Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Lugansk: Working for a living

When I arrived by train in Lugansk Monday morning, I was met by a Fulbright Scholar who was nearing the end of his ten-month stay at that city’s medical university.

“Any other Fulbrighters been out this way to visit?” I asked.

My Man in Lugansk, a southerner with a warm Kentucky accent, smiled shyly and admitted I was the first. “If you’re here, you’re here for a reason,” he said, “because it’s not on the way to anywhere.”

Located at the far eastern edge of Ukraine, a good eighteen hours by train from the capital, Lugansk is indeed isolated, a city of some 400,000 that has long served as a center of heavy industry.

On the drive away from the train station, my fellow Fulbrighter pointed to two apartment complexes facing the vokzal – one a massive, meandering Soviet-era structure dubbed The China Wall (picture above) for its resemblance to the Great Wall, the other a new apartment tower going up across from it. Units in the latter were being advertised as “elite apartments,” My Man in Lugansk said, making quotation marks in the air, and the price was 900 Griven a square meter unfinished (or approximately $180) which puts Lugansk well ahead of where it was a few years ago, when you could have expected to pay $300 per square meter for a place to live, but well below the prices in Kyiv, which are apparently on a rocket ship to the moon, perhaps three times the level in Lugansk.

With jobs in the region scarce, average monthly salaries closer to $150 than $600, and a value added tax of twenty-percent at the newly open Metro – a sort of Ukrainian Costco – I had to wonder just who could afford such a place. My man in Lugansk nodded knowingly and followed all the rules of southern nicety by putting it this way, “There’s lots of money out here, it’s just not well distributed.”

In other words, you wouldn’t surprise anyone on the streets of Lugansk if you said there was corruption in the halls of government or mafia money behind the tinted windows of that black BMW racing down Sovietskaya Street.
I find it ironic. When it was a republic of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was, in essence, a union, but now the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever, the poor are more economically disenfranchised than before, and the wealthy, while once simply well off, are now filthy with it.

The man I’d come to meet, a northern Californian with a dating agency based in Lugansk, told me he had to warn his customers not to expect a quick reply to ever e-mail.

“These women sometimes work six days a week, ten or more hours a day, and when they come home they don’t necessarily have the energy to write an email.”

It was a familiar story. A banker once told me she joined a bank hoping for banking hours only to learn her office was often as full at nine a.m. as it was at nine p.m. and that an announcement came over the PA system every night at ten: “You must go home now.” There was no one forcing you to stay long enough to hear that message, but if the guy next to you is, and the girl on the street gladly would, it’s kind of hard to leave that chair.

Maybe this is the reason, while walking the streets of Lugansk, I saw Lenin still standing and flowers at the base of the statue honoring Felix Dzherzinsky, the founder of the KGB. With numerous other monuments still standing to the glories of Communism and its leaders – to say less of the tall grass along the city center’s walkways and the scarcity of new construction – this city was more visibly Soviet than any other I’ve yet visited in Russia and Ukraine.

This story will continue. When and how I don't know. Been having all sorts of trouble with Blogger. Can't access it at home or the usual internet cafe. So I'm here, where all the young Neos hang out and the foreigners are viewed as an amusing oddity. Seems to work here, though now I can only add one photo. We'll see. It's been like this for two weeks or more, so that's why there've been fewer posts than envisioned.


Anonymous said...

Ahh the new apartmnent is 900USD not UAH.

Anonymous said...

hello there

im coming to lugansk!!!
do u have a contact email or something, i would like to know more about the Lugansk Medical University... is possible reach me at, ur fulbright scholar...what does he say about the university, is it a good one, n how about the hostel accomadation etc...

would appreciate any information