To the uninitiated, a Ukrainian metropolis such as Kharkiv may seem daunting, dilapidated and even dangerous.
Kharkiv is a Ukrainian city which highlights how we English, or westerners in general, automatically perceive something by our own measures. It’s only natural: we make judgments based on what’s familiar and compare to our past experiences, although initially, this may be problematic in the first few days exploring a new country.
For example, you look at an apartment building, apparently run-down and poorly maintained, and take it to be the symbol of a rough area to be avoided. But once you’ve gone inside, past the graffiti and debris of the entranceway, and journeyed upwards in the half-broken, two-person lift, you enter a clean, middle-class apartment with high-living standards, modern decor, etc. You’re safe, but your immediate impressions have been exposed; if it was England you would have avoided the entire block!
Taxis are another good example. The average taxi in Kharkiv seems to be held together with pure willpower: the driver smokes and swears in Russian; he speeds down the highway with almost Italian levels of nonchalance. Nobody wears seatbelts. But this isn’t a dodgy one-off. This is the norm, and most of the time these drivers offer a good service for a decent price (as long as your English doesn’t betray you as a walking stipend to salary).
The buses are old vehicles from Poland, and before that, they were old buses from Germany. But they’re used every day and are perfectly serviceable. The tap water is to be avoided and may be shut off unexpectedly, but the local “avtomat” or water delivery service is a convenient replacement.
For westerners, preceding actual functionality is a need to appear functional.
Not that this is something Kharkivites are unaware of. In fact, the emerging middle class, I’ve encountered, seems to be feeding off an awareness of this need for keeping up appearances: IT companies, marketing firms, audio production services generate income from the ability to present things a certain way. Nevertheless, apparently for most residents, attention to the aesthetic is still a luxury, not a normality.
However, this is a city which is very rapidly acknowledging its need to become “globalized,” or at least to take a stronger part in the international market. Removing the tension between appearances and actualities is one part of achieving this, but the question remains whose burden it is.
Is it our job in the West to become more aware of how Ukraine operates, how its people do business, how the parameters for quality differ? Or, if it wants to truly become an integral part of modern Europe, is it Kharkiv’s job to “clean itself up”?
I hope only that, if it chooses to do so, it won’t lose its own character.