Thinking of relocating to Ukraine? Curious what it’s all about? Let EXPATUA school you on the most common misconceptions about the largest country in Europe.
Ukraine has long been known throughout history as a nation buffeted by
the political winds of empires and the mass migrations which have passed through or settled down. Along the way, many myths and stereotypes have arisen about the region, and while some of them are true, many are just that… myths. So let’s take a look at the arch of national myth-building…
Going back before recorded history, the territory of prehistoric Ukraine was an important nexus of Eurasian cultural contacts, the path of the Indo-European expansion that occurred alongside
the domestication of the horse. In antiquity the territory was part of Scythia, around the time when the early Slavic settlers came and started calling it home, bringing their love of borscht, salo, and vodka to the European plains.
After 948, when the good folks of the Steppe under a guy named Kazak chased out the Khazars from the area around Kuban, they set up a state called Kazakia in Ukraine which was famous for its skilled horsemen called Cossacks, who had funny haircuts and mustaches, and prospered thanks to Ukraine’s incredibly rich fertile soil where everything seemed to grow lushly with little effort needed, which was a good thing because they were so busy dancing all the time. This image is what was the most commonly known about the territory for a very long time. I could go into detail, but this cartoon should give you a good idea of what they were about…
The establishment of the medieval kingdom of the Kievan Rus during the Middle Ages meant the Slavic die was cast forever in this region, and its collapse in the 12th century saw the neighboring superpowers begin battling for control of the famously rich territory. A centuries long struggle between their neighbors to the west, the Kingdom of Poland, the Moskovy to the East, and the Ottomans to the South, took place on this land and left their cultural imprints, but have never erased completely the generous nature of the resilient peoples of Ukraine.
Long under the yoke of the Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Empire, most people today associate Ukraine with its neighbor to the East. Having told my friends that I was moving to Odesa, some would ask me “Ukraine? Why would you want to live in Russia?” And to be honest, long before moving here, my association too was that Ukraine was Russia, even though it seemed that most of the Ukrainians I met were somehow nicer than those of their eastern neighbors. And this mistake is easy to understand, considering our Cold War historical perspectives.
But it wasn’t always so… Almost 1000 years ago “Oukraina” was mentioned as a territory of the Pereyaslav Principality in the Hypatian Codex of 1187. But as a political country independent of its covetous neighbors, it is a relatively young country, having become independent only with
the breakup of the USSR on 24 August 1991 (not counting the period after the overthrow of the Russian Tsar in 1918, a short-lived independence that was cut down by the force of the ruthless Bolsheviks).
The popular memory of Ukraine that history has instilled in many foreigner’s minds is that it is the “Breadbasket of Europe”, a major corn and wheat producer, rich with natural resources, such as timber, iron, and coal. These perceptions come thanks in large part to Soviet propaganda spread as they themselves exploited the region in the furtherance of totalitarian Communism, which took a dark turn with the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, an event that many say was the indirect cause of the break up of the USSR.
The post-Soviet-Collapse period not long after that opened up Ukraine to the west, but new stereotypes began popping up; that Ukraine was a country of a very poor and often drunken people ruled over by a corrupt mafia state and blessed with beautiful women and very low prices on goods and services. And it’s not surprising that a number of these myths and misconceptions about Ukraine have persisted to this day, thanks in no small part by mendacious Kremlin propaganda.
Long under colonization by its giant neighbor, Ukrainians overcame genocide (the Holodomor), WWII taking place upon their lands, Soviet occupation and post-Maiden revolution betrayal by Moscow to
maintain a unique identity, rich in traditions and with a fiercely independent spirit.
After the 2012 UEFA European Football Championships, the world began to see Ukraine in a new light, as the stereotypes of the past began to be shed and a new modern reality emerged. But it really wasn’t until after the Revolution of Dignity that a really new Ukraine arose on this fertile soil.
Still, there are many misapprehensions about Ukraine that persist, (and due to the recent blitz of Kremlin propaganda some new ones that have popped up), so forget what you know, this is 2020, and it’s not your father’s Ukraine. Here, EXPATUA sets the record straight about the reality of this dynamic nation in the 21st century with a look at the five most common stereotypes.
5 most common stereotypes
1) Let’s start with the obvious one, from the western male’s point of view: Ukrainian women are the most beautiful in the world.
One visit to Ukraine and the average western lad will quickly attest that this is no myth, and cultural polls around the world consistently show Ukraine ranking in the top ten countries in the world in terms of feminine beauty. Its enough to watch any video on youtube about Ukraine to learn that the women here have been blessed with alluring genetics, but it is more than that… The women are proud of being women, and self-care and fashion is how they express it. But the beauty of Ukrainian women is about much more than how they look, it is a mindset; they expect their men to be real about who they are, and to strive to be better than they might actually be,
and thesis what makes very really attractive to most ego-driven men.
On the dark side of this perception, many visiting men fail because they assume that their wealth or passport status will be all that is needed to win the heart of the “poor Ukrainian lass” looking to be rescued, and if they act the fool they will be treated as one. Most Ukrainian women
have a strong family network and live within their means (like most women of Europe), and seek a man who is a real man, honest, competent and strong. And contrary to popular belief, most women here aren’t eager to leave their country and families behind, no matter what the dating
sites try to sell you.
2) ..which leads to the stereotype, that Ukrainian women are meek.
This is the stereotype that seems to draw lots of men to Ukraine, that Ukrainian women just want to be housewives, in some kind of “Leave it to Beaver” 1950s American fantasy role. This stereotype is a leftover from Soviet days and is hardly the case anymore. Younger women no longer seek to be stay-home moms and housewives, especially those who have grown up in an independent Ukraine. While the post-Soviet era found many women whose only goal in life was to marry a rich man, with increasingly higher educational and career opportunities, fewer Ukrainian women are content to assume traditional roles or are waiting for a foreign prince to “save them” from their “harsh life”. But thanks to the numerous dating and “Ukrainian bride” websites, this stereotype persists, setting up many men to be scammed. And as for meekness, ask any expat who has married a Ukrainian, and they will quickly put that lie to rest for you…
Ukrainian women are as smart and proud as they are beautiful, and don’t tolerate fools easily. Those of us that have been around long enough to have witnessed other Eastern European nations emerge from the Soviet grasp know that with countries like Czech Republic now showing on average higher per capita income among women than men, we know female independence is coming to Ukraine.
You have been warned!
3) Corruption is rife throughout all aspects of life.
While this was certainly true in many post-communist countries, in the past five years there has been a serious effort to root out systemic corruption, and following the local news, you will see many reports of arrests of high-profile officials who have been caught in the act. And while many of the president’s defenders in the American impeachment trial have claimed that Ukraine is the “most corrupt country in the world” or “the third most corrupt country in the world” the truth is that Ukraine is the 120th least corrupt nation out of 175 countries according to Transparency International, and has steadily improved since the Revolution of Dignity.
https://tradingeconomics.com/ukraine/corruption-rank. An improving economic situation has lessened the need for bribes, and a general attitude shift has taken place making it less routine.
Don’t be mistaken, it still has some way to go. But it is no longer the only way to get things done, and offering a bribe nowadays can land you in trouble than its worth.
4) Ukrainian and Russian speakers hate each other.
This is a stereotype I see most often promoted by Russian propaganda. Reading Russian news about Odesa, where I live, you often hear reports of “Russian speaker beaten for speaking Russian” in any news reports about street fights, and for a hysterical example, check out this blog .
The truth is, since its independence, Ukraine has been a peaceful country home to speakers of many languages, with Ukrainian most commonly spoken and Russian widely used, and most Ukrainians can get by in both languages, often using a mix called “surzhik”. The myth that they
hate each other is nothing more than the result of a campaign of Kremlin lies as a result of Ukrainian becoming the “official language” of the nation of Ukraine, go figure! Moscow promotes the idea that anyone speaking Russian is a Russian, but this is as nonsensical as saying that a Mexican is a Spaniard for speaking Spanish or an American is British for speaking English. Actually, its not that uncommon for two sides of a conversation to speak their preferred tongue without batting an eye.
5) Ukrainians are drunk most of the time.
The World Health Organization ranks alcohol consumption in Ukraine on par with Italy, at 22nd place. And while cheap alcohol has caused problems with alcoholism here, it is far worse in neighboring Moldova, which has the highest levels of alcohol consumption in the world! And contrary to popular perceptions, many Ukrainians do not drink vodka at all, which is why the most popular drink nowadays is beer. (Vodka is called “gorilka” here by the way). And while in Europe, where having a beer or wine (or two) during meals is the norm, Ukrainians usually don’t drink alcohol at every meal. But because drinking to excess is seen as a sign of masculinity in
Ukrainian culture, there are binge drinking issues, which has caused the impression that alcoholism is common, when in reality, it is not, as generational changes have shown. If you’re looking to learn more about Ukraine as it is today, this is a good start, and in the weeks
ahead, tune in again for more info on this rapidly growing nation as it heads on its rightful western trajectory as a nation of Europe.