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Letter from Kyiv

The first thing that struck me upon my arrival in Kyiv was the confusing and unique language politics at play in Ukrainian society. Although everthing is written in Ukrainian and Ukrainian is the only official language of the government, Russian continues to be the lingua franca of the streets and businesses here in Kyiv. Some businesses even openly skirt the official language policies by posting outside signs in Ukrainian, but writing everything in Russian within their stores. The politics become even more divergent the further one travels from the center of Ukraine. I have met Fulbright grant recipients who live in west Ukraine and rarely speak Russian, while those in eastern Ukraine spend their entire academic year without learning a word of Ukrainian.

Despite the language politics, Ukrainians are very hospitable. The easiest way for most Fulbrighters to make Ukrainian friends is to take classes at universities and education institutions. I have met many young Ukrainians by taking several classes at the local university, as well as a Turkish class taught in Russian at a language academy. The locals are very open and friendly, and the dangers of having everyone wanting to practice their English are low because many Ukrainians have a poor command of English. In addition to meeting the locals, studying in Kyiv has also given me the opportunity to interact with American diplomats who have worked across Eastern Europe and who have plenty of insight into current events in this rapidly changing area of the world.

Most foreigners are also surprised to learn how affordable Kyiv is for a capital city. This is mostly due to the fact that Ukraine remains a comparatively poor country, with a GDP per capita that is currently lower than that of Serbia. During the 2009 financial crisis, Ukraine’s GDP shrank 16 percent, and the economy remains very sensitive to any fluctuations in the international markets. Another wave of the economic crisis will very likely hit Ukraine harder than most economies, so fears of further economic chaos run very deep in Ukraine. The political situation remains very tense, as members of the former Orange Revolution government have been placed on trial for corruption by the current government, so it is a very exciting time to be in the capital of the country. I also really hope that the Ukrainian winter proves to be slightly more forgiving than Russian winters!

Sincerely,

Luke

January 24, 2012

The first heavy snow has finally fallen in Kyiv, bringing out the delightful fur hats and Ushanki that winters in the former Soviet Union are known for. The heating in my apartment building, constructed during the Khrushchev era, has been turned on full blast, and there is no way to change the temperature for an individual apartment in many cases. The apartments have very low energy efficiency levels as a result, which results in an infrastructure that is heavily dependent on gas imports, especially in the winter. Some of my fellow Fulbright grantees are working on projects related to improving Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, particularly “retrofitting” Soviet-era apartment blocks with more efficient heating systems, as this is one of the simplest ways to reduce Ukraine’s reliance on gas from Russia.

I had the pleasure of visiting western Ukraine during the holidays and traveling in the Carpathian Mountains. The region has a distinctly different atmosphere than eastern Ukraine and Kyiv, as much of the Carpathian lands did not become part of Soviet Ukraine until after the Second World War. The architecture of the town centers in Mukachevo and Uzhgorod, with prominent town halls and pedestrian streets, is more reminiscent of central Europe, a legacy of Hapsburg rule. The villages that lay in valleys among the mountains are truly beautiful and show little signs of having changed over the past century. The population of the region is very ethnically diverse as a result of its location between Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and Hungary; our tour guide had grown up speaking Ukrainian, Russian, and Hungarian. The Carpathians are also home to a number of castles which were fun to visit, as well as local wineries. I unfortunately didn’t get the chance to visit Lviv, the crown of western Ukraine, but I plan to return in late February.

Last weekend I also had the pleasure of attending a gala in downtown Kyiv celebrating the founding of diplomatic relations between an independent Ukraine and the United States twenty years ago. The event was attended by the American diplomatic corps in Kyiv as well as a number of foreign dignitaries, and began with a classical music performance before moving into more contemporary music. I look forward to traveling to Odessa and Crimea in the spring, but for now I’m content to stay in Kyiv, where the winter is much milder than in Russia.

Luke

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Russian

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