Living in Kyiv: My First 1.5 Years of Observations (part 2)
To read part 1 click here.
Not Europe, Russia, or the Middle East
When I first landed in Kyiv, I thought Ukraine was similar to Russia. Yes, there are many cultural ties… the whole Kyiv/Rus empire started from the very ground below where I’m sitting at this moment, which still impresses me. But after time, I’ve noticed large differences between the cultures.
I’ve concluded that Ukraine is not Europe, it’s not Russia, and it’s definitely not the Middle East…. Ukraine is very much its own special thing. At a deeper lever paganism currents below the surface and still operates in the culture's DNA.
I enjoy the spaces in Kyiv. I’m not referring to the physical spaces, but the time in between things. America is more about filling up every second with doing (and there is a pro to this since things get done), but my life in Kyiv always has time in between events where I go into thought, or have a moment or two to sit in the park and observe. This gives my life more sanity and clarity.
I find Americans will generally compromise everything in their lives for a better day tomorrow, but Ukrainians are not willing to do that. People here will not sacrifice the social connection or holiday time to go fully into get shit done mode. These are opposing forces: and to get one result, you have to let go of the other.
The openness of the press here is insane. I first witnessed this in the English-language newspaper the Kyiv Post, but I was unaware this transparency laced through the Ukrainian press. Channel One that’s funded by the government openly criticizes the government. The first time I read New Time magazine I was surprised to see politicians and oligarchs presented as criminals with all their assets out on the table for the country to see.
In the US we didn’t have nearly the same level of exposure for the scumbags responsible for the last recession who tanked the economy through immoral deception and greed.
I’ve heard a lot of defeatist excuses of why people can’t do something. These come from the people that often wake up late and consume instead of produce; who are waiting for answers from someone, instead of doing the hard work of trying to figure out the answers.
I’m not talking about the Babushka who're hanging onto life by a thread. I'm talking about capable people with an internet connection. I’ve been told many times how things can’t be done because of corruption. Sure, don’t try to build an apartment building without solid resistance here. But much of the opportunity doesn't have corruption, like industries that are the future of the world in online spaces.
The leadership is mostly terrible in Ukraine; there are few role models to look up to. But often this lack of leadership becomes an excuse. Leadership also comes from within. Simple and routine personal choices turn into habit; these habits turn into the manifested reality of who you are. I don’t need a leader to tell me to brush my teeth, get up early and work, exercise, treat others well, spend time with positive people, etc.
Sure, it’s much better to have excellent leadership. But in the 21st century, this doesn’t come around too often. Therefore, you don’t want to rely on leaders to create the narrative of your life. If I relied on current political US leadership as my compass I’d be more anxious, aggressive, and lost. Leadership starts from within and goes out, not from outwards in. The best is to have both, but most of the world doesn’t have the luxury of being Norway.
I find Ukrainians to be humbly kind and warm. But push this society into a corner enough, and there’s something churning deeply inside with massive power. I wasn’t here for the revolution, but I watched snippets of it on TV with awe; the whole world did. The ability for people to stand up to a rotten government with nothing but sheer willpower was unbelievable. And I have utmost respect for Ukrainians with this courage.
Not many societies will do this in the 21st century. This shows the potential of Ukraine, that people have more in them than they might think.
Often Ukrainians don’t give themselves enough credit, and they don’t give their fellow Ukrainians enough credit. But one doesn’t not need a revolution to exercise this courage. Courage can be used in daily life and built upon with momentum. Once this frequency rises in individuals, society rises as a whole.
It’s not as messed up as it should be
On paper Ukraine is a disaster. 70 years of Soviet rule, WWII, famine, toxic corruption, two revolutions in the recent past, massive banking crises, crushing currency devaluations, a nuclear explosion, war, rotten politics, huge income disparity, etc. It sounds like a place where someone would knife you for your new shoes just by walking down the street. But it’s not like that at all.
I’m overwhelmed how civil it is here. Sure, Kyiv is not Ukraine, but I’ve spent my time in Berdaynsk and Mariopole. Those places had some edge, but they functioned surprisingly well for what they’ve gone through. Kyiv isn’t even a close comparison with many Latin American cities that are much more dangerous. And Ukrainian cities are safer than most American cities in regards to homicides and crime. Civility is a huge accomplishment of Ukrainians.
There’s no freedom in having no choice. But freedom diminishes when there are too many choices. Choice takes up brainpower and time, and if you’re not careful, choice owns you.
We universally want more money, because money brings security and freedom, but careful with the freedom part…
I know some very wealthy people who are slaves to their abundance of choices. My friend’s wife tried out 15 different sets of bed sheet because she was constantly trying to find the “best” ones. Once the decision was made a month later, she questioned that choice with disappointment until she changed her mind again three months after. It might sound like a cool problem to have, but it’s not.
Accumulate these choices without mental discipline, and life turns into a pinball game where you’re the pinball, and the flippers constantly hit your thoughts around the table as you bounce aimlessly off of the bumpers with anxiety.
Ukraine isn’t a consumerist culture. Partially because of economics, but also because consumerism isn’t so intertwined into the fabric of society like it is in America. There’s less choice, less excess, and less waste.
I have a simpler life in Ukraine with less material choices; this has brought me more clarity and let me focus more.
Life might be better, or not, in the USA
I’ve heard a lot of people here talking about America as it’s like Hollywood movies. For some Ukrainians life will be much better in the US, for some it will be worse. It depends on how you’re wired, what you value, and your circumstances.
I’ve seen housewives living in nondescript soulless suburbs of America broken with boredom searching for any thread of meaning, and looking for it in the 22-year-old tanned-up pool boy.
I’ve also seen Ukrainian women entrepreneurs flourishing in the US with their own businesses. I’ve met Ukrainians who’ve moved back to Ukraine since their life is better in Ukraine. I’ve met Ukrainians who said they never want to return to Ukraine. I’ve met Ukrainians in America who think that Ukraine is too dangerous to visit. I’ve seen older Ukrainians in San Francisco who dress like Khrushchev is still in power.
It’s not all black and white. I suggest for any young person who’s curious to get out of Ukraine for some time and learn about the world. You’ll also learn more about your own country, and yourself in the process. But nobody can tell you what is better for you; this is something that you must discover.
If a large catastrophe happened, It might be better in Ukraine vs. the USA
I love the fact that the USA is a mixture of all of the animals from the zoo in one cage and they sort of get along. This is perhaps the greatest attribute of America. But shake up the zoo enough—like hurricane Katrina—and society becomes less cohesive. It’s less cohesive because it’s less connected at a tribal level.
America is an interesting new experiment in the world, a cultural collage of humanity that’s only three lifetimes old.
Ukraine is a tribe mostly of Slavs. This tribe has been through everything together for far more than 1000 years. Therefore, Ukrainians know how to connect at a deeper level when things get rough.
I don’t understand the obsession. I want to assure Ukrainians that if there becomes a shortage of plastic bags in the country we all have much bigger problems. I understand resourcefulness, but there is no need to jamb 100 plus bags in a drawer that will no longer open. 50 bags will do just fine. There will be a bag tomorrow :)