This past summer, at a gas station in rural Ukraine, my traveling companions and I were stretching our legs for a minute or two.  Some had a cigarette while others were sipping a beer.  The boys chatted about different topics, ranging from personal experiences of fighting in Afghanistan in 1980s to fighting in Ukraine in 2010s.  Overlapping throughout the conversation were opinions about such matters as: cultural differences between the Ukrainians and the Russians; who belongs to Europe and who to Asia; omnipresent corruption; and hopes for the newly elected government.  I was sipping from a bottle of Spanish beer, gazing into distant fields and thinking about Ukraine’s agricultural potentials and forthcoming land privatization. 

Next to us, disinterested in our conversation, a local man was working on two Soviet-era automobiles, Lada and Moskvich, hoping to extend their service lives a bit longer.  Behind the limousines a dog slept unfazed that he may be run over by incoming traffic to a brand new gas station.  The entire moment was reminiscent of my memories from other places that were undergoing radical cultural transition stimulated by violent conflicts.

Figure 1. A moment of zen in Ukraine. (All photographs were taken by the author.)

Similarly to other places in conflict, much of Ukraine’s transition is for transition’s sake, rather than pursuit of a specifically outlined and well-organized direction.  Individual citizens are aware of what they want—an improved quality of life from what they are experiencing now.  The challenge for the entire nation, however, is how to specifically articulate and accomplish that task for everyone via a meaningful and productive long-term framework.  What is left, for now, is the Ukrainians’ hope that their bad luck has finally come to an end, and that a real and more prosperous change lies ahead.

Ukraine’s populace is looking to the government to make “it” happen. This is an extremely tall order for a system that has produced a sequence of governments that have done exactly the opposite.  Their country is currently one of the poorest in Europe. 

Cultural systems produce governments and individual leaders, not the other way around, and the actions of an elected government reflect the state of the society that elected its leaders.  Conditions in Ukraine are not any different and its political sphere reflects it clearly. 

Ukraine’s modern history of governance is shrouded in corruption, theft, and plunder.  In such a system, those people who refuse to join and keep their integrity appear as opportunity-wasting suckers.  In turn, the system prevents them from participating in decision making and continues to operate along established paths of corruption, theft, and plunder. 

On the other hand, to modify a cultural system for the better is extremely difficult, even when the will to do so is present, without extreme social and economic sacrifices by the very people who seek change.  Despite their resilience, the Ukrainians have thus far sacrificed so much that very little energy is left in them to optimistically and energetically push across yet another threshold.

[Exhaustion and fatigue is quite evident, although the Ukrainians are wearing it well, perhaps because they appear to be the only people in Europe who culturally-speaking—an anonymous internet commentator once noted—exhibit northern European autism and Slavic stoicism.  This statement may seemingly sound derogatory, but is not inaccurate.]

Figure 2. In my evening stroll, as a geographer I noticed this graffiti right away and asked myself “Did Memsy leave the mark in one go, or is he/she returning repeatedly, each time with declining enthusiasm?”

The Bottom Shelf

After gaining independence, the former Soviet and Yugoslav republics’ packets of freedoms included rapid selloff of valuable economic resources sectors—ranging from companies in finance to mineral extraction and industry—to foreign, predominantly-Western bidders.  Such sales are of often for less than actual market value.  Liberalization of their markets led to trade relationships in which raw materials were exported at bargain prices, while expensive consumer products that otherwise were or could be manufactured domestically, were imported. Ukraine was not immune to this trend.

Figure 3. Even in a small corner store/local hangout in rural areas, the top shelf is reserved for imported products.  The order of bottles in this store is not based on the quality of beer, if you can trust my expertise.
Figure 4. Ukraine on Friday evening. On the top of the youngsters’ mind at the local magazin (corner store) is probably not “Is Pabst Blue Ribbon better beer than Heineken?”

Ukraine’s vast natural resources are one of its last bargaining chips, particularly agricultural land and mining operations. Rightfully proud of the vast arable land blessed with the best quality soil in the world (black soil, or Mollisols), my Ukrainian associates would frequently remind me of the country’s agricultural potentials.  I agreed. 

Our conversations were apropos, because of a current debate about the privatization of agricultural land and how to conduct the transition for the benefit of Ukrainians, rather than oligarch and their foreign handlers.  Deep inside them, however, rests concern that they may not be able to prevent the final stage of plunder.  People’s hopes are directed toward the newly elected President, Mr. Zelensky, to make “it” right, almost as a Biblical-type savior.

Despite continuous calls for land reform from Western entities and think tanks, ranging from the World Bank to the Atlantic Council, Ukrainian citizens have resisted rescinding the moratorium on land reorganization and sale since 1992.  Fearful of losing their land to foreign corporations and, by extension, foreign governments, they persevered until 2019.  At the time of this writing, the land reform issue in Ukraine is involved in an ongoing debate in the national parliament and is heading to fruition in some form.  The President has commented about foreign ownership of Ukrainian land as a matter to be decided through national referendum.  Who knows, perhaps Ukraine may become a stellar example of land reform in a developing country that did not lead to an enormous and one-directional redistribution of wealth—away from ordinary people.

Figure 5.  A granite extraction operation in Zhytomyr oblast is one of the largest such mines in Ukraine.  It was once a Soviet and is now a Ukrainian cooperative, but for how long?
Figure 6. Who will profit from land, Ukraine’s most undervalued resource?  Tens of millions of hectares may be up for grabs in not too distant future.

One way or another, a continuously dismal performance of Ukraine’s agriculture sector, despite its immense potentials, cannot be ignored. Improvements are needed in order to become and remain competitive, but how they will be introduced and conducted is anybody’s guess.  Governments’ track record in this region of Europe has been rather unsavory.  Legislations kept favoring redistribution of wealth into hands of the few, leaving millions in a disenfranchised position. 

When on the train going back to Kiev (leaving my contacts mystified as to why anyone in his right mind would voluntarily utilize this mode of transportation in Ukraine) on an unusually warm day, I stood and gazed across the fields, daydreaming. 

Some fields were cultivated whereas others were not.  I began to recall Frederic Bastiat’s words in The Law: “When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”  Maybe this is the “it” that the new government should be thinking about, I thought…and continued to drift away.

That very moment two babushkas brought me back from daydreaming. They unapologetically muscled their way into a packed car, conquered my space, and pushed me so I nearly fell on people sitting near me.

Related post: Maps and Misalightment of Political and Vernacular Boundaries (Part 2)

Ukraine’s Hope and Change
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