To My Mind

27 months of teaching, learning, and exploring as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine.

Crime and Punishment

I’ve started reading Crime and Punishment. I’ve realized that living in Ukraine has helped me to understand some of what goes on in this story. I’ve included three examples here:

1. Patronymic names.

2. Diminutive names.

3. Eating cucumbers with beer.

a weekend in the very small Ukrainian village of Ясная Поляна

Jakob Meils (over at The Back Pages) has written about our weekend in a very small Ukrainian village (pronounced “Yasnaya Polyana”). I’m reposting it in full here, because I couldn’t have said it better myself.


I love big city life. I suppose there’s probably some bearded schmuck out there choking on his latte at the notion of calling Indianapolis or Zaporozhye big cities, but compared to the villages most volunteers are placed in, and compared to some of the small towns I drove through on the way to college in northeastern Ohio, there’s a big difference between them and big city life. Sometimes, though, you just need to get out of the rat race that is the big city for awhile.

These pictures were taken in Yacnaya Polyana, a town of about 650 if you include the kids. Two of Anna’s university students, named Natasha and Irina, invited four of us Americans down to see a village wedding, and just to have a look around.

Counter-intuitive to what you might believe, you can let chickens walk around without fear of them being stolen or running off. To me, it seems like somebody at some point would steal a chicken, especially when they just walk around unchecked. In broken Russian, I asked Natasha’s mother about it. She said it’s only happened once in five years, and the thief got beat up for it. She was sure to mention that her family didn’t beat the guy up, instead gesturing ambiguously to some other farm.

As far as I could tell, there were only two buildings in the town that weren’t houses. This “Cultural Building”/”Club” is where many of the weddings happen.

People waited on the bride and groom for a little while. The bread you see in the second picture here is a salty, traditional Ukrainian treat usually presented as a type of welcoming ritual.

As you can probably tell, they let us come in and watch really closely. Some Ukrainians stared at us (we must have stuck out terribly), but whenever we started to feel strange about crossing the boundary between observer and participant, they would say something along the lines of, “You are guests. This is Ukraine, you are welcome to be here.”

During the ceremony, a lot of rituals were the same– there was a first dance, there were crying parents, and of course a kiss. I couldn’t understand everything that was said, but from what I remember of what was translated, there is a ceremonial “first step” that the couple takes onto a mat (the first person to take the step is considered to be “the boss” of the relationship), there’s a marriage certificate that the groom apparently keeps after both sign it, and after the ceremony, candy and loose change are thrown into the crowd. Before the ceremony, the groom goes to the bride’s house and officially “buys” her. I’m still uncertain as to if this is done as a matter of tradition, or if money really does change hands.

This was another one of those situations where we were encouraged to get involved more than we anticipated. Again, by way of explanation, the phrase, “This is Ukraine,” was offered.

After the wedding, Natasha, Irina, and Natasha’s mother took us to a nearby school with a special museum dedicated to Ukrainian history. The museum was only one room, though the school itself was ostensibly a museum for the Soviet union. There was a mural depicting Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution in the main hall, paintings of Soviet workers like the ones shown above, and then of course the museum with old Soviet trinkets like the flag shown here. (The last two pictures were taken by Melissa Ehrlich. Visit her blog here.)

After the museum, Natasha, Natasha’s mother, and their family welcomed us into their home for a traditional Ukrainian meal. This is rabbit that Natasha’s father hunted. For never having tried rabbit before, it was really good. (Picture by Melissa)

These two pictures were also taken by Melissa.

From what I understand, Natasha’s family gets all of their food from what they produce on the farm. There’s a huge field, some barns, pigs, cows, chickens, and an elaborate canning system set up.

An interesting thing about village weddings in Ukraine is that they can last for two or three days. Back home, it seems like we have the ceremony itself, a reception in the evening, and then everybody heads home. When I think about it, almost every social event is like that. We go for a few hours, then look at our watches and head on home. All social events in Ukraine, not only weddings, seem to go on indefinitely. Nobody looks at their watch impatiently with some business to tend to soon; they just spend time together for hours. While the first day of the wedding is mostly dedicated to the couple, the second day is dedicated to the guests. There are dances, traditional activities, and of course, a bit more drinking.

I have no idea how common this is in the rest of Ukraine, but in this village there is a tradition where two people cross dress as the bride and groom the day after the wedding. At the thing we watched, the “bride” would kiss people who were watching, while the “groom” followed close behind collecting donations for the couple (I think). I was never able to get a picture of her, but there was also a lady dressed as a gypsy walking up to people and pretending to steal their money (I know, I know). I didn’t really understand this– I kept asking, “So is she like, actually getting money from people for the couple?” The only response I got was, “No, it’s for the jokes, they don’t actually steal money.”

Not too long after this, we headed back on home to the big city, back to the rat race. It was a really good time, and once again our Ukrainian hosts outdid themselves. If I ever meet a Ukrainian in America, I will feel obligated to do right by them, cook a gigantic meal, and show them around.


Soviet kids drinking Pepsi.
In the 1970’s Pepsi asked permission to market Stolichnaya in the west, in exchange they would market Pepsi in the Soviet Union


Soviet kids drinking Pepsi.

In the 1970’s Pepsi asked permission to market Stolichnaya in the west, in exchange they would market Pepsi in the Soviet Union

(Source: imperija)


A look into Soviet Design.


This Soviet Calculator is insane. Ships from Ukraine. You can buy it here.


Students were reporting on architectural structures that either connected or separated places: bridges, tunnels, canals, walls.

One young woman told us all that the Golden Gate Bridge is the most popular bridge for people to leap from to commit suicide.

"Why do you think that is?" I asked.

Answers from every direction.

"The bridge is so beautiful! How could you want to kill yourself there!"

"Maybe the red color triggers some psychological response in people who are depressed."

"But if you rent a car and drive it there, you have already decided to kill yourself. You aren’t spontaneously deciding to do so because of the color of the bridge."

"I have an idea," said a girl with long hair, down to her waist. "Perhaps those who wish to commit suicide are very sensitive. Some people, you know, choose the Eiffel Tower as the place they’ll jump off of to die."

"Maybe," she concluded, "they just want to die somewhere beautiful. If you are to die, it might as well be some place like that."

breakfast with care-packaged-syrup
Berdyansk (a city in southern Ukraine)