War narrows East-West divides in Ukraine

Shoppers in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, gaze at the House of Bread, with its menorah in the window.  The cafe, which serves Middle Eastern and Jewish cuisine, attracts both residents and newcomers.  (Danylo Pavlov for the Washington Post)
Shoppers in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, gaze at the House of Bread, with its menorah in the window. The cafe, which serves Middle Eastern and Jewish cuisine, attracts both residents and newcomers. (Danylo Pavlov for the Washington Post)

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ILNYTSYA, UKRAINE — Every morning, after getting up early in Kharkiv, Oleksii Vakhrushev would make a series of phone calls to all of his employees and check on them if they were okay after another long night of shelling.

This was the first phase of the war, when Ukraine’s second largest city was bombarded almost around the clock. Vakhrushev arranged for his workers to be picked up and taken to the company site in the north from Kharkov. This was to happen just after the 6am night curfew ended to waste as little time as possible in the working day.

Vakhrushev’s brief conversations often included the same exchange.

“Hello, everything’s okay ?” he would ask.

“Everything is fine,” replied his employee.

“Did you hear that?” he would ask. “Where was he?”

“So let’s go,” he said. “And God willing, everything will be fine.”

The front line was about 20 miles from the factory where his Temp Ukraine made building and paving materials, and Russian-launched missiles and bombs sometimes landed close enough to break the glass. Even as they did, Vakhrushev and his team continued. But their job soon changed: Piece by piece, they loaded the company’s equipment and production onto trucks for safekeeping in Ilnytsya, a town 800 miles near the Hungarian and Romanian borders.

As Moscow continues to wage scorched earth campaigns in the east and south, Ukrainians have abandoned their homes en masse. According to the United Nations International Organization for Migration, more than 6 million people are now internally displaced in Ukraine, in addition to the nearly 5 million who have fled the country altogether.

With them disappeared companies and workplaces. Many, like Vakhrushev’s company and more than a dozen of his employees, headed for areas in western Ukraine where fighting and missile attacks were minimal. Their journey represents a massive and very fluid demographic shift taking place in the country – a shift that is altering it economically and perhaps changing the perception that Ukrainians have of each other.

East and West are getting closer, Vakhrushev believes. “We teach them and they teach us,” he explained.

In Transcarpathia, the agricultural region where Ilnytsya is located, Governor Viktor Mykyta estimates that the population of one million has increased by at least a third. The sudden influx of people has strained local infrastructure. Many displaced people are housed in school buildings and authorities are scrambling to find them new homes before classes resume in the fall. Yet, points out Mykyta, everyone is taken care of. “The Transcarpathians are very hospitable people,” he said.

The upheaval has also brought about other changes, which may be much more lasting. More than 350 companies have relocated to Transcarpathia, bringing with them new knowledge, new business know-how and new ways of doing things. Temp Ukraine, for its part, is the first company here to recycle plastic waste as part of its manufacturing process – a welcome service in a tourism-dependent region that wants to retain its pristine landscape.

And with the number of computer scientists growing from around 2,000 before the war to nearly 35,000 today, Mykyta and his team hope to turn the region into a tech hub. They are starting to work with computer companies interested in moving to the area and plan to add computer programming classes to local schools.

But moving people and resources goes beyond the economic benefits. Demographic changes, even temporary ones, contribute to transforming the social fabric of the country.

The divisions of Ukrainian society are often exaggerated, but there are differences between regions of the country. Western Ukraine is mostly rural, Ukrainian-speaking and steeped in Central European culture. Both the east and the south are largely Russian-speaking, with a cultural sense that, at least before the war, also felt more Russian. Many of the country’s largest cities lie to the east and south, as does much of its heavy industry before the Russian invasion.

According to Viktoria Sereda, professor of sociology at the Ukrainian Catholic University of Lviv, the stereotypes that different regions had about each other are softened as they interact, and Ukrainian identity is increasingly linked to a common sense of civic belonging. The “fault line” in how Ukrainians define themselves now is whether they “defend their country in every possible way”, she said.

“When people live in that small proximity or in the same community, they share their personal stories,” Sereda noted. “They have the opportunity to see that this is not how it has been portrayed in the media or by some politicians for the purpose of political mobilization.”

Amidst the winding streets of the old town of Uzhhorod, the regional capital of Transcarpathia, the House of Bread cafe attracts some of that sharing.

The cafe is the only local establishment serving Middle Eastern and Jewish dishes – pita sandwiches, falafels, salads, hummus and chopped kippers. Its owners, Vadim Bespalov and Ella Kirilyuk, fled 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 approximately one-third Jewish. The Holocaust and post-war emigration decimated this population. Both Bespalov and Kirilyuk are of Jewish descent and discovered that they shared a dream of opening a restaurant serving traditional dishes. They rented an abandoned space on a small side street in what was once the Jewish quarter of Uzhhorod and opened in late June. A large menorah stands in front of the window.

The cafe’s five tables were full at lunchtime on a recent afternoon, with a mix of locals and people displaced by war. Dima Halin, videographer from Kyiv, discovered coffee by chance. “It’s important that this place exists,” he said. “People need to meet, and food and culture are a good place to start.”

“It’s a big cocktail that we call Ukraine,” added Bespalov. “Everything is mixed up.”

In Ilnytsya, the assimilation process has been a bit slow for Temp Ukraine workers. The move itself was major: two trucks hired from Kharkiv evacuated the company, which made the two days drive 20 times in a month and a half.

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

Vakhrushev moved with a total of 37 people – his younger brother, Serhii, who also works at the company, their employees and their family members. Their new home, a sleepy hamlet of 12,000 people nestled in the foothills of the Carpathians, is about as far as one can get from war-torn Kharkiv – geographically and psychologically – and still remains in Ukraine.

“The question is not where the company is located. We still pay taxes in one country, Ukraine,” Vakhrushev said from the company’s new facilities. on land that the regional administration helped him find. “The question is [whether] people can work safely, feel safe with the money they earn.

The lack of industry and development in Transcarpathia was like stepping back in time to the 1990s, just after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when “everything was abandoned,” Vakhrushev said. Attitudes towards work were also very different from those in Kharkiv. Businesses close on Sundays and workers clock in exactly at the end of the working day.

Still, things are going well enough that Vakhrushev now hopes to increase production and send more exports to the neighboring European Union. Bags of shredded plastic are stacked on the company’s new site, and newly pressed manhole covers are stacked to one side. Serhi Vakhrushev salutes the generosity of the inhabitants, who helped the company to set up and find housing for the workers. “They help us and we help them,” he said.

Sometimes, however, it’s not the mileage from Kharkiv that underlines how far everyone has travelled. It’s the little things, said worker Oleksiy Taranenko. After 70 days of bombardment in the east, the silence in the countryside was “disconcerting”.

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

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