Ukraine’s Coronavirus Lockdown Invokes Memories of Life in the Soviet Union

KYIV, Ukraine—Ukraine has gone into a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

As of Tuesday, the
country is completely closed to foreigners. All international air traffic has
stopped and Ukraine’s land borders are closed, too. 

Ukrainian citizens stuck
abroad have been instructed to go to their nearest consulate so they can get a
seat on a chartered flight home. All domestic air, train, and bus travel has
been suspended.

Here in the capital city
of Kyiv, the only businesses allowed to stay open were grocery stores,
pharmacies, and gas stations. The government has ordered everything else
closed. Schools, gyms, malls, movie theaters, barbershops, museums. Everything.

The government has
banned gatherings of more than 10. And, in a bid to free up hospital space for
a potential flood of cases of the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, the
government has banned elective surgeries for the time being. 

Not abiding by these
rules is a crime, enforceable by arrest.

“The current measures
may look harsh today, but two weeks later we may all be thankful that they were
introduced,” said Vasyl Myroshnychenko, 39, co-founder of the Ukraine Crisis
Media Center.

Rattled by the impending
lockdown, Ukrainians rushed the supermarkets Monday to stock up on food and
other supplies. Shoppers jostled each other trying to get to the last bit of
certain things such as canned goods or buckwheat groats. 

At the glitzy Le Silpo
supermarket in Kyiv’s city center, the shelves were left barren in the wake of
the panicked purchasing. It was madness.

Closed borders. Empty
shelves. Restrictions on movement.

Fear.

Some younger Ukrainians
on social media compared the coronavirus crackdown to the opening scenes of a
zombie movie. However, for older Ukrainians who can remember life in the Soviet
Union, this whole crisis feels, well … eerily familiar. 

“Parliament’s current
decisions on quarantine … are a purely Soviet measure to subdue society,” said
Viktor Zherditskiy, 63, a resident of Kyiv.

Ukraine’s older
generations remember everyday life
under Soviet rule, with its myriad restrictions and deprivations. They also retain a deep-seated distrust of
the government in a time of crisis—an attitude that stems from, among other
things, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. 

“When the government
authorities start stroking the heads of their citizens, and in a quiet voice
try to convince them that everything will be fine, the more I begin to worry,” said
Sergiy Tsyhipa, 58, a Red Army veteran and former special operations soldier.

Expectations

However, for Ukraine’s
millennials—for whom the Soviet Union is not a living memory—the coronavirus
lockdown is unprecedented and extraordinary.

“In my
opinion the virus isn’t the biggest problem,” said Igor Didenko, 31, who lives
in Kyiv. “Nowadays, the main problem is panic, and this panic leads to serious
problems for our people. Like increasing prices for food and medicine.”

Younger generations are
used to fully stocked grocery stores, where you can buy practically anything
you’d find in a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s store back in the U.S. Young
Ukrainians are used to trendy Western retail shops, Apple products, IMAX movie
theaters, and the convenience of Uber and Uber Eats. 

It’s all available in
Kyiv these days. 

Ukraine’s millennials
have gotten used to a certain Western standard of living. They grew up watching
many of the same movies and TV shows, and listening to much of the same music,
as their American contemporaries. 

In this globalized era,
that’s not necessarily unusual. But it’s definitely a far cry from Soviet
times, when it was illegal to possess a Western rock record obtained on the
black market.

Young Ukrainians are
used to many of the same freedoms and opportunities that we, as American
citizens, take for granted. The freedom to travel, too, has become an
expectation.

In 2017, the European
Union approved visa-free travel for Ukrainian citizens. Prior to that,
Ukrainians had to spend hundreds of dollars on complicated visa applications to
travel to Europe. (Russians still do, by the way.) 

Nowadays, though, thanks
to the EU’s landmark decision, Ukrainians can simply hop on a plane at their
whim and go see the Continent. 

It’s become a badge of
honor among young Ukrainians to pepper their Facebook or Instagram feeds with
photos of their European escapades. Older Ukrainians can hardly believe it. For
them, such easy and unfettered access to Europe would have been unthinkable in
their youths.

Thus, for younger
Ukrainians, the COVID-19 crackdown is uncomfortably exposing them to how their
parents and grandparents used to live—not just during the Soviet era, but in
the years immediately after the U.S.S.R.’s dissolution in 1991.

Life in the 1990s, after
all, wasn’t much easier than during the Cold War. A decade of near anarchy
followed the Soviet collapse; it was a time of economic and societal
collapse. 

In fact, during the
1990s, Ukraine’s population and its industrial output decreased by a larger
share than during World War II, when Ukraine was the deadliest battlefield of
the deadliest war in human history.

There was a certain
“survival of the fittest” mentality that one had to adopt to make ends meet in
Ukraine in the 1990s as the economy self-imploded and criminals took over the
government. When the banks privatized, many people lost their life
savings. 

Like the Soviet era that
preceded it, the 1990s left a permanent impression on the mentalities of many
Ukrainians who lived through it. You now see evidence of this while in line at
supermarkets when people of a certain age press forward as if the cashier might
close down the register at any random moment. 

Or at Kyiv’s Boryspil
International Airport, when some Ukrainians line up at their gate more than an
hour before their flight’s boarding time—as if they might be barred from
boarding the aircraft if they’re not waiting at the front of the line.

Now, with the
coronavirus lockdown in full swing, those older generations are being reminded
of the hard times they lived through, which have forever forged their mindsets.

“Coronavirus is another
catastrophe for our country,” said Tsyhipa, the Soviet army veteran. 

Why We Fight

For younger Ukrainians,
this whole crisis has been an education in what that they’ve been fighting for
since 2014. After all, it was Ukraine’s millennials who led the way in
overthrowing the corrupt, pro-Russian regime of Viktor Yanukovych during the
country’s 2014 “Revolution of Dignity.”

After Russia invaded
that year, it was the younger Ukrainian generations who rose up and led a
grassroots war effort. With no propaganda prodding, they banded together into
civilian volunteer battalions and struck out for the eastern front and turned
back Russia’s forces. 

Those young Ukrainians
fought back when their homeland was in peril and earned their country’s
long-awaited independence from Russia. And in government halls across the
country, young Ukrainians also have shouldered the simultaneous fight against
corruption.

Across Ukraine today,
empty pedestals mark the spots where Soviet statues of Vladimir Lenin once
stood. Every street, town, or city in Ukraine that once bore a Soviet name has
been renamed in the Ukrainian language. It’s now technically illegal in Ukraine
to play the Soviet national anthem, or to wave the Soviet hammer-and-sickle
flag.

Young Ukrainians have a
dream for a better life, and they’ve proven time and again that they’re brave
enough to fight for it. They know what they’re fighting for—that’s clear.

And now, thanks to the
coronavirus crackdown, they understand a little better what they’re fighting
against.

Yes, the COVID-19
pandemic will pass, and life will go on. The borders and the stores will
reopen, people will go back to work, and the grocery store shelves will be
replenished. 

But life never tastes so
sweet than in those moments when you think you might lose it. The same goes for
freedom and opportunities.

Americans might well
take stock of how life has changed for them during the coronavirus crisis, but
also of how lucky they are to be Americans. Because the coronavirus lockdown is
what life was like every day in the Soviet Union. 

Remember, a microscopic
virus isn’t the only way in which we may lose our freedoms, and the fruits of
our democratic way of life. We’re perfectly capable of doing those terrible
things ourselves, with or without Mother Nature’s help.