Different Ukrainians, different Poles

Victoriia Zhuhan · 21 October 2014
My friends in Ukraine want to know what Poles are like, since they know I lived in Poland for two years. Poles, on the other hand, ask what we Ukrainians are like. I never know what to tell either group. Each new story I come across is different – the more I learn, the more I am afraid of getting things wrong.

I have observed at least three different groups of Ukrainians who move to Poland. For the first group – the young and affluent ones, who came over before Euromaidan kicked off – the move is not unlike a student exchange trip, something akin to the Erasmus programme. Little more than a race around an endless sequence of bars and parties. Warsaw is buzzing with an international vibe, of which Ukrainians are only a small part. They go to places where they encounter arrivals from other parts of the world. A global melting pot, offering new experiences and the chance to learn languages. For this first group, Europe is only a starting point – the rest of the continent awaits them (as long as they can get across its visa restrictions). They know full well the interesting places Ryanair can take them, or, failing that, where local PolskiBus coaches go.

For the second group, migration to Poland is simply a chance to leave, to escape anywhere, any which way, as far from home as possible. Parents want to send their children out West, where they can gain European qualifications and never return. After all, we know that post-Soviet diplomas are almost useless around the world, while in Poland Ukrainians can sign up for attractive courses at acceptable rates. Most Polish private colleges don’t require language testing or entry exams. All one has to do is submit proof of having finished basic schooling in the Ukraine and pay the course fees. Emigre networks are serviced by firms who make all the arrangements. Among this group of students we not only find those recently graduated from high school, but also ranks of young, working age men who are aware that remaining in Ukraine could soon enough mean compulsory enlistment into the army. It is safer to borrow money from friends and take up any course of study or job. The only thing which counts is to get away from the instability back home.

What do Poles think about this? They can’t fathom why, at certain universities and polytechnics, they are suddenly an ethnic minority, or why in shopping centres or on public transport Ukrainian and Russian is being spoken more and more often (though I imagine few Poles can tell the difference). The separation between “ours” and “others’” becomes all the more acute as more and more migrants from the East make their way over. When these new arrivals constitute a minority, they have to try to fit in, like it or not. But when they suddenly make up half of a given community (say, on a student campus), two distinct cultures begin to emerge. Enclaves begin to form, in which Ukrainian problems are discussed in Ukrainian, and where both nations are compared from a Ukrainian, not a Polish, perspective. “Russian Party” themes are becoming more and more popular in night clubs, while young people are meeting up in pubs and watching international football matches featuring the Ukrainian national team. It is easy not to notice these people and their places, until they start to become a problem.

The third group has, after all, been here for years. This is Poland’s cheap labour force. People working like mad, often six 12-hour days a week. Without legal contracts, without benefits. Their knowledge of Polish is just about enough to carry out menial tasks and jobs. Their sense of Polish culture is limited to concepts such as “Sundays, Sir told me to keep working around his house, but not be seen by the neighbours, as Sunday is a day of rest.” And here “Sir” (“Pan” in Polish) is always spelled with a capital letter, because this is something Ukrainians still associate with our feudal past. For Poles, encounters with a housekeeper or a labourer are often the only contact they have with their Eastern neighbours – whom they perceive as stupid, cheap and “illegal”. Can we then talk about any sort of understanding or cross cultural dialogue?


When writing about these two parallel worlds, the Ukrainian and the Polish, I am reminded of the freezing evenings I spent in Warsaw last winter, when many Poles would attend demonstrations in support of Ukraine. Some came daily. I recall those who brought warm food. Did our Maidan crisis help two neighbouring, related cultures finally get to know one another? Or is it rather that a prolonged conflict the other side of their Eastern border will mean Poles will soon enough tire of Ukraine and her people? Over the past two years, all I have learnt is that Poles and Ukrainians are very different. Perhaps this realisation is a way into further dialogue – in a situation neither nation was prepared for at all.