Nine days in Ukraine does not qualify one as an expert, but having been there six times in a 22-year period does afford one a perspective to share some observations about change. And amazing change there has been. In 1985, we traveling Modestans saw the Soviet Union as being, in many ways, as was the United States in the ’30s. Fast forward to 2007:
Morning and evening traffic congestion in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, and Khmelnitskiy, our sister city, has about the same frustration level as San Francisco and Modesto. There were few cars in ’85. Now they have Mercedes, Renault, Citroen, Chevy, Jeep, Porsche and Toyota, to name a few. Gas stations were almost nonexistent in ’85. Now, modern ones are all over the place. I’m not sure this is a great improvement, but it’s change toward the Western mode.
Consumer goods were scarce in 1985, but they have made a turnabout. Shops are full of stylish clothing and accessories, and one sees about the same exhibition of cleavage, navels and fancy stocking patterns as in U.S. cities.
Restaurants offer a range of cuisine, from simple to extravagant. Khmelnitskiy now has six supermarkets, not up to Save Mart or Safeway standards, but the upgrade is dramatic.
We visited a children’s hospital where Oscar Ardans’ friend is a surgeon. Our nurse, Jennifer Ardans, observed: “They have made remarkable progress in 20 years. Although not up to American standards, they work very well with the equipment and medical supplies they have.”
Jennifer had brought three bags of medical supplies that she emptied on a table. The doctors and nurses quickly claimed the items, with many expressions of “spaceeba” (thanks).
We observed three premature babies in modern isolets. Jennifer says the doctors and nurses are well-trained. It seems that hospitals for the general population remain on the short end of supplies and technology.
One Khmelnitskiy man said to me in 2002, “In the past we had some money, but nothing in the stores. Now the stores are full of goods, but we have no money.” So this trip I asked many people, “Is there a developing middle class?” The consensus was no. The perception is that the rich are getting richer and the poor remain poor. (That may sound a bit like home!)
But I questioned, “If not a middle class, who is buying all these nice cars, paying $4 a gallon for gasoline, buying these expensive clothes, cameras, laptops, cell phones and Estée Lauder beauty enhancers? Who is dining on fine cuisine and shopping in supermarkets?”
One well-educated woman explained that it took many years for a middle class to develop in America and the same applies to Ukraine. So while confused about what I saw and their perception of middle class, their life moves on at an amazing rate of change.
Driving in the countryside, it is evident that changes in the cities have not reached significantly into farm life. There are still many horse-drawn wagons and small roadside offerings of produce to earn a bit of money. There were vast fields, some seeded, probably, with winter wheat. Sugar beets were being harvested. It is evident that Ukraine has rich soil and vast agricultural potential.
Part of our group was in Kiev on Sept. 30, the national election day to choose the party or parties that will name their prime minister. The basic choice was between a candidate who wants closer ties to Russia and two candidates who are oriented toward Western Europe and the United States. Cameron McCune and I visited a polling place at the University of Kiev. “May we go inside to observe?” we asked a gentleman at the door. “Da, no problem,” he said.
Inside, you would have thought you were in a voting place in Modesto. Three women poll workers sat behind a long table on which there was a list of eligible voters. As voters came in, they showed their voter identification cards, initialed the register, were given ballots, went to curtained booths, marked their ballots, emerged and put their ballots in a large glass case. Just like home — almost. The ballots would have to be hand-counted when the poll closed at 8 p.m.
I asked the poll workers if they spoke English. One did, and she answered questions freely and graciously. There were some 960 eligible voters in their precinct and they expected 600 voters — 63 percent turnout.
Cameron asked if he might take pictures. No problem. We surmised they were pleased to have Americans visit on election day.
This experience in a polling place in a former Soviet republic under the communist system is nothing short of phenomenal. Granted, this was only one of hundreds of polling places throughout Ukraine, and there will undoubtedly be irregularities and contested votes, but the democratic process has taken root.
Interesting to me is how pervasive the free enterprise system has become in only 20 years. It is the force that is not only driving the economic system, but it promotes internationalism in style, in foods (McDonald’s in Kiev and elsewhere), in language, the arts and science and promotes the concept of world community.
Monday: Some powerful experiences of people-to-people citizen diplomacy and of lives changed.
Palsgrove is a retired Modesto educator.