November 07,2009


Greetings -      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 order:

1)   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.

2) 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….

3) 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.

4) 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. 

5) 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.

6) 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).

7) 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 are good. 

8) 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.

9) 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



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