Betsy Gidwitx Reports
September 2001 In Ukraine

I. Kyiv -- With Physicians
From Chicago And Jewish Healthcare International
(also visits to Korosten and Irpen)

II. Eastern Ukraine
Dnipropetrovsk, Krivyy Rih, Dniprodzherzhinsk

This report reviews a journey to Ukraine from September 3 to September 20, 2001. The author was in Kyiv from September 3 to September 13. On September 13, the author traveled to Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine; side trips were made from Dnipropetrovsk to Krivyy Rih (Krivoi Rog) and Dniprodzerzhinsk. With the exception of visits to medical institutions in Kyiv, the focus of the trip was on Jewish communal life in the various cities.

Ukraine commemorated ten years of independence on August 24, 2001. It is comparable in territorial size to France. Its population, currently about 49.5 million, has declined about five percent since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a phenomenon that it shares with its Russian neighbor. Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, is its largest city, with a population of approximately 2.6 million. Three cities in eastern Ukraine, the industrial heartland of the country, boast populations of one million or more: Kharkiv (1.5 million), Dnipropetrovsk (1.1 million), and Donetsk (1 million). Odesa, the famed Black Sea port in southern Ukraine, also has a population of about one million.

According to an August 2001 report of the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, more than 90 percent of the Ukrainian population lives in poverty. The average monthly income is about $17 and the average monthly pension is about $13.1 Although some Ukrainians earn unreported additional income through entrepreneurial activity and benefits extended to certain population groups, the economic situation of most Ukrainians is dire. Official unemployment among young adults between the ages of 20 and 29 is 17 percent. Hundreds of thousands of officially employed Ukrainians are on “unpaid leave,” a designation that deflates unemployment figures and, concurrently, deprives individuals of both wages and unemployment benefits. Eighty percent of job openings are for unskilled laborers.2

Neglected for decades, the Ukrainian national infrastructure is eroding and will require an infusion of capital that will impose massive debt on future governments. Water and electricity supply, sewage systems, transportation, communications, health care, and education are far below Western standards. Ecological degradation is severe, creating incalculable health hazards for residents of the country.

In the midst of such adversity, the gross national product of Ukraine increased by six percent in 2000 and household income grew seven percent after inflation. The statistics for 2001 may surpass those of 2000. Actions by the Ukrainian government to curb the role of barter in the economy have been successful. As more and more cash is injected into the financial system, consumer demand has risen, thus encouraging the development of small businesses. However, much of this growth emanated from policies encouraged by former Prime Minister Victor Yushchenko, who was fired earlier this year because of his insistence on transparency in key sectors of the economy, his efforts to improve tax collection, and his undertakings aimed at reducing cronyism and patronage in privatization and the issuance of licenses and contracts.

A small group of oligarchs continues to control the distribution of energy, major media outlets, and other key segments of the economy. Annual capital flight is estimated to be at least $3 billion. Ukraine is ranked among the ten most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International, an independent organization that includes 90 countries in its calculations. Relations between the United States and Ukraine are tense due to rampant Ukrainian electronic piracy, copyright infringements, and related problems with other proprietary information. The United States also is concerned about the absence of press freedom and the disinclination of Ukrainian leaders to encourage the development of a system of law.

Ukraine remains dependent upon Russia for 70 percent of its energy, primarily oil and gas that comes into Ukraine through a complex pipe infrastructure. The electricity grids of the two countries are being integrated. Many Ukrainian oligarchs have close ties to their counterparts in Russia, and many Russian oligarchs have significant investments in Ukraine. Earlier this year, Russia appointed Victor Chernomyrdin as its ambassador to Ukraine. A former Prime Minister of Russia, Mr. Chernomyrdin is a skilled negotiator and very well-informed about Ukraine.

The popularity ratings of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma are in the single digits, but his opposition is fragmented and the public is apathetic. The next Presidential elections are scheduled for 2004; Mr. Kuchma has indicated that he will not seek re-election. The Communist party of Ukraine retains the loyalty of about 25 percent of the population, the overwhelming majority of whom are older workers and pensioners.


1. The writer arrived in Kyiv two days prior to the arrival of a medical delegation, which she was to lead on a site visit of hospitals and other medical institutions. The early arrival was intended to provide time for (a) confirming arrangements for the group, and (b) pursuing some matters of special interest.

2. Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich is Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine. A Karlin-Stolin hasid, he was born in Brooklyn and has been in Kyiv with his family since 1990. His synagogue is located on Shekavitskaya Street in the Podil area of the city, which was a heavily Jewish district before the Holocaust. Rabbi Bleich discussed several topics concerning the Jewish community.

Plans were in place, said Rabbi Bleich, for commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the slaughter of more than 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar during the Holocaust. A large number of international Jewish figures would attend ceremonies at the site on Sunday, September 30; however, he continued, the reality that Yom Kippur falls on September 27 and Shabbat on September 29 is creating travel problems for many would-be attendees. Thus, participation in the commemorative events would be lower than he had hoped.3

Completion of a residential facility for elderly Jews is being delayed, said Rabbi Bleich, until he is able to raise the last $150,000 necessary for this project.4 After initially expressing hostility toward the undertaking, the Joint Distribution Committee has indicated interest in operating an adult day care center in the building, he noted.

Although the organization has made no firm commitment to this endeavor, JDC has loaned the Jewish community $50,000 to be used in meeting construction costs. A commercial health care corporation in the United States had promised to provide medical equipment for the facility free of charge; however, this company recently reneged on its pledge.

Whereas Rabbi Bleich seemed somewhat uncertain when asked by the writer in May about criteria for admission to the residence, events in the Ukrainian capital since then seem to have forced a decision about priority cases. The number of homeless Jewish elderly has increased significantly, said Rabbi Bleich, many of them swindled out of their apartments by crooks eager to acquire currently occupied flats, especially those in coveted downtown areas.5 Some dispossessed elderly may be living on the street, but most seem to have moved in with relatives, staying with one family for a few weeks, then moving on to other relatives for another short period, and so on. Several are living in a few apartments owned by the Jewish community near the synagogue, and others have managed to find short-term rental space, although the latter is very expensive.

Rabbi Bleich is considering the possibility of purchasing about 15 apartments in buildings now under construction in Podil. These apartments would then be sold or rented to young observant families who would like to live near the synagogue, thus beginning to restore the Jewish character of the Podil neighborhood.6 Discussions are being held with a developer, he said.

Aish Hatorah, the international Jewish outreach organization, may be forced to close its large program in Kyiv within the next two to three months, said Rabbi Bleich.7 Its major sponsor, an Israeli who has lived in the United States for many years, has suffered severe financial reverses and has been forced to reduce his support substantially. It is likely, continued Rabbi Bleich, that several Aish Hatorah yeshiva students will “transfer” to Rabbi Bleich’s yeshiva, but other programs offered by Aish Hatorah probably will not be replaced.

1. Quoted in The Kyiv Post, 6:36 (September 6, 2001). The poverty level is thought to be about $30.
2. See The Kyiv Post, 6:32 (August 2, 2001). Conversations with students and recent graduates of post-secondary institutes and universities yield substantial anecdotal information supporting official documentation of employment problems for this age group.
3. The actual slaughter occurred over two days, September 29 and 30, 1941. Additional Jews were murdered at Babi Yar, a ravine in an outlying area of Kyiv, on later dates as well.

Attendance at the anniversary ceremonies and coverage of these events in the press also was affected by the terrorist attacks on targets in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11.

See also page 12.

4. The cost of the building is estimated at $1.6 million, of which $700,000 is provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food for Progress program. This program remits funds for social welfare projects to non-profit organizations in foreign countries in return for the sale by these organizations of excess U.S. agricultural commodities to other non-profit organizations. Rabbi Bleich established a dedicated office in Kyiv to sell such commodities as rice and powdered milk at discount prices to various Ukrainian welfare organizations.
5. In some instances, shady individuals arrange with corrupt local officials to declare a building uninhabitable, thus forcing residents to evacuate their units. The individuals then assume control of the building and sell its units or the entire building. In other cases, new owners of adjacent apartments remodel these apartments in such a manner that neighbors can no longer live in their own units. Still other apartment owners have been subjected to five or more years of persistent telephone calls or unwanted visits from individuals who suggest that they sell their residences at below-market prices.
6. Although more than half of the graduates of Rabbi Bleich’s day school move to Israel or to the United States, some remain in Kyiv and lead observant lives.
7. For information about the Aish Hatorah program in Kyiv, see the writer’s Notes on Jewish Community Life in Ukraine, May 2001, pp. 70-71.

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