I don’t remember the context. But I remember the setting. We were in a small dining room at Ternopil State Technical University, in Ternopil, Western Ukraine. I was dining with Ivanna Bakushevych, chair of the management and marketing department, Volodya, a student who had been my guide, and Igor Lutsiv, vice rector of the university. I think we had already eaten the borsch. No, it was fish stew. The table held the remains of the first course. Smoked fish. Potatoes. Hard sausage. Pickled fish. Cucumbers.

I was suffering from a bad cold and a late March snowstorm—and from a bout of reality. This was my second trip to Ukraine. My first trip had left me enamored, with the early autumn sunlight on bucolic landscape, with the graciousness and generosity of the people, with their pride in culture and language, with the beauty of the women, with the pears and hard sausages and good vodka. I also thought that I understood, at least a little, what Ukraine was about.

On this trip, I was smarting from the innocence of my first visit. I’d caught a glimpse of something dark and lurking. Not that I hadn’t noticed on my first trip that everything was broken, that people were suffering not just from the economic disaster following Ukraine’s independence and the breakup of the Soviet Union, but also from a blatant inequity and corruption that followed the dumping of communism cold turkey. I’d seen it and memorized the images and the stories told me by people struggling to rise above despair. I’d seen it, but suspected or hoped, because of the good friends I’d made and ate with and toasted and wished well, that they would prosper and make Ukraine a vital, democratic country. Now, on the downside of my second trip, I wasn’t so hopeful.

“Ukraine,” said Igor Lutsiv, with a resigned smile, “is very contradictory.” I smiled, too, realizing I’d just been granted a clue.

The week before, freshly arrived in Kyiv, I was on an outing, with Laurie Mercier, also of WSU, and students from Kyiv College, at Perchersk Lavra, the Caves Monastery. We were walking slowly down a cobblestone street, enjoying the March sunshine, which warmed us and blazed off the golden domes of the monastery’s churches. Suddenly, Olga, one of the students, grabbed my arm, pulling me out of the way as a huge Mercedes SUV, polished to a deep gloss and armored with a ton of chrome, roared by.

“The prior,” she said, matter-of-factly.

Founded in 1051, the monastery sprawls across the hills above the city, with lovely rose gardens and dramatic overlooks of the Dnipro River and a dozen churches, beautiful buildings, gold-domed and adorned with paintings of religious figures. I’d been here before, and this time here, I wanted to explore the churches and avoid the underground portion.

But the students were determined to show us the caves, narrow claustrophobic passages once home to the monks of Perchersk Lavra, from which many never left. Their mummified bodies, covered with cloths, rest for eternity in coffins set in niches carved from the rock.

This is a sacred place for Orthodox Ukrainians. It is a morbid place, a fit repository for the sour monks who wander above, glaring at women until they cover their heads, demanding money from tourists and pilgrims, selling their icons and paintings of their mummified predecessors.

On another day, though, I am standing in St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral in Kyiv. The priests and choir are weaving an austere and plaintive Orthodox chant. The church is neo-Byzantine, yellow and white with seven cupolas. Inside, the saints and the virgin are painted in art nouveau style on the walls and ceiling. It is surprising and lovely. The faithful and the curious come and go, lighting candles, seeking comfort and contemplation.

Outside the church, up Taras Shevchenko Boulevard, the ubiquitous Ukrainian mafiosi park their BMWs on the sidewalk, smoking and sneering, disdainful of the passersby whose way they block.

Whether such juxtapositions are actually contradictory or not, or any more contradictory than other post-Soviet countries, or any country for that matter, or whether the contradictions can be reconciled, will remain open questions.

There is the austere simplicity of the native architecture, wooden churches, peasant houses, the decorative arts. Then there are the garish extravagance of the homes of the “new Ukrainians” and the enervating ugliness of Soviet apartment blocs.

There is the intense dedication of the educators, who cannot possibly live on the 20 to 50 dollars a month that the state pays them on occasion. But they keep teaching. Then there is the venality and corruption of Ukraine’s oligarchs. And they keep flaunting their separateness and cleverness, squirreling away, out of country, what money they don’t squander in ostentation. The Kyiv Post recently estimated annual capital flight at $3 billion. This from a country whose total GNP in 1996 was $60.9 billion.

I am at a school party, “in nature,” as the Ukrainians say, along the Dnipro. After a huge midday meal, one of the teachers is playing his accordion, and the rest of us are dancing. But then, a younger fellow pulls up in his van and sets up a speaker that starts blasting the awful, omnipresent pop music that permeates Ukraine, the worst manifestation of the popular culture plague that has infested the country. The accordion player shrugs resignedly and puts his instrument away. The rest of us dance half-heartedly for a while, but the soul is gone.

I am with my friends Valentyna, Nastya, and Ivan, at a folk extravaganza at the Palace of Culture in Kyiv. Musicians and dancers have come from all over Ukraine to perform, and the huge stage is awash with bright traditional costumes, a huge and unwieldy spectacle that varies from the lovely and poignant to the garish, edging uncomfortably at points toward nationalistic bombast. At one point, amid much fanfare, a crowd of government officials lines the stage while prime minister Yuschenko declaims. Two people are noticeably absent. One is Yulia Tymoshenko, the former energy minister. Depending on who you talk to, she is either a charismatic reformer or just as corrupt as the rest. Now she’s in prison. Also absent is the president who imprisoned her. “Kuchma did not come,” Ivan whispers. “He is afraid.”

It is suppertime at Lucy and Peter Adamenko’s house. Their daughter Svetlana has dressed in her folk costume and sings us a folk song, accompanying herself on guitar. Then Peter is persuaded to sing old Cossack songs, which he does in a rich and forceful baritone. There are many toasts, to friendship and Ukraine and its women, who maintain what is left of its social fabric.

This is a country where six million people died in World War II. A decade earlier, five to seven million died in the artificial famine imposed by Stalin. But that’s only among the most recent misery. Ukraine’s history is of conquest and defeat and sadness. These are people who speak of there being “no possibility,” yet still they mine every opportunity for hope.

In another scene, I am with Svetlana Adamenko, who is now my guide and translator, in a newly refurbished art museum on the edge of Shevchenko Park in Kyiv. We are in a small gallery of 16th- to 18th-century Spanish paintings, which somehow managed to survive the Nazis and Russians and other bandits. In a previous gallery, we have just seen a Rembrandt, of which I’d never even seen a reproduction. And a Brueghel. And a Bosch triptych. A bit overwhelmed, I stare at these more unfamiliar paintings. Then I look up. Above us on the domed ceiling, Sancho Panza and his impossible dreamer companion Don Quixote soar on Dapple and Rosinante forever across the Ukrainian heavens. It’s not clear, however, whether they are fleeing or pursuing.

“Ukraine,” said Igor Lutsiv, with a resigned smile, “is very contradictory.” I smiled, too, realizing I’d just been granted a clue.


Tim Steury is co-editor of Washington State Magazine. He visited Ukraine in September 2000 and March 2001, lecturing on the small farm in America and other topics.