we think it has been a while since we have written, so
we will try to get you caught up on what is happening in
our world. So – in no particular
In the Ukraine Peace Corps office in Kiev there are
approximately 40 employees. Ukraine has the
largest group of Peace Corps volunteers in the world, so
it takes quite a staff to keep track of us all.
There are three Americans on this staff, the rest are
Ukrainian. The three Americans are the
Country Director, the Assistant Country Director, and an
Administrative Assistant. Except that the
Country Director, Diana, retired and went home about 3
weeks ago. Except no one told us when she
left, we just one day figured it out on our own.
The Assistant Country Director, Juan Carlos, also left.
In October he went back to Puerto Rico with his
Ukrainian wife and is working for a volunteer agency
there. That leaves the Administrative
Assistant, Penny, in charge. She is a
former Peace Corps volunteer, and most recently worked
in a Women’s Crisis Center in Texas.
There is no word about when we get a new Country
Director or new Assistant Country Director.
You may have heard Ukraine has a “swine flu” epidemic.
It is probably true that there is a higher than normal
amount of swine flu / normal flu / pneumonia here.
Except we don’t know for sure, because there are no labs
in Ukraine to do the testing to see what kind of flu it
is, all samples need to be sent to England.
Last spring the government thought they might be at risk
for a swine flu epidemic, so they allocated a lot of
money to get ready for this. But now the
money is all gone, with nothing to show for it.
And they are not ready. But – keep in mind
that there is also an election coming up in January.
So the Prime Minister, Tymoshenko, decided that because
of the epidemic, 9 western provinces (including ours)
needed to be “quarantined”, and all schools needed to be
closed (and most schools and universities are, and the
teachers are not getting paid, except that the school
where we teach is still open); all concerts
are cancelled (which caused a concert Karen’s
organization is sponsoring to be cancelled, but not a
concert by another group scheduled here for the day
before); all election rallies to be cancelled
(except one by Tymoshenko's campaign that had 240,000
people in attendance); all outdoor markets to be
closed (except that half of the market not far from our
apartment is still open) and there would be free masks
for everyone (we have not seen them yet and when Don
asked about them at the drug store down the street 3
days ago the lady just laughed and threw up her hands).
We called the Peace Corps medical office in Kiev to see
about swine flu vaccine, and they said they did not have
any. And they said they had asked Peace
Corps Washington, but Peace Corps Washington told them
they couldn’t/wouldn’t send them any. And
that there is actually NONE in all of Ukraine for
anyone. The American Embassy has officially
informed all Americans in the country that we are
completely on our own with this, because they can do
nothing to help. So now the World Health
Organization has come to try and figure out what is
going on, and even they can’t tell for sure yet what we
have. Only that there was no preparedness,
and nothing other than pretty much useless knee jerk
reactions now to try and deal with whatever it is.
And now because of the “epidemic” they are talking about
postponing the election….
When we are assigned an organization to work with here,
there is one person at that organization who is
designated to be our “counterpart”, and they are
actually in charge of working with us for two years.
And they are the ones who asked to have us assigned to
their organization in the first place.
Except that in the middle of September, Karen’s
counterpart decided to go to Poland for eight months.
No word to anyone, or advance notice to Karen or anyone
else in the organization. We just all came
to work one Monday morning and she was gone. No one
else seems to think it is big deal, she will be back in
8 months and life will go on….. But in
the meantime, there are the two projects that she wanted
and was working on that Karen had gotten money for,
neither of which is completed. Then two weeks
later without any notice Don’s counterpart took another
job. This one was complicated by the fact
that she was doing the Russian translation for him for a
big project, and had been telling him since last May
that it was almost done, and turns out that she hadn’t
even started. So we aren’t real
impressed with her either.
Ukraine seems to be missing whatever gene it is that
understands that when you make a commitment or have a
rule or regulation it needs to be something that you
take seriously and pay attention to. We are
watching with some interest the International Monetary
Fund. They have been giving billions to
Ukraine (a large portion of which seems to have
disappeared), and are scheduled to give more in
November, conditional upon: Ukraine raising
the price of gas to households to at least the cost of
the gas, and no increase in the minimum wage and pension
benefits because the government doesn’t have the money
to pay for them and they will therefore be highly
inflationary. Except that Ukraine has
not raised the price of gas to households, and Ukraine
did enact a law increasing the minimum wage and pension
benefits. We would not like to be the IMF.
They have a set of bad choices here, and we are at a
loss to figure out what they could possibly do to get
Ukraine to take them seriously. Other than
withholding the money altogether, and we are not sure
the IMF has the guts to do that because part of U.S.
foreign policy is to try to wean Ukraine away from
reliance on Russia. We think the Ukraine
government has decided the IMF will give them the money
regardless because of the fear of Russia gaining
influence, and therefore why bother with making any of
the economic reforms. (like banking reform, not
done; privatizing farmland, not done; enacting a fair
and enforceable tax code, not done; reforming the
judiciary and making it free of bribes and political
control; not done; reforming the corruption in business
regulation, not done; --- we think you get the picture,
and most of these are things the IMF and others have
been telling them they needed to do since the
mid-1990’s.) We were on a small bus the
other day, and it was pulled over by a local policeman.
For no apparent reason - we were not speeding and
were not overcrowded and we were where we were supposed
to be. But we sat for about 15 minutes while
the driver talked to the cop, and nothing happened until
the driver gave the cop money, and then lo and behold,
we were on our way.
We have heat in our apartment this winter. This
is a good thing. Except there is no
thermostat, and although the plumbers did get the heat
going again (and we can’t turn it off), there is no way
to regulate it other than to open the windows.
So when it is above freezing we open windows, and when
it is below freezing we close them. But we
like having heat in all three rooms instead of just the
kitchen like last winter so we are happy about this
change. True, Don had to stay home 5 different
days waiting for the plumbers to come back after the
first day to finish the job, but it was worth it.
Our students continue to be the bright spot in our
world. Especially one class, which we had
last year and who appear to be getting used to the
strange teachers. They show up for classes,
even when they don’t have to, and are even learning how
to be a little creative and how to think a little.
This is good, even if most of them do leave Ukraine to
attend university in western Europe (which is why they
are at our school in the first place).
Our tourist budget is rapidly going into the hole.
We will definitely need jobs again. But we
are going to Italy later this month to meet two of our
children, and another daughter is planning on coming to
Ukraine in April. And we are working on a
trip to Cairo over Christmas with another Peace Corps
volunteer and a friend of hers from Illinois, plus a
couple days in Istanbul on the way home. Vacations
Speaking of vacations, we have had further adventures
here in Ukraine. In September we took a bus 2
hours west of here to a little town called Medzhibizh.
There was a medieval castle there overlooking the river,
and the skeleton of the castle still remains. This
complex is so big there is a church in the middle of the
grounds. Also a 190 step bell tower (Don made it
to the top). Quite a view. As Don was at the
top he saw a horse drawn wagon maneuvering around a nice
car on the street below. (We often see horse
drawn wagons still in use…) There were
two nice museums within the castle grounds, one on the
castle and its history and the other a ‘national’
exhibition commemorating the Holodomyr, or forced famine
of 1932-1933 when about 3.6 million Ukrainian peasants
starved to death when Stalin ordered all the grain
confiscated. Very impressive, but also very sad.
But it also turns out that the founder of Hasidic
Judaism lived and preached in Medzhibizh several hundred
years ago. So after the castle we went to the old
Jewish part of town to see the old cemetery, the old
synagogue, and the new synagogue. We visited the
sites and were treated very nicely by the rabbi, who
spoke passable English/Russian. He was
disappointed that we were not Jewish, but was still nice
and we were even allowed to see the sanctuary upstairs
in the new synagogue. So quite a day.
Our other travel adventure is that two weeks ago we
played hookey on a Friday and went to a small village
about 8 kilometers north of Vinnytsia to see Wehrwolf.
Wehrwolf was the name of Adolf Hitler’s World War II
secret headquarters on the eastern front. It was a
massive complex, easily covering 4 or 5 acres, including
a swimming pool, and in its time went seven stories
underground and had railroad tracks and a railway
station on the third story underground. It was all
blown up, first by the Nazis when they retreated and
then by the Soviets after the war, so all you see now
are massive boulders that upon examination are really
the remains of massive concrete and steel bunkers.
We just walked around and observed. There are no
signs and no markers. The Ukrainians are afraid
to dig it all up, even though 7 stories of history would
be amazing, because they think that the Germans “mined”
it before they left, and they think it will blow up if
they dig it up. But amazing to see no
markers, not even on the hillside where they buried the
14,000 Ukrainians who worked building the place.
The Germans were afraid that the locals would tell
everyone (i.e., Russians) about what was there, so when
the construction was complete they made the 14,000
Ukrainian construction workers dig a big ravine, then
they shot them all and piled them in the ravine and put
the dirt back and planted trees on top.
There also have to be some conflicted families in the
area too, since someone would have had to supply the
Germans with food, supplies, etc., and the Germans were
known for rewarding those who helped them.
But that is all for now.
We will try to be more cheerful next time we write.
In the meantime, we enjoy hearing from you all.
Take care -
Don and Karen