The Communist Long Tail of Ukraine

I’ve now spent a long time in the Ukraine because we are building some significant software there for our upcoming and super-secret gaming destination, and I’ve made a number of observations.

Since one of my hobbies is economics, it has been very interesting for me to be immersed in a country that is emerging from communism into a form of capitalism with a pinch of kleptocracy/oligarchy chewing away at the fringes during the transition.

I took the first three pictures below from the common areas behind my apartment that I stay in while in Kharkov, Ukraine. The inside of my apartment is very nice, as is the inside of many places throughout Ukraine. The offices up at Program Ace are spotless, pristine, and very HAL-2000-like.

However, every single “common” area in the Ukraine is completely run-down and looks bombed out, forgotten, radiated, and dangerous. In my judgment, this is a vestige from the communist era, when everything was commonly owned and there was no personal property. When things are commonly owned, they almost always fall into disrepair since “altruistic cleaning and maintenance” is a concept that only is heard from the ivory towers of college professors that are inside the theoretical and elitist bubble.

The same thing happened in New York’s Central Park in the late 70’s. It was very much treated in a communist way, where a faceless bureaucracy expected their disconnected staff and an altruistic public too keep Central Park nice, clean, and well maintained. It turned into one of the dirtiest and most unsafe areas in the US. After that, Colombia University did a study and the system changed to one of privatization where people had a sense of ownership and pride in different parts of the park. Today it is one of the best public parks in the world.

Even though apartment buildings are privately owned in Kharkov, the landlords still have the oligarch mentality that there is no real need to maintain and beautify the common areas since competition is not yet in full force. Almost every elevator I entered was very old, with exposed and rusted gears, creaking chains, and a layer of dust collecting since the days of Sputnik. Every stairwell looked like the Germans had used it for target practice in 1943. Every face I saw in those stairwells was morose and untrusting. My walks home in the middle of the night after a long day of work have very little light as I pass from one cloister to another, walking from one group of dark-dressed smoking men quietly grunting to the next.
The final picture is from another stairwell, just outside the old KGB building.


The Sweatbox

The Ruins of Kharkov

The Front Door, facing the KGB

  • Thank you for sharing this Trey. I appreciate your putting the story behind your Ukraine series and the analogy you bring up with Central Park. Great job and thanks for the perspective.

  • I do agree with you about the fact that buildings look like this because no one else cares. But you may also find a lot of run down buildings in NYC, in SF, in London and other major capitals of the world that suppose to look better. I certainly would not consider Kharkov a major city in the world.

    Ukraine, Russia and all the other countries of the Soviet block have long ways to go in terms of democracy, and the upcoming elections in Moscow will only prove that the countries have a hard time giving up the past, and I’m afraid they may set Russia back a few steps. Ukraine generally follows.

  • Susan

    Enjoyed the story and the photos……nice to get your perspective……sounds lonely there!

  • Maistora

    Yes, it’s weird to see this dilapidation, certainly sad – because those places are inhabited by hard-working and well-educated people who deserve better. Or do they?

    I wouldn’t rush into primitive, oversimplified conlcusions about the cause-and-effect relationship with economic models, social order and ideology. It is ‘a little’ more complex than the form of ownership:

    – I see similar neglect and vandalism around very-privately-owned London every day, and even in our ‘affluent’ suburban parts of the Thames Valley.
    – In the days of communist rule all those common areas were clean, freshly painted and impeccably maintained. There were people who were paid to look after those areas (by the state, paid miserably as everyone else – but that’s not the point). More important, there was a healthy sense of responsibility (some argue that it was ‘enforced’ by fear from Big Brother watching) and a public intolerance to vandalism and even milder forms of anti-social behaviour. That intolerance and earnest interest in what happens around us has mysteriously disappeared, as new ‘values’ are setting in…

    Don’t get me wrong, I am far from defending a bygone and badly failed social order and economic model. But the challenge of rampant anti-social behaviour, including the neglect and damage of public (and private) property is universal across the hemispheres and rich/poor country divides. To attribute it to simplistic socio-historic explanations doesn’t help in resolving the challenge.

    Great photography, btw 🙂

  • Really enjoy the Ukrainian set, reminds me of Half Life 2… Your comments are right on regarding the effects of communism on public property, although my experiences in the Ukraine in the winter of this year were that things have come amazingly far. Kiev seemed clean, organized, and so much wealthier than I could comprehend. My memories of the FSU date mostly from the late 90s, and wow, things have come a long way….but as you note have some way to go, especially outside the city centers…

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