Betsy Gidwitx Reports





(Odesa, Mykolaiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Kryvyi Rih, and Kyiv)


Report of a Visit in April 2013



The writer visited Jewish communities in Ukraine during a three-week period in April 2013.  She entered the country in Odesa, made a brief trip to Mykolaiv, returned to Odesa, and then traveled to Dnipropetrovsk.  From Dnipropetrovsk, she traveled to Kharkiv and then briefly to Kryvyi Rih (Krivoi Rog), before returning to Dnipropetrovsk and then concluded her journey in Kyiv.



Ukraine is a country somewhat smaller in size than the American state of Texas.  It shares borders with seven other countries: Russia to its east and north; Belarus to its north; Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary to its west, and Romania and Moldova to its southwest.  The Black Sea and the Sea of Azov form its southern border.


Ukraine is divided into 24 provinces or oblasts, one autonomous re-public (Crimea), and two cities with special status - the capital city of Kyiv and the Crimean seaport of Sevas-topol, which hosts the Black Sea naval fleet of Russia.




The economy of Ukraine remains dependent upon steel production and related heavy industry based largely in the mineral-rich eastern and south-central regions of Ukraine, stretching from Luhansk to Kryvyi Rih (Krivoi Rog).  High international steel prices and domestic consumption spurred a relatively strong economic performance until the global economic crisis beginning in 2008 triggered a significant drop in the price of steel.  Concurrently, heavy foreign borrowing, dependence on imported energy, failure to implement necessary economic reforms, and massive corruption have added to economic woes, creating an ongoing recession that appears to affect every sector of Ukrainian life.[1]


The estimated population of Ukraine in July 2013 was 44,573,065,[2] a steep decline from its estimated 1991 population, i.e., at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, of approximately 53 million.[3]  The estimated 2013 birthrate is 9.52 live births per 1,000 population, and the estimated 2013 death rate is 15.75 per 1,000 population.  The estimated life expectancy for females born in 2013 is 78.43 years; life expectancy for males born in 2013 is 63.41.[4]


Individuals of Ukrainian ethnicity constitute 77.8% of the population, followed by ethnic Russians, whose numbers total 17.3% of the population.  No other ethnic group comprises even one percent of Ukrainian inhabitants.  More than 90 percent of the population adheres at least nominally to Orthodox (Byzantine rite) Christianity.


The estimated populations of the five largest cities in Ukraine in 2013 are: Kyiv, 2,779 million; Kharkiv, 1,455 million; Dnipropetrovsk, 1,013 million; Odesa, 1,009 million; and Donetsk, 977,100 (2009).  Internal migration from smaller cities and towns to larger metropolitan areas, particularly Kyiv, continues today; it is possible that the population of these primary cities is larger than noted due to the influx of unregistered migrants from smaller population centers.




The streets of central Kyiv, especially the areas around luxury hotels, are jammed with large black sport utility vehicles (SUV's), the transport means of choice for tycoons and hustlers.  Symbols of power and excess, the favored models are the largest and most expensive on the international market.  The intent is clear: be visible, be strong, and be intimidating.  Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukhovich is openly referred to as Don Yanukh, the title relating both to the mafia characteristics of Mr. Yanukovych's leadership and to Mr. Yanukhovich's origin and base of support in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.[5]  The individuals around Mr. Yanukhovych are referred to as members of the Family or the Mafia.


With the exception of his immediate cronies, Mr. Yanukovych is isolated, abandoned even by oligarchs who have followed their assets abroad.  General lawlessness, pervasive corruption, mafia confiscation of businesses,[6] and other practices deter investment in new businesses or expansion of current endeavors.  Ukrainian bureaucracy is crippling, capital markets are poorly developed, and the legislature seems paralyzed. 


As was the case during her visit almost exactly one year previously, the writer found the prevailing mood in Ukraine to be one of despondence.  People understand that they have no influence, not even over their own lives, said a woman in Odesa.  They don't trust anyone, they see no prospects for their own children, they have no faith in the future, they are preparing to leave, she continued.  A businessman in Kyiv echoed her sentiments: people are scared, the uncertainty is awful, there is no stability - politically or economically.  They are thinking about leaving, he said; he knows someone who plans to walk out on his business by the end of the year and just leave, he doesn't want his kids to grow up here [in Kyiv]. 


Viktor Yanukhovych has been President of Ukraine since early 2010.  He is considered by many to be a political bully and thoroughly corrupt.


Photo:  Retrieved May 26, 2013.



A person needs protection by "the Family" to operate a business, said a woman in Kharkiv.  The Family controls the taxes that you pay and initiates "ugly procedures" to ensure its own profit [at the business owner's expense].  It is "totalitarian control" by the Family over the country.  No one is happy, observed a man in Dnipropetrovsk.  People don't believe in tomorrow, even the middle class wants to leave.  Another man in Dnipropetrovsk simply put his head on his desk when the writer asked about the mood (настроение) in the city.  He later sighed, shook his head, and said that the mood was one of depression, people are under enormous pressure just to survive.  Many want to emigrate, he continued, and the only thing that is keeping some young people in the country is a minor uptick in information technology outsourcing to Ukraine; if a person has skills in that area, he or she may be able to manage, but most people have no hope for their future in Ukraine.


[1]  Some observers have noted similarities between Ukraine and Russia in that each country is dependent upon a single industry.  In Russia, nearly half of federal budget revenues derive from fuel and energy resources.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, most demographic statistics in this section can be found in CIA - The World Factbook at  Retrieved May 23, 2013.

[3]  Demographic trends in Russia are similar.  Population loss in each country reflects poor health care, inadequate nutrition, substance abuse (tobacco, alcohol, narcotics), aging of the population, low fertility, high mortality, emigration of younger age cohorts, impoverishment, and environmental degradation.

[4]  Comparable life expectancies in Russia are 76.02 for women and 64.04 for men.  The life expectancy gender gap in both countries is notable.

[5]  Viktor Yanukhovych was born in 1950 in Yenakiyeve, Donetsk region.

[6]  The prevalence of business confiscation differs significantly from oblast to oblast, city to city, depending on the quality of local governance.  Dnipropetrovsk has been the beneficiary of good governance and is well disposed to business.  It has been subject to few confiscations.  The problem is more widespread in such cities as Kyiv, Odesa, Donetsk, and Zaporizhya.  The major target businesses are in energy and agriculture, said one diplomat.

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