The Tragic History of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, first under Stalin and the USSR, now the Russian Federation continues to shape the country. In areas that were affected most greatly, and from those who continue to speak Russian at home, speak of the past as though it never did pass. From the memories of the murders of the most creative minds in Ukraine to forced cannibalism, Stalin is still present in the hearts of many. This Russian-born German woman compares her experiences and conversations with friends, family, and strangers in the former soviet city of Kharkiv, Russia, and her home in Germany.
The first thing I noticed when I entered the Ukraine were the roads. They were broken and the cars were falling apart. There are no laws about the condition of a car, so you can drive with half a car if it can move down the street. There are no lines on the road, and often only one traffic light in the middle of an intersection – pointing in one direction. I was afraid while driving, and I decided that I would just drive straight. Other cars on the road would go in any way they wanted, and often drove around me. I was surprised that I made it down the street.
For 4 years I lived in the Siberian city if Irkutsk. I returned after 17 years, and it was shocking to see; living there is so different and so hard for the people, including my family. It’s difficult to translate into English, but it was hard for me to see my family because before my return I thought I was similar, but now, I hope I’m not like my family because they seemed stupid and the were always jealous, thinking of us as rich people. I feel like they live in their own shit. They don’t think about living comfortably. You walk into the house and it’s so dirty. I suggested that they clean, and they said, “we have no money”. Soap and water won’t do the job without money in their bank. They have no positive attitude toward life. In the morning they drink alcohol to forget everything around them. Irkutsk was a more personal shock for me, but of the rest of Ukraine I feel I have a more objective view.
Life is not easy here, like in Germany. Here, you go to work, pick up your money, and you can buy almost anything you want. I spoke with someone who told me they make 150€ a month. A teacher or doctor might make 200€, but it’s not enough to live because a flat costs 150€ a month. Food for two people can cost around 100-130€. When I was traveling in the city, a woman asked me for a cigarette, and I took the opportunity to ask some things about her country. She told me that she works as a barber around the corner, and she is actually pretty happy with her life. But she emphasises that it’s only because her man lives in Russia, and according to local opinion, the life in Russia is much better. She told me that Russia wants Ukrainian families to come there, for building a new existence. And that Russia pays for the travel and the transport. The reason is that Russia wants a greater population, to inhabit and utilise the country.
In Kharkiv, there is virtually no middle class (at least not many “on the radar”). There are only the very poor and the upper classes, and the two sit side by side very clearly. The houses of the poor are broken down. Sometimes there are no windows or they’re fixed with tape, or merely holes covered with plastic. Developers will sometimes burn the houses down because they want to build a new building and need space, so they go in the middle of the night and burn them down. It’s easy because they are made of wood, and it doesn’t matter if there are people living in them or not.
There is a difference between the men and women. “A real Russian man” is absolutely unbreakable. He’s like a bear with his heart on the right side, as they say, so if you want to break a Russian man there’s only one way, and that’s alcohol. Politicians make a lot of propaganda for alcohol, so if you’re really a man you drink, and if you don’t you’re not a man. All over the streets there are big advertisements for vodka. The alcohol looks really beautiful, the glass is really nice to look at, and when you see it you think, “I want to drink that.” Advertisements say things like “Alcohol makes you strong” and also things like “Alcohol makes you forget your pain.” If you’re a western woman and see a man like that you think “oh fuck”. It’s really horrible. They smell repulsive, their skin is not good, and they look white and dead. Their eyes are glazed, without life, without motivation. They don’t think about life, they don’t think about work. They don’t think about making money or buying clothes. In the moment they’re drunk, I don’t think they think about anything.
You have to imagine that being a woman, all the other women in the family spend their money to make her the perfect woman. Even poor families buy their daughters expensive clothes and makeup to make her a perfect model for a catalogue, where rich men from all over the world can look for them in a catalogue and search for their perfect wife. Then they go to Ukraine, pick them up, and take them home. I think for the Ukrainian woman it is a real dream to have a rich husband. They really think that this is love. In the airport I saw so many fat, ugly men with beautiful Ukrainian woman at their side. If you go to Ukraine and you will say, “Hi, I’ve got a job in a foreign country” you will have, on every finger, five women. It seems so unbelievable because it’s hard to imagine that such beautiful women are so easy to pick up! All you need is money and roses.
In the Ukraine there is corruption everywhere; those in power don’t think about the people, or how to make life better. If you go to the Ukraine they will be happy to talk about this. They want to talk about it. They NEED to talk about it, but nobody wants to hear them. They only need the motivation. If they had the motivation they could do so many things, like being farmers. They have good land, fertile soil. That would be a possibility for them to grow up as a country, but they can’t do anything because they believe they will be stopped by corrupt leaders or unpayable bribes.
As a foreigner you can’t say anything bad about Ukraine during your visit. It’s forbidden to say that in Ukraine there are sickness and mental health issues, that overpopulation is an issue and that people are living badly there. My friend made a presentation comparing his city – Frankfurt – and Kharkiv. It was forbidden for him to say his opinion about Ukraine. In his presentation, he did it in Nurnberger house, some sort of “secret police” or KGB-type official was there, and controlled what he was he was saying. An article like this would get you killed in the Ukraine.
Westerners take everyday life for granted, but in a developing country, you realise that it’s not like our wonderful Western Europe. Quite mundane things like a toilet or a shower suddenly seem of great value. Also, food is a question – the question of survival. You can see that in Europe we are much too spoiled, and don’t see that we have everything, and how lucky we are. For those with little, if there is no hope for more, at least we have resources to take action in order to achieve something in life. If you’re poor, things like education have little meaning, as well as obvious things, like affection and love to those around you. A friend once said ‘you can’t change the Ukrainian motivation as one person, because you need many.’ But I believe it would take only one person to stir the population in the movement.