When I got a last-minute English teaching job in Ukraine I really had no idea what to expect so I asked around the local pub I worked in at the time if anyone knew anything about the country I was soon to be living in. There were two main pieces of information that these beer-drinking veterans were able to give me about Ukraine: Chernobyl and Hot Ukrainian Women.
And it’s true; both are equally infamous where Ukraine is concerned. This is a great shame because there are so many fascinating characteristics to Ukraine: its vast history of poetry and literature, the breathtaking scenery from the imposing Carpathian Mountains to the tropical coastline of Crimea, the strange and wonderful humour, the odd traditions and superstitions, the majestic Eastern Orthodox Churches- the list goes on…
Arriving in Kiev with my old travelling trackies and un-kempt hair I felt immediately self-conscious and out-of place. I was surrounded by women who were all perfect- not a hair out of place, not a pound too heavy; it was just like one of those rare occasions when I indulge in reading Heat Magazine and I instantly start subconsciously criticising my physical appearance. I felt as though I had walked into some strange Soviet-Bloc dollhouse full of Barbies.
As I was sitting on the floor of the airport, waiting for the 2 other members of staff coming in on the next flight an old babushka suddenly started pointing her finger at me and shouting in Russian, I had no idea what I had done to offend her- did she perhaps think I was an alien? I certainly felt like one. A strong Slavic-looking man came to my rescue pulling me up off the floor and explaining to me in English that the babushka was telling me that I shouldn’t sit on the floor because it would make me infertile. This was my first of many experiences in bizarre Ukrainian superstitions and medieval health advice, some of which later included not being allowed to whistle, eating charcoal and putting vodka on my feet.
When the other British staff arrived we quickly were ushered like sheep along the labyrinth of grey corridors and up and down the endless flights of steps by ‘Mr Muscles’, AKA Igor. He was definitely the strong and silent type- ignoring most of our questions and speaking only to insist on carrying all the girls’ bags and demanding that the other British boy do the same, seeming angry at him for not offering in the first-place.
From that moment, I realised that chivalry wasn’t dead yet in Ukraine. Women were treated like delicate princesses and dressed like them too. I found myself secretly enjoying this type of treatment all the while struggling to contain the inner feminist voice within. However, there is always a flipside and of course, I soon came to realise that the situation wasn’t quite so peachy as it might first appear.
The pay gap between men and women in Ukraine is between 34 and 41 percent which is three times that of ours in the UK. This is especially significant seeing as the average GDP per capita in Ukraine is only $7, 300 per annum compared with $20, 334 in nearby Poland, $19, 591 in Hungary and $16, 736 in Russia. Even the border country of Kazakstan, whom Ukrainians love to poke fun at for being backward, has an annual average salary which is almost twice that of their jokester neighbours. People can barely afford to live and a massive 39% of the population live below the poverty line.
Despite this dire socio-economic situation, there is an intense commercial pressure on Ukrainians to aspire to living the ‘Western Lifestyle’ and thus adopting modern life philosophy of “I buy therefore I am” yet not actually having the financial capacity to live up to these material expectations. These challenges faced by ordinary Ukrainians throw-up difficult moral dilemmas including that which is seen as the ‘only way out’ for many Ukrainian women: to become a Mail-Order Bride.
It’s tricky to find compassion, empathy and understanding initially when presented with the facade of wealth and material prosperity, as what little Ukrainians do have is spent on appearance. A former colleague of mine who has been living in Ukraine for the past 3 years gave me his analysis of the situation: “They want to been seen as richer than they are… which is why everyone has nice clothes, but more often than not, live in crappy flats/houses.”
The moral dilemma of Mail Order Brides progressed to negative judgement when I discovered two of my professional colleagues at the time were both involved in the industry. One of them, an aging, seedy and slightly odorous American man, claimed that he had run a ‘Ukrainian Bride’ company which organised cruises brokering the liaison of young and beautiful Ukrainian women and old and seemingly affluent American men.
The second ousting of a colleague was much more astonishing, it was to be expected of the first but when I searched for one of my new Ukrainian friends via social media, it came as a shock when the first search engine result was her profile on one of these sleazy company websites . I was stunned and confused; why would such an intelligent, interesting and aspiring young woman feel the need to sell herself in such a tragically clinical business transaction?
“Because you don’t understand Hollie, what it’s like to really live in this corrupt country. I would do anything to get out.” She revealed that this was the reason she had come to work at a British Summer camp in the first place and probably why many of the other female Ukrainian workers did too; it certainly wasn’t for their measly wages which we worked out were ten times less than what most of us British staff were earning.
Needless to say, some of the female Ukrainian staff were successful in their pursuit of a Western man; they were ridiculously sexy professional temptresses, they had hair-flicking, eyelash-fluttering and that bum-wiggling sashay down to a t. I looked like an unladylike goon in comparison.
They also reminded me in a strange way of the women you read about in Jane Austen books, they were bred to be accomplished and delicate young ladies; they were very talented in areas such as dance, music, art and poetry- appropriate accomplishments for the softer sex.
Whilst living in Ukraine I had my eyes opened to the extent that humans are willing to go in their personal quests for money, security or maybe just safeguarding societal expectations. I suppose we can find milder forms of it in our own society; many people find affluence an attractive characteristic in the opposite sex and many others also indulge in the thought of being ‘rescued’ by someone.
I initially thought that the concept of ‘Mail-Order Brides’ i.e. finding someone on the internet and agreeing to marry them despite them probably not even speaking your language is sad, desperate and immoral. But is there actually anything wrong with being desperate for something? Don’t we all act out of desperation at times? Perhaps it would serve us all to take time to imagine what our choices would be like in a situation where we faced a future of no home, no security, no money and no prospects before condemning the actions of others.
Sure, the system has some serious flaws e.g. there is a distinct lack of background-checking on behalf of almost all the companies in question and there have been some cases that hit the news recently including a horrific incident whereby one American ‘client’ managed to murder two Ukrainian women via this process. I think this highlights the fact that we need to address the values in our own societies as it is the actions of some Western men who have created this industry in the first place and it is the consumerist culture of capitalism in which we have thrusted upon Ukraine that has created this burning desire to live in a material world. ‘First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.’ (Matthew 7:5).
I feel uncomfortable about the attitudes of the men towards the women (and the women towards the men) in these transactions. However, I do have to say that there are some exceptions to the stereotype who are genuinely looking for love and companionship and I respect them for being positive and practical about improving their quality of life. I probably would too if put in their situation.