Cultures, economies meet as war narrows divides between east and west in Ukraine

Photo for The Washington Post by Danylo Pavlov.
Shoppers in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, look into the House of Bread, with its menorah in the window. The cafe, which serves Middle Eastern and Jewish food, draws both residents and newcomers.

ILNYTSYA, UKRAINE – Every morning after waking up early in Kharkiv, Oleksii Vakhrushev would make a round of phone calls to all of his employees and check if they were all right after another long night of shelling.

It was the earliest phase of the war, when Ukraine’s second-largest city was under almost round-the-clock bombardment. Vakhrushev would arrange for his workers to be picked up and taken to the company’s location in the north of Kharkiv. That needed to happen right after the overnight curfew ended at 6 a.m. to lose as little time as possible in the workday.

Vakhrushev’s brief conversations often included the same exchange.

“Hello, everything okay?” he would ask.

“All’s fine,” his employee would answer.

Suddenly, BOOM!

“Did you hear that?” he’d ask. “Where was it?”

“No idea.”

“Then let’s go,” he’d say. “And God willing, everything will be fine.”

The front line was roughly 20 miles from the factory where his Temp Ukraine manufactured building and paving materials, and Russian-launched missiles and bombs sometimes landed close enough to shatter glass. Even as they did, Vakhrushev and his team kept going. But their work quickly changed: Piece by piece, they loaded the firm’s equipment and production onto trucks for shipment to the safety of Ilnytsya, a town 800 miles away near the Hungarian and Romanian borders.

With Moscow continuing to wage scorched-earth campaigns in the east and south, Ukrainians have abandoned their homes in droves. According to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, more than 6 million people are now displaced within Ukraine, in addition to the nearly 5 million who have fled the country entirely.

Along with them have gone businesses and workplaces. Many, like Vakhrushev’s company and more than a dozen of its employees, have headed to areas in western Ukraine where fighting and missile attacks have been minimal. Their journey represents a massive and very fluid demographic shift taking place within the country – one that is altering it economically and possibly changing Ukrainians’ own perception of one another.

East and west are growing closer, Vakhrushev believes. “We teach them, and they teach us,” he explained.

In Transcarpathia, the agricultural region where Ilnytsya is located, Gov. Viktor Mykyta estimates that the population of 1 million has increased by at least a third. The sudden influx of people has strained local infrastructure. Many of the displaced are being housed in school buildings, and officials are scrambling to find them new accommodations before classes resume in the fall. Still, Mykyta stresses, everyone is being taken care of. “Transcarpathians are very hospitable people,” he said.

The upheaval has also meant other changes, which may be much more lasting. More than 350 companies have relocated to Transcarpathia, bringing with them new knowledge, new business know-how and new ways of doing things. Temp Ukraine, for one, is the first company here to recycle plastic waste as part of its manufacturing process – a welcome service in a tourism-dependent region that wants to keep its landscape pristine.

And with the number of computer specialists skyrocketing from about 2,000 before the war to nearly 35,000 today, Mykyta and his staff hope to turn the region into a tech hub. They are starting to work with IT companies interested in moving to the region and plan to add computer programming courses at the local schools.

But the shift of people and resources goes beyond economic benefits. The demographic changes – even those that are temporary – are helping to transform the country’s social fabric.

The divisions in Ukrainian society are often overstated, but differences among the country’s regions do exist. Ukraine’s west is mostly rural, Ukrainian-speaking and infused with Central European culture. The east and south are largely Russian speaking, with a cultural sense that, at least before the war, also felt more Russian. Many of the country’s largest cities are in the east and south, as was much of its heavy industry before the Russian invasion.

The stereotypes that the various regions held about one another are softening as they interact, according to Viktoria Sereda, a professor of sociology at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, and Ukrainian identity is increasingly tied to a shared sense of civic belonging. The “fault line” in how Ukrainians define themselves is now whether “they defend their country in all possible ways,” she said.

“When people are living in this small proximity or in the same community, they are sharing their personal stories,” Sereda noted. “They have a possibility to see that it’s not how it was portrayed in media or by some politicians for the purposes of political mobilization.”

Amid the winding streets in the old town of Uzhhorod, Transcarpathia’s regional capital, the House of Bread cafe is a magnet for some of this sharing.

The cafe is the only local establishment serving Middle Eastern and Jewish food – pita sandwiches, falafel, salads, hummus and chopped herring. Its owners, Vadim Bespalov and Ella Kirilyuk, fled here from Kyiv and Odessa in the war’s first weeks and met in a religious service at a local church.

Photo for The Washington Post by Danylo Pavlov.
Oleksii Vakhrushev checks out his company’s new production site in Ilnytsya, part of the more rural and agricultural Transcarpathia region, in western Ukraine. “We teach them, and they teach us,” he says.

Before World War II, Uzhhorod was about a third Jewish. The Holocaust and postwar emigration decimated that population. Bespalov and Kirilyuk are both of Jewish descent and discovered that they shared a dream of opening a restaurant serving traditional foods. They rented an abandoned space on a small side street in what was once Uzhhorod’s Jewish quarter and opened at the end of June. A large menorah stands in the front window.

The cafe’s five tables were full during lunchtime on a recent afternoon, occupied by a mix of locals and those displaced by the war. Dima Halin, a videographer from Kyiv, discovered the cafe by chance. “It’s important that this place exists,” he said. “People need to meet, and food and culture is a good place to start.”

“This is a big cocktail that we call Ukraine,” Bespalov chimed in. “It’s all being mixed up.”

In Ilnytsya, the process of assimilation has gone a bit slowly for the workers of Temp Ukraine. The move itself was major: A couple of trucks hired in Kharkiv evacuated the company, making the two-day drive 20 times over a month and a half.

“Getting gas was the biggest problem,” Vakhrushev said. “That, and finding trucks and drivers willing to make the trip.”

Vakhrushev relocated with 37 people in all – his younger brother, Serhii, who also works at the company, their employees and members of their families. Their new home, a sleepy hamlet of 12,000 people that is nestled in the Carpathian foothills, is about as far as one can be from war-torn Kharkiv – geographically as well as psychologically – and still remain in Ukraine.

“The question isn’t where the firm is located. We still pay taxes in a single country, Ukraine,” Vakhrushev said from the company’s new facility on property that the regional administration helped him find. “The question is [whether] people can work safely, feel safe with the money they earn.”

The lack of industry and development in Transcarpathia was like going “back in time” to the 1990s, right after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when “everything was abandoned,” Vakhrushev said. Attitudes toward work also were quite different from those in hard-charging Kharkiv. Businesses close on Sundays, and laborers clock off exactly when the workday ends.

Yet things are going well enough that Vakhrushev now hopes to increase production and send more exports to the European Union next door. Bags of shredded plastic are piled up at the company’s new site, and newly pressed manhole covers lay stacked to one side. Serhii Vakhrushev praises the generosity of locals, who helped the company in getting set up and finding housing for workers. “They help us, and we help them,” he said.

Sometimes, though, it’s not the mileage from Kharkiv that underscores the distance everyone has traveled. It’s the small details, said worker Oleksiy Taranenko. After 70 days of shelling in the east, the silence of the countryside was “unnerving.”

“A completely different world,” he said. “Here everything is quiet. Birds are singing.”