A detached view: Ukraine, Transcarpathia and Uzhhorod through Martin Reuter’s eyes

“When people feel they are needed here and can be of some help, they fall to like the place where they live”

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So what is our city and region like for the most well-known German from Uzhhorod, after he has lived three years here? What is the influence of living close to the EU and what is the difference between Ukraine and Germany? What a proper bograch soup should taste like and whether we have any nice beers. To get answers to these and other questions, read Martin Reuter’s interview. He is a Slavic scholar, a political expert and a volunteer from Germany and in the last 12 years he has managed not only to visit but to live and work in various nooks of Ukraine, including Uzhhorod in Transcarpathia.

Living in Ukraine and a car grabbed

It is as the proverb goes: a foreign native embraced by strangers. It’s an accurate description for me – both in Uzhhorod and in Ukraine. I have been living in Ukraine for 12 years now. Now that’s what I call a diagnosis (Martin laughing). And this is how I came to live here. I am a Slavic scholar and a political expert by my profession. I had worker for 2 years in Uzbekistan and then taught German in two universities in Kharkiv. But even before that I had come for my work experience as a student.

The few years I spent in Kharkiv were nice, I had a lot of friends and even godfathers there. And then I changed my job and got employed in the Germany’s development politics, becoming a program expert in Donetsk. It was exactly when the disorders started over there. I was a witness to the AntiMaidan and saw the “titushky” thugs appearing. Interestingly, everything had been fine before that, and nobody would have ever thought it could all happen.

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I was even a witness to an important meeting in Donetsk, when Yatseniuk and his ministers arrived, majors and governors of the Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk Regions too, and even Mr. Akhmetov. They were meeting in the Business and Industry Chamber, since all the other buildings had been occupied by then. And when I saw them all together, and on top of it – Avakov and Kernes and the rest, then I realized things were taking a bad turn.

And in a few days the gunplay in Sloviansk took place. After that we got a phone call from the Embassy and told us to take the first plane we could get to Kyiv. That was in April, 2014. And I never came back to Donetsk, even my stuff was left there, and an acquaintance of mine sent it over to me.

But most of all I was sorry for the car, since it was my first one, already having the customs clearance. It was being serviced at a vehicle workshop, and then they called me from Donetsk and said:

– Martin, there are some people here with sub-machine guns here, and they’re taking away your car.

Plunging deeper into Ukraine and its peculiarities

Eventually I came to love Ukraine and later on I realized why. For when people feel that they are needed here and may be of some help, they fall to like the place they live in. As a student, I did not understand the way matters are arranged in Ukraine. But once I got bored in Kharkiv so I got on a bus and went uptown. I got off at the end of the line, took a walk and dropped into a common school. Well, the duty woman approached me at once and asked who I was and what I needed.

– I just came in to have a look, – I said.

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So she took me to the principal’s office, where we had a nice conversation with him. He even wanted to look at my passport.

And then he gave me a guided tour over the school. But the funniest thing was that we also visited the school canteen, where girls from the high school classes were on duty, wearing those traditional school uniforms with white aprons. And the principal and I sat at a table and one of them approached us, I thought she was a waitress.

Well, then I came to the conclusion that if you are a foreigner and find yourself in such institutions, you are accepted as a delegacy. And it is as if your whole native country stands behind your back, your motherland and its history. And that’s a great responsibility.

And then I had another experience in Kyiv, as I was visiting a restaurant, and a waitress came up to me. She had a badge which said Rita (in Ukrainian spelled as Puma) and I just read it as “Puma”. And there were lots of such crackers, of course.

In Ukraine I became a godfather for the first time. And that’s when I saw for my own eyes how a person can be literally tied up to a certain place or a territory – via christening and through purchasing any realty.

And I myself bought a house with a land plot in Kharkiv region. I lived there for half a year and I still keep on visiting it, since my accomplices and I established a civic association aimed at development of the village of Stara (Old) Vodolaga. And last year we were welcoming a granddaughter of Prince Holitsyn. She arrived from Paris, and her grandfather used to be the owner of the village at the times of the Tsar Russian. It became a true celebration of renovating historic memory for Stara Vodolaga. You cannot build up anything new without knowing what was, for you need a basement.

A detached view at Uzhhorod

I first came to Uzhhorod in summer, 2016. The reason was that there was a new program launched, aimed at development and establishing and strengthening relationships between Ukrainian and German twinned towns. Well and there appeared a position, and I was chosen for it in Germany. I started working in December the same year, as a communication expert. Although I do not come from Darmstadt myself, as some may think.

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This position was announced for the whole world, and any citizen of the EU could apply for it. The aim of the activity is to reinforce relationships between Uzhhorod and Darmstadt, search for new active members and players and support the city authorities and popularize the town twinning.

As I first came to Uzhhorod, I really liked the place. And I had certain expectations for it because Transcarpathia is the westernmost point of Ukraine. So I thought I had come to a most European-like city, both in the sense of thinking and everything at all. But eventually I realized that the city, in its mentality is yet a Ukrainian one, or rather post-Soviet. Although, there are some European colorful peculiarities. But I would not say that Uzhhorod shows up for its progressiveness among other cities.

And then again, one should keep in mind that it is a town only. You cannot compare, for instance Kharkiv and Uzhhorod, for its apples and oranges, as they say. On the other hand, a small town has a great advantage, since it is easier to promote various activities in it. At the same time, its location close to the border gives opportunities that Kharkiv or, say, Mykolaiv do not have.

True, I cannot see Uzhhorod’s potential being discovered entirely. To complete this mission, there would be a need for people that realize it. I personally do my best, my conscience is clear. The more so that I am not local yet. I perceive people in a cultural and mental sense but that’s my job. Its result depends on the people I meet and cooperate with. I cannot just conjure people from a magic top hat, like a magician. That is to say, Europe is close to Uzhhorod geographically but I would not say it can be seen in Uzhhorodians’ actions.

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I spent my first year wandering about the town and meeting people. I cannot say they showed any great interest to meeting me. I don’t think it was any personal antipathy, it’s just that Darmstadt may not be of any special interest to them, and that’s understandable. The more so that there are many foreign cities and states that are closer to Uzhhorod than Darmstadt is.

And that is another of Uzhhorod’s peculiarity: due to the closeness to Europe, Darmstadt is a small wonder for local folks. For them it is like this: once I want it, I can go there myself. Well now, we have the visa-free travel, and anyone can travel to the EU. Even from that very Stara (Old) Vodolaga people now travel to Poland, even though before that they had never been farther west of Kyiv. (Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has made its allowances, and major ones. – Editor.)

Regarding Jews, the language issue, the Famine-Genocide and the culture

Suppose we consider the difference between the east and the west of Ukraine, it is not so great, to my eyes. Ukraine is a wonderful great country, with it beautiful language and culture. But it all depends on the people. Although it seems there are many players that are only fueling conflicts within the state.

Well and then there are things that I cannot really understand. When I had just arrived to Ukraine, back in 2008 in Kharkiv, I once was taken to a club. I couldn’t get their activity goals at first. And it appeared that the people simply attended the club to have an opportunity to speak in Ukrainian. They looked kind of freaks in the eyes of other of city’s residents. For I had never met people communicating in Ukrainian in the streets out there. It made an impression on me then, and I realized that once we want for Ukraine to become a strong nation, a support for the Ukrainian language is needed.

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And then I saw the issue of the people’s memory being risen more and more often, including that of the Famine-Genocide (the Holodomor). And even though in the independent Ukraine the subject of the Holodomor was not being discussed at that period. Well and then later I noticed that the state bodies were already dealing with the problem and were making efforts to send a message to the young ones.

It is indeed very positive and important. And I think that it is the right time for Ukraine to start speaking of the Holocaust. To my mind, every city that is willing to develop, must first get a sense of its historic heritage, the latter being not always so hazeless.

The same goes for Germany – I think that is why the German nation is so strong now, partly owing the fact that Germans repented after the WW II. Certainly, the memory of the unbelievable crimes committed by Germans will be overhanging Germany for long, if not forever. But we confessed as best as we could, and so the past cannot be forgotten.

I am sure that any investor coming to the town, well surely he won’t be asking you where is your monument to the Holocaust victims, – but once the town has a monument of the kind, then the man will understand subconsciously that the process is accompanied by other ones. That this is a new step forward in civilization. And respectively, the investor will know that he can make investments into development in this town.  For example, they have recently opened a monument in Rivne, devoted to their Jewish ghetto. So it is evident that there is a need for such things.

There are Ukrainian expatriate communities in the world. There is a Transcarpathian and an Uzhhorodian one. And the descendants of those once living here will always some emotional commitment to this land. I saw it as a living proof of Halyna Holitsyna. For example, she has recently assigned money for a restoration of the church in Stara Vodolaga.

The thing is that there is just no adequate communication with people caring about their ancestral lands, just like there are no adequate proposals from the locals.

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For instance, there is a dumpster right in the bushes near School No1. It used to be a Jewish mikvah, a ritual bath-house, and now it is a dump site, which is terrific. People come here as tourists and see our attitude to it, the way we value the Jewish culture. And of course there will be no investments as long as we show such attitude to our own history.

Provided the mikvah gets restored – and that would be no one man’s concern – then it would be understood that there is a local community with a civilized thinking. Such matters are the authorities’ concern, too, since it is not just a subject related to the Jewish community or activists. It could be a common matter for the authorities and the elite.

However, it is another question – where is the elite of Uzhhorod? And who are they? Perhaps they are the same people that once a year enter the top-100 list of most powerful Transcarpathians? Or are they some different people?

Common Uzhhorod and German projects

The main projects I took part in are related to Darmstadt, since the German government assigns grants for the town twinning. In 2017 and 2018 there were trips to Darmstadt and back to Uzhhorod. People came and there were attempts to restore the partnership and communication. These things will be remembered because a lot of people take part in it.

And then there was a large-scale exhibition for the artists of Darmstadt here, and there will be the same for Uzhhorodian artists in Darmstadt. That is to say, quite a number of events were held as part of the two great grant programs.

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Besides, we have applied for two more German grants, but these are infrastructural programs. One is related to water supply, the water services company, aimed at purchasing equipment to provide for an opportunity to put less chloride into water. And the other project deals with the garbage management.

In case the grants are confirmed, Uzhhorod residents will feel positive changes in the field.

Our Roma people

And then we had attempts with other projects. It was a pleasure to meet Aladar Papp the Senior. I personally liked him for, though he is not as young, but still he really tries to do something and achieve something. He addressed both me and Darmstadt, which is a rare thing to see; when people address me, they expect some actions from me while doing nothing by themselves.

So Mr. Papp got some info, kept mailing and came to me with a definite proposal, to apply for a German fund for youth exchange. The idea was for Roma to go to Germany and see for themselves the way the Roma organizations work over there. And then invite the German Roma to have a look at all the things over here.

So he and I applied and won the grant. Although the project was a success, it did not bring the result required and we were not able to establish long-term contacts. We had an idea that the German Roma are not interested in Ukraine’s Roma.

And then Aladar Papp once took me to Roma camps in Transcarpathia, for the first time in my life. I got to know the Roma culture closer, and I think it is a very serious challenge for Uzhhorod. Roma are to be worked with, and it is only possible to change something via the educational approach, and that is a job for a whole generation.

If I had enough resources, knowledge and energy, I would pick up the Roma matter, but that is a hard and thankless job. I attended to the presentation of a book on Transcarpathian Roma, and they made an accent on their culture and music. And when talk to the Roma elite, I get sad about their nostalgic reminiscences on what respect Roma used to have. For example, there was a known Roma musician that played in the “Korona” (Crown) Restaurant, and even the famous artist Erdeli used to make friendship with him. And that Roma used to wear suits and took care of themselves. It is distressing for Roma to watch their people degrading.

Aladar has a dream to establish a Roma cultural center. It is going to be a hard task but the idea itself is nice, since the Roma culture is interesting, even for tourists, since it means some flair. But that is something that needs correct working on.

The German order and the Ukrainian habits

I had a friend back in Koln, named Joe, he was from Côte d’Ivoire, a simple laborer. He had already obtained his German citizenship by that time. And as Joe was dwelling on the advantages of living in Germany, he would always use the same word – Ordnung, that is, order. And it speaks for itself. The German order is at times a bit too much. And yet, the Ordnung is the fundamental and a basement for everything else.

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I would not say there is no order in Ukraine, it exists here, too. But what is a German peculiarity is the high level of self-discipline. And although it sometimes may appear very boring and even may clip the wings. And it is hard for immigrants from the post-Soviet countries that came to live in Germany. For the Ordnung is reflected on people’s culture and their mentality and behavior.

And though it is worth to bring more regularity to everyday life but I don’t think Ukraine should strive for the same level of order and self-discipline as in Germany. That would be wrong, and Ukrainians would lose a lot because of it.

Here is an example. You have very nice traditions. One of them is the bagels. In Germany nobody at the table gives a toast. And here they do it even when friends come together. A man pulls his wits together and formulates what he intends to say. And although it is a social constraint to rouse but as a rule they give them sincerely, and that is very nice.

Another nice habit is see somebody off by train. That’s just fantastic. You have a company from another city, and their train arrives in the evening. So you spend your time with them and then the whole crowd sees the guests off to the railway station. The habit may disappear as time goes by due to smartphones with SNS’s.

I turn green with friendly envy to Ukrainians for such habits of theirs, as well as for their cozy relationship among friends and relatives. As far as it goes for Germans, they are more loners and they probably need more private space. I think good traditions and relationships may become a fundamental for building up a nice society.

Salaries in Ukraine and Germany compared

They keep asking me – what are salaries on the average with Germans. But it doesn’t say anything at all. Germans have crazy expenses – for accommodation, social insurance, social security funds, community facilities, etc. in reality, there are also a lot of people there who earn very little. Fifteen hundred euros is a small salary in Germany.

I am not an economist, but I think that the main thing in the state is not a high salary but rather a high level of social security. For if provides the required background and a basis to do some self-improvement. For when you are in danger, it’s annoying.

On the other hand, I keep noticing that Germany lacks flexibility and young people with creative ideas. And in Ukraine people are flexible and are quick in admitting new happenings and technologies. This is what Germans lack.

Bograch soup, beer and snails

There is tasty beer in Uzhhorod. And on the whole there are good beers in Ukraine, I mean these small graft brewery, growing in number all the time. That’s good but bars and other pubs have a wrong approach to it. They could tap the beers and they don’t.

The great brands provide equipment and furniture but from what I see in my German visitors is that they even get offended when a pub does not tap local beers and only widely known brands. Nobody’s interested in the situation. People want to drink local beers, and it is produced and is tasty. So why is it tapped not in all pubs?

Or take for instance the snails (ravlyky) supplied from Transcarpathia abroad. Why are they not on the menu in the local restaurants?

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And the meals that I liked in Uzhhorod is the bograch. But it must be thick, rich and clear. And I wouldn’t put potatoes in it but substituted it with dumplings. For they are cool and there are always too few of them in the bowl. Actually, this might become a certain motto – give people what they want. Why keep on working by old schemes once there is something new and delicious. When you have your own local beers, snails and dumplings?

Uzhhorod and German common history

I had been looking for accommodation in Uzhhorod for quite a long time. And then I had an unbelievable coincidence – I settled down in the street named after one of the founders of the town twinning between Uzhhorod and Darmstadt. However, I did not like there wasn’t a single plate with the street name. so we ordered nice pointers in Germany.

And so, you know, sometimes you come across pics on the Internet where it shows a repair of a road or a piping, and only one laborer is working on the picture, and he’s got five others standing over him watching, like a supervisor, a foreman, a chief engineer and so on.

Now when workers were hanging the plates in Glentz Street, it looked exactly as those pics. Apart from the crane that was lifting a cradle with a laborer, there were two official cars nearby and over than ten officials from the company, watching the process from down below.

On the other hand, it was a pleasure, for it was an evidence of a special attention and respect to the plates installed.

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Aloha to Uzhhorod and Transcarpathia

I cannot say I have fallen in love in Uzhhorod. There are lots of things that I still don’t understand. But both the town’s and the region’s history cannot but impress one.

Uzhhorod is an interesting town, and so are its people. But the town lacks some drive, specific for a regional center. I don’t see any strategical movements and visions, though there are some positive projects and efforts. But Uzhhorod a lot of conditions for becoming an attractive place for long-term residence. I wish to all who love their town to find opportunities and a support from the authorities to bring to life their intentions.

P.S. Following Martin’s wishes among other things, we initiated holding the Re:OpenZakarpattia forum, in order to generate new ideas and solutions for development of Ukraine’s westernmost region. See details in the following article – Re:OpenZakarpattia

By Bandy Sholtes, especially for Varosh

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