What Everybody Ought to Know About Ukrainian Culture
We’re commonly asked exactly what Ukrainian culture is like, and with good reason. Simply put, it’s very difference from the Western world. On top of that, Ukrainian culture is even drastically different from it’s direct neighbors—Russia to the East, and Poland to the West.
To top it off, Russia and Poland are so drastically different that could warrant a blog post all on it’s own.
To understand the culture of Ukraine, you first must understand the history behind it.
Ukraine Has Always Been In The Middle
…no matter what.
Ukraine has always been the bridge between Europe and Russia. The European Union is a global superpower, as is Russia. Ukraine was a part of Russia for a long time. Now they are attempting to join the EU.
See where this is going?
You’ve got two global superpowers both of whom have a conflict of interest over Ukraine. The ironic thing is that neither of them actually seem to want to take on the burden of Ukraine, but that’s (again) another story for another day. The point is that Ukraine has always been the center of conflict.
Much like how Istanbul, Turkey—just south of Ukraine—is the gateway between Europe and Asia.
Well, Ukraine is the gateway between Russia and Europe. This makes it ripe for conflict and also ensures that Ukrainian culture will, by nature, be another conflict of interest. It will be difficult for people in either Europe or Russia to fully grasp, and even more so from people who originate in places even further west such as the United States.
Much like Istanbul, Ukraine as a country has also been seen as a bit of a gateway between both Europe and Asia. So not only are we dealing with an EU/Russia bridge in modern day, but also the years of history of Ukraine being a bridge between two entire continents.
What Does This Mean Regarding Ukrainian Culture?
It means that they’re cautious. They’re going to be wary of outsiders coming in to the country. Ukrainian people will wonder what the intentions are of those who are visiting from Western countries.
It’s almost like a state of…anxiety. Worrisome. And who can blame them after being in the center of so many conflicts throughout their entire history?
Of course, as it’s been discussed prior on Ukraine Living, there’s definitely a change once they realize that you’re there on a semi-permanent basis. Sex tourists who try to drop in and score some easy fun are scorned, but true expats are welcomed with open arms. It just takes a few weeks, maybe even a few months.
Ukraine will almost feel like a different city once you start becoming engrained in the Ukrainian culture.
The best advice I can give is this: of all the expats I’ve met here in Ukraine (and there’s been dozens), almost all of them say the same thing:
It took me a while to figure this place out. I felt lonely and maybe a bit down for the first few weeks. It took me some time to understand the country/city/culture, and to start to feel at home. But once I got through that initial phase, it was incredible.
The Inner Turmoil
Ukraine is a huge place, and it’s often understated just how vast it is. Here’s a few images that will give you an idea of the size:
As a result, Ukraine itself is divided. Places like Lviv are very proud of the Ukrainian culture, and will refuse to speak Russian with you:
I went up to him and greeted him in Russian. Andrei studied me carefully before finally responding in Ukrainian.
This was the first time in my life that I heard the Ukrainian language.
I shrugged and told him that I don’t speak Ukrainian and didn’t understand what he said.
And that’s where the problems began.[…]
“I’m Ukrainian and don’t want to speak the language of the enemy,” Andrei condescendingly answered in English.[…]
“Just remember that you’re in Ukraine — not Russia — so don’t speak Russian here,” he seemed satisfied with my answers but still needed to reinforce his point.
On the flip side, the further to the East you go, the more Russian language, culture, and influence you’re going to find.
Within the Ukrainian population itself there is constant turmoil about whether to be Russian or Ukrainian, and Russian or European. Enough turmoil to cause civil unrest.
The Traditions of Ukrainian Culture
With that being said, Ukrainians are absolutely proud of their culture. Much of the country keeps all of these traditions alive, especially out in the villages. Bigger cities such as Kiev or Odessa have naturally migrated to a more typical metropolitan style of living, as they’re obviously doing business globally.
However, all of the customary Ukrainian traditions are alive and well if you venture out of the city centers. You’ll find the traditional dresses, foods, dances, and more.
Make sure you don’t miss these articles about food in Ukraine:
Proof of Pride
To see the pride that Ukrainians have of their local traditions, you need look no further than the holidays. The perfect example of this is Easter, which, to an outsider, seems like a two-week long celebration.
These photos were taken in Easter of 2016 in Kiev. The eggs were up for a period of 12 days, and there were people dancing in the street every day for an entire week. It was one massive party for a city of three million people. Granted, some of the residents of Kiev migrated out to the villages for a week—I can’t even imagine what those celebrations were like in areas that are very enriched in Ukrainian tradition.
While it’s probably not the best idea to head to Ukraine during their biggest holiday (as it’s not a normal impression of the place), if you’ve been before and want to experience something different, Easter might just be your best bet. You’ll have people from all over the country gathering in cities to celebrate.
Ukrainian culture can be absolutely fascinating. It’s a rich mix of Asia, European, and Russian traditions—all intertwined into one fantastic country. The food is delicious, the dress is colorful, and best of all…
…they’re proud of it.
Once you have a good understanding of where it all comes from, Ukraine’s culture becomes a beautiful thing. But the only way to see it is to experience it for yourself.
PS: If you’d like to read more about what the dating culture is like in Ukraine, check out this article.