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 http://fredandreas.wordpress.com 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
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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.
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.
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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPwmcz1cnKM .