve, with an open doorway for an unending supply of more Russian military terrorists flooding into Ukraine.  The US and the EU both know through intelligence that Russia is openly supporting and instigating such terrorism, creating a fake uprising.  Its the exact same tactic used to take Crimea.  The news media here suggests Russia is acting out of fear and not aggression or an anachronistic (seems to be the word of the day) view of Cold War politics.  Putin fears loosing the 1970’s style sphere of influence his much worshiped Soviet Union enjoyed, with the EU and NATO closing in on their boarders economically and politically if not physically.  That plus the conveniently ignored 1994 Nonproliferation Treaty based on the 1993 Massandra Summit between Ukrainian, US and Russia where the Ukraine received complete security assurances from the United States, Russia and Britain.  So much for our honoring our treaties.

Remember these are regular people, with regular lives and educations.  They are families with careers inspired to stand up and put everything on the line.  I’m here to relate to you what’s been happening and to report the “rest of the story”.  You decide how to affect change; now you’ll know more and understand more and consider better options.  The status quo will not work here.  Continuing to do nothing is a non-starter.  “It’s not going away.”

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The conflict continues with the same fervor from Black Thursday through to today.  Their goal, fighting Russian terrorism and aggression.  Why should we in the US and the EU care?  Simple, this could spill over into a wider regional conflict that would affect all of Europe, parts of the Middle East and drag the US into a larger war.  When I say this to my friends in the US, I almost always get one of two reactions: 1. Boots on the ground 2. Do nothing.  Period.  I suggest neither is correct.  American leadership is historically and currently crucial for any such endeavor and the US sometimes honors its treaties.  Sometimes.  There are many options other than the status quo to affect what’s happening here.  People are dying and the powder keg cache rapidly growing.  “It’s not going away” quite the opposite.  What are the solutions?  I leave it to you!  What are the solutions!

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Today’s news from the Front in Ukraine:

Railroad bridge blown, severing freight and passenger train travel to Southeastern Ukraine, 2 killed.
Passenger bus attacked passengers kidnapped and 3 killed near Donetsk.
Slavyansk liberated from Russian terrorists, the city lays in ruins
Lugansk a city of 1 million people under siege.
4 casualties on Maidan Square in central Kiev, skirmish with over 100 militia

I’ll bet you’ve not heard any of this from our news media.

Here are some links:

The latest news from the front Slavyansk

Donetsk, at the front

DO NOT watch this clip unless you really want to. It’s very disturbing, it’s Black Thursday.
Feb 20th, Black Thursday, CAUTION


These People are Dead Serious!


Almost everyone that knows me well has suggested that I be careful over here in Ukraine.  I sometimes ignore such warnings, feeling that I’m an experienced “Industrial Traveler” and that the Ukraine is full of survivors untouched by the war.  Yes, it’s called a war here.  War…civil or instigated or terrorist, everyone calls it a war!  Feeling that many are untouched was my first mistake.  Everyone is affected.  From the 50% rise in costs along with the inflation of the USD and Euro, to the collapse of the economy, to the crushing national debt, to the un-payable Russian gas bill,  to the closing of banks, devaluation of currency, reduction in business and trade, the constant fear of the unknown…everything here is ready to go at any minute.  Everyone says, it could go one way or the other.  No middle ground.  Mostly it’s safe…or relatively safe.  Then things go awry quickly, very quickly.  It is a power keg, with unknown players.  The day is full of life, families, color and kids.  Full of ice cream and shopping and walking hand in hand.  But the nights are dicey and ornary and harsh and unpredictable.  There is a collective fear and anger, an edginess that is palpable in the streets and conversations.  That edgy uncertainty is part of the excitement, but that’s not all bad!  Right?  Things however turn on a dime, a very thin dime.








People walk right up to me in the streets and say “where are you from” (yes, many in the capital speak English).  I guess with my white socks, Nike shoes, shorts and large camera…I don’t look much like a Ukrainian.  Well, that and I don’t have a cigarette hanging out of my mouth and my hair isn’t cropped close to my head!   Oh and I don’t wear those off white shoes.  Mostly they love us Americans.  They throng to us when we are found out.  Pats on the back, beads around the neck, ribbons around the wrist, kisses, hugs, Amerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-ica!

Then there’s the collective fear and anger.  Tonight I went out from my apartment, which is right on Maidan Square, the place of the Black Thursday battle that killed hundreds on February 20th of this year.  Constant rallies ring through the canyons of the buildings surrounding the Square.  I went to the Square to hear a popular band play rally songs, Ukrainian National songs.  The crowd knew the songs, fists in the air, screaming and chanting in time with the music.  Tough tough looking guys with bloody scars on their faces and knuckles were mulling around the crowd.  The same dirty, sun baked, unshaven thugs as the militia were practicing karate, kicking the shit out of a “test your strength” dummy on the edge of the square. Their karate kick would run the red numbers up to 100+ then they’d fist bump each other, or swing their foot to within a hair of each other’s nose.   The crowd shouting in time to the music, pro Ukrainian songs, chants, cheers, when a rumble broke out in the middle of the crowd in front of the band.  Instantly 20 thugs are at it in the middle of the plaza, the song still going on, guys dragged away.  A group of karate kids dragged one of the perpetrators away to the side of a building and pounced on him.  No cops, no law and order, no justice, more like the frontier.  Keep your head down and your powder dry.  I gingerly hid my camera and backed away.




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On my way back to my flat, passing one of the camps in Maidan Square, a group of over a dozen militia was meeting in a circle. More bodies than usual and all in the militia uniform.  The darkness split by the intrusive yellow haze of the sodium lights gave everything that eerie yellow glow.  I always believe in asking for forgiveness and not permission when shooting photos.  I quietly set my camera on the wooden fence around their compound.  I get off one bad shot and set up for another, when these two militia descend on me and start yelling and grabbing.  I replied in my best American English, that slowed them down a bit as did the fence.  I made a hasty get away, fearing more for my camera than my own safety.

What does this have to do with “the price of Starbucks in America”?  Well, nothing or everything.  Our world is safe, predictable, controlled.  We go to concerts and expect to have a Coke or a beer or a Starbucks and go home, go to bed and get up for the next 50 years just like we did before.  Our collective conscious revolves around a very predictable set of parameters.  We go about our days and maybe we stop long enough to discuss what the hell Putin is up to, or what could we do, or why should we police the world and where the hell is the European leadership and who really cares?  Is Ukraine in Asia or in Europe anyway?   We have the luxury of complacency…we think.







I can assure you that this powder keg is ready to explode into a significant war if we are not all very careful.  The tensions here are higher than high.  If Russia pushes any harder there will be a conflict that will make February 20th Black Thursday look like a day in the park.  Ukrainian nationalism is powerful and universal.  And it’s not just the thugs and militia.  This is a fight for their country and for their freedom.

Earlier today, I decided to head to the museums of WWII down along the Dnieper River near the Lavra, the Vatican of the Russian Orthodox religion.  A nice Sunday with beautiful blue skies and bright sun.  I got out of the Metro, their subway, which by the way is mostly between 10 – 20 STORIES below ground.  Thank you Mr. Stalin!


Anyway, I got 10 steps out of the station into the plaza and there were these regular folks, middle aged, older even, retirees, some older than me!!! handing out pitch forks and rakes and flags on really long poles!   Too good to pass up, this is why I’m here anyway, so I let providence take over and scrapped the museum.  Suddenly we are on a half a mile march right past Parliament to the President’s Offices, the equivalent of the White House.

Valari, a retired electrical engineer from the Soviet days and part time English teacher spied me (remember white socks and no cigarette).  AH an English speaker!  I’m full of questions!   Where’re we going?  What’s this about?  What about Poroschenko?  What about Putin?  What about Russians on the boarders?  What about Crimea?  You know the answers already.  This group of upstanding citizens, pensioners and retirees was marching with rakes and flags to the President’s Office to give him a piece of their mind, which was to push Russia hard, to demand, and fight, and declare and threaten and to do it NOW!  Valari extolled in perfect English that they have a terrorist as a neighbor.







The gates of the President’s compound were swung open, military guards everywhere, plain cloths police around the crowd,  I’m in the middle of it all, then the evening news showed up, guards hiding in the bushes and trees around the compound, guys with head sets, clip boards, bull horns.  There’s chanting, shouting, fist pumping, a single voice of a slogan then the crowd replies, then more chanting, then the laying of the rakes and signs at the door step of the White House, then applause, chants, shouts…then it disperses.  Everyone walks away leaving their messages on the ground for the all President’s Men to clean up.







By the way, this was one afternoon and evening!  Yes, today’s activities!  In the US, we have it very easy.  We don’t have to even think about Mexico taking Texas and invading and terrorizing parts of New Mexico, Arizona and California.  We worry about our Starbucks and if its skinny double half caf Frapa this that and the other thing.  Or is there a storm brewing over the horizon we just can’t see?  Time will tell.  These people are dead serious I’ll tell you.  Dead serious.







One last antic dote…they sell door mats here in the streets with an image of Putin’s face looking for all the world like Hitler right in the middle of where your feet would wipe the dirt.  I hear they are very popular!


Kiev, a Torn Capital

On my direct flight from Istanbul straight North to Kiev, the Captain nonchalantly announced in his “how do you do’s” that our flight path would be diverted to the West over Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria then directly east to Kiev.  A strange path, except our original flight would have taken us over parts of both Crimea and the embattled South of Ukraine.


Next on arriving in the Kiev Airport, we were all greeted with uniformed military with automatic weapons over their shoulders and a long stare.  Arriving in the center of Kiev at Maidan Square, I thought I was prepared, but clearly wasn’t.  The square, previously one of the most beautiful in all of Europe and certainly Central/Eastern Europe, is destroyed.  Everything torn up, pulled out, busted, broken, smashed, blackened buildings now covered with construction mesh with graphics of nature and flying geese to mask the fact that these major banks and government buildings have been gutted by fire and explosives.  Every last sidewalk paver has been pulled up and in piles for projectiles.  There are still people walking, talking, working, dressed in their usually nice, colorful Ukrainian cloths, on their cell phones but it’s an eerie silence, like those days after 9/11.  The shops are empty, the plaza empty, the streets empty from the previous throngs of locals and tourists.  Many thriving shops from my previous visits are now boarded up or abandoned.


The most dramatic however is the military camp throughout the streets and gutted Maidan Square. The city center is full of make shift baracades, tires, barbed wire, pallets, metal, sheets, hundreds of army tents.  The “camp” is filled with what appear to be local militia in fatigues.  Some with Cassack hair cuts, some with weapons like knives, swords, clubs, pipes, baseball bats, shovels, pitch forks, all Ukrainian, all fiercely Nationalist.  Many look very scary and I and the local population give them a wide berth.  Most are permanently camped there with cots in brown army tents, burning fires, spits cooking dinner, smoking, drinking, and circles of standing group meetings.  Lots of arm flailing and pointing, the men are dark from dirt and sun and smoke, unshaven and angry.




They don’t bother anyone , but they are surely there to defend against any incursion into the city.  They believe realistically or not, that the Russians could parachute into Kiev at any moment and all hell would break loose.  If Russia decided to try to take this country by force, I’d say “Good luck Mr. Putin!”.  There is no doubt in my mind that every last one of these guys would die fighting with knives, and bats and pipes rather than be taken over by Russia.   It may be the equivalent of the nuclear option, a horrible, dastardly, bloody fight played out on an international stage as in February of this year.  The dastardly bully, the Soviet Bear, rising from the dead, rearing it’s ugly head against the poor people of Ukraine.  That would change world public opinion in a hurry!  These people are ready, ready for whatever comes their way.   They feel abandoned by the West and NATO and Europe and the US.  They are on their own, so they man their tent cities with farm implements and anger and pride.












At the end of my first day here, I went to the underground supermarket where many shops are typically located.   It’s part of a vast Soviet system of the grand plan with huge boulevards above and shopping underneath.  Thank you Mr. Corbu!  I bought some groceries, made my usual mistakes not following the buying customs of every single country I visit…not following the local protocol with fruits, vegetables and pastries, labels, weighing and so on.  Appropriately scolded by the Russian speaking clerk…they all speak Russian here and everywhere I’ve traveled in Ukraine.  Then summarily hauled back to the check out counter I imagined, by my ear as in Barnard Elementary School.  Then paying for my groceries, there’s this Ukrainian militiaman in uniform, red baret, dirty face, dirty uniform, unshaven, filthy boots, dark from the sun, trying to buy a single beer with a pile of pennies about a foot in diameter.  One single beer!  The clerk was counting out the pile of pennies for the less than $1 beer.  I froze, my heart sank, this guy is out there on the front line of their war, real or imagined, with pennies for a single beer.  I quickly paid for his beer and without looking up to get a reaction, left the store in a daze.


What you Need to Know about Ukraine!

The Russian Invasion…How Did We Get Here?

I need to tell you some things about the Ukraine in light of the ongoing invasion of their country by troops of the Russian Federation.  The Ukraine has been pushed to the brink of destruction and dis-membership.  The largest European country other than of course Mother Russia has remained at the cross roads of East and West, stretching all the way back to before the beginning of the 2nd millennium.   This blog and the one from my travels in the Ukraine in 2011 are full of stories of the Ukraine and Eastern Europe.  These include personal stories and observations, first hand interviews, discussions, professional assessments and lots of incredible photography of the Ukrainian and Eastern European “fabric”, an architectural term meaning built “stuff”.  Read below in this blog from 2013 and check out the blog from 2011 for a full view of life in the Ukraine.   Over the next week, I’ll focus on specific aspects of
“What you Need to Know about Ukraine”!
Photos from Kiev

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A Brief History in Time
A resilient people, the Ukrainians have been overrun by invading armies and subjugated throughout the last 1000 years,  since the inception of the entire Ukrainian cultural, ethnic and political system around the year 1000 AD.  Kievan Rus’, a loose confederation starting around the year 900, united most current Eastern European countries into a political power that dominated that part of the world and partnered with the Holy Roman Empire at its peak, ending with the Mongol invasions of 1240.  It formed the foundations of that what would eventually become Russian and the Russian Empire.  Since that time Ukraine has been the crossroads between Europe, Asia, Northern Europe, the Black Sea access, the Ural Mountains, Constantinople, Polish Empire, Prussian Empire, Norwegian Empire, Russian Empire…you get the picture.  As a result of the wars and conflicts between surrounding empires, Ukraine aligned itself with the Russian Empire at the time of Peter and Catherine the Great in the latter half of the 17th century, beginning Ukraine’s long alliance throughout Russia’s Czarist era.

After a protracted internal civil war, the Ukrainian People’s Republic declared its independence from the Russian Empire at the last minutes of Czarist Russia in 1917, lasting only as long as it took the Bolsheviks to rescind that action two years later with the Soviet Army establishing control over their country.  Stalin made an example out of the Ukraine in 1933, during the collectivization of the farms by starving the countryside around Kharkov the previous southern Soviet capital, leaving literally millions of Ukrainians dying in the streets of starvation.  Such conflagrations within living memory have repeatedly beset the Ukraine, such that among many living generations today there are almost twice as many woman as men!  This remains true for today’s 30 something generation.    Check out this article in my personal favorite…Wikipedia…on the Ukrainian Holocaust dubbed Holodomor. .   In WWII, the Nazis used the Ukraine as a door mat to gain access to Russia; the Soviets used it to push the Nazis out of their territory over and over again.  Cities such as Kharkov now so in the news were the sites of such intense battles that they are still studied today in the military academies.  Battle_of_Kharkov .  The Ukraine finally established independence from the Soviet Union with the birth of Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet economy in 1991.

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Perestroika 1991
Magnificent by our book, a pariah in Ukraine’s, Perestroika suddenly cut the cord to life support for all of Ukraine and all other satellites of the Soviet Union.  One day there was a safety net, then next it was gone.

In Soviet Ukraine everyone had jobs, careers, retirement, health care of sorts, education, just about everything a family could need!  They went to colleges and universities to study science and technology.  Graduating in droves with degrees in physics, engineering, economics they were not only given jobs within the Soviet machine, but required to work no matter what.  It was a comrade’s social responsibility!  You could never be unemployed, you had to work.  You were assigned housing for which you paid a very modest sum to rent.  If you didn’t work you lost your “flat” or apartment in the only housing available in those famous Soviet style high-rises.  Watch: The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath (1975).  The Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath .  If you didn’t work, you and your family were on the streets.  So you worked no matter what, if your children were sick, or you were sick, or if it snowed 5 feet, you worked.  As a result, the Ukraine maintains a level of higher education rivaling any Western country, today producing the fourth largest number of college and university graduates in Europe!  As a result of the Soviet system, even with the very small take home pay of often less than $200/month, mom and dad, grandpa and grandma, the kids and grand kids all went to college, went to work, lived together in one flat and saved and saved and saved their money.

Perestroika facilitated today’s Ukrainian Republic to receive its independence in 1991 from the collapsing Soviet Union.  That’s the good news.  The really bad news is that suddenly the safety net disappeared.  Chaos ensued.  Factories closed, stores closed, government buildings and services closed, jobs disappeared, banks defaulted, schools and universities stopped teaching, food became scarce, the entire system collapsed.  No one any longer had jobs, income, institutions, retirement, pensions, even food, though they remained in those high-rise flats.  The newly established free market economy of the new Ukrainian Republic went into a deep recession for most of the 1990’s with a huge drop in their GDP as well as hyperinflation of their currency, which everyone had saved and saved and saved.  Their old Soviet era currency, the karbovanets, was secretly and suddenly replaced September 2nd, 1996 with today’s hryvnia at a rate of 1 hryvnia = 100,000 karbovantsiv as that currency collapsed with its own hyperinflation.  Shockingly, people who had 1 million karbovantsiv in the bank in August 1996, suddenly had 10 hryvnia in the bank on September 2nd.  Lifetime savings were whipped out overnight.  Then through the rest of the 1990’s, the hryvnia devalued to 1/4 its original value.   No jobs, no industry, no production, no shops, no food, no education, no pensions, the entire system collapsed.  People were thrown into immediate dire straits.  I’ve met former a Soviet National Soccer Team coach, engineers, PhD scientists, architects, building contractors, accountants, bankers, factory workers who all lost almost everything in a short 5 year period.

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Today’s Ukraine
Today most Ukrainians earn about $300/month, no matter their work or profession.  Yes, some a bit more, like bankers up to $500/month and some less, laborers $200/month and pensioners as low as $75/month.  Imagine!  On the average, they work 50 -60 hours per week including Saturdays for that pay.  The underground economy is what makes the place tick.  Everyone does something on the side.  They work at night cutting hair, manicuring, selling, making pies, cakes, selling things on the street, hawking drinks on the square. rent rooms and give tours for extra cash.  Oh, and their housing, cars, cloths, meals in restaurants cost the same as here.  Yes, some more, some less but that’s the snapshot!  Imagine!  No one I’ve ever met owns a car.  Everyone crams like sardines into 1950’s era buses and trains rolling over busted up infrastructure with broken streets and tracks.  Few own computers though everyone has access to the internet through cafes.  They know the score and can see it every day on the web or TV shows from the US dubbed with horrible Russian over the top.  Everyone speaks Russian despite today’s news as it was the official language of the Soviet Union.  It was taught in every school up to 1992 and frankly remains the actual language of business and the streets.  Everyone is well-educated, well read, is on the internet, speaks several languages, is politically active, while they take the crowded buses back to their dilapidated high-rise flats, with their $300/month pay checks.  All the while as the government officials and members of Parliament drive the most expensive cars I’ve ever seen and live in multi million dollar mansions and estates.   After his ouster, President Viktor Yanukovych was found to be living in a $55 million dollar estate complete with helicopter pad and lavish opulence everywhere.   Yanukovych Palace Photos

That’s where the Ukraine is today and how it got here.  A sordid tale.  Meanwhile I’ve found the people so very friendly, intelligent, worldly, up beat, and forward thinking.  Of course some yearn for the old days, of Soviet patronship, mostly the older folks.  Most know that an alliance with the EU would open economic doors that have never been opened before.   Most believe their paychecks would rival at least Poland’s at about 1/4 ours, if not Western Europe eventually.  Most want to maintain open relations with Russia as they share trade, heritage and history.  Some fear the future with the propaganda coming in over the Russian border claiming that the IMF will demand the dramatic inflation of all prices or that suddenly goods and services will cost many times what they do today.  But most just want to be free.  Free to choose, to determine, to live, to work, to have a normal life, to not have your X presidents jailed or poisoned.  Free from dictators and despots and corruption and graft in their government.  Free to have the ability to travel and earn and live.  They mostly want to be free…just like you and me.

Check out these links on the most recent situation: .

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Odessa’s Sustainable Design, Speaking a Different Language


The point of this trip is to set the stage for a Study Abroad course in Eastern Europe focusing on a new and broadened concept of universal sustainability.  I tell my students they are recipients of the pioneering tenets of a New Renaissance, a new awakening, the beginning of a new era.  Some call it the New Millennium, some think we’ve finally, finally landed on Shangri La and have found the answers.  I like to remember a fishing pole hat I had as a kid, with a toy fish on the end just out of reach.  The faster you chased the target the more it eluded.  We are the first generation to consider sustainability with an eye towards the future, in the present, tempered by the past.  Green Building, Zero Net Energy, Environmentalism, Sustainable Urbanism, Sustainable Economic Planning, Social Equity, Eco City Development, Eco Urban Design, all in caps, are 3rd Millennial concepts.  We are at the very beginning.   I believe future generations will look back on this period and call us the pioneers of a new beginning a Renaissance. 


The lessons learned in Eastern Europe with their past, present and future, point the way to a new beginning, a new understanding of “What’s next?”  These are societies steeped in history and traditions, architectural precedents and cultural morays, social structures and political upheaval.  The cities, towns and villages of the X Soviet Union have had time pass them by.  The political storms of the 20th Century, and there were plenty, came and went like the wind.  The remaining built environment’s resiliency creates a new sense of sustainability into the 21st Century that’s missing in the developed world.  We must expand our concepts as part of the mantra of “globalization” or become obsolete.


Odessa as a show piece to the brave new world of the Soviet State, surprisingly elucidates concepts to be applied in today’s cities all over the world.  Everybody walks and takes the transit.  Everyone meets face to face all day and night long.  Every evening, all evening the entire downtown is packed with pedestrians, walking, talking, eating, along promenades, in parks and cafes, around fountains and gazebos.  The innumerable squares and alcoves, not as pretty as those in Prague and Krakow, remain full of people eating, drinking, talking and yes smoking until the middle of the night.  These all serve to create a sustainable city within a new definition amongst the contradictions and non sequiturs and rubble…“putting butts in the seats”.


Churches and cathedrals abound on every corner, with open doors and an ethereal respite from the din of the city.  Old architectural styles in original condition, yes you could call “busted up”, create a mish mash of separate and well developed styles one on top of the other.  Time and culture remain the main form givers to the place.  Squares, facades, entries, walls, windows, steps, fountains, walkways work with proportions, light, views and eddies, to create private and public spaces with opportunities for sustainable architectural and urban design.  Everything lasting through the centuries, creating an eclectic urban festival for people with the old embracing the new, creating the rough edges of opportunity.  It is this “Resiliency” that we must understand and emulate in the Developed World. 




In Odessa you’ll see crumbling facades, broken pediments, smashed buildings in ruins, broken and busted sidewalks, streets, walks, stairs, abandoned buildings, broken windows, fallen in roofs, unkempt parks, weeds, crumbling fountains, rubble for sidewalks and promenades, all a function of the political and economic upheaval of the tough, tough, tough 20th Century.  There’s been no money to gussy it up and make it pretty like Prague or Krakow.  On one hand you see it as “busted up” and dirty and broken.

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You’ll also see vibrant markets that go on block after block after block, outdoor shopping malls stuffed with open cafes filled with umbrellas, tables and people.  You’ll see parks full of people every hour of every day and jammed to overflowing at 10 pm every night.  You’ll find opera house parks and fountains and plazas and rose gardens and church cloisters filled with kids playing, teens skateboarding, families strolling, oomph bands oomphing, dancers swirling, people selling and watching and talking and laughing.  You’d think it was a carnival, but it’s every day and every night!  It’s a scene out of the play book of what’s best in sustainable city design and what we designers hope to design.



All the while, there are no Zero Energy Buildings, no recycling or water restrictions, no car pooling and not a single Prius in sight!  There are no electric cars, solar panels, high efficiency envelopes, solar hot water heaters, super efficient building envelopes.  No low e windows, green materials, building integrated photovoltaics or LEED buildings anywhere!  There are no empty brand spankin’ new plazas or umbrella tables or benches.   Their sustainable society speaks an entirely different language than ours.  We are speaking English and they are speaking Russian with mutually un-understandable alphabets!   They don’t have the slightest concept of our sense of sustainability and we have no concept of theirs.  Both models fulfill different niches in architectural and city development.  We must learn to speak a more universal language for sustainability to be sustainable.  


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Odessa, Learning from the Past to Find a New Future

Odessa, this southern seaport was the beach playground for the Soviet mucky mucks throughout the 20th Century.  You know, the ones with ribbons on their jackets!  Yes, yes…and the huge Soviet hats with the red ribbon.  They built huge 1950’s and 1960’s style compounds right down to the Black Sea with no public access for anyone but themselves.


Odessa was founded in the late 17th Century by Catherine the Great.  You know, the one with all sorts of rumors attached to her legacy!  Yes and a lust for…noooo…a lust for territory.  The access to the sea was of great value in the late 1600’s.  The Ottoman Empire dominated the place right up to the 1st quarter of the 16th Century when it was defeated in the Russo-Turkish War of 1792 perpetrated by…you guessed it…Catherine the Great!

She founded the City with all her power, allies and generals in tow right before her death at the stroke of the 19th Century.  Odessa thrived under the rule of Catherine’s Generals well into the 19th century and became the fourth largest city of Imperial Russia, after Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Warsaw.  Those benefactors included the now famous General Potemkin as in the Stairs.  You know, the Potemkin Stairs where as you look down you see only landings and when you look up you see only stairs, exactly 200 of them.  Wow, who knew learning history could be so much fun!  Just imagine how popular you’ll be at parties?


During Soviet times, Odessa was the most important port of trade in the Soviet Union and sported the Soviet Navy.  The architecture maintains a decidedly Mediterranean rather than a Russian style, influenced by a 19th Century Russian aristocratic taste for all things French and Italian. Everything from caviar to coffee to arranged marriages to architecture was brought in from the stylish west.  As a result many of the original and untouched buildings remain a showcase of adjacent yet pure Baroque, Renaissance, Neo Classical and Art Nouveau all on the same street!  How do I know all this stuff?  HA, the secret of once again…no not the oracle but “Free Walking Tours of Odessa”!  Such a deal!


The place remains the playground of the Russian speaking areas of Europe, with many tourists from Moscow, Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Poland and Denver!  Well, exactly one non Russian speaking tourist from Denver!  You learn to point and grunt when ordering food and drinks.  There are almost no westerners here in these parts.  Certainly only a very little amount of English.  I’ve become an instant celebrity, with English speaking Ukrainians and Russians being shoved to the front of a surrounding horde to squawk out the usual questions.  “Where from you?”  “Why you come Odessa?”  “Colorado!  Oh! The Avalanche!” Then a translation to the crowd, a pause and then 20 thumbs up.  You quickly realize the “A” is a capital letter remembering hockey and Russia, and the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and USA’s Miracle Team!  They love all things hockey and so I feel at home for a nano-second.

Beaches stuffed with bodies of all shapes and conditions surround the Black Sea coast with most of the heavy shipping is confined to one area near the city center.  Again a strange mix of heavy hulking industry intermixed with recreation, beaches, parks, statues, swing sets, promenades and ancient forts.  Most of the beaches remain in the outlying areas though the HUGE soccer stadium park I walked through had an inner city beach right next to the stevedore docks and that same green algae choked water.  Much like Kherson adaptability and aesthetics clash throughout old Russia and today’s Ukraine.

The Soviet system imprinted the theme of industry first over this historic city’s architecture, with their “comrades” supporting the machine.  It eventually became an aesthetic more accurately dubbed “military grade industrialism”, with both the ideal and theme defining everything. It reminds me of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis from the 1930’s.  This went on all the way up until the USSR died a terrible death in 1991, falling victim to not a military coup de tat, but to a grinding process of universal disintegration accelerated by economic and social woes.  Yes sustainability in any form was not in the USSR’s business plan.  The worker’s revolution from 1917 almost immediately derailed in 1922 when the Communist Party consolidated power with Stalin at the helm.  As they say…”the rest is history”.   Stalin strummed on the heart strings of the worker comrades from the Bolshevik Revolution with diatribes like “Our fields are devastated, factories are shut down, economic resources are depleted…” as reported by Time Magazine in that same year.  The Soviet Union slowly turned the bright new ship of the worker’s revolution into the hulking authoritarian scow we know today.  Again, the same question as always, what’s this got to do with architecture? 


Everything!  The city fabric remaining at every corner today shows the legacy of the hard lessons of this social and political experiment.  The concepts of resilient sustainability must be included to support a broad base of social, economic, environmental, cultural, historical, humanistic development through time.  At its inception, sustainability fit a broad set of concepts into some nice neat silos.  It represented baby steps into a broadening of economic, environmental and social challenges in all walks of life.  My favorite question…”are these both necessary and sufficient” to define what is sustainable.

We always exist within some new movement which remains unnamed until later.  We only get to learn the lessons and name the movement after it’s over.  So it is today.  We’ve labeled the previous 10 years with the generic term “sustainability”.  We increasingly are learning lessons of successes and failures of that movement.  So what’s next?  Can resiliency capture a broader set of approaches to be more universally applied?  What lessons does the architecture of Odessa or Kherson or Lviv or Krakow or Dresden or Prague teach us for the future of the planet?  That’s what we’re talking about, right?  Answering the questions… “What have we learned from the past?” and… ”Where do we go from here?”


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Kherson the Black Seaport…An Allegory for the Soviet State

Kherson, the ancient feudal capital along the Black Sea coast is another UN World Heritage Site.  The city, one of the smallest I’ve visited remains all Ukrainian.  The sea offers the only and best outside contact, with many large ships docking and unloading here supplying the rest of the Ukraine.  The mariners are required to speak multiple languages so the only English speakers come from the sea.  Indeed, this is one place I get lots of stares despite my trying to fit with the locals.  Maybe I can’t always hide my fairly large camera!  They don’t get many visitors here.  The black Sea coast remains one of the best ocean accesses for not only shipping but of course the Russian Navy, still permanently docked in the Crimea just to the south.  This may be the most original and untouched place I will see on this trip.  With only mariners as the outside influence, the place has existed for some 800 years in an isolated part of the central Ukrainian coastline.


So again, the oracle for folks like me, Wikipedia on “Kherson for Dummies”!  Can’t get much more succinct than that!
“Until 1774, the region belonged to the Crimean Khanate. Kherson was founded in 1778 by Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, on the orders of Catherine the Great. The city was built under the supervision of General Ivan Gannibal on the site of a small fortress called Aleksanderschanz. The name Kherson is a contraction of Chersonesos, an ancient Greek colony founded approximately 2500 years ago in the southwestern part of Crimea. One of the first buildings in the Kherson Fort was the Church of St. Catherine where Potemkin was eventually buried. The last tarpan was caught near Kherson in 1866.”


To say the place is “busted up” is to maybe miss the point of coming here.  There is plenty of that, with post Soviet fall out from years of military style construction overlaid on the ancient town of course combined with years of neglect.  Here you see original structures, unadorned with Soviet or 20th century appointments.  Here you see pure stylistic architecture from any of the dozen or so artistic eras that moved through this part of the world.  It’s where you see the unadulterated Soviet style superimposed over the ancient town’s layout of the Baroque and Renaissance.

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Moreover, the history of the place includes the cradling of 4 different ethnicities, with contiguous and adjacent Jewish, Polish, Russian and Greek neighborhoods.  There are renovated synagogues, Catholic churches, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox houses of worship, all surrounded by the busted up urban fabric so prevalent in this part of the world.  My personal favorite was the Kherson Grand Hotel certainly from Soviet times, dating from the 1960’s.  It had porthole windows, aluminum panels, concrete, porches, an elaborate patio “system” made of intersecting water pools, little water falls, a Sputnik Satellite ball in the middle of the pools, bridges, canopies, decks, alcoves made of concrete, and concrete patio surfaces.  A pure example of the 1960’s style that I grew up with except everything, I mean everything was busted up, broken, green with mold and falling apart.  The water was choked with bright green algae and Sputnik was defiled with colonies of pigeons permanently perched on top!  Needless to say ol’ Sputnik was white as the ghost!




I spent an entire day walking around the port, which included a river walk, statues, fisherman, bridal parties, boat rides, receptions, kids with balloons, boys diving off the piers, vendors selling brats, a tiny Russian Orthodox chapel, park benches, small curio shops, sidewalk cafes with umbrella seating areas.  Only 200 yard away loomed huge dock cranes 20 stories high, concrete and timber stevedore docks, international ships and dark brown water stripped with bright green algae.  Walk up apartments sat in the shadows of the seaport’s mechanized monsters performing a constant surreal Tai Chi dance.  Soviet military style trucks lined up alongside neighborhoods next to the piers with dirt roads, hulking metal buildings and neighborhood kids playing in among the rubble with wagons and soccer balls.  It was a surreal sight.


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I was befriended by a very nice guy Max, or Maximi in Ukrainian.  I had my map plastered against a glass wall in the shopping district trying to read the thing.  He walked up and immediately spoke English, “Do you need any help?”…I guess I don’t blend in as much as I thought!  A shock, the first real English I’d heard since I arrived in the town.  He was a professor at the university, specializing in history, ethnicity and cultural developments in the Ukraine, traveling extensively throughout Europe.  He also taught a course on Jewish ethnicity and the Holocaust, so we had a very good chat about social responsibility and collective consciousness.  He spent over an hour and a half with me, showing me the old central part of Kherson, the old historic center on the hillside above the sea, where the 4 contiguous neighborhoods were located.  At the end, we said our goodbyes knowing we’d never see each other again.  He was a real breath of fresh air in an otherwise rather inhospitable place.  He’s reading this blog so thank you Max!


People work with what they’ve got, they are resilient.  Over their history, this has remained a seaport.  As time went on, and especially under the USSR, industry thrived.  That’s one of the main messages here.  The Iron Curtain prevented the rest of the world from seeing the actual workings inside the Soviet State.  They “industrialized” everything.  Industry, manufacturing, energy, infrastructure, agriculture, town planning, urban design, housing, economy, were all built in a post war industrial scale.  Over the top!  So swimming and getting married under the shadows of those hulking Transformer looking monsters is just the way it is.  In our psyches and our living environment we adapt.  Our cities and towns transform with time and use to become more resilient.

Architecture is here to bridge that gap between functionality, aesthetics and our social lives.  In this sense history has taught us that architects are social scientists, artists, planners, engineers, historians, all in one.  We not only illustrate the power of a time in the icons of politics and religious, but also create the functional structures, buildings, and places in which to live.  Art, form, style, aesthetics come into the picture in the form of enhancing the experience, our human desire to enjoy things of beauty.  Art for art’s sake?  Ah yes, I remember that!  How does that balance with the necessities of working, living, shopping, resting, enjoying a meal, a park or a vista?  No where that I’ve ever seen is this dichotomy more fully illustrated than in the X-Soviet Union.  Nowhere!  Nowhere else was there such a clearly defined agenda in design aesthetics.  Nowhere else was there an equaled nationalistic drive to produce and manufacture and compete on the world stage.  Two opposing “prime directives” of urban design of function and beauty clashed together within the cities of the USSR in old Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus.  So back to my original question…is this sustainable design?


The build environment here is certainly not sustainable by our metrics…nor is it always beautiful.  Is sustainable design beautiful design?  Is beauty one of the markers of sustainability?  Our narrow view of sustainability may be what ultimately makes it an outdated construct.  One that in itself is unsustainable, or certainly not universal.  It would seem that a concept such as sustainability would be sufficiently inclusive so as to not narrowly define an American view of what works to support the environment, economy and social fabric.

Our view of architectural sustainability through the filter of the Triple Bottom Line focuses mostly on energy.  Saving energy therefore justifies saving money.  I was shocked when I polled my classes several years ago, asking if sustainability is a social responsibility or simply about money.  95% said it was all about money, both on the investment side and the savings side.  We speak of “cost payback” and “net present value” of expensive strategies to save energy.  LEED is our main metric.  Most of you not in the building business have never heard of the Leaders in Energy and Environmental Design or the LEED Rating System according to specific benchmarks of Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum LEED ratings.  The “points” do include some issues of the site, urban design, water, materials, but almost half of the points relate to energy and connected issues.  Our rapidly anachronistic view of what is sustainable design will soon render it useless in a broader globalized view.

A resilient model of developing cities and places for people certainly rests on the ideas of the integration of industry, commerce, agriculture and living.  It supports the longevity of development into a continuum that stands the tests of time.  That it promotes and supports the needs and aesthetics of any people no matter the culture.  This is part of the new genera of city planning called Eco-City design.  We in the USA scoff at Le Corbuseae’s high rise stuff so readily adopted by the Soviets, where high rises surrounded by grassy fields are supposedly filled with playing children, surrounded by transportation systems, surrounded by industry.  Corbu’s High Rise Housing  It’s all very orderly, maybe in a Rube Goldberg sort of way, where the city is a machine.  In Eastern Europe, people swim, get married and stay in grand hotels right next to the industrial working piers because that’s where they live and work and recreate.


Untouched places like Kherson along the Black Sea coast teach us these lessons.  Is this resilient city a working and vibrant labyrinth of culture, living, activities, working and recreating?  Does the city support the ideals of good urban design of “putting butts in the seats” with people on the streets, sidewalks and cafes all day every day?  Is it an interesting place to live and shop and recreate and visit?  Is it a beautiful city such as Prague or Krakow and so does that make it less sustainable?  I predict we are closing the book on the “sustainable” chapter of city, urban design and architectural development.  We must look for new concepts that work on a global and broader scale, supporting a more universal view of what sustains cities, people and lives over the long haul.  Resiliency, that which stands the tests of time may be the next new frontier in cities, and one most easily seen in places such as Lviv and Kherson in the old Soviet Union.

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