A Weak American in Russia & Ukraine

Walter is an American writer who divides his time between Washington, D.C. and Kyiv (Kiev) in Ukraine. He is the author of the book A Weak American in Russia & Ukraine, which details various aspects of the post-Soviet life there. In this interview, he shares some of the contradictions that living in Ukraine can bring, and the deeper, more meaningful dimensions of Ukrainian life behind the picturesque scenery.

Walter Parchomenko

-Where were you born?

In a refugee camp in Karlsruhe, Germany. I came to America in the storage of an ocean liner packed with Slavic refugees when I was just 12 months old. We entered the U.S. through Ellis Island's newly reopened reception center.

-In which country and city are you living now?

In Kyiv, Ukraine.

-Are you living alone or with your family?

I live alone in Kyiv but in 2003 after a lot of searching discovered long-lost Ukrainian relatives in northern and eastern Ukraine. In 2003 I also found my parents' village in Ukraine and erected a monument there to my grandfather who died in the Great (man-made) Famine of 1932-33. This impoverished village seemed to be at the end of the world. I felt as though I had found my roots at last.

-How long have you been living in Ukraine?

Since 2003 I've been spending at least 6 months of the year in Ukraine, and most of the remainder in the Washington, DC area. Actually I've spent a great deal of time in Moscow and Kyiv over the years since 1992, and still visit Moscow regularly.

-What is your age?

They say, “It's not the age but the mileage that counts.” I feel as though I've added at least a million miles on to my internal clock living outside of the comfortable expat bubble in Moscow and Kyiv over the past 20 years. Using this standard, that makes me at least 100 years old.

-When did you come up with the idea of living in Ukraine?

After I spent a full year (2003-2004) as a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Ukraine. My life then took a dramatic (good) turn. I decided to leave behind college teaching in the Washington, DC area after 18 years and move to Ukraine. At first I was very actively involved writing about the democratic, political revolution underway. However, after just a few years I became very disillusioned – like most Ukrainians – with the political leadership and their betrayal of the country's democratic experiment. I then decided to devote my energy to pro-bono work as a consultant and advocate for Ukraine's struggling disabled rights groups; and to teach English to housebound disabled children in Kyiv.

-Was it hard to get a visa or a work permit?

Generally speaking, one encounters a Kafkaesque, very corrupt bureaucratic system whenever one attempts to register residence or a car, or to obtain a work permit. I detail this circle-of-hell experience in my new book, "A Weak American in Russia & Ukraine" (listed in my Useful Links below). The good news is that Ukraine, unlike Russia, has a 90-day-visa-free regime for EU members, Americans and Canadians.

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?

I don't have medical insurance in Ukraine. Expensive medical plans for foreigners are readily available from a handful of major American and European medical centers in Ukraine and Russia. I use the collapsing, state-funded Ukrainian medical system for emergencies. These post-Soviet days, with most doctors earning only about $200 a month, I can receive basic medical attention for most ailments for $25-50 a visit without even needing any Ukrainian connections. I definitely would not have any major surgery performed in Ukrainian or Russian state hospitals (see my new book "A Weak American in Russia & Ukraine" where I chronicle my experiences in medical facilities in Kyiv & Moscow).

-How do you make your living in Ukraine? Do you have any type of income generated?

I'm a former college professor who left teaching too early to obtain a full pension. However, my partial pension allows me to live on a shoestring in Ukraine and Russia while I devote my time to writing and pro-bono work with disabled rights groups. My just completed new book, "A Weak American in Russia & Ukraine", incidentally was written mostly in Ukraine.

-Do you speak the local language and do you think it's important to speak the local language? Please add your thoughts on local customs and whether it's important for expats to respect/observe local customs.

Yes, I speak both Ukrainian and Russian. Most Ukrainians are bilingual – Russian and Ukrainian languages – thanks to Soviet Russification policies. Consequently, you will often hear two locals speaking Ukrainian and Russian in a single conversation. Apart from young college students, few Ukrainians and Russians speak much English. The good news, however, is that most Ukrainians are extremely hospitable and, despite the language barrier, will try to help visiting foreigners who approach them. Knowledge of Slavic customs, in my opinion, is as important as knowledge of the local language. I write about Slavic customs and superstitions in my new book.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes? Describe your favorite recreational activities there or those that are available.

Yes, I do miss family and the U.S., especially on unavoidable days that I have to deal with the country's Kafkaesque, omnipresent and very corrupt bureaucracy – it's enough to drive a Mother Teresa to hard drinking. For me the entire U.S. is vacationland, a big Disney World, where creature comforts and a relaxed atmosphere abound and where a friendly smile awaits you even from a perfect stranger; significantly, America's genuine civility and relaxed atmosphere even impresses West European visitors. When I'm not writing or doing pro-bono work with Ukrainian disabled rights groups, I enjoy roaming central Kyiv's cobblestone, storybook-like streets, visiting its botanical gardens and many green parks, and enjoying recreational activities along its enchanting Dnipro river and wooded countryside with Ukrainian friends.

-Do you have other plans for the future?

I plan to continue to spend at least six months of the year in Ukraine working with disabled rights groups, and want to spend more time in Russia yearly. I also have ideas for another book on Russia and Ukraine.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?

The best option for me – and anyone spending 6 or 7 months yearly in Ukraine – is to rent. Housing prices and quality generally are shocking by Western standards. Before the international economic crash in 2008, a run down, Soviet-style, tiny one-room apartment in central Kyiv easily went for $120,000; and after 2008 for half that. Today one can easily pay $600-900 for a small one-room (not to be confused with one-bedroom) apartment in the center of Kyiv; and $200-300 for a tiny one-room, Soviet-style apartment in a “sleep district” on the outskirts of Kyiv. The housing situation in Moscow is comparable but even more expensive. A few years ago I decided to quit paying ridiculous Kyiv rents. The best option for me is to rent an inexpensive apartment ($200-300 monthly) in a sleep district. This makes it feasible for me to keep the apartment (and conveniently store my modest, “theft-proof” possessions) even when I'm away for five months yearly.

-What is the cost of living in Ukraine?

Apart from subsidized public transportation and the price of bread, very expensive. I've already mentioned the shocking cost of substandard housing and the crumbling, state-supported medical system, but there's more bad news. Meat, dairy, most fruits and vegetables, and other staples of life are as expensive or more expensive than in Western Europe and America. And this is in a country where the average pension in 2012 is about $150 per month, and the average wage about $200 monthly. How do Ukrainians live? Most will tell you they don't “live,” they barely “survive.” Pensioners can survive on a shoestring if they live on a virtually protein-free diet of bread, cabbage salads, tea, apples, cereal.

-What do you think about the locals? 

Despite their often tired and seemingly angry faces, they are friendly and keen to know other cultures. Young Ukrainians and Russians, notably, are very inquisitive and like to engage foreigners in conversation. However, it requires many years of close interaction to build a real friendship with Ukrainians and Russians.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Ukraine?

Positives: Life in Ukraine and Russia may be repugnant for many foreigners but it is never boring. Each day there presents maddening new challenges and old frustrations, but there is also a relaxed go-slow culture with a work-to-live, versus an American live-to-work, philosophy of life; uncommon hospitality; the art of soulful conversation; and my Slavic roots. One also should not forget Ukraine's stunning and diverse physical beauty. This includes Crimea, a very popular summer resort, more than 300 castles and citadels peppering the very fertile countryside, many historic sites, and Kyiv which admiring Russians call the “green city” and “Miami of the former Soviet Union.”

Negatives include: Rampant corruption, treacherous drivers, customer-is-always-wrong culture, smokers' paradise, most food prices as high or higher than in Western Europe and the US, and very expensive Soviet-style, substandard housing.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Ukraine?

I have 20 years of tips gathered after living and working in Ukraine and Russia and they're available in my new book, A Weak American in Russia & Ukraine. In it, I offer readers practical tips on how to cope with: sexy young women who view foreign men as potential ATM machines and transportation out of their closed societies; herds of stampeding Slavs on city streets, in metro areas and supermarkets; angry motorists who stop for pedestrians at crosswalks only because they are bumpier than potholes; packs of howling stray dogs who don't understand English; Slavic attack pigeons and much more. But make no mistake. It's also a very authoritative and essential coping and survival guide and primer on the many harsh post-Soviet political, economic, social and environmental realities in these countries. Significantly, most of the tips in this book apply equally to life outside of the comfortable expat bubble in Ukraine and Russia, and can be usefully transferred to dozens of other cultures and countries with third world living conditions.

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Ukraine?

See my list of Useful Links on my new book's website, www.aweakamerican.com. There I highlight key English-language resources for understanding current Ukrainian and Russian realities, culture, customs, superstitions, and list them under the following headings: Journalistic, Very Analytical, and Russian State News Agency. My website also contains two sample chapters from "A Weak American in Russia & Ukraine"; my Favorite Quotes on Life, Love, Friendship and Boredom; an Author Interview, and much more.