Let’s face it. My generation has no idea what went on in the Cold War.

I mean, sure. We know that the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A were once ready to lob nuclear missiles at each other, we know that there was something called an “Iron Curtain,” and we know that bad guys in action movies usually have Russian accents.

But we didn’t live through the Red Scare. We didn’t have to practice “Duck and Cover.” I mean, at 6 years old, I couldn’t understand why Dad was so astounded watching a bunch of German people smash a wall on TV.

So spending time in Ukraine, a country still trying to recover from soviet rule, I have been learning about the aftermath from an entirely different perspective.

One of Zhytomyr's many crumbling old buildings.

One of Zhytomyr's many crumbling old buildings.

Here in Zhytomyr, the soviet era is not just a chapter in a history textbook. It is real. The sorrow and pain from that time still cling to the culture, but so do glimmers of a powerful new national identity. As Ukraine grows into its relatively newfound independence, its citizens find themselves wondering just who they really are…

Out in the country, it’s fairly easy to grasp how devastating many soviet policies were to the livelihood of villagers. A horribly inefficient system of collective farming forced hard-working farmers to load all of their crops onto trucks to be re-distributed by the government.

A statue in Kiev commemorating the country's "great hunger."  Many believe the "famine" was actually just government mis-management.

A statue in Kiev commemorating the country's "great hunger." Many believe the "famine" was actually just government mis-management.

Many farmers and their families practically starved in the midst of an abundance of edible food. Anyone caught reserving a portion of their produce for themselves was considered an enemy of the State, and was thrown into horrible Gulags for 10-15 years.

Today, these collective farms stand barren and deserted. Old, broken down buildings with collapsed roofs dot the landscape. Villagers eke out a living growing food on tiny plots of ground, and alcoholism is rampant among the many unemployed men.

Ubiquitous soviet-era apartments.

Ubiquitous soviet-era apartments.

Driving into the city, soviet-era apartment buildings are everywhere. These crumbling seven or eight story buildings stand as a constant reminder of a once beautiful ideal.

The apartment buildings are almost all built around the outside edges of a block, with the open area between the buildings reserved for a small park. One can imagine how these community parks should have been, teeming with playing children, chatting mothers and happy old men playing chess. Now, rusty playground equipment stands on bare dirt, the grass long-since dead.

An empty community park between two apartment buildings.

An empty community park between two apartment buildings.

When the Soviet Union was dismantled, so were many of the factories in Zhytomyr. Now, instead of being full of satisfied, hard-working families, these apartments are home to thousands of desperate and unemployed people, wondering how they will provide for their families in a city with no jobs.

On a more idealogical level, there is a lot of conflict in the hearts of many Ukrainians. Older people fondly remember the “order” and “stability” of soviet rule, but their children struggle to rectify the atrocities committed against innocent people in the Gulags.

A statue at the War Museum in Kiev.  It's amazing to see images of such power and triumph from a war of such devastation.

A statue at the War Museum in Kiev. It's amazing to see images of such power and triumph from a war of such devastation.

There is a universal sense of pride in the victory and accomplishment of the soviet army in World War II, but an honest acknowledgment that the very same army arrested it’s own POWs for treason as they returned from war.

Finally, there is the ongoing difficulty of maintaining an independent identity in the shadow of their Russian neighbor to the north. How can Ukraine ever hope to stand on its own when it depended on Russia so much in the past?

Mother Motherland, a soviet-era statue towering over Kiev

Mother Motherland, a soviet-era statue towering over Kiev

I can see the stress of all of this on the faces of people I pass on the street. Almost nobody smiles. People wear dark clothes and walk with their heads down. Frankly, it comes as little surprise that there are so many abortions and abandoned orphans in this environment.

The real surprise in all of this, however, is that Mission to Ukraine exists at all. Walking into MTU, it’s like walking into another world. People here smile, laugh, dream… When they look at their city, they see not what is, but what could be.

It gives me real hope for this country. Released from the heavy shackles of the past and ignited with a passion for the future, these Ukrainians are something else entirely. And they are not alone. Christ-followers around the country are on to something new.

I get the sense here that despite the frowns and poverty and depression, hope is bubbling to the surface. The country is waking up and taking the reins for the first time in decades. The Ukrainian people are strong, intelligent and hard-working. It won’t be long before they realize this for themselves.

As I said at the beginning, my generation barely understands what went on here. Our grasp of the soviet regime is fuzzy, and the next generation’s will be fuzzier.

It makes me wonder… with the change bound to come to this country, what will our children think of when they hear the name Ukraine?

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About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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  1. Keith Carlson said... 


    April 15th, 2009 at 3:49 pm  

    Barry – you’ve captured very well what I’ve thought and felt about Ukraine and MTU from my trip 5 years ago. It inspired me to write some poetry that I’ll have to dig up from somewhere from our experience visiting a family living on one of thos subsistence farms in deep poverty, yet in the midst of what looked like the richest soil I had ever seen – where does old poetry go?! Well done –

  2. Jane VanOsdol said... 


    April 16th, 2009 at 4:58 pm  

    Barry, what you have written takes me back to when I was 18 years old and a relative paid for me to take a trip to visit him in Germany. It was 1980 and one of the places we visited was Berlin. We crossed over into East Berlin from the west side. Nothing in my life prepared me for the shocking change.

    I went from a world of color to a world of black and white–and mostly gray in a matter of just a few feet. I saw very few people, but– I know it’s hard to understand–the ones I did see even looked gray. The sky was gray, the grass was gray, the houses were gray. It was as if every bit of life was sucked out of that part of the world. It was deathly still. The heavy, dead despair was palpable. I remember looking back to where I had just crossed over, trying to figure out what had happened in such a short time.

    Even though I didn’t know what spiritual oppression was back then, the word oppression popped into my mind as I grappled with what I was seeing and feeling. When we finally were safely in the apartment of the person we were visiting, I started to say something about what I noticed. Max quickly shushed me. “You never know who is listening here,” he said.

    On our trip back, we were pulled over by the East German police. They took Max away into a building while I waited in the car with an armed guard circling around and around the car. Twenty minutes passed before I decided to go find him. I started to get out of the car, only to see him striding back and waving me back into the car. Because I Was an American, they made up false charges and fined him. We were pulled over and fined again before we made it back to the border.

    I never took freedom for granted again.

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