Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The elite

I think usually 'the elite' means people who are good at something but in Ukraine it just means 'the rich'. For these 'elite' people they sell 'elite houses', 'elite jeans', 'elite tea' and so on. There is one street in Kharkov where some extremely 'elite' people are living and it is quite a bizarre place.

Just around the corner to the left is the street of the elite.

I think this must be one of the biggest house in Kharkov, still under construction.

Another big house. I was told that in one of these houses the chief of police lives. He actually does not have a very big salary so he must have a good deal of 'unofficial income'.

A house just across the street.

On that balcony you can enjoy the view of your neighbour's grass which in this case is not greener than yours.

In Sumskaya they have been working on some big buildings for a long time. For this one they found a very exclusive name. They say these building are funded by the Kharkov's richest man who is Jewish, not that I have anything against that.

Club Misto, where the elite and some scruffy Danish people like to go.

Other side of the street.

By a casino. Sometimes they need to demark the line between regular people and the elite.

Poor people

Ukraine is a poor country but generally people do have roofs over their heads and stuff to eat. And even though many things are very old and primitive there are also a lot of expensive cars - probably even more than in Denmark - and some somewhat extravagant places. But it seems the price of these things may be partly paid by some other extremely poor people. My Ukrainian colleagues are not the ones driving Mercedes cars but I guess they are relatively well off, yet they pay practically no taxes. This is a trick they pull off in cooperation with the outsourcing company with which my Danish company cooperates, which I think also does not put any tax money into Ukraine. Given some government people who are said to make a lot of personal benefit from the few taxes which are actually paid it leaves very little means to support people who cannot support themselves.

Ukrainian beer companies have a bottle recycling system which works in a bit unusual way. The deposit you pay is so small that no normal people would ever consider returning bottles. So instead they just throw bottles into the trash and then homeless people will take the bottles and return them. That way the system supports both the nature and the homeless - sort of clever, but I am not sure if I should like the system or not.

The last resort before bottle hunting I guess are these walls. If you have good physics you can get some very hard yet very badly paid job.

In Denmark we also have beggars but seeing beggars in Ukraine just make Danish people seem even more like some spoiled babies. Here it is only people who are really completely unable to support themselves, like some old ladies. I was told that old people here get around 300 dollars each month which is not quite enough to live for but actually more than what is earned by Kyryl's mother who has a PhD and teaches German. If you don't have a well-paid husband or some position where you are able to make some 'unofficial income' you are in trouble.

No tax money also means bad pavements, they are often even worse than this one. Another way the governments seems to try to save money is by cutting street lights and the supply of warm water for about one third of the city. I have met some people who have had no warm water for the whole summer. I wonder how much is really saved by that, because people will just heat the water themselves.

These 'Dadesi' sneakers also taught me some things about what poor people must go through. At first I thought it was cool that I could get a pair of sneakers for about 4 dollars but they ended up causing me quite some trouble. The first time I wore them playing football the inlay sole somehow crumbled up which caused my feet to get some big blisters torturing me for a week. And as the shoes are made completely from plastic my feet quickly get extremely warm and smelly. And often when I have been walking along asphalt paving for some time they have contributed to some big headaches, because the soles are completely non-absorbing. Anyway, I still think these sneakers are sort of cool and I wear them all the time. I guess you can say I am suffering for beauty.

Apart from the extremely poor people I would not say that people here live a poor life. A normal monthly salary of about 400 or 500 dollars (maybe including some 'unofficial income') may seem crazy but considering what you spend to live here it does make a kind of sense. Many people own their apartments and so do not have to pay rent and they pay practically nothing for electricity and gas. And most food products cost at least half of what they cost in Denmark, and often even less than one tenth. I once thought that if everything costs half you will only need half the money to live. But using my mathematical skills I soon saw that if I buy two things at half the price I will actually only have used one fourth of the money, and similarly when I buy the hundred things I need every month. So actually in Ukraine you need exponentially less money to live, or something.

In some aspects I also find the quality of normal Ukrainian living quite better than in many so called rich countries I have visited. For example, in Japan an apartment like the one Kyryl owns would be a place for a whole family to rent. And I don't think many Ukrainians would believe some of the lousy food people in Northern countries eat. Especially in a country like Iceland you can get stuff which just should not be called 'pizza', 'sausages', 'jam' or whatever they call it. And even in Denmark going to a bakery is usually a very depressing experience. In the name of efficiency and profit maximization the beautiful cakes we might also once have had have been reduced to some 98% prefabricated quite sad stuff.

This is what cakes should look like. In Denmark no one would bother to make such cakes for other people without taking some exorbitant pay, but Ukrainians can eat these cakes all the time.

What makes Ukraine appear more poor - apart from the broken pavements - I think may be the relative lack of some more refined culture. Kharkov does have it's old theaters and the opera where you can watch classic plays, ballet and concerts for less than 2 dollars a ticket. But this is culture 'for the people', not 'by the people'. When it comes to more current art which should reflect how people are living right now I have come across very few things that I find interesting and yet nothing truly original. Compared even to Copenhagen there is really a lot less happening. And I guess this somehow just reflects the taste of many Ukrainians who seem to be more interested in whatever is flashy and (looks) expensive, I guess nothing can makes a country seem poor like this glamour and materialism.

But still, I think Ukraine has something which is a more valuable than all the fancy junk Danish people like to drag into their designer homes, which is a sort of warmth between people. Of course people may treat me welcoming because I am foreigner, but it is also a fact that many foreigners who come to Denmark find the Danish people to be cold, or even self-absorbed. There are some cliche sayings about these things and I guess they are true.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


There is sort of a global counterculture were people are against anything popular, whether wrong or right. In most European countries these people are strongly against nationalism but interestingly in Ukraine these same people usually seem very nationalist. If you go to Churchill's or meet Kyryl and his friends you will see people using Ukrainian words and occasionally wearing traditional Ukrainian clothing.

This is Kharkov's House of Ukrainian Culture. There was a concert where this young guy was singing and playing his 'bandura' very nicely. It is a quite geeky place and besides lectures on Ukrainian culture they have courses where you can learn how to use Linux, which will really teach those Microsoft bastards.

This guy we met at the Ukrainian house. He grew up in Kharkov speaking only Russian, but one day he decided to only speak Ukrainian. So when he goes around Kharkov he uses Ukrainian and actually it is not problem because everybody learn it in school and it is also quite similar to Russian.

In Kiev they have this place which looks and works pretty much exactly like a McDonald's but they only sell traditional Ukrainian food, Borsch, Variniki, etc. I think this may be the one place in Ukraine where they do not sell Coca Cola.

Trip to Lviv

One long weekend I went with Kyryl on a trip to Lviv. Lviv is in the western part of Ukraine which is a lot different than the Eastern part. As I have told that part was somehow more influenced by western countries. So in Lviv all people speak Ukrainian and the architecture is more like in old cities like Prague. As in Prague they also have a lot of tourists who are attracted by this 'history romanticism' and you can buy all the tourist knick knack you need.

The train was a bit more comfortable than the one I were in to Crimea but still very intimate. It takes about 20 hours to Lviv so we split the trip in two and spent one day in Kiev.

In Kiev we spent some time for finding presents because after Lviv Kyryl would go to Prague to meet his girlfriend, she is a photo model and lives in Denmark and he brought her many gifts. Kyryl is always very generous and one time he spent his entire salary to buy her some bling-bling. I guess I could be glad that this stuff is not modern in Denmark (his girlfriend is actually Russian).

This is Lviv, the road from the station. All the streets have this brick paving. A bit like in Prague but still with a particular Ukrainian touch.

We stayed with Kyryl's friends. They were not at home when we came so Kyryl picked the lock. This guy owns the apartment which used to be his mother's atelier and I think he is kind of a slacker, but he was nice.

One typical street in Lviv, but this is actually the Armenian quarter where they have an Armenian church. Lviv has more than 1 million people but it does not have a metro, they say they did not build a metro out of fear from ruining the architecture. One effect of this I think is that people are not as afraid of walking as in Kharkov, at least Kyryl's Lvivian friends did not mind dragging us several kilometers through the city.

In Lviv there are also geeks who dress up in glamourized historical outfits and pound away on each other. In the battle we watched later they where using these big metal swords (not sharp though) so I guess the armour was quite justified. They call it 'historical recreations' and it also seemsto be popular in Kharkov. I once went to a 'backyard party' in Kharkov where all the people were this kind of people and they invited me to come to Moscow next year to watch thousands of people reenact a battle from Lord Of The Rings. I don't know what is so historical about that though.

We met up with Kyryl's ex-girlfriend, bought some chocolate and cognac (but no cigars) and went to this nice view point. Then we had a crazy night. We went deep inside a dark forest to met a group of girls who were making pearls by a fire and smoking Kalian and then we went to a strange apartment of one of their friends and her parents rented us an apartment for 10 dollars. Then we went for several kilometers to that other apartment to find out that there were already some people there who had rented it. So in the early morning we ended up eating variniki in yet another apartment of one of the kalian girls.

This is the last place we ended up. She is an artist painter and her father is a carpenter and he made all the funny decorations.

The second day we were in Lviv my legs were quite sore (we had also been walking a lot in Kiev) and it was raining a lot so we were also just slacking. Then I caught the train alone all the way back to Kharkov and had time to read a nice book by Henry James.