A year in Dnepropetrovsk

An American volunteer in Ukraine

Back in the USSR

The Soviet Union is missed more dearly in Ukraine than one would expect.

USSR Casino

“Things were better during the USSR,” Sveta, my Russian teacher, has told me many a time. “Education was so much better than it is today. The streets were clean. Everyone could get healthcare. People were more respectful.”

More respectful? How do you figure?

“American culture has taken over. In the workplace, it’s ты, ты, ты! It’s rare to hear the formal вы anymore. And очество? No. Everyone wants to be on a first-name basis, just like in America.**

“Everything is so fast paced today,” she often continues. “In the USSR, you may have been poor, but you worked a normal amount and got to spend time with your family and loved ones. Besides, everyone was just as poor as you were. Today, you have to work an obscene amount just to make enough money to live.”

Anya, a colleague of mine, agreed. “It’s really hard today. Before I would have had time to spend with my daughter, but now I work from 8 am until 7 pm, sometimes more. The general attitude of the people was much better in the Soviet Union.”

Often as I walk down Karl Marx St, the largest and most important road in Dnepropetrovsk, I hear patriotic Soviet music coming from Lenin Square. I asked Lena about it one night as we passed. “They do that a lot,” she said. “I don’t know. I guess they like to remember how it was. There’s always a big group of them.”

I was at a memorial service for the Dnepropetrovsk Jews who were gathered from their homes, taken to a park not too far from the center, and shot during the Holocaust. Incidentally, five of Anya’s great-aunts and uncles died in this way. Various members of the community were making speeches, almost all of them referring to us, the observers, as “dear friends,” as is the convention. One older man from Chessed, as he expounded the evils of fascism, called us “comrades.” Over and over again.

At Metsudah, the graduation ceremony was presented in the style of the Soviet Union. Amir; Shy, the Metsudah mentor from Israel; and Ilya, the translator, marched in to patriotic music carrying the Soviet flag. Everyone was referred to as “comrade.” When diplomas were handed out, graduates and directors saluted soviet style. It was a big hit. Everyone laughed, except when they were saluting (because saluting is a serious business). There was absolutely no discomfort or hostility in the room. It was pure gaity.

The JCC theater group has a short piece they perform about a Jew applying for a passport after the fall of the Soviet Union. He wants his ethnicity to be “Jewish” and not “Russian.” This is only one example of the many struggles surrounding national and international travel after 1990. In Ukraine, you are required to have a national passport and, if you wish to leave the country, an international passport. It is a rather difficult process to get the latter.

“It’s ridiculous! I have family in Moscow!” Sveta has exclaimed. “Only twenty years ago, I could hop on a train and see them whenever I want. Now it’s a huge process. It shouldn’t be that way. We’re the same country.”

When I asked her if it was all better, she looked me in the eye and said, “Stalin, the killings– that was something else. I’m not talking about that. But life for the average person was definitely better in the Soviet Union.”

Hammer and Sickle right in Globa Park

**In Russian, there is a formal and an informal way of saying “you.” “Ty” is informal (like “tu” in Spanish and French, for example), and “vy” is both the formal and the plural (like “vous” in French). “Ochestva,” which translates to “patronymic,” is a special middle name Russian speakers are given, taken from their father’s name. For example, if I were to formally address Sveta, I would call her Svetlana Alexandrovna. Her father’s name was Alexandr, so her ochestva is Alexandrovna (Sveta is the nickname form of Svetlana). Another example: the director of Chessed is called Anatoli Mikhailovich. His father, therefore, must have been Mikhail. While in Russia it is still proper to address someone with their first name (imya) and their ochestva, in Ukraine this has become extremely rare. In fact, these are two of only THREE people I know who go by imya and ochestva.

1 Comment»

  Alexander wrote @

As far as I can say USSR was much better than what the present day Ukraine is. Some people say that USSR was better than present day Russia too and they will be right, though Russia sits in a much better pisotion than Ukraine.
Of course there were some communist ideology exgaggerations and corruption in the Union but these social phenomena were fought against. I can even say that disregarding some disadvantages USSR can be called a social state. As for today Ukraine, as part of USSR, developed an outstanding example of anarchy, while Russia demonstrates autocracy as the only effective way of ruling this country. But at least there is power and laws begin to work. There is a president, a parliament and almost no opposition, while in Ukraine there preseident, parliament and opposition all represent the same mess that doesn’t know what they what and what Ukrainian people want.
In both cases democracy failed, therefore now I see no reason of splitting the USSR back in 1991.

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