Monday, June 9, 2014

Seeing Ukraine by leaving Ukraine

I was at the Ukrainian-Polish border earlier today. I had to cross in order to get a new stamp in my passport as part of the process to get permanent residency in Ukraine. Because I had stayed in Ukraine over 90 days I had to pay a fine. I knew about the fine before crossing, and it was a smaller amount than I expected, so it was no big deal really. As long as you pay the official fine, then you can re-enter Ukraine.

But this blog post is not specifically about bureaucratic procedures and Ukrainian law. It is about the people I encountered at and along the way to the border. Crossing the border took me out of my daily routine, and I experienced three kinds (for lack of a better word) of people that I do not normally see.

The first group of people were a surprise to me--the Ukrainian border service. Although I had to pay a fine, I felt that they treated me with respect and worked with professionalism. I know that it's very common for people to rail against government workers in Ukraine, but I must be honest. They were actually professional and courteous. The border guards led me to an office, opening doors for me along the way. It was quite the special treatment. The office we went to was staffed by a young man in his twenties or thirties. I filled out a form with him, and he then showed me the way to a bank window in the lobby. He wasn't dismissive about showing me, but made sure it was clear which way to go (It was quite a simple route, actually). But my point is that many people I have had experience with would have just waved their hand in a vague direction and sent me off.

While in that office I overheard the staff discussing a question regarding refugees who were trying to cross the border. They were fleeing Donetsk and traveling with a young child. This is just about the only first hand experience I've had regarding the conflict in Donbass. Since tensions with Russia escalated there has been little action here in western Ukraine. Things have been quite calm, actually. This was a big reminder to me that not everybody in Ukraine gets to enjoy the relative stability that I am used to. There are people frightened for their lives who can no longer live in their own homes anymore. It was a reminder that all of us, even those all the way on the western border of Ukraine, share the same space with people a 24 hour car ride away on Ukraine's eastern border.

Then there were the two men who were trying to sell me a ride. While looking for the bus to the border at the train station in Lviv, a man approached me and offered a ride in his car. He would get me there fast, especially because the buses were "on a break" at that moment. I refused and found my bus, which was interestingly not on a break at the time. When I was finished with my business several hours later, I was walking to catch the bus back to Lviv when another man accosted me, offering to drive me back to the city. He was even pushier than the first: "Come on. I've got a guy in the car already. I'm driving him to the airport. He's heading for Turkey. I'll take you for fifty hrynias." I told him no thanks, that I had a bus to catch. "Come on. The bus goes through all those villages along the way. And the next bus doesn't leave until 3 pm. How about 30 hryvnias?" I told him no. "How much is the fare to Lviv? 25 hryvnias [It's 23]? I'll take you for 25." I just walked away. I got onto the bus at the station and it pulled away five minutes later at 12:15. These two chauffeurs represent a way of doing things that I hope is on it's way out the door in Ukraine. They show no respect for the people around them. They pester and they lie and their actions only make people more distrustful of those around them. This is the last thing Ukraine needs right now. And, if you haven't noticed, these aren't some kind of Kremlin backed agents and mercenaries that we hear about on the news all the time. These aren't corrupt, high ranking politicians in Kyiv. These are ordinary people from western Ukraine. People like these two men will only rot Ukrainian society from the inside out.

These three encounters show me a country that is moving in several directions, but more than anything I think that it is turning into a place where people respect one another, where being rude and indifferent makes you look antiquated, even passe. It was strange to be treated with such dignity while paying a fine to government workers, but these are the welcome surprises I hope to keep seeing in years to come.


  1. Best not to take these rides from strangers, as they know the roads and you don't. They can take you out of the way and then demand more money worst yet they can drop you off in the middle of "no where" You have done the right thing by not accepting the ride.

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  3. We only see in the other people that what is present in us)