Monday, August 23, 2010

LDS (Mormon) Temple Opened in Kiev

For several years Kievites have been wondering, "what's that tall white building being built over there on the Okruzhnaya Road?" Well, now we know. It's a Mormon (LDS) temple, the first of its kind not only in Ukraine, but in all the former Soviet Union.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, claims 10,000 members in Ukraine after nearly 20 years of proselyting activity. There are some 13 million or so Mormons around the world with roughly 1 temple per 100,000 members (so ~130 temples). So now, instead of traveling to Germany (a little perk of membership) for temple service, LDS church members in the region will stay a bit closer to home.

The temple is highly visible right next to the Okruzhnaya Road on the southwest edge of Kiev. It had its public open house in August and from now on will only be accessible to church members with special passes. Regular Sunday worship meetings are held in chapels, which are open to the general public.

Other public activities held by Ukrainian Mormons include English conversation classes led by foreign missionaries, mostly from the U.S. Many students of English in Kiev have heard of or even attended these classes. They say they consist of general conversation by untrained teachers who tend to be replaced sooner than you can get to know them, followed by a brief proselytizing spiel. But they are free of cost.

I toured the temple during its open house along with hundreds or thousands of other Kievites and was impressed with the interior. I'm fairly sure it could be put in the top 100 buildings of Ukraine in terms of quality and neatness of interior design.

The landscaping was distinctly American / Western European, with a thick mat of uniformly trimmed bright green grass. "It's artificial," said someone who had never seen a proper lawn before. "No, it's real," I explained, a lawn expert by virtue of my U.S. citizenship.

Geography Lesson: Why Ukraine is Better than Russia

I spent nearly two years living in Russia and enjoy the culture, language, and geography. But I have recently come to realize that it has some drawbacks that put major limits on the quality of life. By far the greatest drawback is climate.

The vast majority of Russia is so cold that a huge percentage -- roughly one half -- of all energy expenditures is wasted on heating. Instead of using energy to produce goods and services to improve the quality of life, Russians use it just to keep warm.

With few exceptions, heat is generated through the combustion of fossil fuels. Before fossil fuels had become widely available, Russia was a miserable place to live for all but the 5% of society who were aristocracy and government workers. Russian peasants across most of Russia lived in abject poverty, barely able to scrape by in the harsh climate and poor agricultural conditions.

This was not because the country lacked democracy and a free market economy, but because the climate didn't allow people living on the land to build up surpluses and engage in trade and other nonessential activities.

Today, the cost of heating and maintaining infrastructure over enormous distances puts added costs onto many goods and services -- for instance, transportation. Train travel in Russia is 2 to 3 times more expensive than in Ukraine. And yet, except for a few cities in European Russia, people are just as poor as in Ukraine (or poorer).

Many people in the outskirts are effectively stuck where they are, unable to travel further than an occasional short trip by train to the nearest city. Some visas for international travel can only be obtained at consulates and embassies located in Moscow or St. Petersburg, which are a prohibitively expensive trip away. Flights are expensive, and train travel is expensive and takes forever.

Without fossil fuels and other natural resources to exploit, most of Russia would suffer a catastrophic loss in standard of living. As global temperatures rise, primarily affecting arctic regions, Russia stands to gain a lot of effective territory and be able to spend less energy trying to keep things warm and liveable for its inhabitants. Global Warming is good news for Russia.

In Ukraine life was never so hard. The comparatively cold, continental climate kept European-like urban development from occuring over much of the country. Most people lived as peasants with too little surplus to allow for the creation of large towns. But life in the countryside was rarely so difficult -- thanks to a warmer climate and better soils -- that people and livestock were constantly on the verge of starving to death and had no time to do anything other than subsistence agriculture.

With train travel comparatively inexpensive and southern lands quite close, Ukrainians can more easily take vacations to places like Crimea, Bulgaria, and Croatia, which are all a day's trip away. Europe with its culture and history is just a stone's throw away, and many Ukrainians have been to Poland at the very least, if not further west.

Ukraine is also dependent upon coal and gas for heating. But if these were taken away, people would have a place to go -- back to the countryside. Wood might soon be in short supply, but cold spells are shorter and less severe, and the warm growing season quite a bit longer, than in most of Russia.

From a climatic and geographical standpoint, the most favorable areas in Ukraine for living are probably Transcarpathia, Galicia, and Bukovina -- all in western Ukraine, which has a milder and somewhat moister climate. It's no surprise that these areas developed an urban culture similar to that of central Europe.

To these we might add the Crimean foothills and coast -- another area with quite a bit of development historically, though little connected with far western Ukraine.

Even sandy, chilly Kiev is in a better location with better climate specs than the Russian capital, Moscow, although still somewhat cut off from the civilized world.

By choosing Ukraine (if one has a choice at all), your putting your bets with a place that, for geographical and climatic reasons, historically has tended to have a better standard of living than Russia.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Is Getting a Work Permit in Ukraine Worth It?

Sometimes my wife and I ask ourselves this. By the time we finally get her temporary residency permit in a few weeks, it will have been a full six months since we sat down with her employer and discussed the steps we would take to get her legally employed at their company. Mind you, work permits are only issued for a year, so I guess that means 6 months out of each year will be spent moving documents from place to place and wondering what the outcome will be.

Her employer took on most of the work, but some things we had to do ourselves. I can't imagine a foreigner who is not fluent in Russian/Ukrainian being able to complete the process without breaking down and paying a lawyer upwards of 500 Euro to take care of [much of] the work.

But receiving a work permit is just the first -- albeit most critical -- part of a three-stage process:
  1. obtain work permit (no small feat)
  2. obtain visa (take trip to Ukrainian consulate abroad)
  3. obtain temporary residency in Ukraine
The third stage turned out to be surprisingly difficult. It's more than the usual visit to the ZHEK for an OVIR registration. You need to get statements from everyone registered at your address of registration, AIDS and tuberculosis medical tests, and a statement from the tax office on your employer that takes 10 working days to issue. I figure that by the time we get this all done I will have been to the Kiev OVIR 8 times.

Most landlords are understandably not interested in registering anyone at their apartment, even temporarily. It's more work for them, potential problems with the ZHEK, and increased utilities payments as well as taxes (there's a 15% income tax on rental income). Even if they agree to this, expect to foot the bill for taxes and utilities. This step can be so much of a problem that apartment rental agencies will take care of all this for you for a modest fee of... $1200 USD. That just goes to show how hard it is to get a landlord to go with you to the ZHEK.

Soon this process will finally be over... for the next 6 or 7 months, at least. I'm sure over 100 man hours will have been spent if you consider the time my wife's employer spent preparing and submitting documents, our trips to the Krakow consulate along with the innumerable trips here and there across Kiev to submit documents for police clearance certificates and then pick them up, getting a taxpayer's code, and all the rest.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Smoke and Wildfires in Ukraine

We've been hearing for a while about the terrible wildfires in Russia due to unprecedented hot and dry weather. This morning Kiev woke up to a smokey haze enshrouding the entire city. Reports say the smoke is from burning peat about 20 km from Kiev or from a fire near Irpen (to the northeast of Kiev) and is not from the much larger fires in Russia.

It is possible, even probable, that more fires will erupt in Ukraine in the coming week. Temperatures are expected to reach record levels at near 40 C (104 F) over much of the country on Wednesday and Thursday and remain high for many days after that, with no major precipitation in sight.

Much of Kiev is surrounded by pine forests that are frequented by picnickers who love to light fires and make shish-kabobs. Some of these people don't put out their fires completely before abandoning them (often with a few more bottles and plastic dishes spread around). All it takes is a hot wind to cause a wildfire. Right now the woods are dry, and fire danger levels will rise to "extreme" later this week.

Possible changes in Ukraine's landscape due to Global Warming

Climate scientists expect summers like this to become more common as the planet warms. Climate zones will shift northward, with Kiev becoming more like Kirovohrad (a city several hundred kilometers to the south), and Kirovohrad becoming more like Kherson (even further south).

This means that the boundary of steppe and forest will probably also shift north. How this will probably happen is that forests at the southern edge of the forested zone will become increasingly drier and susceptible to forest fires. They will start going up in flames and will simply not grow back. Instead, there will be grasses and shrubs with frequent fires in the hot and dry summer season leaving no chance for forests to develop.

UPDATE AUG. 13, 2010
The situation has not changed. There is still a light smokey haze above the city. Nothing like Moscow, but enough to make being outside less pleasant. Temperatures are forecasted to drop in a week, after many weeks of uncommon heat.

See: Current Weather around Ukraine at