Saturday, August 17, 2013

What Ukrainian villages are and what we want them to be

Thursday, August 8, 2013
By Michael
            When I first came to Ukraine two years ago, the Ukrainian village was a kind of place I had never seen before in the whole twenty-some years I had lived in the US. There is no American analogy I can think of to help explain this living arrangement. Maybe America was once like this in the days of the colonists and pioneers. But even the depictions I’ve read, paintings I’ve seen, and historical reenactments I’ve witnessed are not quite what one finds here.
Basically, a Ukrainian village is a community of people who all homestead. Villages are densely settled communities. Houses are built close to the street and close to one another. Simultaneously, each home owner has a lot of land. This usually manifests in properties being long and narrow.
In contrast to residential property in America, Ukrainians devote the majority of their land to food production for themselves. They plough their land and plant annual crops like potatoes.

Yulia’s grandparents’ village
They also plant more permanent things like berry bushes and fruit and nut trees. Most people also keep livestock. I’ve noticed that the residents of some villages tend to keep one kind of livestock over another. Yulia’s grandparents’ village is a cow village. Ours is a horse and goose village. All villages are chicken villages.
In addition to houses and barns, a village will usually have a school, post office, village hall, store, cemetery, and church. In fact, villages always have churches in Ukrainian. And if there is space, a random cross or statue of the Virgin Mary. If there is a spring like our village has, Ukrainians will never fail to pop a chapel on top of it. Ours has a Virgin Mary statue in it (There’s also a random roadside cross a few doors down from us. I think this superfluity of religious items is due to the large proportion of elderly residents, something I’ll discuss below.). Most villages I’ve been to have either a sand or clay pit, sometimes both. They’re usually just dug right out of a knoll or hillside. It’s convenient actually—a handy source of building material.

A fairly large sandpit in the village of Kuzubatytsya
On the other hand, many villages also have trash pits hidden away somewhere (Ours is an especially clean village. I have not found our trash pit yet.). They do not have municipal trash collection, so people are left to their own devices to dispose of refuse. The one good aspect of this is that the trash pit is an eyesore. It may make people think twice about buying into the modern day “throw-away culture” of disposable plastic. The roads are either dirt, macadam, or heavily potholed asphalt, but despite this lack of investment every village is serviced by public transportation. It’s quite impressive actually—something I have never seen in the States. Since most people don’t have their own cars, it creates a lifeline to the cities which usually have more goods and services. While some lucky villages may have train stations, minibuses do the bulk of the transporting. They are called marshrutkas—literally, “routers.” They are used by bands of grannies who insist that sweaty younger riders close their windows on hot summer days. In Ukraine it is believed that a draft of any sort will lead to certain illness and death.
As I mentioned, people keep homesteads, not farms. They have a source of financial income that isn’t tied to food production. While some villagers are farmers, others work as shopkeepers, teachers, bus drivers, etc. However, the reality in Ukrainian villages is that most residents get their money from the state. They are retirees. While I have been describing the spatial aspects of Ukrainian villages, I should mention the temporal aspects, as well. Villages are the retirement communities of Ukraine. They are places visited by adult children and grandchildren. The houses themselves seem to have been last decorated in the 1980s. Sadly, it is hard for these senior citizens to maintain their property, and many places are in disrepair. The jobs that once employed them have all closed down and moved to the city. And their children went with them. Our village is, again, a little more tidy than others. The landscaping is well maintained and the houses are freshly painted (if not a little retro). But we are simply lucky that the few people left here are handymen. There are many empty houses. There is a two storey school house that is now abandoned.
Yulia and I see that this place was once thriving. The school here was large for such a small cluster of houses. We can tell by the quality of the craftsmanship that the original residents of this village put a lot of effort and good energy into their houses. I am impressed by the quality of the building materials that I see around here. But this reality is fading quickly. Most of the adult children will not be moving into their parents’ old houses. They have adapted to an urban lifestyle and are tied to their lives in the city. There are no traditional jobs that will bring new people to this place. The story is the same all over Ukraine.
However, we see potential in all of this, and we want to put ourselves in a place to take advantage of this potential. First of all, land is cheap here. Yulia and I wanted to buy a place that was affordable not only for us, but for potential neighbors as well. As I mentioned before, there are many abandoned houses in this village. This should provide ample opportunity for anyone who may also want to move here. We also want young people and young families to move here. It is not because we do not like old people. We simply want the village to be diverse in its age range, and we would like to have at least a few other people who share the same interests as us. For example, we have been using the clay, sand, straw, water mixture to build things and make renovations on our property. Yesterday I made a clay based paint and pigmented it with turmeric. Yulia dyed a pillow using local berries.

Yulia’s pillow
We have planted a whole variety of interesting plants—gumis, ginger, turmeric, banana passionfruit, cedars, and kale, for example. In short, we want to live a life that is both ecologically clean and artistic (though we are so much more than that—our blog entries here should reveal a more consummate picture of who we are). Right now the reality is that most people are not interested in these things. We want people who share our interests to move here. We could then share our knowledge with our new neighbors, and they, in turn, could teach us a thing or two.
We think this is one of the possible futures of Ukrainian villages. We do see a negative trend forming. Many villagers refuse to sell their land even if they do not use it. They hold on to it just in case they or their families may ever want to use it. Others are not privatizing (that is, getting documentation for) their land. We’ve met younger people who did not know that they lost their land to the local government when their grandfather died. All this abandoned land makes it easy for local governments to sell land to large farmers. The large farmers, in turn, plant in monocultures, mimicking the failing industrial agricultural system Yulia and I have seen in America.
The future we want to create is an extension of the past. Ukrainians have always been a rural culture. Homesteading has deep roots. We took a permaculture course last year and did a project at an old homestead. We were looking to implement the methods of permaculture here when we realized that these methods had already been used by the original owners. They planted their gardens in terraces. Trees were planted into swales. Ukrainians take pride in their gardens. Many heirloom varieties and landraces come from Ukraine. Ukrainians are also passionate beekeepers. They prefer to do things themselves. We want to take up this tradition and breathe fresh life into it. For example, last year there was a very large harvest of potatoes. People were complaining that they could not make any money from selling potatoes at the bazaar for 1 hryvnia a kilogram. Our response is that people need to be growing a larger variety of crops. Rare foods sell for higher prices. Why not try growing something else? Yulia and I are interested in growing more than the usual potatoes and apples. We are also interested in traditional Ukrainian arts—poetry, wood carving, embroidery, painting, and singing. We want to continue with these traditions, but add our own experiences to them.
We realize that the method to create change in the world needs to come from average people. And the best thing average people can do is change their lifestyles. When Yulia and I are in the city we create much more trash than we do while at our home in the village. It is more difficult to dispose of trash here, while the ugly sight of a trash pile is an additional discouragement. We are forced to adapt and make less trash and we see this as a positive thing. This goes for many different aspects of our life. We are not special or gifted in any way, and we hope to show others how they can also make positive change. In this way we hope to revive not only the environment, but our health, history, culture, and, of course, our village too.


  1. -thank you, guys, for the articles, for your work and good intentions.