Pavlo
Chernivtsi

Childhood in Soviet Ukraine

Chernivtsi
Pavlo
Solyanka

The Place: Chernivtsi

“Sunlight bounced off a mosaic of coloured tiles, visible only where snow had cascaded in an avalanche from the roof into the garden below. I was looking at the snow-dusted and grandiose UNESCO world heritage site, Chernivtsi University. Students strolled in and out of the main gate, seemingly oblivious to the breathraking beauty of what towered above them.”

Read About Chernivtsi

Since the beginning of the cycle trip, rather than opting for a meticulously planned journey, my route was a squiggly line that cut through towns and cities at random. Chernivtsi, prior to my visiting, was a spot on a map close to the Moldovan border that I’d chosen out of sheer convenience. But sometimes the places you expect nothing from are the most memorable.

I stepped outside my hostel into a world of white and found myself staring in awe at Chernivtsi’s crown jewel. The blue and yellow of a Ukrainian flag fluttered in a gentle breeze atop a tower, and sunlight bounced off a mosaic of coloured tiles, visible only where snow had cascaded in an avalanche from the roof into the garden below. Students strolled in and out of the main gate, below the snow-dusted and grandiose UNESCO world heritage site, Chernivtsi University, which dwarfed the surrounding buildings. Behind it, houses dotting rolling hills disappeared into a haze made blinding by rays of sunlight. Water trickled from icicles overhead so large they threatened to snap at any moment, and as I began to explore, I found myself constantly looking up in case I had to dodge one.

Where Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk blur with one another when I look back on them, Chernivtsi seemed to be it’s own island of Culture; at the crossroads of Moldova, Romania and Ukraine, and steeped in a rich Jewish history, its an amalgamation of different cultures that continues to grow in its diversity as Ukraine becomes an evermore outward-looking nation. As I slipped and skidded on ice-covered cobbled streets, I took in the city’s past, which is on display everywhere you look. With Jewish restaurants, musicians, and museums reminding passers-by of what was once a thriving Jewish community, there is a sombreness to the well-preserved architecture. For once, the historical buildings escaped most of the devastation from the war, and managed to withstand the communist era without succumbing to the plague of concrete that swept across much of the Soviet world. But I knew from my past stops on the Arctic to Asia Cycle Tour that immaculate preservation didn’t mean that the city hadn’t seen more than it’s fair share of suffering.


Please note that we do not fact-check our interviewees, and that their views do not necessarily represent our own.

The Person: Pavlo Kolyadinsky, 36, Tour Agency Director

“I was a PhD student in the geographical department. I finished that several years ago. It was to do with architecture and urban planning, but from the perspective of geography. I never worked in that field. It would be useful for the authorities to have someone doing that here, but it’s theoretical.”

See Pavlo's Full Background

I was born in Chernivtsi. I worked in many places, like in the university international office. I was a PhD student in the geographical department. I finished that several years ago. It was to do with architecture and urban planning, but from the perspective of geography. I never worked in that field. It would be useful for the authorities to have someone doing that here, but it’s theoretical. So while I was working on the thesis, I was studying lots of literature about Chernivsti, and that helped me in my work. 

Today, I am a tour guide, and I guide in Ukrainian, English and German languages. My business grew into a small tourist office. That was before there was a tourist office in the town hall, so we attracted more tourists. We deal with incoming tourism. Most come from other parts of Ukraine, like Kiev, Lviv and Odessa, because Chernivtsi is not such a big city. We also deal with foreigners, but they usually come in warm season. Lots of tourists from all over the world come here, and we have tours in many different languages. But foreign tourism is not our main work, we mostly deal with Ukrainian groups. People come here to enjoy the architecture and the Carpathian mountains which are very close by. Now citizens of Ukraine don’t need visas to travel to neighbouring countries like Romania. So they come to Chernivtsi, and we are like the gate to Romania, so we now offer tours there, too.

What does ‘home’ mean to you?

“I’m a family man. I have children and a wife. So my family is important to me, of course. I think I am attached to Chernivtsi because of my work and my family. Everyone in my family lives in Chernivtsi or the surrounding area.”

See Pavlo's Full Answer

I’m a family man. I have children and a wife. So my family is important to me, of course. I think I am attached to Chernivtsi because of my work and my family. Everyone in my family lives in Chernivtsi or the surrounding area.

When I was a student, I thought of going to the UK to get a job in the summer time. I applied at a tourist agency in Chernivtsi, and I was not allowed to go to work. So I subscribed to a study program instead, and had to go to Kiev to do that. I went there with my passport, and I remember very well that the official in the embassy was very arrogant. She was playing with my passport, and I answered her questions in English because I graduated from a school which specialised in English. She interrupted me, and said I should answer more clearly. So I became nervous, and the interview was very short. She gave me my passport back and this was the first and the last time I ever tried to work abroad. I think Ukraine is a good place to live and to work. Maybe life would have been quite different if I had been accepted. I have been abroad now, but I couldn’t stay away for a long time. I missed home. 

What is different about Chernivtsi?

“We also have a great history. I understand that some other countries have a little more; we have always been on the frontline here, so lots of monuments were destroyed. But for Ukraine, Chernivtsi is a very historical city, and that’s really special for Ukraine.”

See Pavlo's Full Answer

As a tour guide I can tell you a lot, of course. It’s a good city for living. It’s not a metropolis with several million people. But it’s also not a tiny village. It’s in an area close to the mountains and the border, so it’s good for tourists to visit. We don’t have a lot of industry here, so it’s not very polluted in comparison to other parts of Ukraine. I think that tourism can be developed anywhere. I go to lots of places which are very unknown, but if you find somebody who is interested in those places and knows a lot about it, they will be able to impress you. We have nice surroundings; forests, lakes. 

We also have a great history. I understand that some other countries have a little more; we have always been on the frontline here, so lots of monuments were destroyed. But for Ukraine, Chernivtsi is a very historical city, and that’s really special for Ukraine, even though it doesn’t compare to places like Italy.

Can you tell me a little about the Jewish history of Chernivtsi?

“The natives which lived here were Ukrainians and Jews. In the 20th century, there were two massacres of these groups. The Soviets killed Ukrainians on a massive scale, and then later the Germans killed the Jews on a massive scale… This area has a bloody history.”

See Pavlo's Full Answer

There is a big Jewish history here. They comprised a huge part of the population here. Before WWII, there were Jewish communities all over Western Ukraine. Ukraine was a colony for a long time. It was divided by the neighbouring countries; in the 19th century it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and then the Russian empire as well. Before that time it was part of Poland, but this territory here was part of Moldova, ruled by Tatars.

The natives which lived here were Ukrainians and Jews. In the 20th century, there were two massacres of these groups. The Soviets killed Ukrainians on a massive scale, and then later the Germans killed the Jews on a massive scale. There are lots of books about that: “the bloodlands” by Timothy Schnieder. This area has a bloody history. I’m reading a second book now about WWI. Chernivtsi was on the frontline almost all the time. In just one week, 70,000 people perished. There are lots of memorials of Russian and Austrian people, but we say that both of these groups could have been Ukrainians, because the nation was divided; we had to fight against each other. 

Chernivtsi was damaged very little, though, in the wars. You could say it’s the best preserved city in Ukraine. Before WWII, at the beginning of the conflict it was part of Romania, then it was occupied by the soviets for one year in 1940 in WWII. Then Romania allied with Hitler, who attacked the Soviet Union, and Romania occupied the city. So Romania didn’t want to destroy the city because they had occupied it just one year earlier. They developed it and hoped that Hitler would win, and they would preserve the city. The Soviets were not prepared to protect their territories, and wanted to protect their homeland. So they retreated quickly and there was no big battle here. There was of course some damage, in the main square for example, from bombs from German airplanes. The Germans destroyed the synagogue and a few other buildings. When the Romanians saw the soviets coming back later in the war, they also retreated very quickly. So, again, there were no big battles in the city. There were some on the banks of the Dniester river, which was an important checkpoint.

After the war, when the Jews were liberated by the red army from the camps, they returned to Chernivtsi, but then a lot massively immigrated to the West. Now, the Jewish population comprises 0.6% of the total population. It’s not very big, but we still have Jewish organisations, two synagogues, and a very good Jewish museum. The Hasids have developed a centre in the West side of Chernivtsi, and the Jewish cemetery has been renovated.

Can you think of a time you have been proud of Ukraine?

“…now we stand on the Eastern line of Western civilisation. We defend, as Ukraine has very often done before, now again against a Eurasian country; the Russian Federation. We are protecting the whole of the West. Our country, our soldiers.”

See Pavlo's Full Answer

Well of course, now we stand on the Eastern line of Western civilisation. We defend, as Ukraine has very often done before, now again against a Eurasian country; the Russian Federation. We are protecting the whole of the West. Our country, our soldiers. They are paid not so well, and in the media there is information that makes us think there is no future in this war, but still people are standing there and fighting. Many people say: “how can you fight the Russian Federation; over 200 million people in population? Ukraine is so poor and corrupted, and so on.” But nobody else will do it. Ukrainians stand, and will not let the Russians move forward.

Luckily in my family, none of my friends or relatives were injured there or killed. But, I think we have still all felt solidarity. We sometimes see the funerals; there is a procession of people in the city when people from our city or our region are sent to the cemetery buried. We have to understand that we could be in their place. They do it for our peace, and our comfortable lives. We have to be able to understand that, but unfortunately lots of people don’t understand that. They have stupid, expensive and big parties, and spend so much money on birthdays and weddings. They could be a bit more modest now.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in Ukraine in your lifetime?

If you have an idea for a business, you can start it…We have lots more opportunities. Ukraine finally has the chance to define it’s own destiny on its own. So we just have to work to do that”

See Pavlo's Full Answer

Now, we have more freedom. If you have an idea for a business, you can start it. Of course, the corruption and so on, money, is a problem. But in the world market, when you go to Germany, for example, and want to start a business there, the niches in the market are all occupied. People around the world say that here in Ukraine,  “oh we’re so poor, we don’t have money”, but the fact is that in the bank accounts of Chernivtsi citizens – 250,000 of them – have more money than those in Kharkiv or Odessa, where the population is 1,000,000. We have freedom now and are hands aren’t tied. We have lots more opportunities. Ukraine finally has the chance to define it’s own destiny on its own. So we just have to work to do that.

Could you share some experiences from communist times?

“At school, we were “Oktyabryata”; children of the Red October. We had to wear stars with a picture portrait of Lenin as a child… In Soviet Union, it was compulsory. The Pioneers were teenagers, and they had to wear red scarves. Then when you go to university you become Komsomols; the committee of the Soviet Youth.”

See Pavlo's Full Answer

I remember when I went to school, we had the subject “political information’. It was in the 2nd form; so when I was 7 years old, we were already learning political information. But my father was a teacher, so in our family we were very much discussing what was happening, and it was close to the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were lots of critics; the Russian propaganda wasn’t as strong as 10 years before. So we were criticising it already.

At school, we were “Oktyabryata”; children of the Red October. We had to wear stars with a picture portrait of Lenin as a child. That’s the first level, then you become a ‘pioneer’, and then a ‘Komsomol’. All school children from the age of 6-7 become Children of October. In Soviet Union, it was compulsory. The Pioneers were teenagers, and they had to wear red scarves. Then when you go to university you become Komsomols; the committee of the Soviet Youth. After that, you could apply to become a member of the communist party. I was an Okyabryata.

Everything was in Russian language at the time. Now people still speak a lot of Russian, because they’re not familiar with their own history, and why it all happened. When I was 25, I was speaking Russian in my daily life. There was always a hidden sense of being ashamed to speak Ukrainian. In the Soviet Union, there was a policy that meant that if you were speaking Ukrainian, it meant that you were from a village. That’s why I was ashamed to speak Ukrainian with my friends in the streets. But when I started to study history, me and my wife switched to Ukrainian, and only speak that in our daily lives now. It’s an issue now; we get calls from other Ukrainian cities, where people usually speak Russian, and we don’t know which language to reply or to suggest a tour. All understand Russian and Ukrainian. Now we have to support the process of de-russification. This is still in a big process because most of the media is still controlled by Russia and Russian oligarchs. Now we have a war in the East, and there is still lots of Russian radio where every minute they say “everything’s fine”. It’s called ‘sugestia’, when you don’t realise the message they are telling you, but subconsciously you feel then that Russia is fine. That’s why people are tolerant to the war now. But thanks to Putin, people are now becoming more consolidated in Ukraine.

How were you and your family affected by the collapse of the Soviet Union?

I eat everything now because I survived the 1990s. My family would collect in one day just the money for one loaf of bread. I was raised in a modest home. Bread wasn’t expensive, but each day we only had the money for one loaf of bread.”

See Pavlo's Full Answer

I eat everything now because I survived the 1990s. My family would collect in one day just the money for one loaf of bread. I was raised in a modest home. Bread wasn’t expensive, but each day we only had the money for one loaf of bread. There were big Soviet enterprises that collapsed, and many people lost their jobs. Some people who were smart went to neighbouring countries to buy there and sell here. My father was a teacher and my mother an engineer, so they weren’t very good with business. So they had no job, and therefore no money. The factories still worked; my father-in-law continued to work at one, but his salary was furniture that he had worked on. He wasn’t paid in money. They couldn’t sell their products, and they would say “if you want you can get this sofa.” The big market I told you about here, it helped lots of people survive. He started a business delivering books to these places, and they would pay him a little, and later he would collect them back. When we visit him in the suburbs of Chernivtsi, we see his shelves are still filled with books. He managed to earn some money that way.

When I was a schoolboy, I was selling bananas. I walked along the road and offered people bananas and mineral water. Then my mother started to cook food like varenyky, and we started selling dinners at the market. So it was more difficult than now. But still, people complain; they always say “it’s worse and worse”. Now lots of young people want to leave. I have a friend who studied to be a doctor who couldn’t work as a doctor because there was no space for him. So he went to a computer company and sold and repaired computers. He didn’t like that, so he went to Italy, and now he delivers the newspapers by bicycle at night. He worked in a hospital! Some people would rather be cleaners there, than work here. I won’t judge them; the salaries are bigger there, but the expenses are, too. So some people would like to work there but spend money here, and that sometimes happens. 

What are your thoughts on Stereotypes of people from Chernivtsi?

“People who live here are quite greedy… There was a meeting between business-leaders… where they were giving out free hats. This guy, instead of taking one, took five… This is the character of the people here; the owner of the biggest ski resort still needs five free hats.”

See Pavlo's Full Answer

People who live here are quite greedy, and they spend too much money on themselves. When they go to restaurants, there is a habit that they have to leave something uneaten; to not finish the whole meal. I know some people who started a business making wedding pictures. It’s a huge business here, because people pay so much money for that, I don’t understand it at all. So people spend too much money on stupid things. I went with my sons sledging when we had lots of snow just now. I saw no other children outdoors, but I heard that our neighbour rented a complex for their children for half a day for a birthday. They paid 6,000 hyrvinas, which is like 200 euros, plus 10 per person. People waste too much money here.

We will have presidential elections soon. You have heard of bukovel? It’s the biggest ski resort in Ukraine. The director of the resort is also in this election. There was a meeting between business-leaders, and there was a box where they were giving out free hats. This guy, instead of taking one, took five, and took loads of free candies. A security guy had to say ‘you can’t do that’. This is the character of the people here; the owner of the biggest ski resort still needs five free hats. 

Lots of people here also have Romanian citizenship. With a Romanian passport, they can work there legally. Romania has often occupied this territory in history. Some people do this because they don’t want to pay any taxes here.

How has proximity to Romania and Moldova affected Chernivtsi?

“Chernivtsi has always been a centre of trade… In some cities… there is industry, and that defines the character of the people… they have more trade unions and they are afraid to start their own business because they are used to working for the big companies. Here, it’s very different. There has never been big enterprises apart from a few in Soviet times. People have a big sense of freedom…”

See Pavlo's Full Answer

Chernivtsi has always been a centre of trade. In some cities, people produce more, there is industry, and that defines the character of the people that live there; they have more trade unions and they are afraid to start their own business because they are used to working for the big companies. Here, it’s very different. There has never been big enterprises apart from a few in Soviet times. People have a big sense of freedom, and that’s why you should visit one of the biggest markets in Ukraine here in Chernivtsi, with 11,000 entrepeneurs daily. It’s called kalinovsky market. It’s a great experience. It’s a huge territory. People there are very confident; they don’t rely on anyone but themselves. This is the peculiarity of Chernivtsi, because it has always been on the shortest route connecting the Baltic Sea region with the Black Sea region. 

Moldova is not such a prosperous country. Here, more people are like orientated to the west, and the countries of the European Union. Not even that much to Romania, actually. I just mention Romania because of my tours there and also it’s on the transit way to Istanbul. Chernivtsi is a very international city. Lots of people work in Italy, Germany and Greece. You can hear it on the streets, especially in summer. It’s a very mixed city; people can speak Portugese, Italian, Spanish and Greek.

What are your thoughts on the issues with healthcare here?

“Lots of people complain about the corruption in medicine… It’s a big, bad circle… In Ukraine, you go to hospital and bribe the doctor, the doctor goes to a high-school and bribes a teacher for his child to be accepted, and so it’s a circle. People are then so surprised and they wonder why we have bad roads, why we have bad medical care.”

See Pavlo's Full Answer

The minimum wage for doctors here is very low, it’s 4,000 hyrvnia, which is $140. But that’s official, there is also unofficial earnings. But there are also private clinics, which perform very expensive surgeries. We have one in Chernivtsi, and people from other big cities to get surgery here. 

We have medical reform in Ukraine now, and it’s in a transition phase. Almost nobody here has medical insurance; we don’t pay anything for it. But if you need some big surgery, it’s really expensive. Lots of people complain about the corruption in medicine. But it depends on how the patient behaves; people are afraid to protest when they have a problem with it. If they are charged money they just simply hand it over. They would still be treated if they didn’t, but they are scared. People are scared of not being treated well. They think that if the general opinion is that the whole of Ukraine is corrupted, they are afraid to make changes themselves. They don’t believe that if they protest and go to the director of the hospital, that he will fix the situation. I had this happen with the birth of my child; I was demanded to unofficially give some money. I went straight to the director of the hospital and said I would go to the Police, and will sue them, so they gave all my money back. But nobody does that usually. Another case was when my relative – my wife’s cousin – needs a liver transplant. He had to pay for it in a hospital in Kiev. He paid $25,000, and his mother donated the liver. But there was then a new law that said it was not allowed, so he went to Chernivtsi but was told there was no space for him. He paid $100 so they found a bed for him. So you do sometimes have to bribe a doctor.

It’s a big, bad circle. People go to work for, like, $150/month, and they wait for the bribes. They will earn around $1,000 illegally. These people blame the government and say the government is bad. In Ukraine, you go to hospital and bribe the doctor, the doctor goes to a high-school and bribes a teacher for his child to be accepted, and so it’s a circle. People are then so surprised and they wonder why we have bad roads, why we have bad medical care. But they are all participants of this process.

Is anything being done to deal with the corruption in healthcare?

“There are activists who try to change this, but they are always in danger… If they talk to the press about smuggling or something else illegal, they get little protection from the police and the court. Often, the killers will never be found. The people who organise the killings have connections.”

See Pavlo's Full Answer

There are activists who try to change this, but they are always in danger. If you follow the news you see that a lot of them are attacked. Here is not so bad as East and Southern Ukraine, where one girl had acid poured on her. She was in hospital for 2 months before she died. Nobody was arrested. This is the biggest problem with our government now. There have been some good changes, but it has to be improved. The activists are in great danger. If they talk to the press about smuggling or something else illegal, they get little protection from the police and the court. Often, the killers will never be found. The people who organise the killings have connections.

What do you eat during the Holidays here?

“On Christmas we usually go to my wife’s parents place in the suburbs, and they cook very traditional meals… The tradition is to have lots of meat dishes. Something without meat is considered to be not a festive meal.”

See Pavlo's Full Answer

On Christmas we usually go to my wife’s parents place in the suburbs, and they cook very traditional meals. One is, for example, holodets. It’s a cold dish. It’s boiled vegetables and meat, which they put in the fridge. They make holubtsi, which are cabbage rolls with different fillings, then make some special dishes in the oven. They boil mushrooms in clay pots. They make fish in there, too, and cook it for the whole night. It’s a very soft lake fish called carp. The tradition is to have lots of meat dishes. Something without meat is considered to be not a festive meal. There are lots of salads with mayonnaise, too, but I don’t like that. We have a proverb that says “you can eat even a shoe with mayonnaise”. The Grandmother of my wife makes great cakes. She specialises in that, and makes them for weddings. They also make rabbit, and kraut which is like Polish bigos. We cook duck as well, and generally that’s it.

Reccomendation:

“You should try solyanka, which is a soup with different types of meat and sausages… It’s considered to be more expensive, but very fatty and spicy.”

See Pavlo's Full Reccomendation

You should try solyanka, which is a soup with different types of meat and sausages, including smoked. The meat is salty, which is why it’s called solyanka, and they serve it with a spoon of sour cream with olive oil and lemon. It’s considered to be more expensive, but very fatty and spicy. 

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The Plate: Solyanka

“…Solyanka boasted a slice of lemon; something that stood out as rather exotic given what I’d been used to. Bright yellow zest curved downwards, disappearing into a watery liquid, the colourlessness of which was highlighted by the vibrant citrus fruit. Combine that with wrinkled black olives that were difficult to spot against the other ingredients, and it almost seemed a mediterranean spin on Poland’s Zurek.”

Read About Solyanka

With the sun melting into the horizon outside, and the temperature beginning to plummet, I huddled over a wooden table, allowing the steam erupting from a bowl before me to warm my cheeks, carrying with it an aroma of smoked meat. What I saw through the vapour, was not too different from Zurek, a dish the keenest among you have met twice before on “The Place, The Person, The Plate”. But where a quarter of an egg floated amongst the oil droplets in the Polish soup, Ukrainian Solyanka boasted a slice of lemon; something that stood out as rather exotic given what I’d been used to. Bright yellow zest curved downwards, disappearing into a watery liquid, the dullness of which was highlighted by the vibrant citrus fruit. Combine that with wrinkled black olives camouflaged with the other ingredients, and it almost seemed like a mediterranean spin on Poland’s Zurek.

For those who are particular about the consistency of their soups and stews, it seems that Ukraine’s revolutionary spirit has also permeated into it’s cuisine. In a culture where people tend not to appreciate being told what to do, the freedom to choose how creamy or watery your soup is, and how many herbs are sprinkled on top, is left to the customer, with sour cream and parsley provided in ramekins. And what Solyanka lacks in colour variation, it makes up for in it’s diversity of flavour. An initially intense meatiness is quickly overpowered by a sharp, citrus tang that contrasts with the brininess of the olives. In another parallel with Zurek, the taste changes gradually depending on how long you take to eat it, with a leisurely approach allowing more time for the lemon to infuse with the soup. As the broth diminished and I reached the last few spoonfuls, the sharpness became increasingly concentrated, as the lemon masked the rest of the ingredients, creating a climax which is more refreshing than filling..

With endless soups and stews on offer in Eastern Europe, each has to battle for attention. All to often, they fade into nameless, shapeless broths that fade quickly from the memory, but Solyanka deserves credit for being just unique enough that it stands out against it’s competitors.


Thoughts? Leave a comment down below!


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Attempting to cycle from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Baku, Azerbaijan while interviewing locals en route. Despite my chequered history with bikes, here’s to me returning home with an intact facial structure and at least as many body parts as I left with.

2 Thoughts on Childhood in Soviet Ukraine
    Dennis
    11 May 2019
    3:21pm

    ……..and we think we have problems! And another example of the Holocaust.

    Hilda
    12 May 2019
    4:17pm

    Yet another vibrant description – Chernivtsi. Lucky to have kept so much of its historic buildings. Yet again, corruption comes to the fore. Pavlo has provided us with a great insight into Ukraine. Not at all sure about Solyanka! Great work Tieran, keep it up.

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