Ukraine is a substantially rural country. Only some 28% of the population lives in the largest ten cities in Ukraine. Approximately 32% of the population live in areas classified as rural. More than half the population lives in settlements without access to regular amenities such as supermarkets, pharmacies, medical centres and department stores. Life for people resident in these parts of Ukraine is extremely simple and remote. They may not have internet access, mobile phone reception or other basic necessities on a reliable basis.
Ukraine has always been a poor region, and it is often forgotten by those coming with good intentions to Ukraine in modern times that the country was completely devastated in World War II, some 10.5 million people had died - approximately 25% of the population. For this reason, the population of Ukraine today is approximately the same as it was in 1945 (whereas the rest of the world has been growing substantially in the last eighty years). In the Soviet era, particularly under Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (who was himself Ukrainian), Ukraine saw substantial reconstruction and industrialisation on a scale never seen before. In the 1980’s, as the Soviet system was winding down in effectiveness, Ukraine nevertheless also received substantial industrial investment, including the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant at Enerhodar, 60km southwest of Zaporizhzhia itself, being the largest light water nuclear reactor complex in the world at the time; and a number of coal and steel industry constructions in the Donbas region. These late Soviet prestige projects have since been occupied in the course of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Nevertheless the greater majority of the Ukrainian population continued to live in simple conditions, including the substantial rural poverty characteristic of Ukraine over central centuries. This has never really changed. Moreover it is the rural areas of Ukraine that have received disproportionate harm in the course of the recent war in Ukraine. While, with some exceptions, the invading Russian Armed Forces have tried not to destroy the structural integrity of Ukraine’s principal cities, maintaining their infrastructure and cultural heritage intact for the most part, the battlefield has stretched across a series of smaller settlements the names of which have become notorious for the scope of the destruction wrought as the rival armies battle it out for individual villages and small towns. This has compounded the human misery seen in rural Ukraine.
Ukrainians of education and standing harbour both sympathy for their impoverished rural areas, and a deep-set aversion to these areas that they consider overwhelmingly primitive and depressing: places about which it is best not to see or to think. These areas tend to be politically underrepresented in Ukraine’s fragile contemporary system of democracy. While in larger cities people may have a genuine vote in the sense that they can go to a polling station and mark the voting card in any way they want, in rural parts of Ukraine this is not so common and phenomena such as carousel voting are far more prevalent. Carousel voting is a form of electoral fraud in which a party representative gives a voter a pre-marked voting card for deposit in the voting box in the polling station. The voter then brings out from the polling station an unmarked voting card provided to them by the electoral attendant, in exchange for a token sum of money, and the “carousel” continues. This is very common in rural areas of Ukraine, as are payments for participation by members of the rural population in political demonstrations. This was an overlooked feature of the Maidan Revolution in 2014, in which rural people from the provinces descended upon the Ukrainian capital Kyiv to demand a change in government. In substantial part they were paid protesters. There is little work in the rural areas, and for 20 Euros equivalent people may well be prepared to travel long distances to participate in demonstrations.
Hence the plight of Ukraine’s rural poor continues, as they struggle to live with dignity amidst poor roads without lighting, little in the way of basic facilities and a sense of being cut off from the wider world. At the current time a lot of the men have left these rural areas to participate in the fighting as members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces; it is far easier to obtain legal exemptions from the obligation of conscription if one has a level of education and is resident in a city. Hence Ukraine’s many small towns and villages feel hollowed out, with just women, children and pensioners left in them, none of them with much to do and with little public transport remaining in the midst of war even to transport people to the nearest larger city for their essential needs. Nor is there much in the way of income in these settlements. People are living incredibly simple and basic existences, right in the heart of Europe. Impoverished villagers used to make their ways into Ukraine’s cities to look for work; but now even those opportunities are diminished as the country’s economy staggers under the weight of an extended war.
It is wonderfully satisfying to help Ukraine’s rural poor. They desperately stand in need of assistance, and any sign of foreign help or support emboldens them and provides them with hope of a kind not seen for many decades. Regional public administration in Ukraine, once something of a backbone of support for impoverished local communities, has becomes somewhat denuded of its prior structures as the men working in those administrative structures have gone off to fight and central government has seized the lingering reigns of power as is typical in wartime when economies and political systems become centralised in order to coordinate the national war effort. Although Ukraine’s rural populations may be bewildered by the conflict that is going on around them, as in many cases they have hardly noticed the difference between the coming and going of the Soviet Union, their gratitude for the limited amounts of international assistance reaching them is palpable.
During this war, and in the period after it, the international community needs to take another look at the problem of Ukraine’s rural poverty and how to address it, because we are talking about tens of millions of people who are suffering from this plight. If Ukraine is to be transformed, as a result of the current conflict, into a twenty-first century European state, we cannot evade this issue. A substantial proportion of Ukraine’s large population in a very large country are living in conditions that for most Europeans are unimaginable in their daily privations. Colossal investment in infrastructure is required across a large range of areas in order to give Ukraine’s rural poor hope for the future. Without dramatic reforms of this kind, and a concomitant set of commitments in terms of both capital and development specialists, Ukraine will not be able to develop into the EU candidate member state we profess to desire. And that is the only route for her to avoid being perennially terrorised by the Russians.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.