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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: Bright Future Drags Its Heels For Ukrainians




I went to Ukraine last weekend for the inevitable re-election of Leonid Kuchma. It was the first time I had been in Kiev since my Russian husband and I honeymooned there in 1987. Obviously, I was interested in how the city had changed.


As chance would have it, I stayed in the same hotel where I spent my wedding night. Twelve years ago, the Dnipro was a miserable Intourist institution that operated a virtual apartheid system for Soviet passport holders and citizens from the "capstran" (capitalist countries), even if they were married. Now, after renovation, the hotel gives equal service to all, but at such astronomical prices that in practice it is still only the fortunate who can enjoy the soft beds and lavish "Swedish table," or buffet.


Kostya and I chose Soviet Ukraine for our honeymoon because in 1987, he was unable to get an exit visa. Now Kiev is a foreign capital but still feels more like Moscow than a European city, and not only because of the Stalin-era architecture. Market reforms have been as uneven as in Russia, and all around you see the exciting and disturbing changes brought about by rough and raw capitalism.


As newlyweds, Kostya and I padded the cold streets in search of a cafe without a queue, and I remember he bought a pair of beige long johns in a dismal state shop on the Khreshchatyk, Kiev's main thoroughfare. (So much in love were we that we found it all romantic.) That same store now sells fur coats, glass and jewelry to well-heeled Ukrainians, who park their jeeps and limousines outside. Next door, there is a casino and nightclub, where the rich come to party in tuxedos or slinky dresses worn under gold anoraks.


The Khreshchatyk is much more fun than it used to be. On weekends, it becomes a giant pedestrian precinct. Last Saturday, shoppers were entertained by a Ukrainian comedian, a group of Peruvian flute players and an African student who demonstrated his ability to write a person's name on a single grain of rice. Yet, one could not miss the elderly beggars and pathetic child violinists who added to this scene a heart-rending Dickensian quality.


I got to talking to the people who spend their lives on this street, mostly not for pleasure. Tamara, a former shop assistant, said she could never have imagined that in her old age and widowhood she would be reduced to begging. She blamed it all on Kuchma and was planning to vote Communist.


There were many more who had every reason to be disgruntled. Lyudmila, a former scientist, was selling books out of a cardboard box. And Vladimir, a professional photographer, was struggling to make a living by offering passersby the chance to be pictured with a monkey.


Yet, most had come to the fatalistic conclusion that there was no alternative but to persevere with the painful reforms that had been started.


In Kiev now, another of the exciting things you can do on a Saturday afternoon is to get yourself weighed by a pensioner, hiring out her bathroom scales as a way of supplementing her income.


Yevdokia, who pronounced me "light by Ukrainian standards," at a horrendous 83 kilograms, used to work in an arms factory. I had her marked down as a Communist, but she said she supported reform "for the sake of my grandchildren."


Positive change will come, no doubt. It is just that it is taking an awful lot longer than any of us expected.