Zhytomyr: The Schnapps and Soviet-Style Architectural Capital of North-Central Ukraine

I studied the shot of clear liquor in front of me. It had a sharp fragrance that I couldn’t place, and no one at the table knew the English word for it. Our hostess made the first toast, and I downed 2 ounces of what turned out to be horseradish schnapps. Looking at the bottom of my shot glass I thought, it can’t possibly get any more Ukrainian than this.

My wife, our three children, and I were in a cafe in Zhytomyr, a city of 200,000 people on the banks of the Teteriv River, a 90-minute drive west from the capital, Kiev. We were enjoying the company of four Ukrainians who worked for the non-profit organization, Modern Format, mentoring young, aspiring journalists.

From Point A to Z

Back in Chicago we host several international visitors each year through an assortment of US State Department programs. Hoping for some boots-on-the-ground perspective of life in Ukraine during our upcoming trip, we had leveraged our hosting connections into some introductions to Ukrainians who had gone through the Chicago programs. This had led us to Z, an alumna of the Chicago program and the executive director of Modern Format.

Z had arranged for us to meet a group of her budding journalists. The introductions took place in the Window on America room at the local library, where we were peppered with a surprisingly wide variety of questions by the students. What role does religion play in American life? How clean does Ukraine seem to you? How many people were at your wedding? What movies do you like? My wife got some street cred by mentioning she had been enjoying the film adaptation of Master and Margarita, a Russian classic, and written by Mikhail Bulgakov, who had grown up in Kiev.

The kids were sharp, inquisitive, and well-informed. It was a joy to be interrogated by them, watching them trying to peel back the myth and exaggeration of US society that had been plastered on their consciousness by years of accentuate-the-negative news headlines and Hollywood movie-viewing.

We mostly skirted current geopolitics, but we did get one question about the potential for US involvement in Ukraine’s conflict. The young woman who asked the question became teary-eyed as I answered and when I finished, her thank you was barely audible. We were told afterwards that her father is a soldier, fighting the separatists – a reminder that the conflict isn’t just moving pieces around on a chessboard.

Lock it up and throw away the key. Seriously.

After our grilling, the students took us on a tour of the city. Walking through Zhytomyr one’s eye is inevitably drawn to the buildings with the punchline Soviet architectural style. Our hosts were proud of their city and its history, but I sensed a tinge of embarrassment from them as we passed the Kruschevs (as the squat, Soviet-style buildings are known colloquially). I, however, found them endearing, like watching a period-piece film set in the 1970’s.

Not everything in Zhytomyr is a grey cement rectangle. The city has a history and culture that predates the USSR and has survived its demise, I just had to look a little harder to find it. It helped that I was getting direction from an enthusiastic group of Zhytomyrites. They pointed out the very old and beautiful symphony hall that was supposed to have been built in Kiev, but through some mix-up, wound up in Zhytomyr (constructed in the 1800s, the construction manager probably didn’t have the MapQuest app on his smartphone yet).

A footbridge crossing the river gorge is bedecked with padlocks. My assumption whenever I saw something like that in Ukraine was that it was a necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention fix for some problem. That was not the case here. Couples, we were told, make their union permanent by attaching a lock to the bridge and then throwing the key into the river below (if Ukraine manages to sign the association agreement for goods and services with the European Union, it should definitely be formalized with a padlock ceremony).

At the end of a wide pedestrian boulevard, flanked by imposing, granite Ministry of Internal Affairs buildings (the Ukrainian FBI), we passed a statue of the author Aleksandr Pushkin. Next to Pushkin was a large, black slab of polished stone – a grave, as it turns out. The story goes that in 1917, as the Germans were approaching the city, a Zhytomyrista, Vasyl Bozhenko, took down the statue and hid it in his own house, at great risk, lest the Germans steal it. After the war, Vasyl returned the statue. He died shortly thereafter and was honored with a burial next to the statue he had safeguarded. Twenty years later, the next German invasion sparked another round of musical monuments. The townspeople again hid Pushkin’s statue, but this time they also squirreled away Vasyl’s casket, just in case. After the war, both Pushkin and Vasyl were returned, and neither has moved since.

Schnapp judgements

As entertaining as the tour was, it had been a chilly and windy afternoon, so we were happy to finally end it at the warm cafe. We ordered the varenyky, which to an American (or a Pole) is a pierogi. I was gradually learning that in Ukraine saying “I went to a cafe and ordered varenyky” was redundant – like an American saying “I went to a hamburger joint and ordered a hamburger”. The Ukrainians are not particular about what goes into their varenyky – we’d seen just about every variety of animal, plant, and mineral wrapped in dough, boiled, and served with a side of sour cream.

We ordered some flights of the schnapps sampler. As the horseradish will attest, my Ukrainian vocabulary didn’t include the various schnapp flavors listed on the menu, but I did recognize the word for homemade. Microbreweries may be old news, however this was my first microschnappery.

Our hosts had already made two toasts (the second I sealed with a milky-white pumpkin schnapps). After a pause in the conversation I lifted up another shot of moonshine, preparing my E-for-effort attempt at a toast (the Slavic world is especially talented in toast-making; I have never heard a Slav with a raised glass speak less than poetry), but Z interrupted me. The third toast, I was told, is always to the women. I quickly recalibrated what I was going to say, eliminating any good wishes and thanks to my male Ukrainian cohort at the table. Then he stood up. I looked at him, puzzled. To Z’s instruction he added, and all the men have to stand. The intricate tapestry of Ukrainian toast-etiquette was unfolding before me.

After my toast, and as the smoked-pear schnapps was taking the paint off my esophagus, our hosts explained that the third, seventh, and twenty-first toasts always go to the women. Statues and dug-up corpses are great, but now I was getting a real education. This, I said to myself, is why I go places.

You say Tomato, I say Помідор

This was the point in the evening when we started to have fun comparing cultural oddities (horseradish schnapps being too obvious to even bother mentioning). One of the students had asked me earlier if Ukrainians seemed cold. I said no, but I did notice that people don’t smile during the small interactions, like buying something at the store. I was told it is just a holdover from Soviet times. Our hosts explained that customer service is slowly improving as people travel to western countries and see that clerks and salespeople can have expressions ranging beyond the basic scowl.

If Ukraine suffers a politeness deficit in the public sphere, they make up for it in the relationships between friends and acquaintances. Z had been warned that in the US if she were offered something, she would have to accept on the first go round – if you say no, an American will assume you mean it. In Ukraine, she said, something must be offered three times before it can be accepted. The dialogue would go like this:

Host: “Would you like something to eat?”

Guest: “Oh, no. I’m fine”

H: (Two minutes later) “Are you sure you aren’t hungry?”

G: “No, really, I’m OK, I just ate several hours ago.”

H: (another two minutes go by) “Here is some food. You may eat it if you like.”

G: (muffled, because mouth is full of food) “Thank, mrmph, you.”

Something for the other kind of toast

Our marshrutka ride back to Kiev gave me an opportunity to reflect (if only because our children had fallen asleep). The country is suffering through wrenching economic and political upheavals. My Ukrainian friends had warned me ahead of time that because of the turmoil in the country, people would be more reserved and withdrawn than usual. That had not been evident during our stay in Zhytomyr. To be sure, the shopping districts seemed emptier than they should have been, but people were out and about and seemed in the same good spirits as I would expect of any cross-section of Americans.

When I was young, my grandparents would visit us once or twice each year. Upon walking in the door, my grandmother would cheerfully present my Mom with the little packets of airline jam that she had not used during the flight. It was explained to me that growing up during the Great Depression had made Grandma especially thrifty. Ukraine has a long, bumpy road ahead of it, but the exuberance and optimism we saw in the students (and their mentors) makes me bet that in two generations’ time the biggest lasting problem from the current crisis will be what to do with the packets of airline condiments that Grandma just handed over.

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