Ukraine has long been a crossroads between Europe, Arabia and the Orient, and the modern Ukrainian Rus have acquired a strong admixture of Asiatic and Arabic blood: giving them an average height, slender build and fair complexion.
Strictly speaking, the popular-image beefy Slavic people are found mostly in the western Ukraine (bordering on Poland, Hungary and the Slovak states) and in the north and northeast adjacent to Russia.
For over a century, the official language was Russian. Since independence, Ukrainian is being promoted as the state language although Russian is still the most widespread, especially in the major cities. In villages people speak both Russian and Ukrainian. As a rule of thumb, you can manage by speaking Russian, although you may receive a bit of resistance from public officials who are being pressed to use Ukrainian.
Ukrainians are passionately nationalistic- having only recently been freed from two centuries of Russian domination. They think of themselves as strongly pro-western (a legacy of Soviet domination) and they have a particular fascination with the United States. English is commonly taught in public schools and is rapidly becoming an informal second language.
Ukrainian Social Life…
The Ukrainians are a gregarious people who will often gather in cafes or street markets to socialize. A common practice is for friends to visit each other at home to spend time chatting over tea. As Ukraine is a largely rural nation, most Ukrainians live in small farm towns. There are relatively few large cities, which are generally not very sophisticated by western standards. As such, the Ukrainians feel most at home in a rural or small town setting.
Holidays and Festivals in the Ukraine
Ukrainians, like other nations, have many traditions and holidays. During the Soviet era, some of the religious based holidays such as Easter and Christmas were officially discouraged. The celebration of these two holidays was ignored for many years, but have made a resurgence in the post Soviet era. Here is a list of some of the more popular Ukrainian holidays:
New Year’s Day. This holiday serves as the Ukrainian equivalent to Christmas in the United States. It is a wonderful time for children as well as for grown-ups, and is often called the family holiday. On New Year’s Eve, children decorate a fir or a pine tree with shining balls and toys. The mothers cook a festive dinner. On New Year’s Day there is an exchange of presents.
January 7, Eastern Orthodox Christmas. Unlike Christmas in America, this is primarily a religious holiday.
Second weekend in February, Easter. The traditional Easter greeting is “The Lord has resurrected!” On Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning people put an Easter cake, painted eggs, butter and cheese into a basket and go to church for the blessing of the food. “Pisanka” (a painted Easter egg) is one of the most interesting sorts of Ukrainian decorative art.
March 8, Women’s Day. This is an occasion to display love, tenderness and gratitude to those who care for us most – to mothers and grandmothers, sisters and daughters.
May 1-2, Spring and Labor Days. These primary Soviet holidays have lost their political meaning and are now traditional days off.
May 9, Victory Day. This is the day of commemoration of those who perished in the war against fascism.
August 24, Ukrainian Independence Day.
November 7. This former Soviet holiday has lost its political meaning and is now a traditional day off.
A typical city in Ukraine is a study of contrasts. You will find elements of the pre-Soviet era, with the ornate domed architecture of churches and public buildings. Much of this, however, was leveled during the Great Patriotic War and replaced with drab Soviet factories, public structures and workers flats (as they refer to apartments).
Most Ukrainians live in large high rise blocks of flats (remarkably similar to the “projects” in America’s inner cities) which were built by the Soviets. In something of a last laugh, when the Soviet Union collapsed, most Ukrainians simply took possession of their assigned flats in a wave of instantaneous privatization.
In the post Soviet era, a wave of new construction (mostly by foreign companies entering the Ukrainian markets) has seen American style fast food restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions sprouting up in the major cities.
Religions in the Ukraine
The primary religion in Ukraine is Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
The Ukrainian Jewish community was decimated during the Great Patriotic War (World War 2) and by postwar Soviet repression. However, it is starting to make a significant comeback.
The third popular religion is Islam, found mostly in the southern and southeastern part of the country adjacent to the Islamic states of the Middle East.
Travel in the Ukraine…
Traveling to Ukraine by air from America generally involves departing from New York City with a change of airplanes at Vienna. From there, flights terminate at either Kyiv or Odessa, the two primary international air terminals. At the time this was written, the structure of air fares and connections made arriving in Kyiv and taking the train further south both cost and time competitive with arrival at Odessa.
In Ukraine, people mostly travel by train. You can reach any Ukrainian city by train, and their rail services are good by American standards. It is always interesting to sit by the window, have meals, read books, and see the fertile landscape rolling past. There are various classes of service, ranging from a twin compartment to open coach seating. Fares are reasonable and service on most routes is at least twice daily. Like much of Ukraine, the rail system is having its problems. However, train travel can be quite pleasant if one is willing to indulge in a bit of ‘roughing it’.
In summer when the train stops at village stations you can buy fruits (peaches, water melons, apples, pears) and bread. These are sold by the “babushkas” (grandmothers) from the local farms. These foods are very economical, and selling to passengers on trains is often a significant part of the income in small villages.
Travel by automobile is difficult as service facilities are minimal and the road network largely undeveloped. Most Ukrainian roads are in fact former Soviet military highways and are now in a serious state of disrepair. There are some intercity bus services, but they are uncomfortable, erratic and slow.
Ukrainian cooking uses black pepper, red pepper, salt, bay leaf, parsley and dill (usually in spring and summer), garlic and onion. Staples include potatoes, cabbage, fish, pork, beef and sausage. Ukrainian people eat many dishes made of potato.
During the Soviet era, there were chronic shortages of food. However, as Ukraine is an agricultural country, today there is much meat in the market (beef, pork, chickens, turkey) as well as cheese, butter, bread and milk. However, for some items, notably cheese, prices are still very high.
As for finding American food- the large cities have specialist restaurants with Western cuisine for tourists, and these are beginning to filter down into the medium sized cities. Small towns and villages may not have any public food services at all, although grocery stores and street markets are common.