Ласкаво просимо! (Welcome!) Despite being a huge country, most people know little about Ukraine. Three facts, however, are relatively well known: Ukraine is famous for their vodka, potatoes and borsch (beet soup) are their staples, and Ukraine was the site of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. There is so much more to learn about Ukraine than this and those who venture to this part of the world will be glad they did.
Geography & Demographics
Ukraine is a beautiful country in Eastern Europe, full of rolling hills and interesting people. Throughout different ‘oblasts’ or regions, you will find an eclectic mix of cultures. Ukraine, meaning ‘borderland’, borders Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova. Also, the beautiful Crimean Peninsula in the south lies on the Black Sea, not far from Turkey. There are beaches in the south and Carpathian Mountains in the west. Each region of Ukraine varies dramatically from the others, and within each region you may encounter such disparities that you won’t believe you’re in the same country. There are tiny villages that will make you feel like you’ve been teleported back a century, when indoor plumbing was a luxury and food was only consumed if you grew, cooked, and canned it yourself.
Alternatively, there are big, modern cities like Odessa, Kiev, and L’viv with ethnic restaurants and nightclubs. That’s what foreigners love about Ukraine, there’s plenty for everyone and you can’t help but appreciate the eccentricities. Ukraine’s population of about 45 million is dispersed throughout the country, though about 2.5 million people live in Kiev.
As would be expected of a large country, Ukraine’s climate varies depending on the region. Generally speaking, Ukraine has a temperate climate with two main seasons, warm, dry summers and rather harsh winters.
Summer months average high temperatures between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius. January is the coldest month in Ukraine, with temperatures often below freezing. In terms of weather, the most pleasant time to visit is between May and September, when days are warm and nights are cool.
Food & Culture
Ukraine has two common languages, Ukrainian and Russian. Though Ukrainian is the official language, there are many regions where Russian is spoken almost exclusively. The east and the south of Ukraine are predominantly Russian speaking. In the capital city, both languages can be heard. In many parts of Ukraine, including the border regions and around central Ukraine, you can often hear a mix of the two languages. Throughout central Ukraine, a mix of Ukrainian and Russian is spoken. Depending on which border you’re near, a mix of Ukrainian-Polish, Ukrainian-Romanian, and even Ukrainian-Hungarian can be heard! The latter two are most unusual, as Romanian and Hungarian come from language families which are entirely different from Slavic languages.
Ukrainian and Russian are both Slavic languages, and they both use the Cyrillic alphabet. The two languages have very much in common, and most words sound very similar; however, their alphabets contain a few letters, mostly vowels, which are different from one another. The Cyrillic alphabet is not as difficult as it looks, and if you take the time to study it before you go, you’ll be glad you did. A few letters are deceiving, as they look like one letter in English, but they are entirely different. For example, ‘P’ in Russian and Ukrainian is actually the ‘R’ sound, ‘H’ is actually the ‘N’ sound, and ‘C’ is the ‘S’ sound. Once you get past this and learn a few new letters, you’ll be able to read basic signs like pectopah (restaurant) and bahk (bank). Of course most words won’t sound the same as they do in English, but there are a few cognates such as these.
Food and drink are an important part of Ukrainian culture. Once you are invited into someone’s home, after you’ve taken off your shoes and been offered slippers, your host will likely invite you for some chai (tea) and cookies or kanapkis. Though translated as sandwiches in English, kanapkis are single slices of bread smeared with butter and topped with a slice of cheese and meat, such as salami or salo (pig fat). You should graciously accept their offer of hospitality.
In Ukraine, it seems nothing happens without first sharing a nice cup of tea. Having dinner in someone’s home is a real treat, especially during a holiday or birthday. The host often spends an entire day in the kitchen, preparing food from scratch. Christmas dinners include 12 dishes, so if you’re lucky enough to be in Ukraine during this time, arrive hungry! If you prefer a low carb or vegetarian diet, prepare to face challenges in Ukraine. Some of the most popular dishes include borsch soup, varenyki which are pierogies or potato dumplings, and cabbage rolls stuffed with meat.
If you have a knack for spicy food, bring spices with you. Most Ukrainians don’t use many spices aside from salt, pepper, and dill. When visitors attempt to cook food with chili powder or other spicy ingredients, Ukrainians may think they are trying to set their bodies on fire because their tolerance for spice is so low.
Volunteering in Ukraine
There are a wide variety of volunteer programs in Ukraine. Though Peace Corps focuses primarily on English language and HIV education, youth development, and economic development, there are many other programs that you can get involved in. There are organizations that provide much needed volunteer opportunities around the nation.
Some of the most popular are:
- Working at Orphanages
- Assisting with Special Needs Children
- TeachingEnvironmental Studies
- Human Rights or Anti-Human Trafficking work
Before going to Ukraine, check out the visa requirements online to ensure a smooth entry. For citizens of many countries, including the United States, visitors can enter Ukraine as a tourist for up to 90 days without a visa; however, depending on the volunteer organization you become involved with and the length of time you intend to stay, you may need a visa.