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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #127

One thing that persistently perplexes me while spending time in Ukraine during the war is how little many of the well-intentioned foreigners who come to Ukraine to visit the country know about Ukraine’s cultural habits. Nor do they understand why those habits have developed as they have. Ukraine is a European country which shares many of the liberal political aspirations of the rest of Europe; but her people are embroiled in a relentless pessimism about what is possible and it is the international community’s role, as emissaries of the West, to discuss and explain those values to Ukrainians and to persuade them that their country does indeed have a positive future. However at the same time we must learn more than is normally understood about Ukrainian cultural specifics and the reasons for them. I think every international volunteer who travels to Ukraine should watch a comprehensive video about Ukrainian life, and what it is like for Ukrainians to live in Ukraine and what their shared historical memories are. Then they might be able to engage more effectively with Ukrainians, who are well-meaning, sturdy people with a terrible history of suffering, multiple wars, poverty and privation.

I have heard it said that Ukrainians never smile. This is not true. They smile if you make a joke, and they have good, raucous senses of humour. Bur they do not consider that smiling is appropriate to defuse tensions and laughing or smiling in a business or professional situation is totally inappropriate. Unlike the British, Ukrainians do not use humour as a form of defusing tensions. Where a situation is serious, everyone is expected to treat it seriously and to get to the point immediately. In professional contexts, Ukrainians do not like small talk. Even in social or romantic contexts, they may be very chary about idle chat with strangers. That is in part a legacy of the Soviet Union, where unwise words exchanged with an unknown person could land you in peril. Therefore if you approach a Ukrainian you do not know then they expect you to convey your intentions immediately. Are you here to do business, to help, to make friends or to propose romantic relations? Tell them straight away. They like directness and straightforward. Do not hesitate to give them bad news immediately. Withholding information from them because you find it embarrassing or awkward or because they may not want to hear it is bound to cause deep distrust in them.

Ukrainians’ relationships with the government, and with large companies, are also complicated both by the Soviet era and the chaos of post-independence Ukraine, in which the Soviet system of management essentially continued in a different guise while impossibly wealthy Oligarchs carved up the economy and political system between them and ran Ukraine is a collective of often competing mini-communist blocs. I have seen this elsewhere in former communist eastern Europe, in particular in the Balkans. In this post-Soviet system, corruption was rife as the tenets of share ownership and accountability through legal mechanisms was not really understood. Therefore the most important elements of any transaction were often not written down; formal documents gave a false impression of what was really going on while people would carry the real management accounts for a business home with them every night and maintain them in paper format under their beds. This can make Ukrainians reticent to discuss commercial or political matters other than in person. I have found foreigners writing to me asking for information about a subject that no Ukrainian would ever relay in writing and neither will I, because I must work within this culture.

Government is not understood within Ukraine to be a good thing. It serves no valuable public function, in the Ukrainian mindset. You cannot expect anything good from your government; it just creates a series of procedural and bureaucratic obstacles that must be worked around if you want to achieve your goals. If you do need an official government imprimatur of some kind, then there may be corruption involved and this problem persists at virtually every level of public administration. We keep wondering where all the western aid money to Ukraine is going and the answer is that a substantial part of it is disappearing in corruption and misprocurement. Nobody can prove this, because government creates mountains of self-justifying paperwork; but everyone knows it to be true. If the West wants its Ukraine funding to be better spent, it needs to send in teams of forensic accountants with expertise in post-Soviet states: a point I have emphasised before.

Although problems of corruption in Ukraine are, in some areas, marginally better than they once were, particularly with the Police, customs and immigration, in many other areas the system remains rotten to the core. This affects Ukrainians’ attitudes towards all daily activities. All financial matters are extremely sensitive to Ukrainians, because the assumption is that the government is engaged in an exercise of wholesale theft from any legitimate revenue and that at some point you will be obliged to hand part of your money over to corrupt officials who will embezzle it. The idea that you pay taxes in exchange for public services remains one that Ukrainians struggle with. If you look at the state of the roads, water supply and infrastructure in Ukraine, you will understand why. Nothing much has been renovated, in most parts of the country, since Ukrainian independence in 1991. The daily problems foreigners face are not for the most part the result of war damage. They are the result of neglect since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The reason the water is not safe to drink is often not because a missile struck a water factory. It is because nobody has renovated the piping systems in the residential buildings for decades.

With this sort of pessimism about what government can ever really do to help its citizens, the NGO sector naturally appeals to Ukrainians as a sort of mutual self-help system that obviates the need for interaction with the government. The vast majority of NGO’s are not registered with the government at all because that would involve lawyers, administration, interaction with the government and potentially corrupt payments. Why would anyone want to do that? This is the Ukrainian mentality, so they have embraced the NGO culture as a means of bypassing administrative regulations in a time of crisis. The Ukrainians are fast learners, and they have taken the NGO system and adapted it for their own collective entrepreneurial purposes.

Ukrainians have endured a lot of suffering as a result of the war and also during the prior period since the initial occupation of Ukrainian territory by Russia-backed separatists in 2014 but the way they show that suffering can be different. They are not always inclined to engage in public displays of emotion but once drunk they will talk about their experiences and their feelings and it is a useful exercise to get drunk with Ukrainians if you want to make friends with them. Notwithstanding the excessive quantities of alcohol drunk in Ukraine, alcohol serves a social purpose in indicating that the usual formal rules of daily living are abandoned for a while and all the suppressed feelings associated with living through war can emerge. So don’t naturally break into a smile with a Ukrainian in a formal or professional setting. Ukrainians have learned to smile at foreigners because they always smile back, in shops or restaurants or they may spend the day smiling and laughing in the workplace. Ukrainians are learning to appreciate the optimism inherent in a lot of western thinking but it is not what they have traditionally been used to. Life in Ukraine sine 1991, except for a clique of the extremely wealthy, has been very tough and there has not always been a lot to smile about.

Always be direct; Ukrainians barely understand the concept of being rude, and you must lose this concept too if you want work effectively with Ukrainians. All important subjects should be discussed in person - not over social media or in instant message chats. Traditionally in the Soviet Union people did not even like telephones, and you may have learned Ukrainian telephone habits to be extremely brusque. If it is important or sensitive, leave it to an in-person meeting and preferably one where there is only two of you present. Then you can find that Ukrainians are remarkably honest people, easy to do business with, and good to their word. You just spell out everything very directly, openly, with all the bad or unpleasant aspects of a transaction revealed expressly, and with an understanding that this is war and this is Ukraine and things can go wrong, and you will find Ukrainians easy to work with. If you do not follow these rules then you will have more problems.

Understanding Ukrainian culture is much more than enjoying borscht or wearing the vyshyvanka, the traditional Ukrainian patterned fabric used to fashion shirts. It is about understanding how recent and not so recent history of the Soviet Union and post-independence Ukraine have shaped the way Ukrainians think about government, business, politics and professional and personal interactions. You need to know a good bit of Ukrainian recent history to understand how to work here and also how to make friends with Ukrainians. Lviv is an excellent place to do this because so many of the youth have learned English in the last years, with the influx of foreigners by reason of the war, and they are keen to engage with foreigners and learn more about them and form friendships and professional relations with them. Ukraine is a European country, but it is a distinctive one with an unusual and distinctive recent history, and in order to be effective in your endeavours in Ukraine, whatever they may be, it is important always to bear this in mind.


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