The Berlin Wall had fallen. The USSR had broken up. I was a Boeing engineer at a ICBM assembly plant in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine. The people I was working with had just been through an upheaval after an upheaval. For decades it had been a closed city, a place considered so vital to the USSR that it didn’t get many non-Communist visitors. (understatement) Boeing sent a team of engineers to work on a commercial space project that would launch US satellites from rockets that were Russian second stages on top of Ukrainian first stages. The work was fascinating, but the people made a bigger impression on me. The city is now called Dnipro, which must be much easier to say; but from what I can see on the news, the people haven’t changed much.
Feel sorry for the passport control officer as I passed through the airport in Wien (Vienna). He asked my destination several times. Evidently I couldn’t properly pronounce Dnipropetrovsk, or he’d never heard of it (closed city, remember), or he was having fun watching an American squirm – in which case, don’t feel sorry for him.
It was a working city. It wasn’t there for tourism. I saw little that was fancy. Function over form. We stayed in a nice guest house because there were no hotels available, at least for us. It was days of cold showers because no one told me that the building didn’t turn on the hot water until later in the morning. Early to rise meant a real wake up.
It was a pragmatic place. In some ways it reminded me growing up near industrial sections of Pittsburgh from the 70s. That shouldn’t be a surprise because at that time much of Pittsburgh was populated with immigrants from Eastern Europe.
My Mom’s family was from Poland, though they also pointed out that their region had been invaded so many times that countries like Germany considered it theirs. Evidently there was more pride in being Polish than in being one of the frequent and temporary invaders.
My fellow co-workers had to adjust to some of the food, decor, and manners; but they reminded me of my Mom’s Mom. My babushka. Be polite. Be productive. Be sociable. I could hear her voice in our Ukrainian hosts, and could understand as little as I did with her. She was sweet, but I mostly remember her saying “Oh, go on.” which years later I realized could have been her way to fill in a conversation if she couldn’t understand what was being said. (My older brothers should have clearer memories than my young years provided.) The food was breaded veal with lots of potatoes, leafy greens, and cucumbers, as I recall. Not five-star, but marvelous comfort food – for me.
The meetings were held in a manager’s office that was still adorned with a map of the world centered on the North Pole. It wasn’t a Christmas thing. It was the most likely route for ICBMs that would launch between the USSR and the USA. They still hadn’t taken it down. We were inside barbed wire, saw someone dragged into a guard shed, and had no doubt that they were in control of us. I just assumed the meeting rooms were bugged, and probably outside the rooms, too.
The biggest impression though came from our few trips outside the meetings.
The economy was trying to recover. A walk along the sidewalk was a walk along a long line of people selling food. Don’t think in terms of a farmer’s market. It was a block-long line of women, each with one cardboard box which served as a sales table for some variation on: one fish, a few root vegetables, and maybe some bread. Infrastructure was bad enough that some engineers had to leave to respond to an apartment building collapsing. They even had to turn off the gas to the eternal flame that honored the five million Ukrainians who died in World War II.
From what I’ve seen on the news, things got much better.
We were there with western expectations, laptops powerful enough to eclipse – well – I saw more Ukrainian slide rules that computers. And yet, I was more impressed with their engineers. We trusted our computers. They trusted themselves. They had to know, to truly understand the math, the equations, the approaches that would provide answers almost as fast as we could, or at least as quickly as I could. We’d let the computers crank through enormous quantities of permutations. They’d use experience to concentrate on a much smaller set because they knew which could be avoided. They were good.
They didn’t moan. They knew they were going through changes, so they changed. They caught onto capitalism so quickly that I was sure they’d outmaneuver and outnegotiate the Boeing managers.
The people selling a fish, a potato, and a roll were pleasant. They weren’t scrambling after us begging.
They wished they could keep the eternal flame lit, but they didn’t plead for help.
They drank. They smoked. The food was heavy. The life expectancy was in the mid-50s. Two of us probably provided a scandal, or at least entertainment, when we went for a jog around town. The truck of soldiers didn’t seem pleased with us as they passed, but they didn’t stop, either.
Watching the news I felt echoes of an attitude I wasn’t sure of at the time. They had struggles, but they’d deal with them. They or their ancestors had lived through invasions and wars. There was almost a philosophy of deal with the current crisis, know that it’s temporary, and know that they’d eventually get back to what they’d been doing before. The media seemed confused that the Ukrainians weren’t more incensed about Russian positioning troops for an invasion. I had the impression was that, rather than not caring, they were acknowledging the situation but not wasting a lot of energy at the time. That time would come later.
And that time arrived. Molotov cocktails make the news because they make good videos. But, I prefer the two videos where farmers found deserted tanks, and towed them back to their farms. The grandmother who gave sunflower seeds to a soldier to put in his pocket because they’ll look pretty when they sprout and grow from his decaying corpse after fellow Ukrainians buried him in a field. And then there’s “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
These are the descendants of people who fought Hitler. Every country wants the Ukrainian crops and fuel resources. Left alone, they could do pretty well. They’re not being left alone, for now, but maybe enough of them are taking the present seriously, as well as already looking past this unsustainable situation.
Here’s one lesson I learned from karate. The person who starts a fight has already lost. Even if they win today, they’ve usually made enemies that become more obvious tomorrow. Prepare for the fight, but concentrate on defense, and think ahead to what tomorrow will bring.
Thinking ahead to what tomorrow will bring sounds like a cliche; but in the modern world it is a necessity. Someone who starts a fight today has to answer to the law tomorrow, and that gets worse if they win the first fight. Self-defense is preferred over unprovoked aggression.
Whenever the US economy is having trouble I reflect on the Ukrainians I met. Their currency was in terrible shape. One of the city’s main industry was switching from massive military budgets to a startup commercial venture. Some of them hadn’t been paid in months, but were working now to benefit later. Supplies were tight. They tackled each situation with more emphasis on getting the work done rather than getting more sympathy. I gripe in situations that they probably make them shrug, get to work, have some good food and drink, and drink, and get back to work.
As for the Russians I met, they were equally impressive, but theirs is a separate story.
One thing the Ukrainians emphasized was that they were Ukrainian. They had their own language, culture, history, and pride. Nothing they’d experienced managed to take that away from them.
I wonder what’s next for them.