Any time I think of Europe (where I have spent many years and know it not just as a tourist), my memory immediately turns to a scene of clean and quiet streets, smart houses decorated with bright flowers, neat gardens, smooth pavement, polite motorists, and friendly neighbours. It sounds idyllic doesn’t it? What strikes me most is that it is Europeans themselves who keep their surroundings clean – no regulation (passed down from government) forces them to do so. They just do it; they take responsibility for their surroundings and communal spaces.
Here it’s the opposite – responsibility is something all Ukrainians (from top to bottom) evade. When 30 years ago, young troublemakers would break light bulbs in entrance hallways, burn lifts or cover walls with graffiti featuring taboo-words, no one batted an eyelid. “When it belongs to all people, it belongs to me as well” was an odd motto reflecting the Soviet-era ideology at its best – except nobody paid any attention to it, as private property was a vague notion in the former USSR.
Those days are gone – the Iron Curtain has been torn down and many Ukrainians have the opportunity to compare and contrast their homeland by travelling abroad. However that Soviet mentality and general disregard for our surroundings remains unchanged...
Just look around! We Ukrainians still litter our hallways, spit and urinate (or worse) in elevators, casually discard litter right on a street (to be honest there are not enough rubbish bins out there), and are generally rude. Then, we survey the mess and take pity on ourselves, say “what a hard life we live”, and seek to place blame – usually at the highest level – the government. Yet, this behaviour has nothing to do with the murky goings on in the corridors of power.
Dishonesty is almost part of our DNA, with ordinary people breaking the rules at every opportunity. Just look at how Ukrainian motorists operate – traffic regulations are treated as flexible, and stopping for pedestrians is considered optional. It’s aggressive and confronting to a foreigner – some of my European friends are so scared of driving in Kyiv they actually prefer the discomfort of public transport. It reminds me of a passage from the satiric novel Heart of a Dog penned by the famous Kyiv-born writer Mikhail Bulgakov, when Professor Preobrazhensky tells his colleague Doctor Bormental: “If, I go to the lavatory and begin to piss and miss the bowl, this will cause a mess in the lavatory. But the mess is not in the lavatories, rather in my head”.
The character has a point – keeping the world around us clean requires a little cleansing of our attitudes. It’s the first step towards a broader mindedness, personal and public conscientiousness, and a sense of responsibility. We perceive Europeans to live better – but they put a lot of effort into achieving their lifestyle.
Values – Europe vs Ukraine
So then, what at the end of the day makes Europeans what they are? We can glean some facts in the European Social Survey (ESS), which runs every two years to map the attitudes, beliefs and behaviour patterns of various populations in Europe. The survey is based on value scales introduced by Israeli social psychologist Shalom Schwartz, who defined 10 key things shaping human values: power, achievement, hedonism, stimulation, self-direction, universalism, benevolence, tradition, conformity, and security. The latest survey shows all European nations value benevolence and universalism above all, while power (and, luxury, in this context) comes last. It means that the “welfare of other people” is more important for Europeans than “personal affluence at the expense of others”. We know that is not a scenario repeated in Ukraine, when it comes down to the wants of Ukrainians – our people are after security, tradition and...power. Put it this way, many Ukrainians are like selfish children who want it all, and they want it now, with no concern for others or thinking ahead...
Time For Change
Here is another example of how self-disciplined and conscientious Europeans can be. Viennese bus stops are installed with plastic newspaper boxes. The boxes are unwatched and unlocked. But what would Ukrainians do in this case? They would help themselves to newspapers without paying. What do Austrians do? They first put coins into the slot in the box and only then take a newspaper!
Only when we reach this level of conscientiousness in Ukraine, will we be ready to go to Europe. During this time in between, we should not idealise or idolise Europe, but adopt its best practices for building a civil society based on responsibility and honesty, and that begins with each and every one of us.
by Anna Azarova