I greatly enjoyed touring through Kiev the last few days, but what really piqued my interest during my time in Ukraine was the chance to gain a better understanding of the recent political issues surrounding the country. We've all heard the news reports for months now, but I wanted to see what local Ukrainians had to say on the matter. At the end of the day, learning more about this great country requires that I learn more about the fighting going on in the east. The conflict was frequently a topic of conversation and, even though it is usually poor form to talk about such hot-button issues, I never let an opportunity slip through my fingers.
I would like to take this moment to apologize to my father. The one thing he taught growing up was to never discuss politics or religion in polite company.
During my three week visit to Ukraine I spoke with a myriad of people ranging from town locals, displaced Ukrainians from the east, visiting Russians, and expats from surrounding countries in the region. I even had two lengthy one-on-one discussions with a few of the local tour guides who actually volunteered in the kitchens and collected food for the Independence Square protestors back in February 2014. Of all the people I spoke to, the most entertaining character I encountered was a man staying at my hostel. I never managed to catch his name through his thick accent, but he was a remarkable conversationalist even considering his difficulties with English. The man could talk endlessly about everything to a fault. While I enjoyed the first few conversations with him (each lasted 3+ hours) , by the fifth day I just wanted a evening to myself, but the man could not help himself.
Even the seemingly universal symbol of wearing earphones to focus on what you're doing was completely lost on him.
Notwithstanding the man’s faults, he was quite gifted with languages, very well read, well traveled, and even grew up under the USSR regime. Moreover, he offered a unique perspective since he lived in Ukraine, Russia, and Germany among other countries over his lifetime. Although an engineer by trade, he was endlessly interested in talking with Americans about politics and economics. Thankfully, the latter is probably the only field where I deem myself somewhat qualified to talk bout. Our very first conversation centered on US monetary policy and the dollar's role as the world’s fiat currency.
I know! Can you imagine my surprise?
I'll admit the man phrased it in simpler terms, but I haven't had a conversation like this since I left the US. We discussed the topic for some time and I was fascinated to hear his perspective because I could clearly hear the Russian ideological influence in his arguments. His biggest question to me regarded a "fact" that he hears frequently in Russian media: The US keeps printing Dollars to try and take over the world and hurt Russia by making the Ruble less valuable. He wondered why the US was doing this and why he could not find any books on the topic. I explained to him the economic issues with just printing dollars (even in the context of the current recession) and the lunacy behind the argument since the dollar is already the fiat currency. Why would the US simply print more dollars to take over the world and screw over Russia if the US dollar is already used as the base currency for commerce?
The US is printing dollars to bail out the banks thanks to our wonderful financial crisis, but that isn’t to hurt Russia, it’s to save our own ass.
In the end, our exchange was mutually beneficial and over the subsequent conversations we discussed everything from his upbringing in the USSR, the issues plaguing the Russian government, the backwardness of the population outside major cities in Russia, the seemingly irrational goals of the Russian government, and of course the crisis currently unfolding in eastern Ukraine. My friend seemed confident that Russia is supplying troops and supplies to the rebels, but from what he understands most Russian’s do not want the conflict and do not want to send their soldiers into Ukraine to die in this warrantless conflagration.
During my stay in Ukraine I learned a great many things about the fighting in the east, but there are a few points that I repeatedly heard from people I spoke with (not just with my friend from the hostel). Take what I say with a grain of salt as these points are obviously skewed, but the people I've talked with hail from cities across Ukraine such as Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk, Simferopol, Odessa, Kiev, and Lviv.
- Ukrainians are particularly upset that when Russia annexed Crimea the US & UK did not intervene as per the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. The agreement states that in exchange for Ukraine disposing of its nuclear arms Russia, the UK, and the US granted Ukraine security assurances for their territorial and political independence, but when push came to shove, the US & UK did not hold up their end of the deal.
- Russia has no desire to take over Ukraine, but requires a buffer between itself and the EU. It will continue to fuel the conflict in the east of Ukraine for two reasons:
- Destabilize the country and prevent it from forming closer ties with the West.
- Create an overland corridor through to Crimea.
- Ukrainians are angry because there is a confusion between “Russian” and “Russian-speaking” people. This is particularly the case for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Just because someone speaks Russian doesn’t necessarily make them a Russian. There is currently a big push among many Ukrainians I spoke with that said they've completely stopped speaking in Russian and now only use Ukrainian.
- Russians want to have a strong country and seek to form their own confederation of countries to rival the power of the US & EU - this is currently called "BRIC" and is named after the member countries: Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Russians understand Putin is corrupt, but will look the other direction as long as he keeps Russia strong.
- The sanctions imposed on Russia by the West are damaging in the short run, but long-term most Ukrainians believe Russia will simply redirect their supplies of natural resources to China which has the manufacturing capacity and population to support the demand.
- Many people believe this is mutually beneficial in the short run, but as China gains power and influence they could potentially become a threat to Russia.
There are a great many things I loved about my time in Kiev, but among them was just the ability to talk with the locals and get some first hand stories from the people directly affected by the issues currently plaguing the region. Ukraine is a remarkable country to visit and I am thrilled to learn more about this country that I (sadly) never knew much about - save for it’s location on a map. Most of all, I finally got to experience the "Eastern European" culture that I heard about for so many years. It definitely was eye-opening experience that I will stay with me for years to come.
Thank you Ukraine! It was a great pleasure. For those of you considering a trip, I would recommend Ukraine for nothing else other than it is off the beaten path and offers a very unique atmosphere that few Americans ever get to experience. Most of all, it is perfectly safe and dirt friggin' cheap!
Until next time Ukraine! Onwards to Croatia!