War narrows East-West divisions in Ukraine

Shoppers in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, look at the bread house, with its candlestick in the window.  The café, which serves Middle Eastern and Jewish cuisine, attracts residents and newcomers.  (Danilo Pavlov for The Washington Post)
Shoppers in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, look at the bread house, with its candlestick in the window. The café, which serves Middle Eastern and Jewish cuisine, attracts residents and newcomers. (Danilo Pavlov for The Washington Post)

Suspension

ALENITIA, Ukraine – Every morning after waking up early in Kharkiv, Oleksiy Vakhrushev was making a round of phone calls to all his staff and checking if they were okay after another long night of bombing.

This was the first stage of the war, when the second largest city in Ukraine was bombarded almost around the clock. Vakhrushev was arranging to take his workers and take them to the company’s site in North Kharkiv. This should happen right after the 6am night curfew ends to waste as little time as possible on the working day.

Vakhrushev’s brief conversations often included the same exchange.

“Hello, is everything okay?” will ask.

His employee replied: “All is well.”

“Did you hear this?” was asking. “Where was she?”

He was saying, “Then let’s go.” “God willing, everything will be fine.”

The front line was about 20 miles from the factory where Temp Ukraine made building and paving materials, and missiles and bombs fired by Russia sometimes landed near the glass to shatter the glass. Even as they did, Fakhrochev and his team kept going. But their work soon changed: piece by piece, they loaded the company’s equipment and production onto trucks for shipment to Aman Ilnytsya, a town 800 miles away near the Hungarian and Romanian borders.

As Moscow continued its scorched-earth campaigns in the east and south, Ukrainians deserted their homes in droves. According to the United Nations International Organization for Migration, more than 6 million people are now displaced within Ukraine, in addition to nearly 5 million who have fled the country entirely.

Together with them they went business and workplaces. Many, like Vakhrushev’s company and more than a dozen of its companies staff, to areas in western Ukraine where fighting and missile attacks have been minimal. Their journey represents a huge and very smooth demographic shift taking place within the country – a change that is changing it economically and possibly changing how Ukrainians view each other.

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Vakhroshev believes that East and West are converging. “We teach them and they teach us,” he explained.

In Transcarpathia, the agricultural region in which Illnitsia is located, Governor Victor Mikita estimates that the population of 1 million has increased by at least a third. The sudden influx of people strained the local infrastructure. Many of the displaced are being housed in school buildings, and officials are scrambling to find new accommodations for them before classes resume in the fall. However, Mikita assures that everyone is taken care of. “The Transcarpathians are a very hospitable people,” he said.

The disturbances also implied other, possibly more permanent, changes. More than 350 companies have moved to Transcarpathia, bringing with them new knowledge, new business knowledge, and new ways of doing things. Temp Ukraine, for example, is the first company here that recycles plastic waste as part of the manufacturing process — a welcome service in a region that relies on tourism and wants to preserve its pristine landscape.

With the number of computer professionals rising from about 2,000 before the war to nearly 35,000 today, Mykyta and his crew hope to turn the area into a technical hub. They have begun working with IT companies interested in relocating to the area and plan to add computer programming courses in local schools.

But the transformation of people and resources goes beyond the economic benefits. Demographic changes – even temporary ones – are helping to transform the country’s social fabric.

The divisions in Ukrainian society are often exaggerated, but the differences between the regions of the country do exist. Western Ukraine is mostly rural, Ukrainian-speaking and filled with Central European culture. East and south largely In Russian, in a cultural sense, at least before the war, I also felt more Russians. Many of the country’s largest cities lie to the east and south, as was a lot of heavy industry before the Russian invasion.

Stereotypes that different regions hold from each other are fading as they interact, according to Victoria Sereda, a professor of sociology at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukrainian identity is increasingly linked to a shared sense of civic belonging. She said the “fault line” in how Ukrainians define themselves now is whether they “defend their country in every possible way”.

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Cerida noted that “when people live in such small proximity or in the same community, they share their personal stories.” “They have the possibility to see that it is not the way it has been portrayed in the media or by some politicians for purposes of political mobilization.”

Amidst the winding streets of the old town of Uzhhorod, the regional capital of Transcarpathia, the House of Bread Café is a magnet for some of this engagement.

The café is the only local establishment serving Middle Eastern and Jewish cuisine – pita sandwiches, falafel, salads, hummus and chopped herring. Its owners, Vadim Bespalov and Ella Krylyuk, fled here from Kyiv and Odessa in the first weeks of the war and met at a religious service in a local church.

Before World War II, Uzhhorod was almost a third Jewish. The Holocaust and post-war immigration wiped out this population. Bespalov and Krylyuk are both of Jewish descent and discover that they share a dream of opening a restaurant serving traditional foods. They rented an abandoned space in a small side street in what was once the Uzhhorod ghetto and opened at the end of June. A large candlestick stands in the front window.

The cafe’s five tables were full during lunchtime on a recent afternoon, and it was occupied by a mix of locals and war-displaced people. Dima Halin, a videographer from Kyiv, discovered the cafe by chance. “It’s important that this place exist,” he said. “People have to meet, food and culture is a good place to start.”

“This is a big cocktail we call Ukraine,” Bespalov said. “Everything is mixed.”

In Ilnytsya, the assimilation process proceeded somewhat slowly for the workers of Temp Ukraine. The move itself was a big one: two rented trucks in Kharkiv evacuated the company, and it took two days May 20 times over a month and a half.

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“Getting gas was the biggest problem,” Vakhrushev said. “That, finding trucks and drivers willing to make the trip.”

Fakhrochev moved with 37 people – his younger brother, Serhiy, who also works in the company, their employees and family members. Their new home, a sleepy hamlet of 12,000 people located in the Carpathian foothills, is as far as one might be from war-torn Kharkiv – geographically and psychologically – and still in Ukraine.

“The question is not where the company is located. We are still paying taxes in one country, Ukraine,” Vakhrushev said of the company’s new facility. On the property that the regional administration helped him find. “the question is [whether] People can work safely, and feel safe with the money they earn.”

The lack of industry and development in Transcarpathia, Vakhrushev said, marked “returning in time” to the 1990s, just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when “everything was abandoned”. Attitudes towards work were also very different from those in the difficult Kharkiv. Businesses are closed on Sundays, and workers are up and running exactly when the working day is over.

However, things are going so well that Vakhroshev now hopes to increase production and send more exports to the neighboring European Union. Shredded plastic bags are stacked at the company’s new location, and newly pressed manhole covers are stacked on one side. Serhiy Fakhrochev He pays tribute to the generosity of the local people who helped the company set up and find housing for the workers. “They help us, we help them,” he said.

Sometimes, though, it’s not the distance traveled from Kharkiv that confirms the distance traveled by everyone. It’s the small details, said worker Oleksiy Taranenko. After 70 days of bombing in the east, the silence of the countryside was “disturbing”.

“A completely different world,” he said. “Here everything is calm. The birds are singing.”

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