Ukraine’s an excellent place to learn lessons. Especially when it comes to following a frugal and sustainable lifestyle. Living in Kyiv (also known as the new Berlin, aka the new Paris), I’m often asked by Ukrainians how they can improve their country—“how can we make Ukraine more like the U.S.A.,” they’ll ask in a confidential, earnest tone. Ukrainians are especially eager to strengthen their justice system, weaken or do away with endemic corruption at the local level, foster a culture of entrepreneurialism, and build a successful military, in addition to other less pressing issues. In every case, though, the assumption is that Ukraine is weak and backwards, and through certain behavioral modifications, it should be possible to repeat the institutional successes of more prosperous Western neighbors.
Answering these questions requires considering the ways in which U.S. systems and the citizens on which those systems are built are distinct from those of Ukrainians. In the course of considering those distinctions, most people would probably agree that there are quite a few things that Americans do better than Ukrainians. Keeping receipts and paying taxes are two of the most important, and crucial to America’s internal legitimacy. Specializing in certain fields is another—specialization requiring a powerful institutional trust without which specialization becomes impossible.
Americans are, overall, more adept at navigating the modern world than Ukrainians. This is undeniable. At the same time, the modern world is incredibly fragile on a certain level—take away the interconnectedness of the internet or global trade, and there would be serious food and energy crises within weeks or even days. American leftists should find Ukraine particularly interesting, as nearly every middle-aged Ukrainian and older has some direct experience with the Communist experiment. Every Ukrainian over the age of 42 or so spent some life in the USSR, conscious of what was happening to them and why, according to family members as well as government propaganda organs. Many aspects of the USSR were incredibly dysfunctional and hostile, too many to list here. There were, however, other elements that worked well to bring humans happiness and satisfaction.
A quick and simplistic look at some of the differences between U.S. citizens and their Ukrainian cousins furnishes the following lessons on how to build a sustainable and balanced society where the people have dignity apart from what sort of car they drive (if they drive a car).
1) Analogue technology and manual backup systems
Much of Ukraine’s infrastructure is industrial-era. There have been a few modifications, where particular oligarchs have managed to find places where self-interest and profit intersect with the common good. Ukraine’s cellular network is 3G in the cities. The subway systems date back to the 1960s, as do most of rail systems (express trains are more recent, though hardly perfect). Cars, agricultural vehicles, and military equipment from the 1960s and 70s still see heavy use. Power plants (even nuclear plants) as well as the energy grids on which people depend are labor-intensive, rather than being governed by the efficient technological systems developed and used by U.S. and European equivalents.
Ukraine’s crowded and wasteful industry and businesses lag far behind the U.S. and Europe in terms of technological sophistication—it’s impossible to determine how many hours of manpower are squandered every year because Ukraine is still designed to run like a centralized bureaucracy rather than an incubator for business. It is less profitable, less efficient than it could be. Far too many people are performing tasks that machines can do better and faster. Ukraine is backwards. People who shouldn’t work because of injuries or disabilities nevertheless find themselves scraping out a living by hunting, or foraging, or farming, or turning lathes in some fiercely contaminated, mosquito-infested hovel (like Mariupol’s steel works).
But there’s an upside—a lesson that the U.S. would be wise to consider when developing policy. Ukraine’s system does better at employing people than in the West. Engineers in the energy sector and the transportation sector continue to service equipment and monitoring systems that has long since been modernized or upgraded in most West. Extensive manual backups means that when Ukraine’s computer systems get hacked (as they are, often, and severely), it’s a matter of days, hours, or minutes before they’re back online and operational. If Ukraine were to commit to this as a system, instead of using it as a necessary stop-gap, it’s likely that they could achieve something the country has been lacking since the 1990s—near-total employment.
Although Ukraine may be backward and unsophisticated when it comes to technology, it has unintentionally discovered the antidote to Silicon Valley’s perfectly efficient machine-world—a world that could be hacked by a single skillful program. That antidote is a system where humans do all the jobs of machines. While it is becoming possible to automate almost every human job on the planet, in Ukraine they have not done this, and it makes them able to survive against persistent and aggressive attempts to destroy their country. For an enemy to completely “hack” Ukraine, that enemy would need to convince every railway switch operator, every nuclear engineer, every coal factory specialist to cooperate with invasion. This is almost impossible (though very much the issue about which Westerners were worried 100 years ago when factory workers throughout Europe began resisting exploitative working conditions).
Let’s take this idea to the U.S. If transportation and energy sector industries were forced to have manual backups for every system, what would be the consequences? Profitability would go down. Meanwhile, the U.S. would see a boom in engineering education, and employment would go up. The risk that key U.S. industries could be hacked or destroyed would be reduced to almost nil—hacking would be an amusing inconvenience, instead of a dire existential threat.
2) Culture of Farming and Citizen Land Use
Surprisingly for a modern European country, many Ukrainians still live in villages, working the land (or renting it for a small paycheck to large agricultural concerns). 33% of Ukrainians live in rural areas, compared with 19% of Americans. It is not uncommon to see horses ploughing small plots of land, or pulling farmers in rubber-tired wooden carts. Everyone who lives in the city has a family member or friend who grows carrots and potatoes on the farm—it’s a point of pride. Visits to the countryside result in bulk purchases for the pantry of berries, vegetables, honey, fruit, and fresh-slaughtered meat. This is considered far more trustworthy than the supermarket (they do have supermarkets). Furthermore, it is seen as prudent, a kind of hedge against instability.
Small families still work the decaying, unowned collectives out in the countryside, because they must pool labor to survive. What was once a compulsory and painful reminder of the calamitous land appropriation and redistribution of the 1920s and 1930s has become, over time, places where clever managers can organize people’s property to best benefit a community. Some communities are even refurbishing collectives—one consequence of the Soviet system was that the power of individual localities was diminished—agricultural output was stored in regional facilities. Villages and towns are rediscovering how to invest in infrastructure that will benefit all of their constituents, in the absence of a single, powerful central authority.
What Ukrainians accomplish in order to have enough food and feel safe doing so, Americans could do through design. It should be practical for suitable towns of 10,000 or 20,000 citizens to levy small ($10-$20) taxes per head in order to develop agricultural assets within its borders as a small “hedge” against food insecurity (and unemployment). This could also be a tax-break for would-be small farmers, though it’s likely that without subsidy, such a break would not be sufficient to encourage land development. Whereas during the USSR, the state was the powerful central organ dominating peoples’ lives and thwarting individual, low-level innovation, in the USA it’s “the market,” and recent skepticism against anything (even so benign as “communalism”) that meant giving a government organization some type of money-making or competitive ability.
Europe and the U.S. are pressuring Ukraine to overhaul this system so that tenant farmers can sell their land to large agricultural conglomerates. Not only is this a quasi-colonial idea that will profit a few fabulously wealthy conglomerates at the expense of common Ukrainians, it’s also a step in the wrong direction.
3) Anti-consumerist focus on getting a “good deal,” combined with generalist knowledge
In addition to shopping and spending frugally when it comes to food and household goods, Ukrainians are masters at procuring and maintaining clothes, equipment, and other materials for use around the house or apartment. If something wears out at home, it’s taken to the dacha or offered to friends, where it is repurposed and takes on a second life. One example of this is 6-liter bottles of drinking water which many Ukrainians buy at the store, drink the water therein, and then fill with non-potable water for use in gardens or elsewhere.
And most Ukrainians know two or three alternate uses for items that Westerners would discard without thinking twice. They do not need to call electricians—there is a father or brother or sister who knows how to lay or fix wires. They don’t require rudimentary auto mechanics, either, because those skills that don’t require specialist knowledge are within reach of common Ukrainians.
Wasting anything is seen as a kind of sin. Some of this attitude (especially toward food) probably has its roots in village life, but also in the trauma of the collectivization period in the 1920s and 1930s, when food was scarce (or Holodomor, when 5 million Ukrainians died after the were deliberately starved by Stalin’s regime). Similarly the problems of the Soviet need to control and dominate all corners of people’s lives, which (I would argue) is not a flaw of communism, but rather the overly proscriptive and centralized, bureaucratic way in which Russia sought to achieve communism in the USSR. Notwithstanding, it points to a thrifty, anti-consumerist culture that Americans would be clever to emulate—rather than indulge the spendthrift and adolescent fascination with purchasing new and unneeded devices and clothes, Americans could focus instead on investing in durable items, and figure out how to maintain items that are not needed rather than sell or toss them when they break.
Indeed, thrift and prudence were once seen as fundamental to the “Yankee” or New Englander’s disposition—virtues that have been replaced by brand awareness and second home ownership. Neither of which are, on the face of it, necessarily virtuous at all.
A Stronger, More Resilient America
The U.S. has progressive attitudes about gun ownership, individual liberty, sexuality, and land ownership. It is still one of the freest countries in the world, on an absolute level—the government’s coercive power depends on how willing it is to use violence against armed citizens, and historically, that willingness has been fairly low. Still, the U.S. has allowed power to accumulate at the State and Federal level, and has encouraged big business to dominate when it comes to agriculture, energy, and transportation. Combined with the consumerist culture, where people are encouraged to buy and spend at every turn, individuals have lost a great deal of actual power, and become dependent on ever more abstract and robust systems outside their local control.
By adopting some Ukrainian survival mechanisms to an American context, the U.S. would be able to accomplish the following: (1) increased resistance to cyberwarfare, (2) decreased share of the wealth for company owners, greater employment for employees, (3) less consumerism, (4) better engineering expertise and employment, and (5) more robust agricultural output at the local level. This would be good for U.S. citizens, good for local government, and while not great for business owners from a profitability perspective, very good in the sense that it’s good for almost everyone when their country continues to exist.
A modern state like the U.S. is more sophisticated and interconnected (locally, nationally, and globally) than other countries. It is also vulnerable in the sense that each part of its complicated system depends on the others in order to work in harmony. Remove one component of that system, and the whole thing collapses. While this is an excellent incentive for everyone to get along and support the status quo, it’s worth considering finding a way to build up a system with greater human, institutional, and social resilience. Ukraine offers excellent lessons on how to achieve that goal.