Why Don’t Ukrainians Smile?

5 July 2012, 15:27

The absence of smiles on the faces of passersby in the streets. This is the most common impression that foreigners have of Ukrainians. Does this lack of positive emotions on people’s faces signal psychological problems?

Experts point out a dramatic change in the attitude towards professional psychological help. Ukrainians are ever more often turning to psychologists for help in dealing with stress, life traumas, fears, phobias, depressions and addictions. Age crises are another widespread reason. “Do you know what is most frightening?” comments Nadia Steklova, a psychologist and psychotherapist, director of Amatey centre and member of the International Positive Psychology Association. “Most often, their troubles stem from negative attitude towards themselves, lack of confidence, an unhealthy dependence on what other people think and hesitation.” According to psychologist Natalia Shevchenko, most of her clients use almost the same words “I don’t know what to do”, as they complain about conflicts in the family and at work, as well as the state of depression of individual people.


There are no official statistics, therefore it is impossible to discover how many Ukrainians don’t know what to do when they don’t know what the sense of life is and how many have no idea of how to deal with an unhappy marriage. “For objective reasons, statistics does not allow a credible estimate of the relevant reality,” says Semen Gluzman, President of the Ukrainian Psychiatric Association. “The frequency of such illness probably does not differ from that in other countries. The main difference between our county and most civilized countries is widespread alcohol and drug addiction and related mental disorders. However, in actual fact, the government continues to ignore this serious problem.”

Psychologist Volodymyr Selivanov also notes that alcoholism, partly caused by depression, is a very urgent problem in Ukraine, as is anorexia. “Girls think they are fat, even though they look like skeletons,” he explains. “Western culture fuels this, promoting certain body-type standards. It used to be rare here earlier.”

Overall, any psychological problems are potentially life threatening as they often trigger physical illnesses, mostly affecting the cardiovascular, endocrine and respiratory systems. “Heart attacks, asthma, diabetes, etc., can be the result of psychological troubles,” he says. “These are psychosomatic disorders that are widespread in Ukraine.”   

But, everything depends on how the mental state affects the physical state. “As far as the above is concerned, my teacher, a professor of psychiatry, used to say that there is a dialectical line between healthy people and those with disorders,” Mr. Selivanov explains. “In other words, it’s a philosophical issue.”  This also pertains to psychological problems. The only guideline can be a person’s internal state: does he/she live in comfort, is he/she capable of being happy, setting goals and normal interaction with other people.


“Many Ukrainians are not sure of their future,” Semen Gluzman insists. “They are unable to find a decent job, feel stressed out whenever they visit obnoxious civil servants and cannot get proper medical service, free or paid. They feel weariness, apathy and anger.” These are the people that make up Ukrainian society, Mr. Gluzman notes, “Only they are not sick. This is the reaction of perfectly normal people to an abnormal state. The sickness of the latter cannot be cured by a pill. The only effective medicine for this is the proactive civil position of society as well as proactive, well-thought out and balanced participation in the elections.”

Sociologists confirm that positive or negative expectations about the country’s fate also affect the way Ukrainians feel about their own future. Ukrainian Society. 20 Years of Independence. A Sociological Survey, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences’ Sociological Institute reports that most Ukrainians hoped had good expectations after 1999. In 2011, however, the share of optimists plummeted to just one third, hopes replaced by worry and fear. In 2011, fear and pessimism increased, along with concern about the country, while confidence and faith in personal life and the life of the country declined.


Ukrainian patience comes from the multi-century need to survive. “Our northern neighbour had ideas of subjugation, expansion, creating an empire and ‘rescuing the world’,” Mr. Selivanov comments. “In Ukraine, by contrast, everything was defined by the need to survive the Tartars, the Poles and the Russians. It makes people tolerant, especially in relations with others, because they need to group together and stay in touch to survive. Even looking for a partner is always for a reason, a purpose.”  

The need to survive often keeps Ukrainians from leaving their partner in an unhappy marriage. This family model also extends to other aspects of life, the attitude to government for instance. “They are bad but we still tolerate them. What can be done about it? Nothing! That’s the kind of wife I have. And that’s the government,” Mr. Selivanov quotes the typical responses of his patients. This unhealthy patience, intertwined with fear of change and responsibility, hampers personal development.

Why don’t the new generations, which no longer need to survive, change anything? “They follow psychological models of relations that have only intensified over the past few generations, rather than biological factors,” Ms. Steklova explains, although psychological models vary by region. “Look at a person born in Lviv and one in Donetsk, and you’ll see different people,” the psychologist Volodymyr Selivanov notes. “People from Donetsk are more of the Russian type: straight forward, outgoing, direct and aggressive. People in Lviv are more refined and constrained.”

Ukrainians are not divided by their psychological differences, yet some reasons for East-West dislikes could lie in their minds, such as the search for an enemy. Enemies can be useful to both politicians and average people, who feel that life is easier when there is someone to resist. They can blame all their problems on an opponent, someone with different skin colour or ethnic background, and it makes it easier for them to find the purpose of life, excuses for their troubles and even support. “Look at racists or radical nationalists,” advises Mr. Selivanov. “They are solidly in the middle, against the world that surrounds them. Within a group, they get stronger support than average people do from each other, because they have an enemy. Wars tend to make people have a greater appreciation for the likeminded.” Moreover, diversity among people living in different regions is characteristic for virtually every country.


Looking gloomy in the street is a neurotic defense, psychologists explain. Ukrainians tend to expect others to fool, rob, insult or mock them, so they believe they should always be alert for aggression from others, have a serious facial expression and be suspicious. To a certain extent, this can be explained by the high crime rate in the country. “The America portrayed in the Gangs of New York did not smile the way it does now,” is the comparison made by Mr. Selivanov.

Fortunately, Ukrainians’ suspiciousness will not evolve into an epidemic of mental disorders. “In the mid 20th century, socio-psychiatric research showed that the frequency of Schizophrenia, this is the disorder that was researched, did not depend on the duration of daylight, the surrounding temperature or the nature of food, etc.” Semen Gluzman says. “Political regimes, such as despotism or democracy, do not affect the frequency of mental disorders, either.”

What affects the behavior and psychological state of society, though, is stereotypes. Ukrainians also do not smile because of their distorted attitude towards fun in life. “Work done, have your fun,” Mr. Selivanov quotes a Russian saying. “Ukrainians tend to think of pleasure and fun as something that’s not very good. Work, for instance, is toil. They see it as something they should suffer, not enjoy. They’ll think there is something wrong with you if you tell them, ‘I’m having fun at work!’”

If you want to change the world start with yourself, goes a popular quote that is also applicable for Ukrainians. “Society should break the vicious circle and move to a new stage of development,” Nadia Steklova says. “and this is only possible when an individual is ready to accept new information and willing to change his/her habits.”

Ukrainians should learn to not tolerate terrible personal relations or a bad government. They should not be embarrassed to smile in the street or find satisfaction every single day. They should learn to live rather than survive. 

This is Articte sidebar