There is no precise date for the fall of the Iron Curtain. Even as the dominoes began to fall, few could believe the system that seemed so eternal was dissolving before their eyes.
The first domino to fall was Poland, and it has been the poster child for post-Communist success ever since. After decades of Communist rule, it became the model free market capitalist state in Eastern Europe and a fiercely committed member of NATO. With purchasing power considered, Poland is now a trillion-dollar economy.
Though Poland was—and is—the symbolic first, others have followed in its footsteps to comparable or even greater success. The Baltics, Slovakia, Czechia, and Slovenia have all seen rapid and transformational economic growth, bringing their standards of living ever closer to their Western counterparts.
Ubiquitous grey concrete block-on-block buildings have been transformed into colorful, modern apartments complete with all the latest IKEA furnishings and electrical appliances found in European households from Lisbon to Stockholm. Newly built skyscrapers housing multinational companies have made cities like Warsaw and Bratislava look more modern than many old-fashioned Western European cities. Communism, day by day, becomes a distant memory in Central Europe.
But not for everyone. For all of Eastern Europe’s capitalist success stories, there are failures, too.
The biggest is no doubt Poland’s eastern neighbor, Ukraine. The two countries share comparable population levels, history, cuisine, and similar languages. Unfortunately for the Ukrainians, what they do not share is fortunes.
Thirty years on from the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has failed on all fronts. It has failed to build an economy that can provide its people with a decent standard of living. Failed at securing itself from foreign threats. Failed to reconcile its two national groups. And above all, it has failed to develop stable political institutions.
Credit certainly goes to Europe and America for their ambition and will to welcome Poland into the Western fold, but it also goes to Poland’s post-Communist elite. While in Ukraine the new elites abused the new system and plundered what they could, the new Polish democrats steered their country down a path of growth.
For “European” Eastern Europe, the post-Communist story has been largely positive. Development, freedom, security. With many problems, to be sure, but compared with 1991, genuine progress.
But for Europe’s second largest country—one double the size of Poland—that success never came.
For 30 years, Ukraine has been treading water in no-man’s land. In one half of the country, people pull Ukraine towards Central Europe, and in the other, some have gone so far as to take up arms to rejoin Russian civilization. The world watches on with indifference.
It is not an easy place to understand, but it is an easy place to caricature. It is a country full of divisions, the most poignant of which is language. But that divide in language conceals a much deeper divide about the very identity of the country itself. Russian and Ukrainian are the two main languages spoken in Ukraine, but they are not really the issue dividing the country.
Those two languages are connected to two deeper identities. Two views of history, two visions of the future.
Not long ago, I went to Ukraine, and saw its two faces reflected in two of its most historic cities—Lviv and Odessa. It was an eye-opening experience, and one that I cherish even more now that the open world we once traversed freely disappeared in a matter of weeks. I traveled from Zagreb to Odessa through Lviv by land, crossing half a dozen countries along the way. I wanted to get to know Ukraine, but I got more than I bargained for.
There is something special about traveling long distances on land. Flying is so commonplace nowadays that it’s easy to lose a sense of space in the world. Everything about flying is optimized. Pristine and organized terminals. Strict rules and regulations. Invasive security, unparalleled by any other everyday situation. Point A to point B, as quickly as possible, as safely as possible. No surprises.
But stick to the Earth, and you get none of that.
My final destination was Odessa, tucked away in Ukraine’s Southwest corner. I decided from my formerly working class Zagreb neighborhood, now graced with boutique hotels and hipster cafes, that I would get there by bus. Or train. I wasn’t actually sure, because it isn’t something people do. There isn’t even a direct Zagreb-Odessa flight, let alone a train or bus connection. It would take some piecing together to get there.
It ended up taking over a week, admittedly with a few stops along the way.
My route took me through Slovakia by train, with a short hiking detour in the High Tatras, before arriving in the eastern Slovak city of Košice, which lies just 50 miles from the Ukrainian border. In other words, the eastern border of the European Union. Just 50 miles from a country that has been at war with Russia longer than the entirety of Europe was embroiled in World War II.
I would be lying if I said it was exceptionally apparent that Košice is on the edge of “Europe.” It is actually pretty impressive as far as small Eastern European cities go, but there was one telling sign—a Georgian restaurant. Georgian food is akin to the Italian food of the former Soviet Union. You can find it everywhere—but outside of the former USSR, it is a rare find. This was no accident; I was approaching real Eastern Europe.
The next day, I took the small two-cabin train to Mukachevo, a provincial Ukrainian city in Western Ukraine.
The border is the most serious one I’ve seen in Europe. Even though you know the guard towers and barbed wire fences are not meant for you, it is unsettling. The Slovak border guards look like local drunks, opening a few random bags and rummaging through them in what looks more like a performative act of security theater to make it look like they’re doing their job than like any serious work.
The Ukrainian guards are far more professional. They look like a military force. A stereotypical young blonde Ukrainian woman checks all our passports and after a short wait they let us through. Welcome to Ukraine.
Land of Red and Black
The whole border experience felt like something from another era, an experience abolished in “Europe” long ago. Most of Europe is borderless, and even when entering, Europeans only need a card that fits in their wallet. Futuristic new facial recognition cameras scan them through. But Ukraine can barely even afford to defend itself after all. It is a country at the edge of Europe fighting for its life. For some kind of life.
Ukraine is the second poorest country in Europe—second only to Moldova, itself a nation trapped in limbo by armed Russian separatists. To put it into perspective, the nominal GDP per capita in Ukraine is $3,000, three times lower than the poorest EU country, and ten times lower than Slovenia, the richest formerly communist country per capita. That means Ukraine’s GDP per capita is just 5.6% of Germany’s and 4.8% of America’s.
Arriving in Mukachevo, it’s hard to miss that. The big cities in Ukraine don’t feel as bad, with the country’s sizable upper class and streams of tourists ensuring a respectable level of development. But Mukachevo, this small town in provincial Ukraine, feels truly underdeveloped.
So close to Europe, and yet so far.
From the platform, we were dropped off at the main train station. The dirt roads made everything in and around the station feel dusty and run-down. The station itself didn’t look like it had changed much since Soviet times. The train schedule was somehow written by hand despite reaching up the wall a dozen meters.
I must admit I was relieved to board the train to Lviv. I wouldn’t call Mukachevo a culture shock—more of a social shock. Just a couple days before, I had been in Vienna, by many measures one of the most developed cities in the world. Here—just a few hours away—I was surrounded by the kind of poverty you only encounter in those provincial parts of Eastern Europe that have not yet had the economic fortune of joining the European Union.
The remarkably slow trip to Lviv is enjoyable, if for nothing else than the lovely scenery. Impressive rolling hills accompany you much of the way as you cut through the Ukrainian portion of the Carpathian Mountains. The villages feel rustic, as if untouched by the long 20th century. This region managed to escape Ukraine’s worst historical trauma—the Holodomor. It was annexed by the Soviet Union later, after the Second World War.
What really caught my attention, though, was the enormous black and red flag painted on a wall at some unnamed provincial train station. That black and red flag—in the style of the Ukrainian national flag only with red replacing the blue and black replacing the yellow—was the flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), the country’s controversial paramilitary army during the Second World War.
This black and red flag is a common sight in Western Ukraine, though less so in other parts. In Ukraine, it is a symbol of the country’s long historical struggle for independence, which only came in 1991 after a 20th century filled with brutality and tragedy not known to Western Europe for generations.
Since 1991, regional administrations—mostly in Western Ukraine—have erected numerous monuments to UPA soldiers and their leader, the infamous Stepan Bandera. In some towns in Western Ukraine, the red and black flag even hangs from government buildings and schools on certain holidays.
For much of the country—especially to those in the diaspora—this was the Ukrainian army. The Ukrainian army which, though not perfect, fought to free Ukrainians from Stalin’s murderous and even genocidal rule over the country.
But for close to 50 years, this was not the army Ukrainians were taught fought for their freedom. No, that was the Red Army. And for much of the country, the Red Army remains the fighting force they look back on with pride. For this other half of the country, the UPA are their brutal, Nazi-collaborating enemies.
To counteract the monuments being placed in the country’s nationalist west, those in the east and south have erected their own ones to the victims of the UPA. In 2007, one such monument was opened in Simferopol—in Crimea—and the following year one in Svatove, near Luhansk. These were hardly the actions of some pro-Russian rabble either, with a 2010 opening of a monument to the victims of the UPA attended by the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine.
Political disagreements exist in every country, of course, but this is something altogether more precarious. Ukraine spent hundreds of years under Polish, Austrian, and Russian rule, then close to 70 more under Soviet rule. For hundreds of years, external powers have been defining Ukraine, often with brutal force.
Now, for the first time in centuries, Ukrainians must decide on their own what their place in the world will be. This presumably first entails agreeing on what exactly comprises the Ukrainian state. On its western flank, Ukraine is bordered by a series of ethnically and linguistically homogeneous Central European states, flourishing as full members of the European Union and as a new anti-Russian coalition. Those in the west of the country think of this as a reflection of what Ukraine could be.
But in the east and in the north, Ukraine borders two countries, Russia and Belarus, that also draw their history back to the very capital of Ukraine itself, via the Kievan Rus’—two countries with which Ukraine has shared centuries of history. To many Ukrainians, that shared history is dear. They share language, culture, and customs, and for millions of Ukrainian citizens, they are themselves Russians. Those in the east hope that Ukraine can revive its past role as a special part of a distinct Russian civilization.
But for now both halves, Russian and Ukrainian, will have to wait to see their vision of Ukraine become a reality.
Taking the same route I did to Lviv, you pass through six different countries that little more than 100 years ago were one empire under Habsburg rule. Even now, though you cross many borders (sometimes without realizing), the feeling of Mitteleuropa never really leaves you. Not until you step out of Lviv’s railway station, which is far more reminiscent of the Soviet Union than the Austrian Empire.
Run down, half-constructed sidewalks and poorly paved roads packed with junky old cabs greet you as far as the eye can see. That experience is short-lived, and the feeling of Mitteleuropa returns with a force some minutes after picking up the nearest taxi and entering the city’s old town.
Even by Central European standards, Lviv is magnificent. You can walk seemingly for ages without the nostalgic centuries-old buildings and endless cobblestone streets leaving you for dreary Eastern European blocs. Not only that, but the city’s landmarks carry a weight of grandeur, of real importance. Unsurprisingly, that’s because the city was once important.
Before the First World War, Lviv was the fifth largest city in the Austrian Empire. It was more than double the size of two present-day European capitals, Zagreb and Bratislava, and far larger even than Krakow. That’s particularly important, since it means Lviv was the largest and most important Polish city in the Austrian Empire. Back then, Lviv was about half Polish, though the surrounding area was Ukrainian and about a fifth of the city itself was, too.
That explains why the city is flooded with Polish tourists, coming to see Poland as it once was. Or, coming to see their ancestral home. In fact, I met a man doing exactly that during my stay. His family had lived here until 1945, and he had come to find his family’s grave. I can only assume there are many more cases like this. After the Second World War, Lviv was “depolonized,” and today barely any Poles remain.
But despite the lack of remaining Poles, their residual influence is hard to miss. An enormous monument to Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz still graces one of the city’s central squares. Old churches remain full of Polish graves and inscriptions. Polish has even left its mark on the local dialect, which retains many Polish loanwords. But despite Lviv’s Polish roots, it is, and historically has been, a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism.
In Lviv, Russian is often met with a look of frustration and potentially even hostility. Even when it doesn’t provoke quite such a strong reaction, people in Lviv almost exclusively prefer to speak Ukrainian. Most people understand Russian, but they will respond in Ukrainian.
After all, “You’re in Ukraine, speak Ukrainian.”
So I was told by a friend of mine from Lviv. Which, I must say, is a fair point. Lviv is in Ukraine, and the state language is Ukrainian. Ukrainians go through their entire education in Ukrainian, all public signs are in Ukrainian, so naturally the people speak Ukrainian. Why is it, then, that large swathes of Ukraine prefer to speak Russian?
You could say a minority, and that would be correct, but this is a minority of almost 15 million people, 30% of the country. Not only that, but in terms of daily use of the language, that number creeps even higher, with over half the country using at least some Russian in their day-to-day lives. And, most importantly, those Russian speakers are concentrated in major cities, meaning in most of the cultural and economic centers of the country, Russian remains dominant.
Of all those cities, Odessa is perhaps the greatest example. It stands in stark contrast to Lviv.
The train from Lviv to Odessa takes some 12 hours. Those hours drag on endlessly, especially when the people in the next cabin are a bit too fond of vodka, dried fish, and “singing.”
I was initially a bit concerned to find I would be sharing the cabin with a large shirtless Ukrainian man covered in tattoos and wearing a gold chain, but quickly found out that my concerns were ill-founded. Both he and his girlfriend were amiable and more than happy to chat with their foreign cabinmates. Speaking to them in Russian, and having just come from Lviv, I was interested in hearing what they had to say about their identity and the language they use.
Like most Russian-speaking Ukrainians, they identify as Ukrainian, but have a strong attachment to Russian linguistic identity. When I asked what language Ukrainians prefer in general, he was about as helpful as most statistics available, with the main takeaway being—it’s complicated. He estimated it is about 50-50 Russian-Ukrainian overall, and 70-30 in major cities—in favor of Russian.
The reason it’s so hard to say is that all Ukrainians know Ukrainian, and most therefore identify it as their native language. But most Ukrainians also speak Russian, and many are, in fact, Russians. The Russian community in Ukraine is the largest Russian diaspora community in the world—some 8.3 million according to the 2001 census, the only one ever held in independent Ukraine. That number has gone down, though, considering the overall population of Ukraine has dropped by an estimated 6 million since 2001.
That drop is evidence of two things: an economy crippled by corruption and inequality unable to provide a respectable standard of living to its people, and the annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbass by Russia. Two separate but closely connected issues.
While I never came close to the frontlines, it is hard to miss that the country is at war, even in its most western parts, over 1,000 kilometers away. The most memorable example I found was in Lviv, in the Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church. I entered out of sheer curiosity, not expecting anything more than the usual touristic church experience but came face to face with something striking.
A large Ukrainian flag graced with an image of Jesus Christ and the words “God and Ukraine above all!” hangs from a several-meter-tall wooden cross with the black and red flag set behind it. On one side of the cross, a large icon of the Virgin Mary and on the other Jesus Christ, with the text of a poem called “The Warrior’s Prayer” in between. And, placed carefully all around, warped pieces of metal of all shapes and sizes, unmistakably identifiable as the remnants of instruments of war deployed in the bloodlands of Eastern Ukraine, where tens of thousands have lost their lives. A shrine to the defenders of Ukraine.
Continuing along the length of the church, dozens of human-sized posters commemorate the soldiers who have lost their lives in the war. But even more prominently displayed are the innocent faces of children who have been left fatherless by the war, their mourning faces underscored by even sadder quotes about their fathers. One boy, aged six, says “I dream of building tram tracks to the cloud where my daddy lives,” while a girl, just three years old but brightly smiling in the photo, says “Daddy is in the heavens. Daddy, where are you? I want to feel your embrace, I want you back!”
At the altars, people knelt in intense prayer, verging on tears. There was no need to ask why; it was all around me.
Back to the Balkans
In Odessa, I disembarked the train along with several soldiers. Returning home, I hope. Greeting us in huge letters on top of the train station—Welcome to the Hero City of Odessa!
You could be forgiven for mistaking the heroes that sign refers to as the heroes arriving at the train station that day. In fact, hero-city in this case refers to a Soviet city awarded for its extraordinary heroism during the Great Patriotic War—as the Eastern Front is called in Russian. It used to be called the same in Ukrainian, but that was legally changed by the Ukrainian parliament in 2015 as part of sweeping decommunization laws.
Those decommunization laws were passed under previous President Petro Poroshenko, causing much consternation among large swathes of Ukraine’s population. Not only have numerous statues and monuments been torn down, but tens of thousands of streets, squares, and places have been renamed as well. Over the last five years, Ukraine has been rewriting not just its past, but its present.
But this kind of reappraisal of history as displayed in the public sphere is commonplace in Ukraine, with those decommunization laws being just the latest in a long line of historical warfare. A recent example, not long after I had left, was the extralegal tearing down of a monument to Soviet Marshal Zhukov—who led the liberation of Odessa in the Second World War—by a group of nationalists.
That monument stood right off the square where 48 Ukrainians were killed in 2014 in clashes following the Euromaidan Revolution. That revolution was the second Ukraine experienced within a decade, both times ousting pro-Russian politicians in favor of more nationalist Ukrainians. Long before the controversial decommunization laws, Odessa was the site of the controversial replacement of a Soviet monument. But in Odessa, it was not a monument to the soldiers of the UPA that went up in its place, nor to infamous Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera. Instead—in Ukraine’s third largest city—a monument to Russian Empress Catherine the Great was restored in one of the city’s main squares.
Catherine founded Odessa by imperial decree in 1794, and in the following century it became a favorite retreat for Russia’s ruling classes, and as such grew to become a culturally iconic metropolis. Great Russian writers like Pushkin and Gogol called the city home, along with dozens of others of artists, writers, and poets famous in Russia and abroad. The city was also—like Lviv—a major cultural center for Eastern European Jews, who have left a deep imprint on the city’s unique culture.
Odessa is one of those cities that holds a stronger local identity than most. It is one of the most traditionally multicultural cities I know of, historically populated not just by Russians, Jews, and Ukrainians, but also Poles, Germans, Tatars, Romanians, and many more. Even Greeks, some of whom in 1814 set the movement for Greek Independence in motion in Odessa itself. On one central street, a Polish Catholic church sits right next to a Crimean Tatar restaurant across the street from a Jewish deli.
But despite the traditional makeup of the city, nowadays it is unmistakably Ukrainian. Ukrainian in the widest sense, not in the ethnic sense. As elsewhere, street signs, advertisements, restaurant menus, and basically everything else written publicly is all in Ukrainian. But the people—nearly all of them—speak Russian day-to-day.
The one place you may hear Ukrainian is “in the markets”, as many will say. True as it may be, “in the markets” is more a euphemism for how Russian speakers view Ukrainian in much of the country. A peasant language that serves more as a source of mockery than a means for communication. This is partly why current comedian turned President Volodimir Zelensky’s popularity in the west has remained weak. He himself a Russian speaker, his comedy sketches relentlessly mocked Ukrainian for years.
Odessa is a city of markets, though. No doubt a result of its storied history as a major port and trading hub. I’ve been told many times that if you have not visited Odessa’s famous Pryvoz market, you haven’t really been there. A bit of an exaggeration, but the markets are an important feature of Odessan culture. Another famous one is the book market—Knizhka.
Dozens of sellers offer an impressive selection of books, ranging from highly decorated anthologies of great Russian writers to boxes of second-hand books sold for cents. I asked one merchant sporting a small red and black flag if he had any Ukrainian history books in Russian. He said no: “They’re all written by Putin.” Oddly enough, though, interspersed with the book sellers are stands selling exotic foreign goods, like double-stuff Oreos and Dr. Pepper.
These sellers have switched from trading in books to high-fructose corn syrup not out of choice, but out of necessity. Ukraine’s already faltering economy was ravaged by the war in 2014, and it has never recovered. That has meant unimaginable hardship for millions of Ukrainians, no matter their proximity to the warzone. Some have turned to premium foreign goods to sustain themselves, but for others such opportunities have not presented themselves.
About 1.5 million Ukrainians have been displaced because of the war, with close to a million more finding refuge abroad, largely in Poland. For the rest, low wages, endemic corruption, and political stagnation offer little hope for the future.
This is the experience shared by Ukrainians in both Lviv and Odessa, in the west and the east, no matter their language of preference. This is the real face of Ukraine, the one its citizens are forced to face every single day. Language has its role in a fair share of conflicts in the country, but few Ukrainians have the luxury to worry about language or identity when they are struggling to get by.
Ukrainians want their country to provide for them. They want their country to be free and independent. But they know they can’t go at it alone. Russia accepted them as is, but much of Ukraine did not want to stay as is. The West wanted them to change, but much of Ukraine did not want to change. Instead, they got the worst of both worlds.
A Nation Divided, but by What?
You can see the language divide on a map. You can see it in statistics. At first glance, you can see it everywhere. But despite everything I have just written, the divide is not really in the two languages at all. Nearly everyone in the country is proficient in both languages, with much of the country seamlessly combining the two in everyday speech. The divide does not come from an inability to understand one another. It comes from two deeply entrenched and radically opposed Ukrainian identities, both looking for political life in a state shared by their most bitter rivals.
Lviv was my first real experience with Ukraine, and maybe the only place that I felt fully in Ukraine as a nation-state. But there is more to Ukraine than just a narrowly Ukrainian Central European nation-state. Odessa is just as Ukrainian as Lviv, but it is a different kind of Ukrainian that belongs to the state of Ukraine no less than the superficially more “Ukrainian” parts.
Though the two are complete opposites in many regards, they do share one unmistakable characteristic. In both cities, there is a total disconnect between the animate and the inanimate. There is the city of stone and concrete where centuries of history stand unmoved by time, and the city of the people who now call these cities home.
Lviv, for centuries a great Polish city and towards the turn of the 20th century the fifth largest city of the Austrian Empire, now stands as a bastion of modern Ukrainian nationalism at the forefront of Ukrainization. Odessa, meanwhile, once a grand project embodying the success and ambition of the Russian Empire, now finds itself on the periphery of a peripheral country which Russian culture long considered backwards peasants.
Ukraine is in a very tough spot when it comes to nation-building. In Central and Eastern Europe, it is one of a handful of countries which had little experience with modern statehood when it became independent in the 1990s. No modern statehood also means no chance for nation building within its current borders. Any nation-building in the early 20th century was largely limited to the efforts of extreme nationalists and Russified Soviets, neither of which offer a particularly appealing foundation.
But those are the foundations Ukraine is left with nonetheless, and two different Ukraines continue to build on those foundations in two opposite directions. The failure to reconcile these two groups has already been exploited by Russia once. Once more and the two faces of Ukraine may become two states of Ukraine.
As I was leaving Ukraine, a refugee from the Donbass gave me a lift to the airport. Like many, he gets by with “biznyes.” He dropped me off at Odessa’s beautiful new airport terminal where I bid him farewell, and he in turn wished me luck. He returned ten minutes later to tell me my flight was not actually at this terminal and instead at the old one which was about as run-down as the Mukachevo train station.
“Why aren’t they using the new terminal?” I asked him.
“There’s no reason,” he chuckled. “Welcome to Ukraine.”