Life in Ukraine's Capital City


I WILL tell you frankly that living in Kiev at this time is not easy.

The problem is not shortages - they are merely a symptom. It is the mentality here that is so distressing. Under decades of communism, people have forgotten common codes of behavior. Smiling and saying good morning is often met with a stony stare; "Thank you" and "You're welcome" are frequently dispensed with.... Vehicles drive with appalling disregard for pedestrians.... People here have hearts and wholesome instincts just as anywhere else; but they are not valued. Looking out for oneself is the standar d. If you ask people what they think democracy is, they will usually reply, "freedom to say what I want, go where I want."

No one describes it as government by the people [with] the responsibility that implies. They look to the government to provide measures that will result in achieving economic stability, but don't think of what they can do to make a difference. They are convinced that one person cannot make a difference.

Kiev is not a big city and there doesn't seem to be much petty street crime. A "taxi" is any car that will give you a lift as you hail it. Corruption, on the other hand, flourishes here. One cab I rode in was stopped for an illegal turn; the driver got out, but was back inside in a minute. He had paid a 100 ruble bribe. Bribing is an easy way around in a place where things are not easy to get done.

Fewer cars are running with the gas shortages. Public transportation has been curtailed, but we still seem to manage. Over-burdened trolleys and buses will drag by with hands, faces, bodies, packages pressed solid against the windows.

I try to go to the opera every week. It is an oasis of gentility. The ushers are helpful, and you'd never know there was a crisis outside. The cloakroom is a model of efficiency and must be the only place in Kiev with no lines. The theater is gorgeous. The only stamp of communism is the hammer and sickle woven into the curtain. It's incongruous in this epitome of bourgeois-dom.

Performances are somewhat provincial in quality, and they do a better job with their own (Slavic) material than French or Italian opera. All are translated into Ukrainian, though once a substitute tenor sang his role in Italian. Performances are a family affair, and sometimes there are practically as many youngsters as adults!

This evening [I'm] agonizing over whether to change money or wait to see if the dollar fetches more. Soon we may only be able to use coupons - an intermediate step between the ruble and the grivna [soon to be] the Ukraine's new currency.

One coupon is supposed to be worth one ruble, but this is far from so. Today, I found potatoes for five coupons or 30 rubles. (I remember getting potatoes for two rubles a kilo!)

I'm beginning to see things at the market that I haven't: chocolate, light bulbs, imported items. If you have something to sell, you just go stand in the market holding up whatever you have.

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