2010 Ukraine

Day 1: Kiev

Getting to Kiev was an international headache—since my flight from SFO to Washington was delayed, I would have missed my connection to Frankfurt. So instead I flew from SFO to London, and had to buy a separate ticket to Kiev. That invalidated my roundtrip ticket Frankfurt-Kiev-Frankfurt, so I had to buy a one-way ticket Kiev-Frankfurt for when I come home. So I spent an extra $500 before leaving the ground.

I eventually landed in Kiev, and was taken to the apartment I’m renting here. When we entered and I wrinkled my nose at the tobacco stink, the agent nodded with a big smile. “Yes, no smoking this place!” Insert funny joke about communication here—while trying desperately to breathe.

Four hours later, I was meeting Professor Sergey Markov, chair of Krok University’s psychology department, for dinner. He told me we would walk just 5 minutes to the Old City. Great! Twenty minutes later, when we had come almost to the top of a looong hill, he assured me it was only 5 minutes away. We sat down in a funky outdoor café a mere 15 minutes later.

I mention this not to complain about Sergey (I’ll get to that in a minute), but to give you a sense of how they do things around here. Apparently, people generally don’t plan, don’t measure, don’t calculate. It isn’t exactly a lack of respect for others. It’s more a lack of a sense of agency, that people are in control of their environment.

A lot of this is inherited from the Soviet system, and much of the rest comes from being an international ragdoll for a thousand years (more on that later this week). Ten centuries of Orthodox Christianity support this tribal sense of fatalism.

It’s a problem when people learn that what they want is inconsequential to their government. They learn that their behavior doesn’t matter, which spills over into the way they treat each other—and themselves. Our waitress didn’t smile once in an entire meal. Was she upset? “No,” said Sergey. “What would be her reason to smile?” I asked for a salad with no oil, which arrived drowning. I started to protest, but Sergey interrupted. “It’s like this here,” he said. “What can you do?”

And that’s the problem. When the voice of the people doesn’t count, people start ignoring each others’ voices—and their own. Tomorrow when I visit the actual site of the 2005 Orange Revolution, I hope to renew my faith in human beings.

I was dining with Sergey because I’m teaching at his university Monday. I’ve proposed an interesting little course on paradigms of sexual normality, and their implications for public policy, clinical work, and private behavior.

“Oh, it’s cancelled,” he mentioned over potato pancakes. We had just finished swapping stories of grating potatoes for our grandmothers as children. Wait–cancelled? Lack of interest? Change of venue? The martyrdom of censorship? “No, no,” he laughed. “They changed the date of final examinations, so there’s a week less of class. So students will be taking a big test Monday, so there’s no lecture.

I checked to see if I understood him correctly. I did. Um, how much notice did he have about this? I prepared to tell him I was angry that he hadn’t told me sooner. “This morning,” he smiled. “They told me this morning.” When I said this was crazy, he reminded me, “in Ukraine, planning is so-so. These things happen. What can you do?”

Oh yeah, that again.

They charge extra for sour cream with the potato pancakes. The walk back was much shorter. People here hold hands and kiss in public. There are no billboards with the President’s picture. Driving anywhere at night is ill-advised because of road quality. You can walk around at night anywhere in this city of 3,000,000—although several people told me the metro is full of pickpockets.

We’re 60 miles from Chernobyl. Ukraine still has hundreds of nuclear weapons. And that doesn’t count the potato pancakes.

Day 2: Kiev

I started the day at the American embassy.

I also did this when I was in Azerbaijan last fall, and really enjoyed it. That’s part of the job of every embassy’s public information officer—to visit with fascinating American tourists. Our man on the spot in Kiev is Christopher Fitzgerald, who generously spent 90 minutes answering my questions, laughing at my observations (ruefully agreeing with most of them), and periodically saying “I don’t know” when I think he did.

Next stop was the international psychiatry conference at which I was scheduled to present. It was totally chaotic.

They never got around to charging for my special course, so I had the choice of canceling or doing it for free. Of course I chose to do it. I won’t bore you with the rest of the mess, but the climax was when they informed me that I was invited to a special dinner the following night. Apparently they thought that although I had spent months arranging to come to Kiev, I had neglected to make dinner plans. They were surprised—and a little hurt, I think—when I said I was already committed and wouldn’t attend.

With that diplomatic crisis behind me, I spent the rest of the day on a private guided tour of the city. Unfortunately, the temperature soared to 35 today—in Celsius, that’s slightly hotter than hell. So we drove around the city and made the occasional brave foray out into the stultifying summer.

This thousand-year-old city (population 3 million) has its share of beautiful churches, monuments, memorials, and tree-lined boulevards. The Austro-Hungarian empire is alive here with 19th-century buildings in Secessionist, Baroque, and neo-Gothic styles. The large square stone blocks on the ground floors, pastel plasters, and rows of rectangular windows were familiar, similar to what I’ve seen from the same period in Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria.

The historiography, however, provided most of today’s interest. Kiev and Ukraine are struggling to define their present and future. That means there are fierce battles to articulate the past.

Large statues commemorate Prince Volodymyr’s conversion to Christianity in 988AD—and the forced conversation of his subjects that followed. So is Ukraine a Christian country? There are statues commemorating medieval battles (all of them lost) with Poland, Lithuania, Russia. Is Ukraine a nation of warriors, of victims, of Europeans, or of Central Asians?

Fast forward a few centuries. Here’s the memorial to the three to six million Ukrainians who died in the 1932-1933 Holodymyr—“the tragic famine.” How could such a catastrophe happen? Apparently quite easily, since a psychotic Stalin engineered it from Moscow. WHERE IS THE NAME OF JOSEF STALIN ON THE MEMORIAL TO THE FAMINE’S VICTIMS? WHERE IS THE NAME OF THE SOVIET UNION OR OF RUSSIA, UKRAINE’S HISTORIC “OLDER BROTHER”, ON THE MEMORIAL? All we see is a gaunt little bronze girl, holes for eyes in her face, pathetically holding up 3 stalks of wheat. In 1933 she cried for bread. Now she cries for justice.

Kiev still has a statue of Lenin high up on its main avenue. Authentic historical artifact or enraging anachronism? When the city refused to take it down after independence in 1991, someone tried to blow it up. Lenin’s arm and shoulder were damaged—and the local Communist Party immediately raised funds to repair the thing. October 10 Square (a Soviet date) has been renamed Independence Square. Red Army Street, however, is deemed historically valuable, and hasn’t been renamed. Interesting.

A dozen churches and government buildings later, it was 6:30—and the temperature was still a broiling 85 degrees. We had one shrine left—to the sacrifices made during the Great Patriotic War, sometimes known as World War II.

Built in 1982 when Ukraine was a Soviet republic, it featured the typical massive Soviet monumental style. Dozens of rough-hewn stone figures 30 feet tall portrayed the farmers, factory workers, mothers, street fighters, and soldiers who protected Russia from the Nazis. An enormous grouping set in a fountain showed the Red Army crossing the Dnieper River, driving the Nazis out and liberating Kiev in 1943.

It’s a historical fact, and there’s no need to hide it. Of course, there’s no mention of how Germany and the USSR had vowed to ally before the war, cynically dividing Poland—Ukraine’s immediate neighbor. There’s no mention here of how Germany and the USSR become enemies. And as far as East Germany becoming a cherished ally—another “little brother” just weeks after losing the war—well, that’s not even part of the story.

History, after all, is written by the winners. Sometimes they continue writing history after their victory has become a tragedy.

To decide who it is, Ukraine must decide who it was. There are too many people here who remember things as they were supposed to be, not as they were.

Day 3: Kiev

When I woke up at 8am it was already over 80° outside. The heat was going to be punishing—a perfect day on which to visit Babi Yar, where the Nazis rounded up and murdered 34,000 Jews on September 29 and 30, 1941.

We drove out to Babi Yar, a long ravine 2 miles west of my apartment downtown. Like most Jews, I’d heard about this massacre many times while growing up. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but after all these years I was really looking forward to seeing it.

Given the hour and the heat, the streets of Kiev were empty, and we drove past block after block of crumbling 100-year old apartment buildings and new billboards for Sex & The City 2. Arriving at the city’s outskirts, we turned off a main street, parked, and walked down a long, wide, tree-lined path toward the place of mass extermination.

On Yom Kippur, holiest day of the Jewish calendar, the Nazis had instructed the Jews of Kiev to pack a single suitcase, put on a warm coat, and head out here. Those who didn’t will be shot, they were told.

So Kiev’s Jews assembled and started the exodus, 100,000 men, women, and children. The instruction to bring a suitcase and coat was a clever ruse, so most people assumed something “reasonable” was happening—resettlement, possibly deportation or assignment to a forced-labor camp in Poland or Germany.

A half-mile before the ravine things changed. Soldiers and dogs appeared, preventing escape. Soon the suitcases were confiscated, and the Jews were beaten and instructed to strip naked.

They were grouped and half-marched, half-dragged to the edge of the steep ravine. Marksmen had already laid out the proper angles and positioned themselves. As the Jews were shot, their bodies fell down the steep banks and crashed at the bottom. Then the next group were forced to the edge and shot, tumbling down onto the bodies already there. In two days it was a pile of 36,000 corpses. Thousands more would follow later that week.

The gold was stripped out of their teeth to help fund the German war effort. Ever-efficient, the Nazis documented the whole thing in crisp military language.

I walked along the innocent-looking ridge, enjoying the shade. Old photos show that seventy years ago there were no trees here. But the enormous movement of the soil, and the organic matter of 3,000 tons of decomposing corpses, had ironically spurred the growth of lush vegetation. The whole scene was very much like the forests and hills of California I’ve been hiking for years.

It was kind of anti-climactic.

As the heat of the day climbed, my guide droned on with details—number of machine guns, number of dead children, number of medals awarded. By now everyone knows the story.

Actually, not everyone knows the story, or believes the story. That’s why memorials are so important.

The memorials here are pathetic, bland, metaphorical.

Soviet-era memorials never mention the words “Jew” or “Jewish.” Dead Jews are “victims of fascism” or “people” or “Soviet citizens.” They don’t mention that these humans were specifically targeted because they were Jewish.

The Ukrainians haven’t done much better.

There’s no sign at the ravine, no statues along the wide path leading to it.

At the paved area where the trail to the ravine starts, there’s a stone menorah about three feet wide with a plaque. Featuring some biblical quote about blood, it says nothing about Jews or Nazis. Babi Yar has become a small part of a large lovely park. Apparently some people died here.

A mile away there’s an enormous concrete sculpture at the center of a grassy plaza. The base gradually tilts upward; at the far, skyward end struggling stylized figures are spilling off the base, about to fall into the field below. Apparently, a mile away some comrades died defending the homeland.

A short walk away we see a five-foot tall sculpture of three forlorn dolls. Each has bullet holes in the chest. One has a broken neck. They’re standing on a stylized cake, a single bite missing. Apparently, we need to cherish our children, because sometimes their blood is spilled.

Three different sculptures. No Jews. No 36,000 murders. No genocide. Just platitudes and vague symbols non-Jews would never notice (I missed most of them).

I tell my guide this is scandalous, and she nods sympathetically. “It’s not perfect. But they’re doing something,” she says of the Ukrainians.

No, it’s not “not perfect.” It’s much, much worse. It’s lies. Memorials that don’t tell the truth are worse than no memorials at all.

It’s not hard. Germany’s doing it. Austria’s doing it. In Vienna there’s a plaque as big as a house that mourns the persecution of “Austrian citizens who were Jews.” That tells the truth. “Thousands of Ukrainian children were killed here because their parents were Jewish. It could have been your children.” That tells the truth.

I don’t care about the “crying blood” of some vague dead people. I want accurate history: who did what to whom, and why. Anything less invites sinister questions: what truths is the government hiding? Why is it so important to remember lies?

Who do the Ukrainian people want to be?

Into the Countryside

While planning this trip months ago, I was determined to see the legendary Ukrainian countryside. Today I saw plenty of it.

Kaminiets-Podilsky is a 600-year-old town about 350 miles southwest of Kiev. I had budgeted an entire day to get here, and that’s exactly how long it took.

The countryside features mile after mile after endless mile of fields, mostly beets, cabbage, and wheat. In addition to making Ukraine the borscht capital of the world, its beets supplied most of the Soviet Union’s (and Western Europe’s) sugar. For centuries, its wheat has made Ukraine the breadbasket of Europe. This has been a mixed blessing, as both Stalin and Hitler tried to strangle Ukraine to get all that food.

Along the day-long drive I saw cute little towns, ugly little towns, and plenty of cows, goats, and chickens (both cute and ugly). While every village has its satellite dish and mobile phones, many are still dominated by traditional agriculture and the social norms they breed. That means church, family, and ethnic identity.

I stopped for lunch in the university town of Vinnetsia. They have two condiments in this country—salt and bland. If they don’t use too much of one, they’re using too much of the other. It hardly matters what you eat here—it’s either too salty and you can’t taste much else, or it’s too bland, you salt it, and the food tastes like salt.

For variety, they sometimes make it extra oily, or they add cabbage that’s cooked until it surrenders.

Fueled up, I walked on, accidentally stumbling into a plain little synagogue, briefly visiting with German tourists. Back out on the main square, I saw three exotic-looking veiled young Africans strolling, and did something I practically never do—I walked up to strangers and made small talk. Turns out they were Ethiopian nationals studying here. They found both the food and the weather remarkably mild, the ubiquitous high-heeled women hilarious. We talked the usual friendly travel talk, then parted amiably.

Five minutes later, I spotted a pair of young Mormon missionaries, and we greeted each other in enthusiastic English. When they subtly began with their programmatic drivel, I just stopped them with a businesslike “I’m Jewish,” making it clear this was not going to be an evangelical conversation. Instead, I playfully asked them how they liked the young Ukrainian women—who are, without question, just as beautiful and provocatively dressed as their reputation claims. “Oh, we’re not allowed to date or anything!” they answered almost in unison. We chatted a bit more about the food, the weather, and the architecture, and wished each other a pleasant day.

And then it was back in the car and back on the road. More gentle hills, more fields of green—leeks, wine, almost anything can grow in this blessed, fertile land. Although the morning sky had been a lovely bright blue, the afternoon sky turned gently paler, gray notes sliding in from Romania to the south. The notes promised rain—although believing in promises around here is asking for trouble.

Between one and two centuries ago, southwest Ukraine was home to a variety of ecstatic Jewish sects. Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav, a whole world of “Fiddler on the Roof” villages, academies, movements, and famous men (sorry, 19th-century village women weren’t qualified to be wise men) filled the air, spilling over into what is now Poland, Romania, and Moldova.

Much of this culture was damaged by pogroms and state-sanctioned discrimination. Some of it was later preserved in the Yiddishkeit of immigrant New York City, through early 20th-century newspapers, theatre, literature, cafes, and pushcarts. Although ironically enjoying a revival among younger performers today, most of American Yiddishkeit was lost as my parents’ generation became Americanized after World War II, and my grandparents’ generation started dying off.

I decided to take a detour to Shahorod, a tiny village that my Lonely Planet guidebook described as Ukraine’s best-preserved shtetl (Eastern European Jewish village). Alas, there was little left to see. The 16th-century synagogue had been Stalinized (turned into a factory) and was now abandoned. The cemetery was tumbledown and overgrown, like the winding village lanes. Only a handful of original houses still stood, and they were abandoned, not even worth tearing down.

A 40-something woman came out of a beat-up little house, wiping her hands on a stained apron. She turned out to be Inna Friedkin, who had been the main source for Charles Hoffman’s documentary book on Jewish villages of southwestern Ukraine. She eyed me curiously.

“They’ve all been here—to take photos, to make movies, to make television—they’ve all been here,” she said plainly. “Then nothing happens.” I assured her I wasn’t here to waste her time—just to check out a vanishing Jewish world. “Yes, it’s vanished,” she sighed. She gave me a quick historical tour of the village. Indeed, there was very little evidence of what had once been here. And once Inna goes, there won’t even be anyone to describe what once was.

I walked around just a bit, looked at yet one more oversized monument to the glorious liberators of the Red Army, and then quietly got back in the car, resuming the journey to Kaminets-Podilsky.

If your grandmother’s still alive, give her a hug. More importantly, ask her to tell you a story or two.

Odessa, Day 1

Today I took a private city tour of Odessa.

After the Cossack, Red Army, and Russian Orthodox themes of Kiev, and the endless Ukrainian countryside, Odessa was a huge change—an architectural wonderland that grew from a historical anomaly.

While the northern part of the Black Sea coast has been inhabited for thousands of years (the Greeks were here before the Trojan War), Odessa itself is a recent arrival. It was selected for both its strategic and business location by Russian Empress Catherine the Great, whose lover General Gregory Potemkin captured the local Ottoman fort in 1789. Yes, it’s that new.

Odessa really took off in 1815, when it became a free port. Business poured in, along with immigrants, refugees, scoundrels, and Jews. The city was ruled by a succession of European-educated administrators, and designed by a succession of European architects. And with Odessa quickly established as the new junction between the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, Russia, & China, the city was flooded with money. Merchants built gorgeous houses. Companies built banks. The city built civic monuments like the opera house.

Now a little frayed around the edges (salt water and war have taken their toll), Odessa is glorious.

Walking the streets is like strolling through a coffee-table book of design. Here a flowery pink neo-baroque apartment building stands next to a sturdy gray bank. There a neo-classical mansion is adorned with the St. Mark’s lion—pride of a Venetian architect. Down the street is a palace built for the Shah of Iran—modeled on a medieval English castle, complete with narrow gothic windows, arched carriage entryway, and crenellated roofline, ready for 13th-century archers.

And everywhere buildings sport the figures of Mercury, god of business, and Ceres, goddess of grain.

Odessa is both more laid-back and more frenzied than Kiev. It’s more Russian and less Ukrainian, and much more international. Tourists, sailors, and businesspeople combine to create the most liberal atmosphere in the country (sound like San Francisco?). Women flock here to meet the sailors. The fashion and entertainment worlds follow. And here thrives the world-famous “meet beautiful Ukrainian women” marriage industry.

The port itself is enormous, one of the largest through-ways of grain shipments in the world. It’s easy to get there—just walk down the famous Potemkin staircase toward the sea. The staircase cleverly realizes several optical illusions—gradually narrowing from bottom to top, the stairs seem higher than they are, and the several landings are invisible.

Oh, I forgot to mention the statues to Pushkin, the plaque remembering Gogol, and, and…oh there’s a lot of grand stuff here. It may not be my bubbe’s Odessa anymore, but her ghost is lingering in the melancholy, now-peeling plaster of the side streets.

Deliberately Insulting a Jew

Today I deliberately insulted an Orthodox Jewish man trying to be nice to me.

He was more than Orthodox—he’s a member of Lubbavitcher Chabad, the fervently evangelical sect of Judaism. Now based in New York, the sect started right here in the Poland-Lithuania-Ukraine triangle that, genealogists tell us, is the source of 80% of the world’s Jews.

I unexpectedly passed their synagogue this morning on my sightseeing drive through Odessa, so I stopped in just to look around for a minute.

I walked through the lobby around a group of noisy kids chasing each other, put on a yarmulke (skull cap) from a basket, and peeked into the main prayer hall. Some 20 men, all with long beards, were about halfway through morning prayers.

I was sizing up the old-fashioned traditional Jewish architecture—reader’s table, red velvet curtain concealing the Torah, eternal flame, separate upstairs gallery for women—when a local guy wrapped in a big tallis (prayer shawl) and holding a prayer book came sprinting over.

He asked where I was from, I answered San Francisco, and we exchanged pleasantries in an English-Hebrew-Yiddish mix. Then began the hard sell. “Here, put on a tallis,” he said. I politely declined. “Yes, you’re Jewish, this is good,” he continued. No, I said, I didn’t have time. “It takes just a minute,” the guy insisted. “Your father would approve of you praying a little, don’t you think?”

The guy wasn’t going to let me go without a fuss, and was now getting personal. I responded with a smile and said “Let me tell you a story.” And I then proceeded to tell him one of my favorite stories—which, coincidentally, I always say takes place in Poland or Ukraine about 120 years ago.

A farmer is very happy. He works his field all day, planting his crops, milking his cow, feeding his chickens. And every day he sings, thanking God for his wonderful life.

One day a rabbi is riding to Moscow, and he passes the man. Seeing him singing, he leans down from his horse and says, “Farmer, why are you singing?” “I’m singing to God,” says the farmer. “I thank God for my good life many times every day.”

“Oh,” frowns the rabbi, “You need to learn how to pray, so you can give thanks to God the right way.” The farmer was a simple man and respected the learned rabbi. And the farmer wanted to praise God. So he spent some time with the rabbi learning how to pray. Eventually, the rabbi resumed his ride to Moscow.

A month later, the rabbi was returning from Moscow. Riding through the same field, he saw the farmer. But instead of singing and working, the farmer was sitting on the ground crying. “Farmer, why do you cry?” asked the rabbi. “You used to sing.” “Yes,” said the farmer, “I used to sing. Then you taught me to pray, so I could praise God the right way. But soon after you left I forgot the words to the prayer, and I haven’t been able to praise God since. Woe is me!”

When I finished the story I wasn’t smiling any more. Neither was the Orthodox guy who’d been pushing me to honor my father and/or God by doing something that had no meaning for me. In fact, he walked away, something you almost never see evangelicals do.

I know it’s petty of me, but I enjoyed it tremendously. Whether in New York or Odessa, last century or this, people who discourage our songs and try to substitute prayers are dangerous. I’m proud to have insulted one.

Ukraine, Darwin and Miniskirts

I’m wrapping up a two-week teaching and vacation trip to Ukraine. The former Soviet republic is west of Russia, east of Poland, south of Belarus, and north of the Black Sea (oil anyone?). It’s been a rough neighborhood for some 20 centuries.

For years people have raved about the beautiful Ukrainian women. Sure, whatever.

Well, now I get it. They are beautiful—and not only do they know it, they show it off every minute of every day.

But it’s confusing, which is why I’m telling you about it.

This is a country of poverty and powerlessness. There isn’t enough money to go around. The food is terrible, the streets are ugly, the cars are dirty, small, and broken. So is the government. The Russian mafia and their friends in Kiev bought everything of value after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Now they run the country exactly like Moscow did, without the subtle charm of communism.

So why is the average young Ukrainian woman dressed like a Park Avenue hooker?

I am not making this up, and I am not just being lecherous (well, not entirely). It’s stripper heels, micro-miniskirts, push-up bras, and look-at-me cleavage for everyone under 30. As your observer-on-the-scene I’m not complaining, but in a country where doctors make $500 per month and live in 5-story walk-up apartments, it is striking.

So I’ve been asking about it: asking professors, cab drivers, translators, cops, waitresses (serving lunch wearing high heels, you understand). And the women themselves. While grocery shopping or waiting at a red light or in a museum ticket queue, I’ve been asking: why the fancy clothes, makeup and hair—on a dusty Tuesday afternoon? And even a blazing hot Saturday morning?

No matter who I asked, the answers were similar, always in one of three categories:

•    it’s the national style
•    hoping to marry out
•    local competition

Many people said, with some pride, that this is how Ukrainian women dress. “They (or we) are beautiful, and they (or we) like to show off,” said many. So they’re flaunting their sexuality? Not exactly, it seems. Surprisingly, many people insist that it’s beauty on display, not sex. It’s an interesting distinction. And what do people think when they see woman after woman dramatically revealing their breasts, thighs, and butt on an average afternoon? “Not such a big deal,” said one cabbie. “All our women are gorgeous.” “People like to see it,” said one long-legged 20-year-old beauty. “It makes everyone happy.”

But this is a dreadful country for anyone with imagination, and so young women (along with young men) are eager to emigrate. There are marriage bureaus in every city, and their clients are the “Ukrainian women who want to meet YOU”—if you’re a westerner who can get them a visa out of hell. How do these women feel about marrying someone they barely know, and certainly don’t love, just to get a plane ticket out of borscht city? “It’s a good deal for everyone,” said a short woman in a black cocktail dress several sizes too small. “These men get a beautiful young wife, the girl gets to America or Canada, it’s better for everybody.”

Until, of course, the women learn that these men aren’t loaded with either money or emotional skills—and the men learn that these women expect gift after gift, that they never intended to fall in love, and they very much believe in divorce.

I found the third category the most intriguing: local competition.

I was told over and over that Ukrainian women dressed to kill because there are too many women chasing too few men. Why? The answers reveal plenty about Ukrainian society.

First, many men drink so much that they’re uninteresting companions, poor sexual partners, lousy marriage prospects, or violent. Second, many men clearly have poor job and financial futures—they’re under-educated, under-motivated, and living through a poor economy. Third, many men are unprepared for women who are now feeling more entitled and more independent.

The result: the few guys who are good catches can be very, very picky. For better or worse, young Ukrainian women are competing for these guys by advertising their, um, beauty. Or sexuality—take your pick.

Taken together, the three theories—national style, desire to emigrate, and local competition—say a lot about this country and this world. Whether a society is communist, capitalist, corrupt, or confused, female sexuality is still a desirable currency. And it’s too simplistic to say that women who take advantage of their account are just Natashas with low self-esteem.

“Memory Policy”

Sixty-nine years ago today, on June 22, 1941, more than 4,000,000 Axis troops invaded the Soviet Union in the largest military offensive in human history. They started, of course, in the Soviet republic of Ukraine.

This day is now celebrated in Russia, Ukraine, and anywhere else in the neighborhood where the Kremlin has influence. Moscow now regards the Allied victory of 1945 as more than a major historic event—it’s the triumph earned by 20 million dead Russians, who led the brotherly peoples of the invincible Soviet Union. They feel the debt is mostly unappreciated and still unpaid.

The Great Patriotic War isn’t over, because people are still arguing over the facts. More importantly, they’re arguing over the meaning of what happened. It’s really, really important, because the outcome of this struggle will determine both the past and the future. What could be more critical?

Were the Ukrainian nationalists who resisted the Red Army fascist collaborators (the Russian version) or heroes struggling to create national identity and independence (the Ukrainian version)? And what about the fact that these nationalists helped purge western Ukraine of Poles, Germans, and Jews—how heroic is ethnic cleansing? Were Ukrainians victims of fascism, or cooperative anti-Semites glad to denounce Jews and take over their homes and businesses? Was the Red Army a liberator or conqueror?

Here in Ukraine, these are not just abstract academic questions. Discussions like these determine who your grandfather was, who your mother is, who you’re going to be, what your country stands for.

It’s like it happened yesterday. As Ezra Pound said, the past isn’t dead—it isn’t even in the past yet.

New Ukrainian President Yanukovich wants to take the 1933 famine—the Holodomyr—out of Ukrainian school books. He says it was a natural disaster. The World Court, European Union, dozens of national legislatures, and professional historians around the world have documented that Joseph Stalin personally created the catastrophe in order to collectivize Ukrainian farms to feed Russians. If you want your nation to think of Ukraine and Russia as brother republics, genocide is hard to swallow.

In 1991, the Soviet city of Odessa became a Ukrainian city. Since then, it has removed 148 public monuments and renamed 179 streets. But the struggle over public memory isn’t new.

Near Odessa’s famed “Potemkin” steps, a statue of the city’s founder, Russian Empress Catherine the Great, was removed by the post-1917 Bolsheviks and replaced with a huge bust of Karl Marx. Later, the Soviets replaced this with a statue commemorating the brave sailors of the Potemkin mutinying against the Czar. A few years ago, Catherine’s statue was back—presiding over a city boasting of its grand, internationally-important pre-Soviet history.

Public policy now encourages nostalgia for this colorful old Odessa. The Odessa of Jews, of Balkan and Ottoman traders, of the sophisticated and slightly scandalous “Paris of the East.” It’s a nostalgia that conveniently forgets the 200,000 Jews exiled or murdered, the collaboration with the Romanian occupiers, the welcome mat for the Soviets, and since 1991 the welcome mat for the Russian Mafia.

As author Charles King says, “Nostalgia is not just a way of longing for the past. It’s also a method of conjuring a distant but radiant future.” Ironically,  historical researcher Quint Simon sees the same process at work in the Little Odessa section of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach—“the reproduction of nostalgia” for an Odessa that these second-generation New Yorkers have never known, and don’t realize never existed.

Like many countries with a tormented past, Ukraine feels compelled to have a “memory policy.” It’s clever to say “history is written by the winners.” But things are much more complicated than that.

You Have to be There Yourself to Find Out…

* As in most of Europe, everyone here has a complicated family history, driven by war, economic migration, ethnic cleansing, or sheer perversity. I  met a guy whose grandfather was born in Paris, and came to Odessa to make his fortune; somehow the guy’s father ended up in Israel, and the guy eventually made his way back to Ukraine. Another woman told me her grandfather was from Uzbekistan, but being Jewish he was always having to move, and somehow her father was baptized, and her mother is from Poland, and now she’s in Odessa.

* Unlike most of the countries I’ve visited, one doesn’t hear much American music here. On the other hand, Ukrainians have a particular affection for “The Girl From Ipanema.” I never found out why, but I heard it in public at least 4 different times in two weeks.

* There’s plenty of smooching on the street here, in parks, in busses, in cafes, and elsewhere.

* I know I say this almost every time I travel, but it’s still hilarious to see big bruiser-type guys sit down and gruffly order a cup of tea. It’s a bonus when they add sugar and stir with a tiny little spoon.

* Everybody here under 40 smokes, both men and women. There’s almost no place it’s prohibited. A few upscale restaurants have non-smoking sections—unless the smoking section gets filled, of course.

* There’s a lot of security guys wherever you go here, and they are not fooling around. Most are lean, tough-looking guys with guns just itching for conflict.

In fact, a security guy with a gun not only refused me and my guide entry into a synagogue yesterday (“members only”), when I buttonholed a member coming in who tried to welcome us, Boris The Serious Security Guy still tried to prevent our entry.

When he saw we were going to come in with the member, he berated my guide that she couldn’t come in because she was wearing pants (rather than a dress). “Fine,” she said, “I’ll take them off right here.”

And still—after being invited in, talking with a few members, clearly welcome to stay—10 minutes after we entered, the Boris made it a point to find us and throw us out. I smiled broadly and played innocent with the guy, stopping to tie my shoelace, admiring every single picture on the wall, suggesting we have our photo taken together (“NYET!”).

* Taxis here are cheap. But they cost more if they’re air conditioned. Or, apparently, clean. In both cases, it’s worth the extra two bucks.

* For lunch, a popular option is going to an old-fashioned cafeteria. Just like in college, you take a tray, put it on a rail, and walk past dozens of dishes and point to what you want. When your tray is full you pay a cashier, sit down, and eat. It’s not gourmet stuff, but there’s lots of variety, it’s fast, and it’s really cheap.

* I don’t understand how professional guides don’t get it, especially after I tell them three times that I’m not the usual 6-cities-in-7-days tourist. We were walking in Kiev from A to B, and I saw a small crowd unveiling a plaque to a recently-deceased local doctor who apparently was quite a hero in the medical community. There were short speeches, flowers, poignant stories of mentorship during the Cold War (I persuaded my guide to translate)—and my guide is trying to rush me to the next “important” tourist site!

* Among Ukrainian service people, security people, and civil servants, there’s a way of not smiling that’s somehow both sullen and aggressive. It’s as if smiling is considered a form of personal vulnerability that no one wants to experience or express.

* What fun to hear so many different languages on the street. Until, of course, I feel like an idiot for being monolingual.