Ukrainians in (and outside) the Czech Republic

Olga finds herself in a relatively typical situation. First, some people mistake her for a Russian woman and make it known that as such she is not welcome here, and then, unlike Jožo, her Ukrainian nationality does nothing to improve her image in the eyes of the Czechs – or at least, so it seems to her.

In this text, we will try to introduce Ukraine, Ukrainian and Ukrainians in the context of this premise — ‘they mistake us for Russians’.

  • What is…?

Zarobitchanyn (pl. zarobitchani) (guest workers): someone who travels abroad primarily for seasonal or temporary employment. A term similar to ‘gastarbeiter’.

Kozák (Cossack): a term in the Tatar language meaning a single lad, man, or soldier. The Kozák movement was at its strongest in the 17th century under the commander Bohdan Khmelnycky. Even now, there are families in Ukraine that are able to boast a glorious Cossack heritage, and the Cossack tradition is still alive in the country today. For Ukrainians, the Cossacks are symbols of bravery, the fight for freedom, and freedom itself.

Ukrainian folklore: Ukrainian folk songs are infinite in number, but the ones people know best are wedding songs and songs with a military theme, which means they are usually about the Cossacks. But there are also songs known as ‘kolomyjky’, which are based on a polyphonic harmony, so there are at least two singers, male or female, one of whom sings the main part and others answering in polyphonic harmony. Generally, there are more than two singers. Ukrainians still enjoy singing folk songs today. They are able to sing any part in a song and are capable of singing a typical Ukrainian harmony, unrehearsed, even with a group of complete strangers, on the street or in a train, for example, or at an office or school party. Ukrainian folklore is an important part of its national identity. Traditional folk costumes are an integral part of the country’s folklore, especially the traditional men’s and women’s embroidered shirts and blouses, which in western Ukraine in particular men are known to wear regularly, but which are most often worn on national holidays.

Ruskyj x rosyjskyj (Rus’ x Russian): two important Ukrainian adjectives. The first refers to things associated with Kievan Rus’ and, by extension into certain historical contexts, also with Ukraine. Ukrainians used to be called Ruthenians, and Ukraine was known as Rus’. The terms ‘Ukrainian’ and ‘Ukraine’ have only been in use since the 18th century. In Czech, the geographical term Rus’ basically refers to Ukraine. The second of the two adjectives above refers exclusively to Russia.

Steppe: There is no more typical feature of the Ukrainian landscape than the endless steppes of central Ukraine. National folklore is filled with references to them.

Oligarch: someone who owing to enormous wealth has a hold on political power. Most oligarchs are from the eastern part of Ukraine, where the most important heavy industry and mineral wealth is concentrated. The oligarchs acquired their magnificent wealth and their companies during the privatisation process, and in some cases through speculative investments in the country’s mineral wealth. The oligarchs own entire football clubs and similar types of property. Their links to Ukrainian politics are generally well-known. The oligarchs exercise a typical form of influence on the Ukrainian political system. Basically, behind every politician in high politics you can find an oligarch.

Orange Revolution: The fifteen years after the Czech revolution almost to the day, but on a larger scale, Ukrainians experienced their own Velvet Revolution, which captivated the world’s attention for a couple of months. Ukrainians demonstrated that they are not indifferent to the fate of their homeland, and showed that they intend to play an active role in determining its future direction. The revolution is generally regarded as the moment when civil society came to life. The country’s progress since then has been slightly more positive.

Client: someone who mediates jobs for a fee and a percentage of the job recipient’s income. The absolute majority of Ukrainians who come to the Czech Republic to work ultimately become part of a client’s network of workers. The client is often from the jobseeker’s village or may even be a relative. Clients maintain networks of potential employers, whom they supply with employees. They siphon a considerable percentage off workers’ wages for their services, and ultimately give workers much less money than initially agreed. There have been more than a few cases where clients have worked with the mafia and passed on information about someone planning to go home with their savings, so that the worker is robbed even before he or she is able to leave. Clients are often able to control their workers by threatening them with deportation out of the country, and they are consequently able to make a considerable profit from their workers. Terrorised Ukrainian workers often know nothing about their rights and are not even aware that they, like any other citizen, can find a job, and they do not have to remain dependent upon their clients for jobs. Clients often make all the necessary arrangements for workers to be here, including their transportation, residence visas and accommodation, among other things, and they heavily overcharge migrants for providing them with these additional services. They also prevent workers from making contact with Czech society. The only way to eliminate this system is to educate Ukrainian workers about their rights and obligations in relation to the Czech state. However, such efforts on the part of various organisations are complicated by the fact that most Ukrainians are not very familiar with the function of the rule of law, and they are only now becoming acquainted with the relevant procedures and their own rights.

  • Topic

The Most Widespread Misconceptions about the Land beyond the Dnieper
‘Ukraine is a country in the east of Europe.’ This seemingly banal and straightforward statement is a politically construed notion with no logically grounded truth to it. Anyone who looks at a map of Europe can see that the geographic centre of Europe lies in the Ukraine itself, in the western part of the country. While there is little that can be done to immediately dispel this misconception, when using geographic terms we can at least try to keep an image of the map of Europe in our minds and avoid such stereotypes.

The view that Ukrainians are a typical nation of Slavs is also not entirely true. Ukraine is an ethnically diverse land, and the Slavonic population, which only arrived in this territory in the 6th century, is strongly mixed with Turks, Tatars, Germans, Romanians, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Bulgarians, Belarusians, Russians, Greeks, and naturally Jews as well. Northern Vikings were behind the earliest existence of Kievan Rus’, and so Scandinavians, or more precisely Finno-Ugric peoples, ancestors of the Finnish, formed the ruling class and royal court. Ukrainian culture is clearly very rich, as it has absorbed elements of all the cultures with which it came into contact. Prior to Stalin’s forced homogenisation of the population, a process first initiated under Catherine the Great, Ukraine had been a prime example of a multicultural state. After World War II, the expulsion or destruction of populations that were not part of the majority ethnic groups were processes that also occurred in this country (see Sudetenland in the section on Czech-German relations) and in Poland, Croatia, and the rest of the Eastern bloc. The rise of the so-called nation-states was profoundly influential in causing an increase in xenophobia among national populations, who were deprived of the natural opportunity to compare themselves with the different cultures with which they had traditionally been neighbours, and had been mixing with for centuries.

Also, the notions that Ukrainians are a nation of workers for hire and a nation that has always looked up to its bigger, older brother to the east are not at all true. Russia is certainly a big brother, but one several hundred years younger, which emerged out of its older sister Ukraine and for many centuries exploited and plundered her resources. Even fifteen years after obtaining its so-called independence, Ukraine has not entirely cast Russia aside and has no intention of doing so. In an exploited country where the elites were systematically eliminated, it will be some time yet before its economic situation improves even to the level of the Czech Republic. It would be well to remember that while the intellectual effects of Communism in the Czech Republic were among the severe anywhere, economically it was always in the lead of the entire Eastern bloc. After 1989, there was no miraculous turnaround and major changes in the national economy, but the Czech Republic prospered nonetheless because it had the foundations to work from and the means to proceed. The countries of the former Soviet Union were in the absolute opposite situation, and had absolutely nothing but their dependence on the Russian economy with which to work. The three small Baltic countries, examples of economic miracles, are the only exception to this pattern. However, small subsidies alone will not be enough to put a country the size of Ukraine back on its feet.
Ukraine is therefore by no means as simple and straightforward as it may have seemed at first glance. It is not and never has been just a small version of Russia, just a former satellite of the Soviet Union, just one of fifteen states forcibly annexed to that empire. It has a rich culture and history, which for centuries it has had to defend against surrounding powers that had or still have their eye on Ukraine as a country with abundant natural resources and fertile land, but with the poor luck of occupying a location in Europe of strategic importance. Over the centuries, these factors have caused the Ukrainian people to be subjected to repeated waves of repression, which in turn have led to massive waves of emigration. For that reason, Ukrainians can today be found living not only in Ukraine but also in North and South America, Europe, Australia and South Africa.
Ukraine is the largest country in Europe, and it encompasses many different culturally and linguistically distinct historical regions, which acquired their current united form after World War II. This is what Olga’s country is like. Fate drew her family, like many others, from Ukraine to the Czech Republic. Olga comes from Transcarpathia. Her parents, however, decided to start a new life away from the poverty and corruption in Ukraine, in order to provide their children with better opportunities and a future, and for this they chose the Czech Republic. We ought to take their decision as a compliment, both to us and to our country.

A Few Words about Ukraine and Czech-Ukrainian History
The contemporary state of Ukraine (Україна) stretches from the Carpathians in the west to the endless steppes in the east, and from the Crimea in the south to Belarus in the north. It borders with Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, the Russian Federation, Belarus, and Poland. With an area of 603,700 km2, Ukraine is the largest state in Europe (when the European part of the Russian Federation is not included among European states). It is 1,300 km across from west to east and over 900 km from the province of Volyn in the north to the shores of the Black Sea.
The capital of Ukraine has been Kiev since the earliest times, which today has a population of just under three million. The territory of contemporary Ukraine was more or less stably settled from the 3rd century BC by the Scythians and other peoples. The Scythians were a civilised culture, and many of its features were adopted by Ukrainian culture (see the famous burial mounds of the steppe warriors). The history of the state dates back to the 9th century AD, when the state of Kievan Rus’ was taking shape. Prince Vladimir, later St. Vladimir, with whom Czechs are familiar primarily owing to Havlíček’s satirical work ‘The Christening of St. Vladimir’, converted to Christianity (in 988) for strategic reasons, as did all rulers at that time. To achieve greater independence, he chose to receive Eastern Christianity from the hands of the Byzantine Empire. It was partially also because Western Christianity was based quite far away, and moreover at the time the West was culturally lagging behind the East and the South. It would simply not have made sense and would even have signified a step backwards to receive Christianity from the West (Cyril and Methodius also came from the East, and they brought literacy and the foundations of culture with them).
Kiev’s intense cultural and urban development (in the year 1200, it had a population of around 50,000, while at that time London had a population of just 12,000) and growing political prestige, when the era’s most distinguished noble families sought kinship ties with the Scandinavian-Slavonic Rurik dynasty in Kievan Rus’, which was named after Rurik, the founder of the dynasty, was cut short by the invasions of the Mongols and later the Tatars in the 12th century. Kievan Rus’ was conquered and only individual, fragmented principalities managed with great toil to free themselves from the yoke of the Golden Hordes. The only two principalities that essentially maintained their independence and importance were Halych and Volhynia in the western part of the country. Over time, the population of what is now Ukraine began organising themselves to combat the Tatars, calling themselves Cossacks, whose strategic base was in the Crimea. They fought against other enemies as well, who owing to repeated inland invasions, during which settlements were plundered and the Slavic population sent into slavery, made any normal settlement of the steppes impossible. It was mainly the men who were affected by the invasions of the Tatar hordes or fled labour under Polish and Russian lords to the steppes, which at that time was a no-man’s-land. They lived a kind of paramilitary life in places difficult for enemies to reach, such as around the lower Dnieper, near what is Zaporizhia today. They established their main camp at Zaporizhia Sich, from where they launched attacks against their enemies. Their military prestige grew, and their wealth along with it. They even hired themselves out as soldiers (Cossacks fought as far away as the United States), but they fought primarily for their own freedom and the freedom of their country, which was continuously under threat from the Polish-Lithuanian empire, the Tatars and the Turks, and the growing strength of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. They and all of Ukraine were dealt a harsh blow with the so-called Perezaslav Treaty, which the greatest Cossack ataman of all times, Bohdan Khmelnycky, signed in good faith that Ukraine would be protected against its enemies. This de facto clinched the annexation of the region of Ukraine east of the Dnieper by the Grand Duchy of Moscow. The part of Ukraine to the west of the Dnieper belonged to Poland, and after Poland was divided in the late 18th century, the western region also came under Moscow’s control. The Cossacks retained some autonomy until the reign of Catherine the Great, but she ultimately had Sich destroyed by her armies. It was also during her reign that the Ukrainian nation, culture and language were subjected to the harshest repressive measures in the form of exile, forced religious conversions and Russification.

Subsequent Russian rulers continued along this vein, but it was J.V. Stalin who succeeded most in the effort to destroy all things Ukrainian. Not only did this dictator have thousands and thousands of members of the intelligentsia executed, but he was also responsible for subjecting rebellious rural farmers, who were against collectivising property, to two massive famines in the 1920s and 1930s, during which four million people died. Unfortunately, there is no international awareness today that these tragedies ever occurred, just as there was no knowledge of them at the time Stalin was committing the atrocities.

Poverty, the absence of freedom, and dissatisfaction with life under Austro-Hungarian rule and then later the Stalinist terror drove large numbers of the population to emigrate. The first wave of emigration occurred at the end of the 19th century, and the second during World War I. During the second emigration wave, a large number of the Ukrainian intelligentsia left for the Czech Republic, where Ukrainian universities, secondary schools, art schools, and in Poděbrady a technical university were built with the support of President Masaryk. Ukrainian cultural life thrived; an important Ukrainian group of poets, The Prague School, was founded. The Slavic Library in Clementinum holds a very prized collection of Ukrainian book prints that date from that period, along with a number of other publications.
These promising developments in the life of the Ukrainian minority in Prague were cut short by World War II. Those Ukrainians who had not gone to the front to fight or had not fled in time to a so-called ‘DP camp’ (displaced persons camps, set up mainly in Germany after the war), were hauled off by the Red Army and the KGB to Russian camps. Throughout the totalitarian period, it was forbidden to mention that these Ukrainian institutions had existed, and every trace of them was eradicated. That is another reason why those Ukrainians who come to this country today have no traditional ties here to draw upon.
Large waves of Ukrainians also emigrated to the United States and Canada. In Canada today, Ukrainians represent 10% of the total population. In the United States, they are also very active and a large diaspora has helped to create and maintain Ukrainian institutions at the most prestigious universities, such as Harvard University, Columbia University, Yale, etc. Thanks to the foreign community, Ukrainian culture was able to survive the harshest years of Stalinism and the subsequent years leading up to 1991, when understandably the significance of the foreign community in this regard began to recede. The Ukrainian diaspora encompasses 20 million Ukrainians living outside Ukrainian territory.

Ukraine gained its independence on August 24th, 1991. As indicated above, Ukraine had an unusually difficult history, throughout which Ukrainian identity was strongly repressed. Even today, fifteen years after independence, the Russian Federation has not relinquished its influence upon Ukraine, and is trying by every means to retain it as a satellite country. Russification, which was also mentioned above, is still taking place, even though the official language of the state is Ukrainian. But the reality is somewhat different. The Russian-speaking part of the population, which makes up more than half of the population, is demanding its rights and trying to have Russian declared the second official language (if not the only one), and would like to see the emergence of a bilingual state. However, in such a state both sides must speak both languages, and that unfortunately only applies in this case to the Ukrainian-speaking part of the population.
The Soviet Union’s legacy is evident even in the Sovietised mentality of the nation. However, the Orange Revolution, which erupted after manipulation with the results of the second wave of voting in the Presidential elections, showed that the Ukrainian nation is very healthy at the core. But this does nothing to change the fact that the political situation is and remains complicated.
The ambiguous position of the EU towards Ukraine’s chances for EU membership is also partially responsible for the complicated political situation in the country today.

As mentioned above, Ukraine comprises a number of culturally distinct regions. (Let us leave aside for the time being the country’s administrative and other divisions, which only partially correspond to the these traditional borders.) Transcarpathia and Crimea are the two most interesting regions with the largest amount of tourist appeal.

Sub-Carpathian Rus, or Transcarpathia, had an entirely different history than other parts of Ukraine, and it only became part of the country after forced annexation by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. Transcarpathia is part of several provinces; it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after World War I it was a part of Czechoslovakia and remained so until 1938 (‘From Jasini to Aš, the republic is ours!’ – was a slogan of the First Republic). The Czech tale of the outlaw Nikola Šuhaj dates from this period. The Czechoslovak government built schools and tried to help set up local administration. In 1938, the region was an independent state for several months, but was subsequently annexed by the Hungarians, and later the Soviet Union.

The Transcarpathian population is ethnically distinct from the rest of Ukraine. They are not typical Slavs. Historically, fugitives of every kind, usually fleeing wars, mixed heavily with the local population. Most of them came from the south, thus introducing darker features into the population. The typical Transcarpathian is a mixture of Romanian, Hungarian, Slovak and Ukrainian genes. Ruthenians, as the local population is called, tend to be somewhat darker-skinned. The high mountains in Transcarpathia have also made the local inhabitants darker-skinned. The round faces and white skin of the Slavs are rarely found in this region; such features become more common as one travels further east.

Songs devoted to extolling the beauty of a typical Ukrainian girl also tend to be about darker-skinned women. Once again, the reason is that the later Slavic population in the steppes intermarried heavily with the Scythians and Tatars.

Equally as distinct are the Hutsuls, who are often confused with Ruthenians. However, the Hutsuls are a people who came to the Sub-Carpathian Rus from Romania, just like the Vlachs in the region of Vsetínsko in Moravia.

The Autonomous Republic of Crimea is home to the most attractive resorts on the Black Sea. Crimea was settled many centuries before Christ by advanced cultures, and today one can still see many ancient monuments there. It passed out of Greek hands and into the hands of the Tatars, but in 1943 the Tatar population was forcibly deported from Crimea to Central Asia, and ethnic Russians were settled in their place. You can also find a Czech village there, which bears the charming name of Bohemka.

Ukrainian: there are many Ukrainian dialects, but the purest form of the language can be heard in Halych, that is, in Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and other towns. The Poltava province in the central-eastern part of the country is also a traditionally Ukrainian-speaking area.
Russian: used in the east and in central parts of the country, and also in Crimea.

Ruthenian: spoken in the west of Ukraine and in Slovakia, and very similar to the language of the Lemkos, who are Ruthenians that live on the Polish side of the Carpathian Mountains. Prešov is the centre of the Slovak-speaking Ruthenians.
The language spoken in Transcarpathia is not always fully intelligible to Ukrainians, because it has very specific features – many of the words in the language come from Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, German, Russian and Yiddish. It has many words that are unique to the language, and there even exist Transcarpathian-Ukrainian dictionaries.
The most famous Rutheians in the world are Andy Warhol, who was born in Medzilaborce, and Paul Robert Magocsi, a professor of history at the University of Toronto. The strongest Ruthenian lobby exists in Canada.

In Ukraine, there is a specific Greek Catholic Rite or Uniate confession called the Ukrainian Church. It emerged out of the Union of Brest in 1596, which was essentially a decision to merge the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. The Polish government, which initiated the Union, had hoped to gradually to bring the Orthodox Ukrainian nation into the Catholic Church and eventually assimilate them within the Polish population. The project for assimilation was not successful. On the contrary, the Greek Catholic Church became one of the basic features of the Ukrainian identity. The Ukrainian Church is most widespread in western Ukraine.
Conversely, the Orthodox Church is most common in the eastern and central parts of the country. This Church has three main centres, and it is thus somewhat disunited by some discord between the three centres.
The primary followers of the Muslim faith in Ukraine have always been Tatars and Turks, thus the population of Crimea. These ethnic groups are still present in Ukraine today, but in smaller numbers.
The Jewish faith also has deep roots in Ukraine. The first Jews migrated to Ukrainian territory back in the 8th century from the Byzantine Empire, while others came from Persia, Mesopotamia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Many of those who survived the Holocaust have been leaving Ukraine and Russia since the 1960s and moving to Israel or the United States, where they are free from religious and political intolerance.
In western Ukraine there are also many Catholics, given the presence of Polish influences and a strong Polish minority in that region.

National Holidays
Orthodox or Uniate Church holidays are usually celebrated in accordance with the old rite, i.e. they follow the Julian calendar and therefore take place two weeks after Czech holidays. The biggest holidays are Pascha (Easter), Rizdvo (Christmas) and the 24th of August, which is Independence Day in Ukraine.

Ukrainians in the Czech Republic – Olga’s Community
Official estimates indicate there are roughly 60,000 Ukrainian workers in the Czech Republic. Unofficially, however, the figure is estimated to be as high as 200,000, of which:
20,000 are citizens of the Czech Republic
13,000 have permanent residence status
78,000 have temporary residence status
100-150,000 either have some other form of visa or work illegally
Most of these people have come here to work. They usually have some form of assistance, a family member or someone from the same village, who when they arrive helps them and explains how to find work, what mistakes to avoid, and so on. Consequently, it is not uncommon for an entire village to be working, for example, in one small Moravian town. But the majority are hired for work by clients (see the Terms above). Along with heading to the Czech Republic, Ukrainians currently migrate in search of work mainly to Poland, Germany, Italy and Portugal.

Ukrainians come to the Czech Republic mainly to earn money and therefore in search of temporary jobs. This is known as ‘pendulum migration’. The most common pattern is to work abroad for several months, then spend one or two months at home, and then leave again to work abroad. But it is not entirely uncommon that some workers are away for a two-year stretch before going home again. There are also increasing numbers of women going abroad to work. The dire economic situation in Ukraine often forces them to leave their children behind, even when they are still just infants, entrusting them to the care of their grandparents and setting off abroad to work. While the percentage of Ukrainians who remain in the Czech Republic permanently is not very high, there are some who are lucky and find a partner here, or who choose the better perspectives offered in the Czech Republic over their homeland environment.

The one place where Ukrainians of every class meet is in church on Sunday. But many of them work seven days a week and are only able to attend sporadically. ‘Zarobitchani’, or guest workers, do not gather together publicly too often. They tend to be very afraid of the police and of being deported, fears instilled in them by clients, even if they are working here legally. They usually form small groups which tend to live together in one flat or one building, or who have the same employer. They have very little contact with Czechs. They therefore also have little reason to learn Czech, but that further prevents them from establishing ties with the local population, even when an opportunity to do so arises, and so it continues. There are, however, several organisations of Ukrainians who have been established here. They try to offer their compatriots assistance and organise a variety of cultural activities aimed at both Ukrainians and Czechs, such as exhibitions, films, concerts, theatrical performances, and even balls, educational events and conferences.

Such organisations include: the Ukrainian Initiative in the Czech Republic, which publishes a magazine for Ukrainians called Thresholds,; the Forum of Ukrainians of the Czech Republic,; the Ukrainian Studies Departments at the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts, Charles University in Prague, Masaryk University in Brno, Palacký University in Olomouc, and the Czech Association of Scholars on the Ukraine (ČAU).

In the area of music, the group Ahmed Má Hlad,, offers a modern rock version of Ukrainian musical folklore. Classic Ukrainian musical folklore is performed by a group called Ignis, along with many others.

The most famous contemporary Ukrainian musical groups today are Gogol Bordello from New York, Vopli Vidopliasova (VV) from Kiev, and Hajdamaky from western Ukraine.

  • Stories and examples

The Czech Republic Is My Third Home
Ludmila (49) had already experienced living in a foreign country. But this was the first time she left to work abroad. From the very start of her stay in the Czech Republic, she was employed legally. After working for a year, she planned to return home and use the money she had saved to open a market stall and sell clothing. She has now been living with her Czech partner in Olomouc for eleven years. She visits her relatives in Ukraine and Russia once a year.

Several bags are already waiting by the door in the flat. The taxi is coming at half past three and will take her to the station. For the next five weeks, she can escape the routine work and fumes of the industrial region. The last few minutes together, final hugs and kisses. Five weeks without her husband, her garden, and the garden’s violets.
For the first time in a year, she will see her son, her relatives and her friends. In August, all of Ludmila’s friends will meet up in Javorov, a town in western Ukraine. She will see Natasha, who is flying in from Spain, Světlana from Italy, Irina from Israel, and Věra from Germany.
From Javorov, she’ll go to Russia to visit her mother and sister. Then she’ll have a week’s vacation by the Black Sea, before returning to Ukraine and then finally to the Czech Republic, to her husband and her garden. On September 11th, she starts back at work on the morning shift.
The bus to Lviv departs from platform one. At the bus stop, two parents and their two children are waiting; the younger child is full of questions, but his father offers only curt responses. An elderly lady with glassy eyes waits alone, seated on a bench. Two skinny girls shuffle their feet as they wait by two large taped boxes with the words ‘microwave oven’ printed on the side. Nearby, three young men in jeans, collared T-shirts and jeans jackets smoke cheap cigarettes.
Before departure, everyone makes one last trip to the toilet, for a coffee or for a cigarette. The bus arrives late; the driver helps people with their luggage.
Polish shopping bags, a briefcase, plastic bags, and rolling plastic bottles of water form an obstacle course along the aisle between the seats. Climbing on the bus is the last bit of exercise the passengers will have for the next twenty hours as they make the long journey in a permanent crouch position.
Even though every ticket corresponds to an assigned seat number, disputes erupt over empty seats and even over those that are taken. A dramatic dimension is added to the passengers’ arguments by the exchange of gunfire in the action film already playing on TV. ‘Take whatever seat is empty!’ says the corpulent driver, putting an end to the disputes. ‘We’re about to leave.’ It’s four-thirty in the afternoon.

When Ludmila decided to go to the Czech Republic in the mid-1990s to find work, there was nothing at home to keep her there. Without her knowledge or consent, her husband at that time had left and taken their son with him to Syria. She was left without work, without any contact with her child, and dependent upon her relatives in Ukraine. While in this desperate situation, she was put in touch with Váňa, who was putting together a group of people to take to the Czech Republic. She did not hesitate for a minute. She gave him the necessary documents, and a month later she and two other women were sitting in Váňa’s car and heading west.

The job was arranged from Ukraine, and unlike many of her compatriots she never had to pay anyone for arranging her employment. She took just a few personal items with her. ‘The dormitory has everything, from clothes pegs to floor cloths’, Ivan promised. She never found even a coffee cup or a spoon there, let alone clothes pegs.
The very day after her arrival, she started work in a gardening firm. For the first three months, Ludmila and her Ukrainian co-workers worked twelve, sometimes even sixteen hours a day, including weekends and holidays. ‘Work, eat, sleep, we didn’t even know where we were’, Ludmila recalls. Once she became aware that the Czech labour code applied even to her, she decided to work less and to take a look around the town and area she was living in.
She discovered a forest near the town and started going there to gather mushrooms. She sometimes went with her friends from the dormitory to see a concert or exhibition, or went dancing, to the zoo, or on trips.
Her employer was satisfied with her work and offered to extend her contract for another year, and the next year again for another year. She accepted. By that time, she was living with her Czech boyfriend in a small flat. She would go home once a year, but she no longer considered going back permanently. After three years, the gardening company went bankrupt. When there was no other way of extending her residence permit, she applied for a trade licence, but she never engaged in any business; she worked ‘under the table’ in a restaurant, then in a kitchen and a non-stop bar.
After five years, Ludmila was threatened with the possibility that she would have to leave the country. Her boyfriend saved the day by offering to marry her. Shortly after their wedding, they were both invited to the Foreign Police for an interview. Their testimony agreed, and the police imprinted her passport with the much-longed-for permanent residency stamp. Two hours later, an old Mercedes reaches the border checkpoint in Český Těšín and lines up behind a veteran Karosa bus, some newer-model Mercedes, and other vehicles, waiting for the customs officers to reach their verdicts. The buses idle, creep forward, motors start up briefly and are turned off again. The passengers chat, smoke, snack, solve puzzles, sleep or gaze wearily around themselves.
‘They’ve been bribed not to search our bus’, says one passenger and points out the window at the backs of two Czech customs officials as they walk away from the drivers, plastic bags with unknown contents in hand. They have now been waiting for three hours. It has grown dark. At nine o’clock, a customs official brings back the checked passports. Finally, the passengers can begin to enjoy the Russian comedy on the screen, and as they jolt their way down the Polish motorways, everyone is much more at ease.

Ludmila comes from the southwest region of Russia. Her mother is Ukrainian, and her father was Russian. As a child she wanted to become a ballet dancer, then a tank-drier, and a journalist; she wanted to travel the world, and that wish has never left her. She has always had plenty of friends.
When she was seventeen, she left home to study at a railway college in Rostov-on-Don. A year later she began studying economics at night school and working in an aircraft factory. During her studies, she met Georg, a Syrian medical student whom she eventually married. Their relationship began to deteriorate during the first year of living together, but then they had a son, Farid, and she did not want to deprive him of his father. And even if she had wanted to leave, she had nowhere to go.

They lived together in a dormitory for foreigners, as in the Communist state foreigners were not allowed to live anywhere else. They planned that once Georg completed his studies, they would move from Russia to Syria and live with Georg’s parents. But these plans changed when Georg received an attractive offer to work as a doctor in Libya. Ludmila and her seven-year-old son set off for the Syrian countryside to stay with her in-laws. Her husband ended up having serious financial difficulties, and Ludmila was stuck abroad without any money.
She found it very difficult to adapt to life in Arab society. She was used to being independent and taking caring of herself, and suddenly she had to submit to what seemed to her incomprehensible differences in the position of men and women. After a year of privations and crying into her pillow, she decided to take her son and leave for Ukraine. She came to the definitive realisation that her marriage was beyond salvaging, and she left for Russia where she worked as a sales assistant. In the middle of the 1990s, the mafia began extorting the prospering company for which she worked, and fearing for her life Ludmila returned to Ukraine.
At that time, Ludmila’s husband began doing business in Kiev. He lost all his savings in some strange business dealings with a Swiss firm, and all he received in compensation was a holiday for two by the sea in Bulgaria. At Ludmila’s request, he took along Farid, who frequently suffered from bronchitis. Instead, Georg spirited him away to his parents in Syria and then returned from the holiday alone. At the time, Ludmila had no idea that she would not see her son again for the next four years.

A colonnade of cars and trucks blocks the right lane at the Polish-Ukrainian border. The bold driver faces a several-kilometre drive down the left side of the road. Oncoming cars show understanding and move off the road to avoid him. It is three o’clock in the morning. This is the first stop after six hours of travelling. The toilets are located about one hundred metres from the bus, in the bushes around the ditch between the road and the field: ladies to the right, gentlemen to the left. Paper tissues dot the tall grass like reflectors flashing a warning to visitors of where not to tread.
At seven in the morning, the bus full of lolling heads, open mouths, tired eyes, aching backs and stiff limbs is haltingly making its way toward the border checkpoint.
Just after eight, a policewoman in glasses arrives and carefully compares the pale faces of the passengers with the colourful photographs in their passports. A police dog then runs over and analyses every odour he can find in this transportation medium. The bus is given a green light to drive on and into Ukraine.
Ludmila wipes the steam from the window with the back of her hand. She gazes out at the landscape, the overgrown ditches, the fields, the gardens, and the gladiolas and the sunflowers behind the railed fences and low cement walls. A scene of geese, chickens, horses, half-built buildings, fancy new houses, and poor homes. For the past three years, Ludmila has been working for a cleaning service. The work is not as much of a rush as her previous job. She does not work more than ten hours a day, and she has every second week off. ‘I’m not embarrassed that I’m a cleaner, or that I wash dishes in a kitchen somewhere. The main thing is that I have work and I’m earning money. Even intellectual giants have had do manual jobs to support themselves,’ she smiles. She would like to brush up her Arabic and someday work as an interpreter. She asked her son to bring her old textbook along with him.

Farid decided to study medicine in Lviv. The years of separation have been forgotten, and Ludmila has managed to restore her relationship with her son, and today she is even friends with her former husband. They share the cost of paying for Farid’s education. Ludmila hopes that Farid will come to the Czech Republic one day with his Ukrainian girlfriend to work as a doctor here. But Farid is a citizen of Syria, and should he decide to move to the Czech Republic it will be very difficult for him to make all the necessary administrative arrangements.

Ludmila never understood the Czechs’ aloof behaviour toward foreigners. Initially, she found them cold. They were very polite in any personal contact: please, thank you and goodbye. But there was no further contact. ‘I soon understood why the Czechs are the way they are. It’s a small country, between two giants. This nation managed to preserve its language and culture, and that’s no small thing,’ she says.

At first, Ludmila had difficulties with the Czech language because of its similarity to Russian. She was quickly able to understand Czech, but where to pronounce long or short vowels or hard or soft consonants was a mystery. She never attended any language courses, because she had no time. She learned to read from the women’s magazines that her friends brought to work with them. Later, she began doing crossword puzzles and reading literature; she became familiar with the works of Božena Němcová and read many of Čapek’s novels. Today, she has an excellent command of Czech syntax, but still has a slight Russian accent.

While Ludmila is entitled to apply for Czech citizenship, she is in no hurry to do so as long as she has family in Russia and a son still at school: ‘I have all the rights of a Czech, I just can’t vote or travel, though I do regret the problems with travelling.’

Her official citizenship is Ukrainian, but in her heart she is Russian. ‘I’ve always said I’m Russian, even though I know that Russians are not that popular in the Czech Republic. I was born in Russia and no matter what happens, Russia is my homeland, they are my people, my family, and my friends. It will always be my home. But I am very grateful to the Czech Republic, and I like the country very much.’
A few minutes later, the bus stops at an intersection near a gas station. The trip ends here for Ludmila today. Her cousin Sergei gets out of a dark-blue Daewoo. He embraces his cousin, tells her news, and together they head to the home of her Aunt Světlana and Uncle Sasha.
‘Ukraine is also my home. I actually have three homes and I am happy in all of them,’ she adds before saying goodbye.

Ukrainian Mothers Abroad
Introduction. After the residence status of migrants in Italy was legalised in 2002, the number of Ukrainians residing legally in Italy increased from 14,035 to 112,802 , thus almost tenfold. The majority of them – 80.8% – came from the western part of Ukraine. 90% of this group of migrants are women, on average around the age of 45. Among these women, 64.3% are married, 90.4% have children, but only 5.5% have their children with them in Italy. Women who are unable to or decide not to take their children with them to Italy leave them in Ukraine in the care of the father, grandparents, older siblings or other relatives.
On June 29th, 2006, the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine organised a round-table meeting in Lviv on the topic ‘The Children of Job Migrants: A New Form of Social Orphaning’. Among the questions addressed at the meeting by representatives of churches, the media, teachers and local members of government was the proposal that women who leave to work abroad be deprived of their parental rights.

Motives. Six years ago, Halyna Drachová went to work in the small Italian town of Montalcino, which has a population of approximately 5,000 and is located not far from Siena. She is forty-eight years old, but she does not look her age. She has a slender, athletic build and blonde hair which she wears in a short bob. She smiles often, and the ease with which she is able to recount her tale reveals a woman who is used to being in the company of and mixing with other people. We meet in Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine, in a café in the centre of town, where Halyna introduces herself with the words: “Ciao. Sono Anna. In Italia. In Ukraina sono Halyna.”
Halyna comes from Tlumach, a small town in western Ukraine with a population of about 8,000 and located near Ivano-Frankivsk. She studied education at school, and before going to Italy she worked as a teacher in an elementary school. She has two sons, twenty-six-year-old Vitalyek and nineteen-year-old Voloďa. Her husband, who remained at home and looked after their sons when Halyna left in 2000, divorced her last year and married a former colleague and friend of hers.
Halyna begins her story by going back to the time when the Soviet Union was breaking up. At that time, fifteen years ago, she firmly believed in the development of an independent Ukraine, but the situation there deteriorated dramatically. The chaos of Perestroika shattered both the country’s economic stability and the individual sense of security among the people, but more that that: “I had a perfect life. I was teaching in a school and I simply loved my work. I was absolutely content, with my young pupils, with my husband, who was teaching in the same school, and with our two sons. We lived just three minutes away from work, we were able to save up something, and our students and their families respected us.”
The entire social system seemed to fall apart overnight. Many people were unable to adjust to the new circumstances. People lost their life savings, and it became customary to not receive any wages at work for, say, nine months. Instead of 100 hryvnia a month (twenty dollars), Halyna received 10 hryvnia, with the apology that there was no money in the bank. Halyna says that they became so poor that for six years she had just one nice dress, which she wore on every important occasion. One of her pupils, a six-year-old girl, said to her one day with typical childish honesty that it must be a real holiday, because Halyna had on her dress for special occasions. Nevertheless, Halyna claims that she was not personally bothered by their poverty or the growing shame attached to the family’s impoverishment.
But what did bother her was the fact that her children were going to bed hungry. “I couldn’t bear to look them in the eye when they wanted something to eat that I didn’t have for them. They’re boys, you know, and boys need vitamins and meat in order to grow properly. Whenever I couldn’t afford to buy them one or another thing to eat, I immediately hugged them and kissed them on the spot instead. But that still didn’t take away their hunger. I couldn’t imagine my sons having to grow up in poverty, neglect, without a good education and with no prospects for the future, all because of our poverty.”

Halyna does not like to remember those days. She tells how she suggested to her husband that he go abroad to work, but that he gave various excuses not to or said he could not because of some health problem. One day, Halyna realised that she was the one who would have to leave and provide for the family. She says she never imagined she would have to do something like that, that she would have to leave Ukraine.
But then came the day when she made her final decision to go – it was just after another six-hour seminar for teachers was organised in Ivano-Frankivsk, but again she received no wages, just another promise. On the way home, Halyna noticed an agency offering to organise trips to Italy. She asked how much it would cost to go, and filled in a form. She says she then began hoping that her application for a visa would be refused. But two weeks later, the agency contacted her and set a date for her departure. Halyna borrowed one thousand dollars at an interest rate of 25% to pay the agency for its services; then she packed and set off for Italy. When her mother died two months later, she was unable to return for the funeral. She only went back to Ukraine for the first time after two and a half years, when she obtained the Italian permesso di soggiorno.

Abroad. Halyna arrived in Rome on Christmas Eve. She called a Ukrainian woman who acquaintances in Tlumach had said would be able to help her find work and accommodation. But the woman said that her husband, an Italian, wanted nothing to do with such activities, and told her not to call again. Halyna slept in the Roma Termini station for three days, without any names to contact and with just one hundred and fifty dollars in her pocket. All she knew how to say in Italian was ‘non parlo italiano’. When she finally did meet some Ukrainians, she asked them for help. They took her to another Ukrainian woman, who for a fee offered accommodation and helped migrants find work. Halyna found work in Montalcino within a single day – none of the women in the migrants’ dormitory wanted to work outside Rome. But Halyna simply needed a job.
Today, Halyna has four jobs. Her main job is at the casa di riposo, and she also looks after two elderly women in their own homes, where they live with their families. When she finishes her morning shift in the retirement home, where she works from six in the morning until two in the afternoon, Halyna looks after a ninety-five-year-old woman. She combs her hair, dresses her, helps her to the toilet, cooks and spends time with her until the old lady’s daughter gets home from work. On the days when her shift in the retirement home is from two in the afternoon to ten in the evening, she spends the time 30 kilometres away from Montalcino, where she looks after an eighty-eight-year-old lady who lives with her son. In that job, Halyna is responsible for looking after the household, cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry. “The fourth job is my home, my so-called home. Yes, I live here, but I have to do everything, as though it were my job. I have to clean, do the laundry and cook dinner. If I don’t do it properly, the owner of the building gets very angry.”
There are no breaks included in her thirteen-hour workday, and Halyna even works on weekends. When she’s tired, she takes half a day off and goes to Siena to send a package home to her sons. If she finds she has an hour free, for example, if one of her patients lets her go home early, she goes back to her room and studies. ”I like learning. It’s what I’ve done all my life. When I’m studying something I don’t have to think about problems or about anything else but what I’m reading. I like to read and I write. I work on the computer and I’m learning English. When I first came to Italy, I used to paint a lot, but not anymore because it takes so much time.” According to Halyna, in Italy Ukrainians are treated at work with the kind of respect they would never receive if they were doing the same jobs in Ukraine. Most women form a close relationship with the old people they are taking care of, as though they were members of their own family. A person cannot spend twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week with someone that they hate or care nothing for. Ukrainian women often become their employers’ closest confidants. They share their memories and life stories with them, and they give them food, care and attention. But, as Halyna says, “that intimacy is misleading, because for most Italians Ukrainians are still just employees who at the first sign of trouble can be fired or exchanged for someone else.”
Halyna knows that many of her Italian colleagues have prejudiced views of Ukrainians. ”For Italians, it is difficult to imagine that someone who is educated and qualified as a nurse, like me, could go abroad and work in a poorly paid job. They also think that if you don’t know how to speak Italian properly, you must be an ignoramus or some kind of primitive person. But it’s just a language, and in order to learn it you need time.” To defend herself against such stereotypes, Halyna often turns these views around and jokes with her colleagues by saying, “What do you expect from me, after all, I’m just a straniero!”
Nevertheless, the most difficult thing of all for Halyna is the separation from her family. She says, “Italian women often ask me: what kind of mother are you if you can leave your children behind? I don’t blame them making such an accusation. There were times when I thought that I would never do something like this. So I just answer that they have obviously never really experienced what it is to be poor, and I hope they never have to.”
Halyna calls home several times a day, and between January and July 2006 she spent 1,500 dollars on her phone bill. “When I’m in Italy, I’m never at peace, not for a minute. I’m looking after an old lady and at the same time I’m thinking about who is looking after my sons at home.”

Back at Home. From the moment she obtained legal residency status in Italy, Halyna has been travelling home once every six months. This time, she took 15 days of holiday time so that she could attend the hastily-arranged wedding of her younger son and the Christening of her first grandchild. News of the wedding came as a surprise to Halyna. Voloďa announced it when his eighteen-year-old girlfriend Anna was already six months pregnant. When Halyna arrived home, her son and future daughter-in-law did not have the nerve to have a church wedding or buy the bride a white dress, for fear of what people would say and because they were ashamed of their ‘sin’. Anna and her mother raised two daughters on her own for eleven years because her husband left to work in eastern Ukraine and never returned. They had to endure all the slurs and gossip themselves. At Anna and Voloďa’s civil wedding, the mother of the bride just cried and never said a word.
Halyna says that her daughter-in-law looks very much like her twenty years ago. ”This pregnancy and marriage are also just a consequence of the fact that I went away to Italy,” she says. “Voloďa needed his mother’s tenderness so badly that he fell in love with a girl who could be my exact copy. But I’m very happy when I see that they do love one another and that they’re together. They remind me of Romeo and Juliet, they’re so young and so much in love!”
Nevertheless, Halyna says that had it not been for Italy, this happy ending would never have happened, both from a material and a moral perspective. Without Italy, she would not have been able to afford to organise a real wedding or get over the moral outlook that condemns pre-marital relations. Halyna says, “I would have been like the bride’s mother, just crying all the time. I would have thought that this wonderful happy moment in the lives of our children is actually a shame and a tragedy! Now I know that they have nothing to be ashamed of. They stayed together, and now they are a family, expecting a child.”
During her story, Halyna speaks constantly about her family. When I ask her what experience she has brought back with her personally from Italy, she smiles and says, “Finally, at the age of forty-seven, I have learned to smoke. I don’t know how to inhale properly yet, but I want to try. I think smoking is a sign of a new stage in my life. Italy has definitely taught me to be strong and to persevere.”
Italy has become a new world for her. “I thought that I knew everything about life, but life in Tlumach was just the better side of life. Working in Italy turned me into a servant; I began to think and behave like a servant. But Italy also taught me to never acknowledge my weaknesses. It taught me to conceal my doubts and insecurities, to do my work and achieve my goals. A person has to learn continuously and improve in order to achieve something.” Since she has been in Italy, she has learned how to drive and signed up for courses in computer skills and English. She has learned to speak fluent Italian. Her teacher’s diploma and a Red Cross nursing certificate have been at the Italian Embassy for over nine months awaiting equivalency recognition. Halyna calls the Embassy several times a week to see if any progress has been made, because she desperately needs the documents to perform higher-qualification work.
After spending six years in Italy and despite everything she has achieved there, Halyna does not want to remain in Italy permanently. She still sees her future in Ukraine and nowhere else. ”I want the children to live in their own country, and I’m sure that one day soon Ukraine will become a rich country. We won’t have to work abroad, and tourists will start visiting the country. I believe that through my work, I am contributing to the country’s transformation – with all the money that I invest into Ukraine. I hope that Ukraine and our government recognise one day that all the women here have played a part in this.”

Epilogue. Ukrainians continue to migrate to Italy for work. According to the Italian Interior Ministry, there were 117,000 Ukrainians registered in Italy in 2006. In an interview in the newspaper Express published on June 19th, 2006, the sociologist Natalia Shega stated that the unofficial number of Ukrainians in Italy may be as high as 600 – 700,000. Most of them are educated people – engineers, economists, professionals in the field of social sciences, and teachers. And the majority of them go abroad so that one day their children will be able to have better lives and obtain a better education at home in Ukraine.

Both of above mentioned stories were written as a part of a project under the auspices of the journal Plotki and MKC "Kolik cest vede na Florenc"

  • Sources

Grygar, J; Čaněk, M. & Černík, J. (2006). Zpráva z výzkumu: Vliv kvalifikace na uplatnění a mobilitu na českém trhu práce u migrantů ze třetích zemí. (Research Report: The Effect of Qualifications on Finding Work and Mobility in the Czech Labour Market among Migrants from Non-European Countries)

Jirák, J. e.a. (2003). Nečitelní cizinci; Jak se (ne)píše o cizincích v českém tisku. (Invisible Foreigners: How Foreigners Are (Not) Written about in the Czech Press) Praha: Multikulturní centrum.

Zilynskyj, B. (2003). Ukrajinci v Čechách a na Moravě. (Ukrainians in Bohemia and Moravia) Praha: Sdružení Čechů z Volyně a jejich přátel.

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