Fragments from a War Diary, Part #178
I want to write a few essays about the Ukrainian national personality, and this is the first. Talking about such things is always dangerous territory, because there is of course no single Ukrainian national personality and indeed as I continue to discover even with almost 30 years of experience of travelling to Ukraine, there are a number of different themes in the Ukrainian national character that vary from one region and indeed individual to the next. Nevertheless there are some distinctive features of the Ukrainian identity that I think it is worth talking about, and during these days where I am effectively bedridden or not particularly comfortable it seems like a good thing to pass my time writing about.
My reflections recorded here have been provoked by a couple of remarks I have received, both from Americans, to the effect that Ukrainians are not very friendly. I must emphasise that this is not the view of most Americans I have met and indeed I found these remarks surprising but for notable because this observation has been made to me more than once. I suppose that by their standards I am really not very friendly either, which is perhaps why I like Ukrainians and I find them enjoyable to be around. We can all be grumpy together. Seriously, I think what my two American colleagues meant was that Ukrainians don’t smile, which is why I decided to prove them wrong by prefacing this essay with a photograph of a Ukrainian lady smiling broadly. American people - and I have lived in the United States and I love that country very much - are some of the friendliest people in the world - in a certain sort of way that Ukrainians are not. Americans will greet total strangers in the street as though they are the best of friends, at least outside New York City which is notoriously miserablist. By contrast Ukrainians would never dream of doing this. Americans often smile at one-another in professional contexts, as a way of lightening the mood and showing enthusiasm. This does not happen in Ukraine.
Indeed within Ukrainian culture, you show that you are taking a professional interaction seriously by not smiling and not engaging in small talk. You get straight to the point and you are direct and there is no humour or laughter. The British habit, of using humour to lighten a tense or difficult situation, is particularly incomprehensible in Ukraine. People are taught not to smile for official photographs like passport photos; everyone looks irremediably morbid in all official portraits and this in itself is something I have always found extremely amusing. It is an index of seriousness that you are stern and you don’t waffle and you don’t smile and you are to the point. People who talk a lot of nonsense are not taken seriously. That’s when you know a diplomat from this region of the world isn’t serious: they use a lot of words. Straightforward, direct points can be made shortly and should be. There’s no “beating around the bush”, as we say in British English.
The reason people don’t greet strangers in the street with smiles and pleasantries might be something to do with the weather (we don’t do this in England either), but in my assessment it has more to do with the Soviet Union. In Soviet times, amidst a culture or relentless denunciation, casual encounters with strangers were positively dangerous. You never knew who that stranger might be or what they wanted from you. They could be KGB. They might be following you and they might be out to denounce you over something or other. They might overhear a comment considered political and then you might be arrested or lose your job or some other piece of Soviet sinisterism. Therefore you confined your interactions to those people you knew and trusted, and this created a strong cultural groove of maintaining your distance from strangers.
However Ukrainians are learning to escape from this sort of cultural stricture. When I first came to Ukraine almost 30 years ago, people were downright scared of talking to foreigners, particularly when the learned that you were from the West. I recall that in 1994 Ukrainian people couldn’t believe I was British; they used to assume I was Polish. They were frightened to find a westerner amongst their midst and they wondered what it all meant. This mentality continued in large parts of the south and the east right up until 2022, when the (second stage of the) Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced and large numbers of foreigners flooded into Ukraine to help the suffering Ukrainian people and to resist the invasion and uphold western values. Then it suddenly became normal to see foreigners all over Ukraine and now nobody bats an eyelid. On the contrary: Ukrainians are often effusive in their appreciation, breaking all social taboos to approach unknown foreigners in the street and thank us, in faltering English, for our help and support. This happens to me virtually every other day, and I am truly grateful and humbled by these words of kindness.
Likewise Ukrainians are changing their social norms that relate to public spaces. Traditionally a restaurant or bar or coffee shop or other public space was not an area where you would socialise with strangers; whereas in the West this is considered absolutely normal (London aside, possibly one of the rudest cities in the world, but that is a special case). Instead socialising would take place in private, for precisely the reasons of avoiding contact with strangers engendered by the paranoia and fear of living in Soviet society. Now this is changing, and Ukrainians, particularly but not only young ones, will happily talk to you if you approach them; they are still, I find, a little hesitant about themselves approaching you, if they think you are a foreigner. This will change. As I explained to some Ukrainians last night, we are all equal now, Europeans together, and foreigners are not something to be scared of.
By contrast Russia - that shares some of the habits described in this essay - is heading in the opposite direction. I hear that the denunciation culture has returned. People are now listening in on the online or personal conversations of others and reporting them to the authorities if they perceive them to express political opinions against the invasion of Ukraine. In other words paranoia and self-censorship are returning to Russian society. There is now a crime of making statements undermining the Russian military in Russian law, and it carries substantial fines and even prison time if repeated. No wonder, therefore, dissidence is suppressed in contemporary Russia: if you express opposition to Vladimir Putin’s murderous programme in Ukraine, then you go to prison and that means you can end up dead.
Ukrainian society is rapidly opening up and it is my experience that Ukrainians can be extremely helpful and friendly - if you make the effort to approach them and to get to know them. Tell them you are pleased to meet them. They will take your words at face value and appreciate it. I have also been helped on several occasions by strangers, either when I am lost or like at the current time when I am injured. The language barrier is sometimes an obstacle, but less so for the younger generation all of whom now understand that it is essential to speak English to a high calibre and the vast majority of them do.
Finally, Ukrainians have a wonderful, if dark, sense of humour. Their country is at war and there is not much to laugh about if we are honest. Nevertheless Ukrainians do smile and laugh, often finding humour in their daily plight. It helps if they’ve had a bit too drink. But not too much, my dear Ukrainian friends. You know my opinions on that.