Ukrainian Observer June1, 2004
Since many copies of The Ukrainian Observer are distributed on airline flights, it is possible that you are reading this article while on the plane, travelling either to or from Ukraine. If you are headed to Ukraine, a miracle awaits you.
If you are participating in a miracle, it means you are a god and should be treated as one. My premise here is a bit far-fetched, but Ukraine stands ready to prove me right, as you will soon discover.
I know that by now you are incredulous, and thanks for your continuing attention. “What makes me a god?” you ask. “The mere fact that I am aboard a plane?” No, it is a combination of the plane ride and its destination - in this case - Ukraine. Indeed, look at what a plane can do: When you fly from Chicago to New York, there is no difference between the two cities, so the plane is just a means of transportation, nothing more. Even when you take a plane from London to Rome, the differences are still minor. You may be in Italy, but they still understand the word “pizza.” But when you brave a snowstorm to get to the airport, sleep for a night on a plane and then land in the sizzling heat of Bangkok, you know that a miracle has occurred. Ordinarily, you cannot have summer in the middle of winter, nor can you have an exceptional papaya salad for breakfast if you had a hot dog the night before (and actually thought that it was tasty).
A plane ride from London to Bangkok may be a miracle of climate and a miracle of taste, but, if you are a Caucasian, it is mitigated by the fact that people look very different. Surely, you think, they eat their mango green and with salt, after all, they are Thai. In Ukraine, the miracle is psychological: Ukrainians look just like people in Chicago, and indeed lots of Ukrainians live in Chicago, but the Ukrainian Ukrainians do not act the way people act in Chicago, be they Ukrainians or not.
Burning at the Stake
As you are reading this, the plane brings you to (or away from) a psychological wonderland, as this is what Ukraine is, and you had better be ready for it. Magic is not for the weak: it is not funny to hand your wallet, bulging with cash, to a magician, only to get it back filled with fresh white rose petals. It is one occasion where you may not enjoy the petals’ exquisite aroma. Many years ago, this miracle happened to me. My emigration from the Soviet Union, back in 1979, took the form of a plane ride. As soon as I landed in New York City, I knew a miracle had occurred. It was a linguistic miracle, since I had met two native English speakers prior to having landed in New York. It was an ethnic and racial miracle. It was a consumer miracle as oranges were freely available, and not just oranges, but also (though my mother could not believe it) bananas.
But I did not realize that it also was a psychological miracle. I was 21 then, and it was not long before I found an American girlfriend. One night she invited me to her apartment, and we woke up in the morning very pleased with one another. “Stay put,” said the girl, “I am going down to a grocery store and I will fix us some breakfast.” Soon enough, she came into the bedroom with a tray. Scrambled eggs, coffee, fresh rolls, cheese, and jam - it was all there and it was delicious. I loved it and I liked the girl, a lot. After we finished eating, the girl said, and I still remember how she said it, even though it was 24 years ago, “It cost me $7; your share’s $3.50?. That ended our romance then and there as I was deeply offended or, better to say, profoundly shocked. I thought we were not that precise about sharing. Moments earlier, I would have sacrificed my life for her, without giving her a bill. In Ukraine, if a woman has sex with you, she will burn at the stake for you. This is a country of deep personal relationships.
This has profound implications for business. No matter how elaborate a contract is, your partner will find a way to wiggle out of it if he does not like you. That is why a detailed contract may actually be a sign of trouble, a clear indication of your failure to come up with the real contract, which just says, “Dear Ivan, are we not lifelong friends?”
Ukraine is a Christian Orthodox country. All Christians agree that people must follow God’s teachings, God’s example, as it were. But what exactly in God’s example are we to follow? God created the Earth, and He saw that it was good. A German created a Mercedes, and he saw that it was good. A Protestant imitates God by strongly emphasizing good deeds and creativity. But the Orthodox Christians were deeply impressed by another part of the biblical story: Jesus could do any miracle, and yet He allowed Himself to be crucified. Jesus proclaimed His godliness by being willing to suffer for our sins. And the Orthodox Christians are willing to imitate God in that. They say, “Jesus did suffer, and He bequeathed us to do likewise.” It seems to me that Orthodox Christians deeply hold an unspoken belief that one must suffer and that if one wishes to be friendly one must give others such an opportunity, as suffering does not necessarily have to be self-inflicted.
A Perverse Nation
Ukraine welcomes you with an unsmiling face because it is its way of being friendly, of showing its belief in the strength of your soul and yes, in your readiness to cleanse yourself through suffering. If a Mercedes is engineered to minimize the suffering of its owner, a Ukrainian car is engineered with the opposite goal in mind. And look at the Ukrainian streets, so lovingly pot-holed, greatly increasing the likelihood of a spiritually uplifting auto accident! Please feel the friendly disposition of Ukraine’s drivers, who break every traffic rule because they know that you can take the frustration, and, with some luck, the pain. That is why, uncertain as Ukrainian contracts are, I do not advise against them at all: Since Ivan is your lifelong friend, he may indeed choose to make you suffer.
As a foreigner, you may not like this emphasis on suffering, but please focus on the positive here: the point here is to engage your soul. Ukraine will force you to use your soul, not your wallet or your calculator, and that is bound to do you much good. Indeed, the West has made giant strides towards elimination of the human soul as a significant social actor. Whatever is not illegal is not immoral, a spouse is someone with whom you have a current marriage contract, and a friend is someone with whom you watch basketball. My personal impression is that Americans have largely forgotten that in Korea or in Vietnam a friend was someone who carried you on his back, under enemy fire.
In Ukraine, nothing is that dry and technical, thank God. A speeding Mercedes runs over and kills a young man. There is a trial, and after the judge pronounces the driver innocent, the family of the deceased is ordered to pay for the shattered headlights. Why such a monstrous injustice? Well, it is because someone had told the judge that the Mercedes driver was likable, that he endeared himself to someone, that he deserved to be loved. And love is blind, it is totally forgiving, and the technicalities of law mean nothing to it. The only difference is that this kind of love can be bought with money.
If you are traveling to Ukraine, enjoy your stay! Get your soul ready. Here, everyone knows lots of poetry by heart. And in case you are traveling away from Ukraine, you can hide your over-exercised soul back where you usually keep it and take comfort in the thought that when you arrive at your destination service will again be good, and smiles will be at the ready. Either way, your plane ride will make you witness to a miracle: our world is diverse, and all peoples in it are different.