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How Ukrainian society changed in 20 years

September 6, 2011

KyivPost                                                                                                                                               Oksana Grytsenko

Younger generation more inclined to take responsibility for their futures.

Twenty years after independence, Ukraine is a society torn apart by the huge gap between the rich and the poor, a byproduct of the greed and selfishness fostered by the wild capitalism of the 1990s.

There is, moreover, a sense that criminality rules the country, polls and sociologists said.
This lack of social cohesion fuels nostalgia for the mutual aid, state support and more predictable future of Soviet times.

But just as in Soviet times, Ukrainians’ top priorities remain the same: good health, a strong family and happy children, just as surveys in 1991 show. These are, after all, universal values.

Unlike during the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, however, young people are increasingly looking to themselves to achieve their goals – not the state or anybody else.

“Most Ukrainians in the 1990s [still] saw the state as responsible for their lives. But now the number of people who accept responsibility for their own lives has increased by 5-7 percent,” said Yevhen Holovaha, deputy head of the Institute of Sociology.

Holovaha hails those slow changes, calling them as essential steps for Ukrainian society on the way from feudal and Soviet to modern and European stages of development.

Self-reliance has been fostered by the fading away of the state as a pillar of support in the 1990s.

“Everything you need you have to get by yourself,” said Serhiy Pidhayevsky, a 24-year-old advertising executive who was only four years old when Ukraine gained independence.

Competition has brought greater selfishness as people jostle for advantage, particularly in the workplace. “We lack the feeling of community, we are too egocentric, oriented to our own interests,” said Pidhayevsky.

Kateryna Hanushevych, a 58-year-old pensioner, agrees.
“When I came to work at the [Kyiv marine engineering] plant in 1970, I knew nothing about this job. The people taught me how to work,” she said. “But now nobody wants to help, as they fear the newcomers could get their jobs and the old workers be cast out into the street.”

This egocentric approach was encouraged by the social and economic collapse of the 1990s, where citizens had to fend for themselves in a dog-eat-dog environment.

Hanushevych had to leave her job at the marine engineering plant and began running a market stall with her husband. “Those times were terrible,” she said, recalling her 10 years of working seven days a week at the market.

The increasing ruthlessness of society is evident in a comparison among three polls, one that was carried out in 1982 and two that were published earlier this year.

While in 1982 almost 87 percent of respondents told Soviet researchers that they believed it’s possible to earn money honestly, now only 24 percent think so, according to a survey by the Sofia Institute of Social Research in spring this year (see table).
While 83 percent said they were ready to help strangers in 1982, only 33 percent would help an unknown person today.

In the recent poll by the Institute of Sociology, Ukrainians depicted the current period as a time of criminals, politicians and beggars, not of workers, talented people or the morally scrupulous.

Pidhayevsky lamented that Ukrainian society had become so self-centered, but admitted that he is not ready to try to change the world around him. “I’m also a passive, average man and care only about myself,” he said.

Attention to individual needs has led to a boom in consumerism, unthinkable in Soviet times, snapping up the latest cars, cell phones and clothes.

“Since independence, Ukrainians have become more materialistic. That’s because in Soviet times people couldn’t buy lots of goods even when they had money,” said Iryna Bekeshkina, the head of Democratic Initiatives Foundation. “If you wanted a car you would have to stay in line for 10 years to buy it.”
Social upheaval and moral degradation have left some feeling nostalgic for the social security – or collective poverty -- that existed in the Soviet Union.

Hanushevych, however, who voted in favor of independence in 1991, said she would not like to return to Soviet ways, even though life in a post-Soviet country turned out harder than she expected.

“The Soviet Union was bad. We were standing in lines for sausages, for butter. We had neither clothes, nor shoes,” she said.
Nor would Hanushevych like to move abroad: “How could I leave my village? When I enter the garden, it’s such a joy: There are ripe raspberries, fresh cucumbers. What would I do abroad?” she said.

Kyiv Post staff writer Oksana Grytsenko can be reached at grytsenko@kyivpost.com.

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