Moving to Ukraine: Who Should Do It?
January 26, 2011
There are plenty of reasons why people in the West might be interested in moving to Ukraine temporarily or permanently. Rather than make up reasons on my own, I'll just list the kinds of things people have written me over the years:
- "I'm middle-aged, recently laid off, and have no job prospects around here."
- "The economy's horrible and I've been out of work for a year."
- "I'm sick of this place."
- "This country is going down."
- "I've got a nice retirement plan and I'm looking for some adventure."
- "I've got enough money to get by and would like to take a break from the rat race."
- "I've had it with American women."
- "I've heard a lot of good things about Ukrainian women."
- "I'm recently divorced and want to start a new life."
- "I'm young and am looking for adventure."
- "I'm young and want to improve my Russian/Ukrainian."
- "I'm a slavophile and am itching to get back over there."
- "I have some business ideas and a bit of capital."
- "Ukraine seems like a good place for my lifestyle."
Not everyone who writes seems equally prepared to be successful in Ukraine. Some are pursuing opportunities, while others are running from failure. Some have lots of skills to offer here in Ukraine, others have just one (or less).
For Ukrainian readers who can't understand why anyone would choose to leave the Land of Wealth and Opportunity and try to make it in this Impoverished Misgoverned Wasteland, I suggest doing some more traveling and comparing and talking to more expats about their countries. Common stereotypes about other countries tend to evolve with a lag time of a generation or so, and the realities of life in the U.S. and other western countries are very different from the rosy-colored view so many Ukrainians have.
Life and Opportunities in Ukraine
The first, and perhaps most important thing to understand about life in Ukraine is the difference between the life of the common man and that of the middle and upper classes.
The life of poor people in Ukraine is more difficult than that of poor people in developed countries and is comparable to the life of poor illegal immigrants in the United States. The poor make up over half of Ukraine. Many of them have land and security and provide for almost all their needs themselves, but they lack mobility and opportunities. For immigrants from certain African and Asian countries, even the life of a poor Ukrainian might seem enviable. However, if you're from a developed country, chances are it's not the life you're looking for.
The middle class in Ukraine arguably begins where one has enough money to do pretty much all the basic things that most people want to do: eat out every week, go to movies, clubs, etc., take a vacation abroad once a year, go skiing in the winter, spend a week or two in Crimea in the summer, occasionally buy nice clothes and nifty electronic devices, have a child, and save up money for a car or an apartment (or get a loan to do so).
Although their average home size is smaller than in western countries and fewer Ukrainians have personal automobiles, it's fair to say that the Ukrainian middle class enjoys roughly the same quality of life as middle-class people in other developed countries. In fact, in some ways their life may be better. Most middle-class Ukrainians aren't in debt (they didn't get the chance to take out loans before the credit crisis hit), they or their families' own real estate and don't have to pay property taxes. They've got universal healthcare (sure, service is shabby, but they don't have to worry about going bankrupt because of medical expenses). Crime is low and terrorist attacks nonexistent. Public transportation is cheap and highly efficient.
In other ways the life of middle-class Ukrainians may be worse than that of middle-class Europeans or Americans. The bureaucracy is formidable, government antagonistic, and official procedures convoluted and incomprehensible. People don't trust the police or the judicial system, and prisons are intolerable. Corruption is all but institutionalized. The chemical composition of food, water, and air in the cities leaves much to be desired. Many people are discourteous, crude, dirty, smoke-saturated, etc. (see common gripes about Ukraine).
Still, middle-class and upper-class life in Ukraine is not all that bad. If you go to Ukraine, this is the privileged segment of society you will want to enter.
Being successful in Ukraine
Your European or U.S. citizenship offers you automatic prestige and knowledge of languages that many Ukrainians dream of mastering. By moving to Ukraine many foreigners end up higher on the social totem pole than they were back home, simply by virtue of having had the good forture of being born in a wealthy country. But to secure your spot among the privileged classes of Ukrainian society, you'll need to achieve financial security and continue to grow professionally like other successful people your age. Otherwise, you may find yourself scraping by and falling behind the Joneses (or the Shevchenkos).
Here are some ways to "make it" in Ukraine and enjoy both financial security and a high social status:
- come here with a nice western pension and engage in nonprofit activity
- come here to teach English or other languages, do a good job of it, and eventually open your own language school
- come here on a professional assignment and continue working for foreign companies and organizations in high-paid positions
- come here to manage your personal business online, enjoying good earnings and the lower cost of living in Ukraine while developing an active social life
- come here with money and ideas and start a successful business after understanding all the risks involved
- develop a career as a freelancer and achieve a steady, above-average income
If you can manage one of these routes, then moving to Ukraine is probably not a bad idea at all. You may enjoy a higher quality of life than in your home country thanks to the lower costs. If you don't manage it, there is a good chance you'll eventually get disappointed and start looking elsewhere.
If you come here as a teacher of English or other foreign language and never move beyond the standard teaching routine, your opportunities may be limited. Many teachers get burnt out after a year or two and start wishing they could do something else. If teaching your native language is your only way to make a living in Ukraine, you might not be happy here in the long run.
If you've got a number of marketable skills and work as a freelancer, Ukraine may turn out to be your Land of Opportunity. You'll need time to build connections and experience, but you'll find there is quite a lot you can do and few competitors: translate texts into English, write texts in your native language, handle out-of-country calls at local companies, manage their social networking for foreign clients, work as a journalist, provide consulting services at different levels of business, teach English, babysit for rich people, work at summer camps, do film dubbing and English-language videos, computer game localization, etc. With its lower cost of living and rapidly developing business culture, Ukraine is really a great place for enterprising freelancers.
If you're currently working as a truck driver, mechanic, programmer, network administrator, cook, etc. and wonder if you could find work in a similar position in Ukraine, you probably won't get anywhere. There are plenty of locals to fill these positions, and they have the advantage because they are natives. To see a westerner in one of these positions is a real novelty; this would have to be an element of the company's image and marketing strategy (for instance, having a colorful and highly visible Italian chef work at an Italian restaurant).
How important is it to know Russian and/or Ukrainian?
Knowing one of these languages, for sure, will make it easier to feel successful and comfortable in Ukraine long-term. However, there are plenty of expats who don't know these languages and yet are quite happy living in Ukraine. Personally, I cannot stand living in a place and not knowing the language, so I always focus on improving my language skills, wherever I am. In fact, I've written a whole manual about how to do this with the least effort possible.
In the end, moving to Ukraine is potentially a great idea for people who are culturally adaptable, are not "pure Brits," "true Germans," "typical Americans," etc., either are independently wealthy or have a number of marketable skills, and are used to either being self-employed or working in high-level management positions in foreign countries.