Observations about Ukrainian cities, towns, and villages
Written in 2006
As an avid traveler, I have been to virtually all regions of Ukraine on business or leisure and to all oblast capitals except Uzhhorod, Khmelnytskyy, Kherson, and Cherkasy. My travels have brought me to Ukraine's largest cities of a million people and over, to its provincial capitals, to small towns and to villages. The noticeable differences between cities, towns, and villages in Ukraine make it hard to speak of a single "Ukrainian culture." Indeed, Ukraine's villages are culturally more similar to villages in Poland or Slovakia than they are to Ukraine's cities. Below are my observations gleaned from numerous travels around Ukraine.
Ukraine's largest cities
(Kiev, Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Donetsk, Odessa, Zaporizhya, Lviv)
Only these cities of Ukraine have a full-fledged cultural life and all the diverse opportunities of big cities — a large assortment of goods for sale, clubs and organizations in every area of interest, high-caliber educational institutes, a local music scene, etc. etc. Of these cultural centers, only Lviv is primarily Ukrainian speaking (Russian dominates in the others). This means that Ukraine's city culture is significantly more Russian-dominated than the country at large. These cities are where most "progressive," cosmopolitan Ukrainians can be found — those who are active Internet users, aware of international events and other cultures, and are involved in the current trend towards individualism and Europeanization.
Despite the current modernization and economic growth, Ukraine's largest cities have many pockets of provincialism and village life. Men and women from smaller cities around Ukraine fill the unskilled labor market, bringing with them the often cruder habits and lifestyle of their regions and rarely mixing with white-collar city dwellers. People come into town from the surrounding countryside to sell vegetables, berries, and meat at outdoor markets, and old people can be found on the edge of town herding their goats through thickets. Ukraine's cities grew significantly during the Soviet years, and concrete high-rise apartment buildings were built around villages which now are known as "private sectors." For years it was considered poor taste to live in a "private home," and everyone wanted to have an apartment, but now private homes are in vogue.
Women in Ukraine's large cities contrast strongly with those in small towns and villages. The former are thinner, extremely fashion-conscious, and preoccupied with looking sexy. In small towns and villages sexy clothing is almost nonexistent, and chubbiness is the norm for most women. Ukrainian men seem to exhibit less external diversity.
Smaller Ukrainian cities
(Kryvyy Rih, Mykolayiv, Mariupol, Lugansk, Zhytomyr, Sumy, Ivano-Frankivsk, Chernivtsi, Vinnytsia, Rivne, Chernihiv, and others)
These cities seem quite a bit "sleepier" than the biggest cities described above. There is less traffic, less modern commercial development in the city center, and more of a provincial feel. Nonetheless, there is plenty of hustle and bustle in the city centers, and you can tell that the economy has been picking up. These cities do not have the same cultural, educational, and employment opportunities as the biggest cities, and many residents have the sense that they are "missing out" on cultural life in the country.
Small towns in Ukraine (100,000 inhabitants and less)
Small-town Ukraine is practically a different country. Unemployment is often high, people are preoccupied with survival and making ends meet, and there are generally few opportunities other than the most standard professional routes and the most conventional hobbies and interests. People from small towns often have low self-esteem and feel unsure of themselves in big cities where everyone else is "so much better off." Such poverty leads to an excessive focus on money; people long to be able to leave their peaceful town to earn more money in the big city and envy those who have been lucky enough to gain a foothold in the capital. Economic development lags years behind that of big cities, and often a few new store fronts on the main street and a black Mercedes here and there are the only hints of capital growth.
At the same time, many of Ukraine's small towns have a particular charm to them — especially those in western and central Ukraine that are hundreds of years old and have quaint old buildings and a historic central square. These towns typically have a lot of color and might be nicer places to live than Ukraine's large cities. Small towns in eastern Ukraine that grew up in the Soviet era generally have little of interest and seem faceless and dreary. Alcoholism is rampant and in some areas seems to be the dominant profession.
Ukraine's villages and small towns are bastions of traditionalism isolated from the outside world. People all live in separate houses, usually 10-20 m from the next house down and right up against the road. Villagers go out to work in the communally owned fields during the day and return home in the early evening. In addition, most people keep small gardens, fowl, and livestock on their private plots. Life is mostly made up of physical labor, housework (for the women), and home construction and repairs (for the men). People do not suffer from the chronic overarousal and information overload that is so typical of the city. Instead they get their information about the outside world from a small daily dose of TV, usually watched as a family in the evenings before bed.
Many village folk live in rather nice houses they built and furnished themselves, but often running water is limited to an outdoor spigot, and the bathroom is usually an outhouse. Villagers in some parts of Ukraine are very keen of their homes' appearance and put lots of effort into decorating them and expanding them when possible. At the same time, most villagers are still convinced that a crowded two-room apartment in Kiev is preferable to a spacious 10-room home they built themselves in a beautiful countryside setting. Ironically, it's usually city folk who value a life "close to nature"; those who actually live such a life dream of the boons of civilization.
In villages everyone knows each other, and conformity is the rule. Morals and behavioral expectations are strict, and everyone is expected to fit in to a few basic models. Village culture is generally patriarchal, and young women must marry young to avoid ridicule and constant pressure from other men, who generally only leave women alone if they are with a man or are known to be married. Provocative dress and behavior is not accepted from women. Men often drift into alcoholism, which starts early, but being married to an alcoholic is still better than being alone, and most village women take this in stride. In parts of western Ukraine where men leave to work abroad, alcoholism among women is also a significant problem.
Most village people are religious and take their religion seriously and unequivocally. Village people are usually very hospitable and will often treat you to the food that is considered the most valuable (i.e. meat), even if they themselves eat a staple of potatoes, vegetables, and porridge. Villagers — like all Ukrainians — expect to establish an emotional tie to their guests and get to know them somewhat. They often try to refuse money for letting you stay at their home. But tactfully insisting on payment ensures that you will be gladly accepted for a second visit.