Despite Unrest in the East, Young Educated Ukrainians Are Looking to Stay

June 3, 2014
Kiev | Photo by Alina Polyakova

Kiev — Every day, the news from Ukraine’s war torn eastern regions, Lugansk and Donetsk, seems to get worse. The death toll, now well over 200, is climbing as fighting between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian Army continues. With the appearance of “Vostok” — a well-trained and armed militant group made up largely of Russian nationals — an end to the escalation does not seem to be in sight. It looks increasingly likely that the Ukrainian government may end up on the losing side.

Kiev is only about an hour flight from Donetsk or Lugansk, but in terms of the mood, it may as well be light years away. The summer weather has brought on a lighthearted vacation feel: couples cuddle on park benches, teenagers celebrate the end of the school year, and hardly a table remains empty in cafes’ outdoor verandas. The city has returned to business as usual.

But aside from the calm vacation-like atmosphere, there is something else different about the mood in Kiev today: wafting through the air, mixed in with the sweet scent of linden trees, is a sense of renewed optimism. “I see the potential in Ukraine,” says Yanna, a Ukrainian-American who spent fourteen years in Boston before returning to Ukraine three years ago. “I have to go back to the U.S. now, but I’d rather stay here,” she says as she takes another sip of coffee.

Yanna is not alone. Over the past few months, after the Maidan protests ended and conflict spread from Crimea to the East, I have heard Yanna’s story — a young, Western-educated Ukrainian returning to Ukraine — retold in various ways. In April, I met Tetiana, who, like Yanna, immigrated to the West as a teenager (Germany in her case) and then decided to return to Kiev permanently after participating in the Maidan protests. “I couldn’t just sit in Berlin cafes drinking lattes anymore. I had to be here in Kiev,” she told me back then.

Similar enthusiasm had followed the Orange Revolution ten years ago, but that elation quickly faded away as the Orange Bloc fell apart. By the time Viktor Yanukovych came to power in 2010, apathy had replaced revolutionary spirit.

“But that Maidan was different,” said Virginia, a western Ukrainian native, who was on the Maidan in 2004 and again in 2014 along with her husband. “Now, there is more awareness among Ukrainians to not repeat the same mistakes. I don’t think we will see a third Maidan anytime soon.” Virginia is also in her early thirties and speaks five languages. She spent several years working in Western Europe and lived in Canada, where her husband, Mykhaylo, completed his MBA. Mykhaylo now works at a large international consultancy in Kiev, but due to the war in the East, most of his projects are not based in Ukraine. He and Virginia are thinking about a potential offer that would take them to Scandinavia. But echoing Yanna, Virginia says that she would rather stay in Ukraine, “the next few years will be hard, I know that, but this is part of our democratization process. No matter what happens in Dontesk and Lugansk, there is too much potential here. For this reason, we need educated young professionals to stay in Ukraine.”

The stories of these few young educated Ukrainians may not yet indicate a broader societal trend, but they signal a profound shift in how Ukrainians are thinking about their role in their country’s future. A few years ago, many of these young people would have been looking for ways to get out, but now they are looking for ways to stay. This change, no matter how small, is a big step forward for Ukraine’s future and stability.