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Ukrainian National Character

Ukrainians are an outgoing people, more genial than their Russian cousins and more fun to hang out with. Russians, it is said, sit, talk, drink, and brood; Ukrainians eat, drink, and sing, and their songs are mostly happy and romantic. Optimistic and undemanding, Ukrainians see the brighter side of life, and have a proverb that explains it all – "Things will sort themselves out somehow".

Kyiv (Kiev) is 375 miles to the south of Moscow and has a warmer and more moderate climate. As "southerners," Ukrainians have a more sunny disposition than Russians, and make friends more easily. When they get to know you, they have a great sense of humor, joke a lot, and laugh at their own troubles.

All this reflects the abundance of a fertile land. More than half of Ukraine's land is arable, and its rich black soil and mild climate have made it the breadbasket of Europe. Bread is a staple of life, and from time immemorial Ukrainians have been known as grain growers. Bread lovers will not be disappointed in the variety and quality, and Americans who have never tasted real bread will be in for a treat.

Attachment to the land permeates the culture of a people who have been farming for millennia. Ukrainians are close to the land and have a deep devotion to their native soil. They enjoy talking about nature and the beauties of their fertile homeland that has been fought over and subjugated by neighboring nations throughout its history. That history, however, has several versions – Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, and Soviet. The Soviet version, moreover, was distorted by ideology, and during the Soviet years discussions on history were best avoided lest they create problems with the secret police.

Today, Ukrainians are showing a renewed interest in their history, which they are seeking to relearn. They will remind Americans that while Ukraine was absorbing the invasion of Genghis Khan's Golden Horde and the yearly incursions of other Asian nomadic tribes, it was also serving as a borderland barrier behind which Western civilization could develop and spread to the Americas.

Emotional outbursts and florid excesses (as in compliments, flowers, hospitality, and drinking) are not uncommon, while self-expression and alternative lifestyles are not accepted. Many foreigners observe an abruptness in Ukrainian behavior. Cards are slammed on the table during a friendly card game, and nyet (meaning no) or the Ukrainian ni (say nee) is more emphatic than in English. According to Western standards, people appear less courteous and less appreciative in part because niceties like "thank you," "you're welcome," and "please" are not spoken with the same frequency. It is not unusual when mis-dialing a residence to have the person hang up on you without a word, simply because he or she was not the person you were calling. Service-without-a-smile is the norm, not the exception.

Students are accustomed to accept only one answer as correct and had problems with questions of interpretation. Unaccustomed to writing term papers or expressing their own views, they also had difficulty understanding the difference between polemics and debate. Moreover, Ukrainians do not know how to debate but do know how to make long speeches. Attacks are frontal, without subtlety or gentle persuasion. Brevity is rare, and the simplest thoughts are often expressed in a long-winded, roundabout, and often unfocused manner.

Students cheat. They copy one another's homework, essays, etc. They plagiarize. They have no understanding what that means. They sit in double desks so it is impossible to seat them as it is in America so they can be isolated from one another. Also it is culturally perfectly all right to copy someone else's work, and to give your work to someone to copy.

Respect for elders is very much a part of Ukrainian life, and older people are disinclined to take advice from those younger. Graying hair is a positive attribute. The average Ukrainian bureaucrat these days is around 50, or so it seems, since the younger generation jumped ship. These bureaucrats prefer to work with someone closer to their own age when possible

The United Nations calculated that there are only 86.7 men per 100 women, with about 900,000 more women than men in the 15-59 age group. Women have a strong image in the matriarchal Ukrainian culture and are idealized in literature. Sexual roles are less strictly defined than in many other Eastern countries and, in contrast to Russians, authority in the Ukrainian home is shared by husband and wife. Historically, Ukrainian women have worked side by side with their men in the fields, and when the men were away performing military service during the growing season, the women did all the fieldwork and ran the households as well. Men's absences could be long because the draft period for the tsar's army was twenty-five years until 1861, when it was reduced to sixteen years, and in 1874 to only six years!

Today, women keep busy running households, raising children, standing in lines while shopping for food and goods, caring for their men, and working at jobs and professions. Men have the authority, though, and older men even more so; but women are recognized as the glue that holds the male-chauvinist society together.

Feminism is a nonissue. Certain professions are understood to be meant for women (such as medical doctors) and others for men, but Ukrainian women seem comfortable with such gender divisions. American women who have worked in Ukraine say that Ukrainian women put up with much less and stand up to men much more than do Russian women. Ukrainian women say there is little or no sexual harassment.

There’s something close to a obsession in Ukraine with looking your best. On the street, it looks like fashion week in Milan as men and women walk around in pointy shoes, glossy leather jackets, and a variety of flared, sequined and skin-tight garments. Fashion in Ukraine is underdeveloped and at times monotonous and copy-cattish. In more prosperous towns and cities occasional individuals have begun to develop a sense of personal style, but the majority of fashion is dictated by what petty vendors decide to import and sell at street bazaars. A holdover from Soviet days, Ukrainians' consumer culture is low but gradually improving as the choice of goods increases. There is a tendency to copy others rather than develop one's individual style and stick out. Dress tends to be more formal in Ukraine than in the rest of Europe. Young men walk around in black dress shoes and dark pants, and women wear high heels and skirts (not all, of course). Clothing is intended to create a necessary appearance, and not be comfortable and practical.

To be nekulturniy (say neecoolTOURnee) means uncultured, and this is quite derogatory. An egregious error is not checking a coat at restaurants, nightclubs, or the opera. Many coats do not have loops for hanging them sewn into their lining. With the increase of foreigners, coat-checkers will probably become better psychologically equipped to deal with the absence of loops. But beware the opera houses. The coat-checkers there can be downright mean! Other nekulturniy behavior includes sprawling or slumping in a chair. Sitting with your ankles crossed is a sign of unnecessary assertiveness or hostility, especially to older people.

Ukrainian priorities, as seen in work habits, are a legacy of seventy years of Sovietization, which corrupted the traditional work ethic. In the workplace, Ukrainians tend to be passive, without much motivation or initiative, reacting to others instead of presenting their own views. In the past, orders came from Moscow and were followed. This has produced a people who rely on inner resources and are constantly on the defensive against the outer world which they regard as dangerous. A question will be answered with a question rather than a straight answer. Don't stick your neck out, stand to the side, like the house in the Ukrainian proverb.

More important than jobs and careers are family and friends. Personal relationships represent security against the dangers and difficulties of life, and they are long-lasting. Personal needs command time and attention, such as providing the family's food for the next few days, obtaining good medical care and hard-to-find medications for family members, and putting up a supply of preserves for the coming winter. Survival is first on everyone's priority list; and cor-ruption, if necessary for survival, is an accepted evil.

Social life revolves around intimate groups emphasizing mutual self-help and comradeship, especially in times of need, a heritage of the peasant past when groups of people provided help to improvident neighbors. Family and friends will go to extremes to assist one another whenever help is required. Having a friend who knows someone in the right place can mean the difference between success and failure, such as gaining government approval for a petition or obtaining something in short supply. Such friendships are often based on old school ties or other shared experiences.

Alcohol, as in other Slavic states, is a lubricant of social interaction and conversation. Often, the first toast is "Za myr" (to peace). Another simple one is "Za vashe zdorovie" (to your health). Traditionally, the third toast at an in-home dinner is made to the hostess – on her home, food, or hospitality, but NEVER to her beauty. Also traditionally, the host offers the first toast, and the honored guest is supposed to offer every other toast. A toast is traditionally a short speech, not simply "cheers." While kiosks sell a variety of imported and domestic vodkas, local brands are often sealed with non-reusable caps made of thick foil. The Slavic tradition is that these bottles are drunk in one sitting. Hence, the hangover remedy calling for "the hair of the dog that bit you" takes on a different meaning here. Another drink as a hangover cure on the morning after implies that a new bottle must be opened and then finished. In this way, the hangover and its cure will be perpetuated.

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Page last modified: 23-09-2012 17:48:38 ZULU