Common Gripes about Ukraine from Travelers
Last update: July 27, 2010 (minor changes and section on civic attitudes added)
Every country has things that visitors often complain about. Ukraine is no exception. While there are many wonderful things about the country and people, here we will list some of the more unpleasant aspects of Ukraine that visitors often report.
Oddly enough, this is probably foreigners' biggest gripe about Ukraine. Bathrooms in public places — including public restrooms, trains, beaches, resorts, and even many hotels — are rarely close to Western standards. Foreigners go to stunningly beautiful opera houses and theaters only to find squat toilets in the public restrooms, or regular sitting-style toilets — but with the doors falling off their hinges. Toilet paper is often absent, as are toilet seats. Ukrainians often use regular sitting toilets as squat toilets, putting their feet up on the toilet bowl. Hard to believe? Yes, it's true. They find it unsanitary to put one's bottom on a surface where others have been, unless the toilet seat is cleaned regularly, as in McDonald's (where the cleanest bathrooms typically are to be found).
Yes, Ukraine's bathroom culture is pretty low. Especially outside of the big cities, restrooms typically lack 1) toilet seats, 2) toilet paper, 3) soap, 4) hot water, and 5) towels or blow driers. In other words, a typical public restroom has urinals, holes in the ground, and a sink with cold water. Foreigners (as well as many Ukrainians) find it irritating that you have to pay to use public restrooms, and the lady at the entrance gives you only a few squares of toilet paper if you ask for it (!). Evidently, toilet paper is such an important commodity that they must go to great pains to make sure it is not wasted. If a foot of toilet paper happens to not be enough, that's your problem.
Showers in many older-style hotels and apartments do not have shower curtains, which means you get a lot of water on the floor. In addition, there are no soap and shampoo holders, so you have to stoop over to pick them up off the floor. Hot and cold water availability is also an issue in many cities, and water pressure is often low. In a word, what is considered normal for western bathrooms is a luxury in Ukraine.
Displays of rudeness and irritability in public
Many foreigners who don't understand Russian or Ukrainian note that people seem to shout at each other a lot, when in reality they are just having a normal conversation. I didn't notice this myself until it was pointed out to me by several different people. This habit is most prevalent among the less educated. In public places Ukrainians tend to put on withdrawn and even gloomy facial expressions — quite a contrast to happy-go-lucky Americans (many of whom are secretly taking Prozac!). This sometimes leads westerners to deduce that "everyone seems depressed."
In addition, Ukrainians seem quick to anger in public, and a few rides on public transportation is usually enough to get a taste of Ukrainians' gift for chewing each other out in public. Bus drivers tend to yell a lot at offending car drivers, and many drivers seem to be on the verge of bursting into fits of road rage. This can create a depressing impression on foreigners until they get used to things and realize that no one intends to hurt each other and that people are simply letting off steam. In the West it is usually not customary to let off steam in public — hence the misunderstandings.
Crowded public transportation
While Ukraine's public transportation system is undeniably convenient and low-priced, it often does not meet westerners' comfort expectations. It is common for city buses and subways to be packed with passengers, who have to press up against each other in the aisles. Some minibuses have lower ceilings, requiring passengers standing between seats to bend over partially. These buses are terribly uncomfortable, even exhausting — especially in hot weather. During rush hours the Kyiv subway is cram-packed with squirming passengers. Ukraine's trains, which are otherwise quite comfortable, often heat up to 30°C (86°F) in the summer. Passengers sweat even when sitting motionless, and sleep is often difficult until the temperature starts to go down after midnight. This problem could be solved if the windows would open, but, alas, they almost never do. This is yet another example of the indifference to people's comfort that is so common in the former Soviet Union.
Smoking is rampant in Ukraine, the cigarettes are cheap and not very good, and smokers generally have the "right of way" in public places. People smoke freely in line for the bus, in underground pedestrian crossings, in stairwell shafts, and in many if not most cafes, restaurants, and bars. Bus and taxi drivers generally smoke, but they open their window so most (but not all) of the smoke wafts out of the car. Some places — such as subways, trains, and fast-food restaurants — are always smoke free (except for what sticks to people's clothes). Interestingly, a new law has been passed that bans smoking at bus stops and underground crossings and requires all restaurants to designate at least half of their space for non-smokers, but this law is not yet being enforced, and people's behavior has changed little. Perhaps in the coming years the situation will improve. It seems doubtful considering that the percentage of adults who smoke has been rising in recent years and has now reached 70% for men and 50% for women.
Pedestrians are the lowest, but most numerous caste in Ukrainian society. They must make sure all the drivers who want to have driven past before they cross the street, regardless of the color of the stoplight or the presence of a pedestrian crossing. If you are run ofter by a wealthy individual, he will likely buy off the police and the incident will be considered an accident or your own fault.
Many taxi drivers are reckless and shamelessly break traffic rules (after all, the "price" of most infringements is a paltry sum palmed to traffic police after a brief ritualistic conversation). If you put on your seatbelt, many Ukrainian drivers will look at you incredulously. It is not customary to wear them in Ukraine.
Reluctance to give change
There is a catastrophic shortage of change in Ukraine. Chances are you will encounter this the first time you ever try to buy anything in Ukraine. The cashier will ask you if you have, for example, an additional 3 hryvnia 14 kopecks to give her so that she can give you a single 10 hryvnia bill as change. If you don't understand Russian or Ukrainian, you will constantly be wondering why cashiers stall and look exasperated nearly every time you buy something. To avoid this, try to foresee what kind of additional bills or coins they are likely to ask from you before giving you your change.
Lack of punctuality
Informal (and often formal) meetings in Ukraine often are based on a different understanding of time. 5 "Ukrainian" minutes often turns out to be 20 calendar minutes. Ukrainians tend to think little of having other people wait 10 or 20 minutes for them. Life in Ukraine is chaotic and unpredictable, and people are not able to control or foresee all the circumstances that may keep them from arriving at the agreed time. It is assumed that you will be able to entertain yourself or will have some extra phone calls to make while you are waiting.
A draft, for those of you who don't know, is "a current of air in any enclosed space." In Ukraine drafts are widely considered dangerous for your health. For this reason, in many situations where westerners would open the window to let in fresh air, Ukrainians will keep the windows shut and just tolerate the heat and/or stuffiness. Ukrainians avoid letting air blow on them through windows unless it is about 28° C or higher (82° F). Travelers to Ukraine are often surprised by how often they are asked to close windows "for their own good."
Ukrainians' defeatist civic attitudes
Ukrainians' attitude towards their country is rather like that of a helpless onlooker at the scene of a violent crime. "Things are all messed up, there is nothing I or we can do about it, and let's get out of here before we get in trouble." Westerners with a proactive civic mentality used to participatory politics will find these attitudes fateful, defeating, and self-fulfilling. After several years in the country, you'll probably wise up and start to see things the way Ukrainians do. But at least initially, you may be shocked at how negative Ukrainians are about their own country, how little they understand about how political systems operate (including their own), and how indifferent they are about things going on in their country.
Furthermore, many Ukrainians are genuinely surprised when you mention anything positive about their country. "Why would anyone want to come here?" they wonder in their naivete, "everyone here wants to leave." So foreigners who praise Ukraine for anything good about the country can expect to have to argue about it with incredulous Ukrainians and prove their points by explaining how things are even worse in their home country. Even then many Ukrainians won't believe you because their image of the West doesn't allow for fundamental socioeconomic problems. On the other hand, you can make many young Ukrainian women happy simply by saying something good about their country in a genuine tone. This just shows you how rare it is for Ukrainians to express positive sentiments about their country in informal (i.e. honest) settings.