TryUkraine.com Author Matthew Newton
I am Matthew Newton, author of TryUkraine.com. I enjoy writing about Ukraine and the former Soviet Union, where I reside more or less permanently. I hope you have found my website useful, agreeable, and interesting. You can reach me at or through the guestbook.
A bit of relevant autobiography
I am a self-employed U.S. citizen who lives between Ukraine (Kiev and Crimea) and Georgia (Tbilisi) and leads an artist's lifestyle. These days I actually spend most of my time in Georgia, where I own an apartment and have obtained a residency status that would be impossible in Ukraine at the moment. In the future I hope to spend more time in Ukraine again, visit friends in Russia, and eventually travel around Central Asia and Siberia. Hopefully visa regimes will allow more freedom to explore and even live in these places for extended periods of time.
I don't think of myself as a world traveler and definitely not as a transient expat. I view myself as a person of western origin who has emigrated to the former Soviet Union. I will probably continue to move around the region and make occasional trips elsewhere, but I expect to live and work here more or less permanently and maintain all my connections to the people and places I have come to know. I can't even imagine picking up and abandoning everything to move to another region, "leaving for good," or "going back home to the U.S."
It's in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that I have spent most of my adolescence and adult life, including 9 years in Ukraine, 2 years in Russia, 1 year in Slovakia, and 2 years in Georgia. Answering the standard question "where are you from?" can be difficult. Recently I have started to answer, "I'm a Russian-speaking American from Kiev who lives in Tbilisi." This produces better results than more simple, but misleading answers.
At the age of 19 I made a choice to adopt Russian as my primary language and soon became functionally bilingual in English and Russian. This continues to serve me well as a translator and interpreter and as a writer. I am currently writing a book in Russian about my journey through the mountains of the U.S. in 2009.
I also speak, read, and write Ukrainian at an advanced level and speak pretty good Georgian, Polish, German, and Spanish (alas, I've forgotten the Slovak I used to know). I like to help people get together for constructive activities like language practice, backpacking, and playing music — my three main hobbies. In Georgia I organized "Language Exchange Club Tbilisi," which currently has 8 languages meeting weekly. When in Kiev, I am active in the Language Exchange Club Kiev.
Independent language learning has been a continual part of my life for 20 years. As of February 2016 I am just about to publish a handbook sharing what I believe is the most efficient way to get really good at a foreign language. Read more at FrictionlessMastery.com and get the manual or the full-length book, depending on your needs.
My crazy life experiences include starting life from scratch several times in several different countries, being a missionary in Russia and then leaving my religion, and thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada in 2009 with the trail name "Buckwheat" (a hint at my typical trail dinner). To this list I can now add passing out and narrowly escaping death or permanent damage from carbon monoxide poisoning due to a faulty water heater setup in a rented apartment in Tbilisi in 2012...
My thoughts on some specific topics...
Why would anyone leave the U.S. to live in the former USSR??
Yes, I'm tired of answering questions like these. When will it end...?
When locals ask me why I live here and "isn't life better in the West?", I ofen answer that I find it more interesting to live in other countries than in the U.S., I enjoy speaking foreign languages, my profession is tied to Ukraine and the FSU, I feel comfortable and have many friends in Ukraine/Georgia, and I don't like the excessively career-oriented American lifestyle, the automobile-centered infrastructure, exhorbitant and overly complex healthcare, nor the prevalent system of lifetime debt. There are many great things about the U.S., but for a person like me to live a good life, I would have to choose my place of residence very, very carefully in order to enjoy the benefits and avoid the main pitfalls of American civilization. Like many longtime expats/emigres, I am well aware of the shortcomings of my home country and could write a book about it. A similar book could be written about Ukraine or any other country. Each society has its strengths and weaknesses and efficiently solves one set of problems while consistently failing at others.
Ukraine (or Georgia) presents great opportunities for travel, adventure, simple living, and making friends if you are able to adapt to the culture. Its transition economy offers many opportunities to develop commercial niches that are already taken or simply don't exist in the U.S. and other developed economies. Those with an entrepreneurial spirit and organizational skills may find it a much more interesting place to work than their home country, and those who are adept at adapting to local cultures and making friends may find that with time they feel more at home here than elsewhere.
Rant on the use of Russian in Ukraine
This site is meant to be neutral, objective, and full of useful information, so please pardon some subjectivity here. Periodically I get messages from people asking why there is a "Russian version" of TryUkraine.com but not a Ukrainian one, and also criticism of a perceived "pro-Russian" attitude, evidenced through my choice to write "Kiev" instead of "Kyiv" in most places, "Kharkov" instead of "Kharkiv," and "Odessa" instead of "Odesa."
To the first objection let me say that the main target audience of this site are foreigners who are interested in visiting and living and working in Ukraine. The common language of these foreigners is certainly not Ukrainian. As for the Russian "version," note that it is actually not at all a mirror of the vastly larger English one, but consists of just a few pages on outdoor adventure in Ukraine, plus an information page for language schools seeking native English teachers. The readership of these pages is primarily Russian speaking. Yes, there are Ukrainian citizens whose native language and primary language of communication is Russian. In fact, most of the Ukrainians I know are in this category.
This site was created and written entirely by one person — me. I represent no organization, much less some official structure. Therefore, I can do whatever I want with this site and write in whatever language I want. Of course, I do not intend to provoke angry responses or hurt people's feelings, and I can understand why people of Ukrainian speaking background who are exasperated with the Russian language situation in Ukraine might find one more reason to fume when they see the link to a "Russkaya versiya" at the bottom of a site about Ukraine. I am — or rather, try to be — sympathetic. I can understand people's irritation at a perceived inundation of their native culture by a foreign one. If anyone would like to translate my site or parts of it into Ukrainian for me for free, you may do so.
The languages I happen to write in are English and Russian. I should not even have to justify why that is the case, or what in my personal background caused me to become shamefully fluent in the language of neo-imperialist Russia before learning the "single official state language" of Ukraine. I even have another website that is exclusively in Russian — about ultralight backpacking. So what? I know of some English language sites maintained by folks in the Netherlands. I suppose they, too, are contributing to the erosion of Dutch national culture and sovereignty.
Some people who have written to me about these things have suggested that I am some kind of anti-Ukraine Russian chauvinist. People who are nationalists themselves often assume that everyone else is a nationalist, too, and so if I am obviously not a Ukrainian nationalist, I must be a Russian one. The fact is that I am not a nationalist of any kind, but rather an anti-nationalist. Though I understand the basis of nationalism on an intellectual level, I have a personal dislike for nationalism of all kinds on an emotional level. Believe me, Russian nationalism and xenophobia is just as distasteful to me as Ukrainian nationalism. I am someone who has never rooted for any sports team and could not understand those who did. I just don't have that feeling of random group affiliation. I have never felt the U.S. was better than Canada or Mexico (in some ways, yes, in others, no). Though I live in Ukraine, I do not consider Russians to be enemies. I appreciate certain aspects of Russian culture more than their Ukrainian equivalent, I appreciate certain aspects of Ukrainian culture more than their Russian counterpart, and I very much like certain things about the U.S., while preferring certain aspects of Canadian culture, etc. I guess I'm not a patriot; what I am is a cosmopolitan. I believe this actually contributes to the value of such a site as this. I like to write about reality and try to divorce myself of any agendas.
As for the choice of spellings for Ukrainian cities, after some waffling I have consciously arrived at a strategy that I intend to stick to: I arrogantly ignore what government officials have decreed to be official and use the Latin versions of city names that are most commonly used among foreigners and on the web. Where different spellings are nearly evenly represented, I give preference to the official spelling. If you think I am alone in this regard, let me point out that it is the strategy chosen for convenience by the majority of Ukrainian websites that have materials in English, especially those oriented towards providing services for foreigners. If you disagree with this practice, please write to all of these sites complaining about the matter and not just to mine.
As a stalwart anti-nationalist, let me assure you that the more letters I get complaining about spellings of cities and things like that and accusing me of insensitivity or "Russian chauvinism," the less likely I am to change them in the future — just to be a brat. The last thing I will do is to give in to some nationalist agenda when it goes against what is expedient. The truth is that there are a lot more people on Google looking for information about Kiev, Kharkov, and Odessa than Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odesa. When this situation changes, my site will change, too.
The main bone that I have to pick with nationalists (and all people with agendas) is that they so often like to twist the facts, and when you try to focus on the facts, they often accuse you of being opposed to their nation. For instance, I got a letter from a young woman in Kiev saying, " I am not sure what cities you have visited lately but I live in Kyiv and I rarely hear Russian while in the city." That's like living in El Paso, Texas and claiming that you hardly ever hear Spanish there.
Another inconvenient (for some) fact is that while the numbers of Russian and Ukrainian speakers in Ukraine are roughly equal, the Russian being spoken is probably on average cleaner than the Ukrainian spoken. I find I am only truly motivated to speak Ukrainian when I visit cities in western Ukraine such as Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk where the Ukrainian spoken is distinctly autonomous from Russian. Where I live (Kiev), most of the Ukrainian I hear around me is actually Surzhyk — a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian where Ukrainian grammar dominates, but speech is littered with Russian words and expressions. This is not a language I personally feel like mastering, just as I would be reluctant to learn Ebonics or a strong southern dialect if I were a foreigner moving to the United States. I am all about speaking the local language wherever I go (whenever possible), and choosing places to visit and live where I can practice one of the languages I speak or want to learn. Yes, it's true — the language most commonly spoken in the capital of Ukraine is... Russian. Most of the rest of what is spoken is Surzhyk, with pockets of nice, clean Ukrainian here and there. If I were more motivated to achieve complete fluency in spoken Ukrainian, I would move to Lviv for a few months. In fact, occasionally I feel like doing just that — and not at all because of Ukrainian nationalists who try to make me feel shame for preferring to speak Russian while living in Ukraine. I just enjoy speaking foreign languages, and the language I hear in Lviv appeals to me.
I don't care that Ukrainian is the "single official state language" of Ukraine; the native language of most of the people I interact with in Ukraine is Russian, and it's hardly my job as a foreign national to get them to speak Ukrainian with me.
End of rant.
- Spring, 2009