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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soviet Shadows, Ukrainian Ghosts

KARAPCHIV, Ukraine -- I got my car stuck in the mud of a so-called road here. Way back in the 1920s, it was a smooth highway, but it has now disintegrated into a rough path -- and when a bridge collapsed recently, motorists were left to forge through a muddy bog as embracing as quicksand.

That's the special accomplishment of the former Soviet Union: It not only repressed and impoverished its citizens in its seven decades, but continues to do so today, posthumously.

The woes of this little village of Karapchiv are, to me, a particularly poignant window into all that went wrong and still goes wrong in the late Soviet Union -- for in an alternate universe, it would have been my home. My father's family, emigre Armenians, lived here in what was then Romania. Then the Soviets seized this land in 1944 and sent my father fleeing on a long, bumpy journey to Oregon.

So my heart pulses with competing emotions as I stand in front of the Kristof family home here (actually, it's the Krzysztofowicz family home, for my father shortened the name after arrival in the United States). I can't help admiring, even coveting, its long-lost grandeur, but it's also decrepit and sad, uglified in that Communist combination of peeling paint, sagging roofs and gardens gone wild.

The home had plumbing when it was built in 1908, but the pipes have been removed. Now it serves as a village office and as a home for several families, but it has neither a toilet nor an outhouse -- people just disappear into the wooded grounds.

Another family home is now the village school, which is a much better use for it than housing me, and I'm sure the Communists did us a favor by evicting us and pushing us toward America. The old system, in which a few wealthy families like mine exploited vast numbers of peasants, was unsustainable and, frankly, a pretty good argument for Communism.

But Soviet Communism rotted both initiative and pluralism, poisoning the land for the future. Here in Ukraine, the depression after the fall of the Soviet Union lasted for 10 consecutive years of falling GNP, resulting in a total economic decline of 59 percent. By comparison, in the Great Depression, the United States suffered a 27 percent decline in output.

We in the West cheered when the Soviet Union tottered and died. But we've moved on, while erstwhile Soviet lands remain wretched, with ordinary people commemorating not new freedoms but deaths from AIDS, tuberculosis and drunkenness. Life expectancy has fallen in Ukraine since the heady revolution we applauded.

For its part, Ukraine is now ruled by a thug, Leonid Kuchma, whose opponents have a way of being victimized by mysterious car crashes. Four prominent journalists have died in Ukraine under puzzling circumstances over the last three years.

Here in Karapchiv, work is so elusive that it is possible to hire a person for $1 a day. The village's leading entrepreneur, Anatoly Marianchuk, who employs 12 people in his lumber business, complains that the government still strangles businesses with taxes and arbitrary rules.

"The problem is the state," he said. "If you start a new business on paper, then they want to tax you immediately, even before you do anything."

And yet, there are hopeful signs that the worst is over. The depression that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union has ended everywhere, and Russia is now booming along at more than 6 percent this year, Ukraine at almost 5 percent -- both much faster than the United States or Western Europe.

Karapchiv has had a building boom for tiny outdoor chapels, a tribute to new religious freedoms. I stayed on the couch of a villager who, like others, has found construction work abroad, enabling him to afford a solid home, and a light and toilet paper in his outhouse.

And even that road where I got stuck is getting attention. A new bridge is under construction over the mire, so someday Karapchiv may even regain the level it enjoyed in the 1930s -- and rise up from there.

Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times, where this comment first appeared.