After the collapse of the Soviet Union, for many Ukrainians, Europe became a kind of “promised land.” Not only for Ukrainians, however, but also for people from many other former Soviet republics. The media actively idealized and embellished Europe in order to turn people away from the nostalgia for Soviet times that existed in Ukrainian society in the 1990s and early 2000s. Such nostalgia was caused by a sharp deterioration in the economic situation of ordinary people. In this period, few Ukrainians could personally afford to travel to Europe, but the media portrayed it almost as a fabulous country, where there are no poor people, where robots do all the work, unemployed people receive thousands of euros a month and may not work all their lives.
From idealization …
In this Europe, everyone smiles, and in half-empty prisons each prisoner has his own apartment, which are on a par with the usual apartment of a resident of Kiev. There are practically no crimes, and the police politely escort home every drunk. European retirees only travel around the world, basking in the sun loungers on the Bahamas. Complex heart operations are performed not by ordinary tortured surgeons in hospitals with peeling plaster, but by highly qualified specialists in sparkling Swiss clinics. In Europe, if one suddenly runs out of money, then one can easily earn 500 euros per day if one sells home-made souvenirs on a Spanish beach.
Ukrainian journalists liked to contrast the clothes and everyday life of an ordinary Ukrainian peasant woman from a village, a worker of a poultry farm and an elite Italian model: “This is what a woman looks like in post-Soviet society, and this is how it looks in Europe.”
Such an image contradicted the image of Western countries in the Soviet media, which seemed to serve as proof that the Soviet media lied on everything. In the view of many Ukrainians, Europe became the image of paradise on earth. And they did not give up this dream, even after later encountering real Europe. To reject this idea and this dream was to admit that one had been duped.
Those who went to work or migrated to Europe continued to support this European myth among their compatriots, since the very status of “European” already exalted them in the envious eyes of fellow villagers and yesterday’s classmates.
The idealization by some people from post-Soviet countries sometimes rejects even an unpleasant reality. About twenty years ago I went to Copenhagen with a girl from Ukraine and we had to wait for about an hour in the evening for our friends near one of the shop windows. Two homeless people were sleeping rough under a bright display window. A year later, this girl, who had then been in Europe for the first time, remembered this moment, but could not at all remember the homeless who were sleeping there. She remembered every detail of the display window, but completely erased from the memory of the sleeping beggars.
Another aspect of the attitude of Ukrainians towards Europe is related to our internal regional differences. In a poor country, there has always been a certain rivalry between regions for “bread positions” and budget preferences. In this regard, western Ukraine, once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then Poland, appealed to the fact that it was “Europe” inside Ukraine, and the inhabitants of Lviv even proudly called their city “Ukrainian Piedmont”. In Western Ukraine, there was the expression “racial Galician”, which should also emphasize the “European character” of the indigenous inhabitants of the region as opposed to the inhabitants of southeastern Ukraine (mixed with Russians, Tatars, and peoples of the North Caucasus).
… to contempt
In the southeastern regions of Ukraine, this orientation towards Europe was less entrenched than in Kiev or western Ukraine. The industrial character of the region played a role, and the workers of large industrial giants were characterized by a slightly different psychology. They were not very eager to get on a shopping tour to Milan, but rather to go fishing in the neighboring river or on the Black Sea with a tent, wife and children, fix a motorcycle or have a drink with friends in the garage. These workers often had a somewhat contemptuous attitude toward this idealized Europe – in the embellished picture, they saw, rather, pampered, spoiled, hypocritical people with whom you can’t drink, go fishing, or have a heart-to-heart talk.
The economic crisis, the closure of enterprises and the civil conflict in the Donbass contributed to the growth of hostility among this category of population towards the “Eurofiles”, the supporters of the Euromaidan. They accuse those Ukrainians who dreamt and are still dreaming about Europe of the collapse of the country and economic difficulties. This attitude towards the “Europhiles” was extrapolated to the attitude of this category of the population towards the EU, whose authorities supported Ukrainian supporters of European integration. Such people are often very contemptuous of Europe, calling it derogatory “European”, which at first without much resistance “fell under Hitler”, and then also easily “laid under the United States”. Most of these Ukrainian “Eurosceptics” in the EU have never been and do not strive for this. Moreover, they are not necessarily Russophiles, and quite often and just as critically as people from Western Ukraine relate to contemporary Russia.
In Ukraine, paradoxically, that part of the population that is striving for Europe with all its might and dreams of migration adheres mainly to nationalist convictions, while the other part, which prefers to live and work at home, considers itself to be opponents of nationalists. However, the gradual deindustrialization (the closure of large industrial enterprises) has significantly changed the usual way of life of these “Eurosceptics”.
The Maidan revolution, the ensuing association agreement with the EU and the introduction of a visa-free regime led to the closure of even more Ukrainian enterprises, while at the same time providing an “exhaust valve” – the opportunity to go to work in Europe. Many of those who remained in the country soon became disillusioned with the Maidan government, and then became disillusioned with the new Zelensky government. Disappointed in the opportunity to change their lives through protests and voting in the elections, many Ukrainians lost patience with their homeland, dismissing it as a hopeless country.
They send their children to study in Poland or Russia (in this way too the children don’t risk joining the army and the front in the Donbass). They undergo treatment and surgery in Belarus, where the Soviet low-cost healthcare system has been preserved. They go to work on Polish farms and Czech factories, look after Italian old people and pick strawberries in Finland, trying, if possible, to stay there. Qualified specialists (doctors, bridge engineers, chemists, technologists, etc.) often go to Russia or China, where they can get a job in their field of specialization. Unskilled workers prefer to leave for work in the EU countries, where they receive much more than at home and are often glad that in Poland they can buy enough food with their salary.
Over time, many Ukrainians have changed their view of Europe, but the internal conflict between Ukrainians makes both categories of the population persist in either their idealization of Europe or its categorical rejection.