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    Filer, Forbes and Krill
    Go To Ukraine (1995)

    What follows are some humorous highlights of a jaunt through parts of Ukraine (Kyiv, Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, Carpathian Mountains & Transcarpthia) taken in the spring of 1995. Randy Filer is a City University of New York Professor of Economics; Barbara Forbes, his wife, is a very much in demand clothing designer for the stage, sometimes-book-editor and travel-and-other-important-things-coordinator; Anne (a.k.a. Hanya - that's me) Krill is a jack-of-all-trades, sometimes-economist, who on this trip acted as guide, host and interpreter.

    Some background:
    The letter was authored by Randy and Barbara as part of their annual Christmas message to friends and family in 1995. It has been edited to exclude personal and irrelevant text. Randy has been working in Prague at the Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education (CERGE) of Charles University, in cooperation with the Economics Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic (EI). At the time this trip was taken, Randy, with Barbara's tireless editorial assistance, was also working on the 6th edition of The Economics of Work and Pay, the Hamermesh labor economics textbook. I was in Prague at the time coordinating a joint project with Randy (he's a pretty busy guy), and we three decided to take a trip to Ukraine together in May 1995.

    The Story . . .

    December 1995

    Dearest Friends:

    [...] text deleted

    Lest you think it was all book and no play, we did get two travel breaks this summer. Taking advantage of our Prague base and Randy's desire to visit as many countries as possible from which CERGE has or hopes to have students, we spent two weeks in May in Ukraine and ten days in August in Bulgaria. Ukraine was our first experience in a Cyrillic alphabet country. There is something profoundly disorienting about not being able to read the simplest street sign. Fortunately, we were in the helpful hands of one of Randy's former students and current co-authors from New York. Anne is Ukrainian-American with family, friends of family, friends of friends of family and former bar bouncers from the lower East Side scattered all over Ukraine. Since we were staying in people's homes with Anne as indefatigable translator, we were able to glimpse their lives in ways that would have been impossible as tourists.

    After having spent so much time in the relative economic health of Central Europe, it was a jolt to realize how far the countries of the former Soviet Union have to go to achieve even a minimal level of prosperity. Factories that formerly made products of no real value have largely shut down. Many workers have survived by returning to their villages where they may spend their days tending a single cow as it grazes alongside the lunar landscape of potholes that passes for a road. In our two weeks in the country we never obtained a satisfactory answer as to why (1) cows had to be watched rather than simply tethered and left to graze, or (2) why the optimal ratio was one watcher to one cow. Any ideas on this great imponderable would be greatly appreciated.

    The one real sign of economic activity throughout the country was home building. It was amazing to see clusters of new brick houses sprouting like the spring grass beyond the dismal suburbs of crumbling panelaks (prefab apartments) outside every town of any size. The process works something like this. Almost as soon as a particular piece of land is designated for home building, a boom begins. While lots may be small, the houses aren't. Someone about to build a new house starts by assembling materials. Thus, a dominant feature of the landscape is piles of bricks. Once enough bricks have been gathered, the owners and several of their friends start to build an elaborate multi-storied dwelling complete with towers and turrets. A curious omission is indoor plumbing. It is somewhat disconcerting to see entire neighborhoods of what we would consider, even by North American standards, giant houses, each with its own outhouse in the back. The problem seems to be the scarcity and expense of plumbing supplies. We are pleased to report, however, that in at least some of the new homes we visited a room had been set aside to be the bathroom just as soon as funds and the distribution networks allowed. Clearly, the business venture of the year in Ukraine is PVC pipe!

    While we began our visit in Eastern Ukraine, flying from Prague to Kyiv, we spent most of our time in the western part based in Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk. Until we started preparing for this visit, we were unaware of just how different the two parts of the country are geographically and historically. The area around Kyiv was incorporated into the Soviet Union very early in that country's existence and it shows. Although the few remaining monasteries and churches are sadly beautiful, we found Kyiv to be a depressing, gray city dominated by Soviet-style architecture and the Russian language. Western Ukraine, on the other hand, was split between Romania, Poland and Czechoslovakia after the First World War, and before that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Remnants of this past help to ameliorate the harshness of the region that lived longer under the Soviet Yoke. Clearly residents of Western Ukraine are doing better (although only relatively) today. We can speculate on several reasons why, but have been unable to assign relative importance to having escaped the worst of Stalinism (including having retained private plots on which to grow food), a traditional attachment to the west, borders that facilitate small-scale trading, and greater transfers from the Ukrainian Diaspora in the US and Canada, most of whom came from this region.

    We intended to travel from eastern to western Ukraine via the overnight train, but after hearing enough stories of gassings and robberies we decided that no matter what the maintenance record of Air Ukraine we would be safer flying. After being reassured that unlike Aeroflot, pre-teens were rarely allowed to operate its planes and sheep were not considered appropriate carry-on baggage, we booked tickets on the late flight from Kyiv to Lviv. Before departing Kyiv, we bought picnic goodies from a hard-currency Italian supermarket, and planned to eat while waiting to board.

    After a 15 mile drive on the one decent highway out of Kyiv, the cab driver dropped us at the international terminal, which was mostly closed because President Clinton was arriving that night. Luck was with us, however. Our domestic flight, we were told, would leave from the domestic terminal, which was just a couple of hundred meters to the left. It took us a while, but we eventually figured out that the smallish shed that looked like a hanger for a Cesna was actually the domestic terminal. Inside was a dimly lit room painted battleship gray and containing nothing more than a giant scale and several dozen drably dressed people huddled around piles of luggage of every type and description. Every so often someone would break from the group and heave a few bags on the scale. Anne knew the drill having spent several months working in Kyrgyzstan. "See that door over there." Every now and then it would open from the other side thrusting a blaze of harsh light like the last judgment into our dim surroundings. "When it's time for the flight everyone will rush for it to try and get a seat on the plane." "Ah, just like the subway," we thought, "we can handle this." The only problem was that even Anne, who was told she speaks Ukrainian better than many natives, could not make out a word from the scratchy loudspeaker. Just as we got our picnic nicely unpacked, the loudspeaker mumbled something unintelligible, and just as predicted everyone made a dash for the door, with the three of us bringing up the rear, salamis and baggage flying.

    The ground hostess, middle-aged with a blond beehive hairdo straight from a New Jersey mall and three inch gold spike heels that matched the her teeth, told us this was not the flight to Lviv, and there wouldn't be one that night. It was now after 10pm, and this was very distressing news. After much pleading she was convinced to check this out and returned, all smiles, to tell us "yes," in fact, there was a flight and she would get us when it was time. So we sat on our bags and unpacked our picnic again. No sooner than we had we put the mustard on the sandwiches than she motioned us to begin our check-in, when we were told that our luggage was overweight and we would have to pay an extra $130.00, nearly the price of the tickets. After much yelling on Anne's part (and looking dumb on ours - by far the easier task) the clerk admitted that her math was off. Somewhat chagrined at having been caught trying to rip off foreigners, she waived us through.

    We had just spread out the food for a third time when our helpful friend with the beehive hairdo reappeared to tell us that we really should have been assessed $20 for overweight baggage. When I made a move toward the check-in desk to pay it, she gave me her best golden smile and said she would comeback for it later. In the meantime, another lady came to put us on the bus to the plane. (We use the term "bus" figuratively since the vehicle in question was actually a semi-trailer with holes cut for windows and the exhaust pipe from the farm tractor pulling it hooked directly in.) We thought it a bit odd that we were the only people on the bus, but figured, as is common, that the foreigners were being boarded separately. The driver proceeded to meander around the darkened tarmac from one plane to another, stopping occasionally so our escort could check to see if it was going to Lviv. After about six such stops she finally motioned for us to get out and on the plane.

    It was an ancient Tupelov with facing seats like a train car and a table in between the first two rows. Aside from three fight attendants, it was empty. We unpacked the picnic again, hopefully for the last time, and were having a great time speculating on whether we would be the only passengers to Lviv when the lady with the spike heels appeared breathless in the doorway. There was a stamp missing in our tickets, she told the crew, and she had to check them again. No one runs half a mile on a cold wet night for a missing stamp. We knew it was the $20 she wanted, and that it would never see the coffers of Air Ukraine. We handed it over good-naturedly. It seemed a reasonable price to pay for a private jet to Lviv.

    Wherever we went in Ukraine, we were warmly welcomed by everyone we met. With inflation running at 1500 percent a year, and the average wage less than $15 a month, it is an awkward feeling when you know that a family has probably spent a week's wages to serve you oranges when you come to dinner. On the other hand, Anne's relatives serve mashed potatoes with mushrooms and heavy cream that Randy would eat every day with no compunction at all. The randomness of the events that result in us all being where we are despite our efforts to control our own destinies struck home when we were entertained by Anne's aunts in their village of Maidan Verkhnyj', near Ivano-Frankivsk. All four in their eighties, they were like diminutive versions of Anne's mother in New York who ended up in the US, where Randy could meet Anne, only because the retreating Nazi army conscripted one sister from the family to work in a war factory in Germany. She went, a girl of fifteen, because she fit the most serviceable pair of shoes the family owned.

    [..] text deleted

    All-in-all, life continues to be both challenging and rewarding for us both. We only hope that each of you can say the same and that we will be able to see each other sometime in the year ahead. In the meantime please accept our warmest wishes for a joyous and warm holiday season.

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    Copyright (c) 1995-1997 Barbara Forbes & Randy Filer, all rights reserved

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