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March 17 2014

Susan Porter, BSILR '14

Susan PorterMy recent trip to Ukraine took some unexpected twists that allowed me to re-evaluate my situation by using tools I’ve learned through my studies at Cornell.

In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, I worked on federal programs with the goal to help former Soviets learn to conduct business in the “market economy.” I paired the visiting Ukrainian, Russian, and Georgian businessmen and women with like businesses in the United States to help them to learn quality control, inventory management, and other necessary functions of production. After beginning my studies at Cornell and reflecting on my earlier projects, I wondered how my former Soviet guests handled their employees. Did they have Human Resource Management practices, were the workers organized, and since we offered no assistance in the “people management” skills of conducting business, where did they learn this important piece of business management? These are the questions I was seeking to answer when I went to Ukraine.

On December 1, 2013, the morning following my arrival in Ternopil, the reports started coming in regarding the attacks on the protesters and journalists in Kiev, presumably authorized by Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych’s administration. Throughout the social functions my hosts had prepared for me that day, there was a buzz in the air. Everyone was trying to guess what was going to happen next. We did not have to wait long to find out.

On Monday morning I arrived at Krok Industries. Krok is the umbrella company for the business ventures that business owner, Roman, and his sons, Oleh and Yury, had created since I worked with them almost 20 years ago. Roman’s business produces elaborate light fixtures and is a major importer of Austrian crystals. Yury, Roman’s younger son, left his job as a professor at a local university and created a start-up publishing company where he primarily translates poetry from around the world into the Ukrainian language for publication. Roman’s main clients are the Catholic churches in Ukraine; his firm of artisans produce, by hand, incredible chandeliers and other fixtures for the churches. A tour through the manufacturing process left me in awe. Roman showed me each step of the process as artisans cut, hammered, and polished the intricate pieces of brass that would be put together into magnificent chandeliers. The light fixtures are designed by Luba, Roman’s wife. Both Roman and Luba are engineers and worked together at the same facility while under Soviet rule. My tour of the facility was suddenly interrupted by a phone call informing everyone that the schools were closing and that everyone needed to go to "Maidan."

Within 15 minutes it had been decided that the firm would close so that gov bldg 2employees could gather their families and head to Maidan. All towns/cities have what is known as the Maidan or town square. I arrived at the Maidan in Ternopil with Oleh and his family. The square was bustling with people of all ages and all walks of life. A large stage had been constructed at one end of the square and it was filled with poets, orators, singers, and the like. At this point in the revolution, there was not any kind of “leader.” The revolution was being “led” by the people – people who were demanding to be free of the corruption of Yanukovych and his administration. 

Every day more and more people came to Maidan. Nonessential businesses were closed each afternoon which encouraged all people to join the revolution. The sacrifice made by business owners was not lost on me. The average pay in Ukraine is $3 a day. Roman’s employees are paid on average $8 a day. While I was there, throughout the first week of the revolution, Roman paid his employees for the entire day, not just for the 4 hours they were in the shop. I soon found out that this was true of all the businesses I knew in Ternopil.

In trying to understand these new developments I thought of Dr. Balu during this time. I had participated in Dr. Balu’s “Leadership for Global Citizenship” during my first semester at Cornell. When analyzing a problem, Dr. Balu emphasized how important it was to look at who has a stake in any given situation. I immediately knew that we all had a stake in the Ukrainian revolution. With a literacy rate of 99.7%, the Ukrainian people are bright and capable of bringing their talents to the global stage. The Ukraine itself is a vast fertile land that is a valuable asset in producing the much needed crops to help fulfill the ever-growing need for food around the world. 

To help in understanding the Ukrainian point of view of the reasoning behind the revolution, I asked Oleh his thoughts and his written statement reads as follows: “I was born and lived here all my life. Though I might not be a typical representative of the Ternopil community, I know these people. And they are in the city main square and number of other important places almost 24 hours for free. It is not the money, it is freedom that they want to keep. Those guys and girls were born in independent Ukraine and don’t really know what kind of a nightmare the Soviet Union was. And they don’t want to know it and let it happen in the future. They’re not just for EU association, not just against political personalities, they are for freedom here!”

Oleh, in his late thirties, grew up under Soviet rule. The scars are still fresh from living under the harsh conditions of the former Soviet Union and even the thought of his children growing up under those conditions is enough to spur him into attending Maidan every day. 

On Wednesday of that week I went with Roman to the Carpathian Mountains to deliver fixtures to a monastery tucked into the hillside of a small village. Much like the trip between Ternopil and Lviv, the roads were in horrendous shape. The distance between Lviv and Ternopil is 79 miles. It took almost 4 hours to drive that distance and the same held true for the trip to deliver the products to the monastery. How can these fledgling businesses compete on the global market if their infrastructure is in shambles? They can’t. Will multi-national corporations invest in a country if they cannot transport their products within the boundaries of that country in a safe and efficient manner?

In the morning among the small villages along the winding route to the Carpathian Mountains, I noticed people going about their business. On the way back in the afternoon, these small village Maidans were filled with people. Apparently, like in Ternopil, businesses were closed in the afternoon to allow people the chance to join the revolution, not just in the big cities, but in their home towns. This is important because news reports stated that the protests had just recently spread to places outside of Kyev, Lviv, and other larger cities. From the beginning, people from villages all over Ukraine had taken part in the revolution. Equally important is the understanding that since the beginning, the Ukrainian people surrounded government buildings in cities outside of Kyev too – the media failed to recognize this fact.

My arrival in Lviv, where I wrapped up my Ukrainian visit, gave me yet another insightful look into the Ukrainian view of the situation. My host in Lviv was Serhiy Savchenko. Serhiy, a brilliant artist with 3 children has many of the same concerns as Oleh. Serhiy’s poignant look at the inequality in Ukraine is a problem all around the globe, especially here in the United States. With an average income of $3 a day, Ukrainians are not the ideal market for multi-national corporations looking to pander their products in a new market. Joining the EU was the hope that most Ukrainian people have been holding onto for a decent future, for themselves and their children. With President Viktor F. Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the trade agreement with the EU, it is no wonder the people have taken to the streets in protest – he took away their future, because they know that they have no future if they are tethered to Russia.

As a nontraditional student, the dream of traveling to remote locations for research is just that, a dream. Without the ILR travel grant, I never would have been able to travel to Ukraine to conduct my research or to have experienced, first hand, the hopes and fears of the Ukrainian people.