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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #348

This is one in an occasional series of articles about the Ukrainian national personality, and it is about habits relating to work and money. There is a well known Ukrainian saying that translates approximately as “earn money with your mind, not with your time”. What it means, or what it is getting at, is that there is no intrinsic value in hard work and that money in unrelated to working effectively or laboriously. It’s as though the two things are in different parts of the mind in the Ukrainian mindset, and whereas work is something the government or authorities force you to do, money is something you acquire by illicit means, often by theft or by skimming off sums from other people’s transactions as an intermediary. And can be infuriating.

Ukrainians sometimes can’t be bothered to reply to communications promptly or at all, even in commercial contexts. They may make appointments but then miss them. They are … well, a little unreliable. I must emphasise that not all Ukrainians are like this, but they often lack the sort of open rigour that characterises doing business in the West. So I will give you a small example that started me writing this piece, which is that I rang up a number listed on a website to view an apartment. This should be a fairly straightforward activity, but of course it turns out that people don’t like listing their own telephone numbers on websites and instead it was the owner’s friend’s telephone number. So I had to go through a rigmarole to get the real owner’s number and we went round and round. Things are often done in either a haphazard or intentionally murky fashion. Everything worked out in the end, but it was all rather cloak and dagger.

Or I have had experiences in the East in which you think you are using an online service with a female driver to car share between one city and the next (a common form of transport in Ukraine, as not everyone has a reliable and usable car on Ukraine’s typically shocking roads so ride sharing is popular) only to find that you are bounced around lots of different people and telephone numbers until you are directed to a military minibus. I don’t really know why people do this, but the idea of public information and open, transparent ways of doing business often doesn’t appeal.

A lot of it I think is the communist heritage. In the Soviet Union, private entrepreneurship of this sort was banned without swingeing taxes or licences, so things such as car sharing or private purchase and sale of things all had to be hidden. You had to go through people you knew and other unusual arrangements in which the real buyer or purchaser or provider of services or whatever it might be would be hidden from all pubic view and hence from the authorities. It is the way of doing business in an informal or black market economy and Ukraine never really shook off this Soviet way of doing things after formal independence in the 1990’s. Standards of service only really started to improve, ironically, in the last couple of years as the war began and a large number of foreigners flooded into the country who expected things to work better than they had previously. Before then, it was my experience, right up to 2021, that things like taxis and shops and things in Ukraine were often slightly shifty, shady affairs in which things wouldn’t quite work out how they seem.

What’s this got to do with making money with your mind not your time? I think the point of this curious phrase is that if you’re clever about making money then you don’t do things in a straightforward way which might be to sit in an office and make an arrangement openly and directly with a website and business cards and putting in long hours of hard work to attract customers and all the other things we in the West associate with running a business. Instead you act in the shadow of an assumption that all lucrative economic activity takes place in a giant black market and in a quasi-criminal fashion. It seems that Ukrainians just prefer to do things that way, and it’s an old fashioned habit that will need to be broken as Ukraine heads towards EU membership. And I’m sure it will, because some things here work really well. The best example is lawyers; the country peculiarly has excellent lawyers even though it has dreadful courts and administration. They all know how to make money with their time and my lawyer is pretty much on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and I find all that rather remarkable.

The curious habit that everybody needs to take some sort of commission for any sort of activity, no matter how small, is also one that will need to be stamped out. It really is silly, when there are two or three people each taking a few percent, even just down to a few Gryvnas each, on a transaction. If a tour guide takes tourists to a bar, some small fraction of the bar bill will end up in the tour guide’s pocket and this is silly and petty even if mostly harmless. It’s the lack of transparency in it all that grates upon the foreigner, of course; we understand that people are entitled to be paid for their services and that may include putting a buyer and a seller in contact with one another as with an estate agent for example. But we want to know who is paying the commission and how much it is, because that affects the economics of the transaction and the incentives of the parties. The ceaseless commissions habit derives, I think, from the extremely frugal times in post-independence Ukraine when everyone was scrabbling around for small amounts of money to keep themselves going. So the receptionist in the hotel would take a proportion of the taxi fare if a guest asked her to call a taxi.

These unusual, non-transparent commercial habits are part of what makes Ukrainians in a way charming; but when it comes to doing business, I’m sorry to say that they will have to be expunged. The informal economy is also one in which taxes aren’t paid, and if Ukraine is going to be a self-sustainable and prosperous country in the future Ukrainians will have to learn to pay taxes into their own Treasury that then spends those moneys on public goods and there is an accountability mechanism for spending that money well which is called elections. These ideas are only hazy to Ukrainians at the current time, as Ukraine comes to terms with the monumental exercise in democratic state-building that lies ahead of her; but I’m sure she will get there.


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