Voluntary Travel Ban

4 October 2012, 15:50

The Soviet “travel ban” seems to have been forgotten a long time ago. Debtors and criminals are the only people with no permit to leave the country. The easiest way to travel is to visit places inside the country. According to polls, 77% of Ukrainians have never been abroad. That is not simply due to lack of money, as last year Ukraine rated 110th place on the freedom of movement, a figure which takes into account the number of countries accessible to a certain nation based on visa-free regimes and simplified visa procedures. Meanwhile 36% of Ukrainians have never left their own oblast, according to polls by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology and the Institute of Human Rights and Prevention of Extremism and Xenophobia. This is why people from these oblasts have fears and stereotypes about the rest of the country. As for the experts, it is easy to manipulate people’s minds — including for political purposes — when they are full of myths and prejudices. The Ukrainian Week visited several oblasts to find out what prevents Ukrainians from being mobile.


Zymna Voda (Pustomytivskiy district, Lviv Oblast) is the second most populous village in Ukraine with over 10,000 inhabitants. Red notes on pillars say “Be respectable” inviting villagers to the popular assembly dedicated to protecting the Ukrainian language. Three men smoke standing beside tires decorating children’s playground in the middle of the field. All of them have worked abroad.

“We have a totally different thinking, as we are closer to Europe!” Bohdan says. “Look at our beautiful houses! That is because people are industrious here. We go abroad, earn money and bring it here and build houses to live in. But Eastern Ukraine has nothing but mines”. Bohdan says this despite having never been to Eastern Ukraine and seeing no reason visit the area. He explains the issue of travelling around the country in political terms, saying we are moving in the direction the country must move forward. “We do not need going east, we need Europe”.

Roman has been to Dnipropetrovsk and says, “My grandfather was a victim of Stalin’s repression and later he had no permit to leave Dnipropetrovsk, that is why we visited him there”. Roman thinks Western Ukraine is a little wealthier and its inhabitants friendlier. “As soon as one starts speaking Ukrainian, one is branded a “banderite” (a derogatory name for Western Ukrainians). We call them moskals, too, but that’s not a big deal. They really are moskals…”

Grey-haired Olha is waiting for somebody outside the village store. She lives in a nearby village, not in Zymna Voda. “What is my village's name? What’s the difference?” she laughs. “All villages are the same”. The woman also thinks life in Eastern Ukraine is worse than her own. “My daughter has been there. She said ‘Mom, there is such poverty there! Terrible poverty!’ Our life is not easy either, indeed. Travelling is not for us. There are no jobs. Village jobs are limited to the school and the local store which pays minimum wage. People survive by working abroad…”

There is a small market near the bus stop, where villagers sell their personal belongings. “I take something from home and bring it here,” Valentyna says. “My husband passed away and I needed to raise some money to pay for heat in the winter. How can I travel with such a life? I’m not sure I’ll ever have a vacation. It's hard enough trying to survive and raise enough money to keep from freezing to death in the winter. Retired folks abroad can afford travelling and holidays”. Valentyna has never even seen the sea.

“We are all alike, regardless of the region,” Lviv resident Marko believes. He has cousins as far away as Kramatorsk. “The only difference is that we speak Ukrainian here, and they speak Russian. My cousins lived in Ukraine for a while when I was a kid. They went to school with us. It took them about a month to learn to speak Ukrainian fluently. But then they left Ukraine and forgot the language…”


The official population of Zhuky, a village in Poltava Oblast, is 1,027 inhabitants. Sunflower fields line the highway to the village. Vitaliy stands beside a wooden fence wearing a dirty jacket and a red shirt. “There is nothing here, he says, describing his native place, "there is no industry, no tourism, no jobs”. Vitaliy’s only son left the village to seek work elsewhere. The man knows nothing of his whereabouts. “Where on earth is he? I hope he is alive at least”, he says.

One in two Zhuky houses is decorated with a sign saying “For Sale”. The bus stop near the store greets people with an advertisement of “a cheap vacation by the sea” and a strange offer of “the best job in Poltava” with a salary of UAH 3,000. There is also a long list of villagers, “bearing full responsibility for delay in implementation of UNO project, with low pressure in water supply system. These people must be so poor that it has been half a year that they cannot make a UAH 50 compulsory contribution”. A middle-aged woman is sitting in the Zhuky-Poltava bus holding a bright plastic bag decorated with pictures of African animals and the words “See the world”.

“We do have a beautiful village!” Maksym says excitedly as he takes in the panorama of private houses in his native Poltava. The 26-year-old dreams of Germany, Monaco and Ireland. Even going to Kyiv is a serious expense for him, but he still travels all over the country. He says Ukrainians, in particular those from Poltava, stay at home not only because they lack money to travel, but because they have “village roots”. “Urban culture never formed in Poltava. People do not like the city they live in — it was imposed on them from above. I know a local girl who seems urban — she works as a newspaper editor and is on her way to finishing her postgraduate studies. But she is like the girl in the well-known joke: ‘What are your plans for weekend?’ – ‘I am going home’. 'Home' means Komsomolsk for her (a little town nearby). It is difficult to talk her into hanging out even in Poltava, let alone leaving the oblast”.

Maksym says he thinks it is very important to travel. “If a person hasn't visited many places, he can't imagine life is any different anywhere else. Not travelling around the world contributes to a person being intimidated, depressed and not valuing his own identity. A person has nothing to compare anything to!” Maksym, on the other hand, can compare his native Poltava with the capital where he has lived for four years. “A person is always in some kind of drive in the capital, you feel more alive there. There are jobs, but here I have been officially unemployed for over three years. Still, Poltava is native for me, the places I’ve known since my childhood are here. This is a city where I feel like an insider”. Maksym was also attracted by Lviv, unlike south and east of the country. “I try not to visit areas I'm not interested in. I am interested in Crimea, but I have not visited it yet for reasons ranging from lack of money to lack of companions. I've seen pictures and I'm sure there are really cool places there! Crimean nature is beautiful, both its mountains and the sea. But, for example, Luhansk doesn’t interest me at all. Does it even have any tourist attractions? People from Luhansk themselves say there is nothing there. The steppe, some grain elevators… and that’s it!”


The Donetsk Euro 2012 slogan is "Power & beauty" and it decorated almost every post in the city this summer. There is not a word about magnificence and poverty, because they are obvious here. The modern railway station is truly astounding, but the nearby bus station used by many people for going home to their villages is serviced by old, dirty busses. Liuldmyla Vasylivna wearing a headscarf and holding a whole lot of packages is waiting for a bus to Tonenke village, Yasynuvatskiy district. The bus makes the journey only once every few hours. Her village has around 300 inhabitants and its water system is nothing but wells. “Donetsk means travelling for me — it is an 18- kilometer drive! Besides, the fare is very high,” she says.

Under the Soviet Union, Liudmyla Vasylivna and her husband vacationed in an Odesa sanatorium. She recalls the sea with a smile, but adds she has never seen the mountains. “Where can we see them? In Switzerland or in Western Ukraine?” Natalia Ivanivna sitting nearby on the bench joins the conversation. “In the beginning of the 1990s, I got an offer to move to Lviv, an acquaintance of mine promised a good job to me there. But he told me ‘You can come, since you have a Ukrainian surname, but once they know you are 'Russian', they will hate you. So I didn’t go. The local mountains might be beautiful, and Lviv, too, but the people there are malicious”.

Oleksandr Oleksandrovych, an elderly man wearing a baseball cap, is sitting on the stairs near the bus station petting a street dog. He shares her views about Western Ukraine. “I was born in a village in Briansk Oblast (Russia). I moved to Donetsk in 1968, but since then I have never been anywhere else. I was always working. Now my age is not fit for travelling. I am 70 years old”.

He is unwilling to describe his notions of other areas of Ukraine. “I have never been there,” he keeps saying, but finally admits, “I know people in Lviv are not so good. If a newcomer asks them anything, they don’t even show the way. They are mean”. Donetsk is totally different, he says.

I speak Ukrainian to a young Donetsk man named Oleh, and he answers in the same language, though he has trouble finding the appropriate Ukrainian word for “denying”. We are sitting on a bench in the city centre speaking Ukrainian. An old woman passes by asking “So how do you like Donetsk, young people?” – “It’s okay,” Oleh answers. The 31-year-old has many places of the world. He is excited to talk about tasty German beer and strange British drinks, and to point out that his native city's beer is the best. He travels around Ukraine, too. He likes Ternopil where a close friend of his lives and he really liked the Sea of Azov, but thinks the Black Sea is very dirty. He also wants to visit Lviv when possible. “I want to visit their local restaurants, in particular famous Kryivka restaurant”. He thinks there is only one problem for him to travel in Western Ukraine, and it is his fear of speaking Ukrainian. “I think my Ukrainian would sound ridiculous or improper. I speak only Russian in Ternopil. I guess sometimes I attracted sideways glances”.

He considers stereotypes about Donetsk to be exaggerated. “We treat the Ukrainian language quite normally. That concerns our native country too! I know that there are some idiots here or in Odesa for instance who snobbishly pretend they don't understand Ukrainian. But they are idiots!” He mentions another reason for Ukrainians to be stay-at-homes, namely laziness.

Donetsk taxi driver Serhiy asks me to pay for a drive to the railway station the amount equal to the price of Kyiv train ticket. Then he would have enough money at least to get to Kyiv. On our way to the station he said that his sister lives in Kyiv, not far from Darnytsia metro station. But he has never managed to visit her. He has never been to the capital. “It’s time for you to go, it takes only a night to get there,” I tell him smiling. “Yeah, I should” the driver sighs. “I haven’t seen Olenka for 15 years already. It’s been 15 years that I've been planning to visit Kyiv…”


The latest “improvements” in life make Ukrainians even less mobile. Prices on transport services have been artificially increased. The logistics of travelling around the country are becoming worse due to the closure of convenient railway routes and stops in some localities. Plans to put limits on motor carriers' operations will surely lead to growth of their services’ cost, etc. Measures of this sort usually result from the opportunistic motives of people close to power who long for the redistribution of the transport services market in their own favour. Still, it seems another motive is also involved.

Non-mobile citizens are particularly vulnerable to manipulation, namely to being manipulated by those in power. Lack of mobility also conserves stereotypes, makes it more difficult for people to adapt to new trends developing in certain domains, therefore resulting in the marginalization of the population. A person who has never been to a developed country or locality is less likely to search for ways to improve his life. He cares for nothing but survival and is inclined to tolerate lamentable economic conditions or the disdain of officials. A non-mobile person takes his position in life for granted and is easily swayed by television which tells him whom to blame. That is why many current world regimes still do what they can to limit their citizens' movements, while some even close their borders altogether.

There are few who actively seek alternative information, and that is why most Ukrainians from different areas live in parallel realities with their outlooks based on their local lives. This complicates the process of consolidating Ukrainians and leaves the door open for exploiting interregional differences in order to get people to look for enemies elsewhere in the country. It also makes it possible to deflect attention from abuses by “internal insiders”, a term invented by Party of Regions faction head Oleksandr Yefremov, who used it during his speech to Luhansk Oblast voters in reference to politicians and officials. Politicians and officials are evil of course, but we are used to them and that makes them less something to b feared than something a bit “alien”, unknown and demonized.

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