Ukraine, Darwin, & Miniskirts

I’m wrapping up a two-week teaching and vacation trip to Ukraine. The former Soviet republic is west of Russia, east of Poland, south of Belarus, and north of the Black Sea (oil anyone?). It’s been a rough neighborhood for some 20 centuries.

For years people have raved about the beautiful Ukrainian women. Sure, whatever.

Well, now I get it. They are beautiful—and not only do they know it, they show it off every minute of every day.

But it’s confusing, which is why I’m telling you about it.

This is a country of poverty and powerlessness. There isn’t enough money to go around. The food is terrible, the streets are ugly, the cars are dirty, small, and broken. So is the government. The Russian mafia and their friends in Kiev bought everything of value after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Now they run the country exactly like Moscow did, without the subtle charm of communism.

So why is the average young Ukrainian woman dressed like a Park Avenue hooker?

I am not making this up, and I am not just being lecherous (well, not entirely). It’s stripper heels, micro-miniskirts, push-up bras, and look-at-me cleavage for everyone under 30. As your observer-on-the-scene I’m not complaining, but in a country where doctors make $500 per month and live in 5-story walk-up apartments, it is striking.

So I’ve been asking about it: asking professors, cab drivers, translators, cops, waitresses (serving lunch wearing high heels, you understand). And the women themselves. While grocery shopping or waiting at a red light or in a museum ticket queue, I’ve been asking: why the fancy clothes, makeup and hair—on a dusty Tuesday afternoon? And even a blazing hot Saturday morning?

No matter who I asked, the answers were similar, always in one of three categories:

• it’s the national style
• hoping to marry out
• local competition

Many people said, with some pride, that this is how Ukrainian women dress. “They (or we) are beautiful, and they (or we) like to show off,” said many. So they’re flaunting their sexuality? Not exactly, it seems. Surprisingly, many people insist that it’s beauty on display, not sex. It’s an interesting distinction. And what do people think when they see woman after woman dramatically revealing their breasts, thighs, and butt on an average afternoon? “Not such a big deal,” said one cabbie. “All our women are gorgeous.” “People like to see it,” said one long-legged 20-year-old beauty. “It makes everyone happy.”

But this is a dreadful country for anyone with imagination, and so young women (along with young men) are eager to emigrate. There are marriage bureaus in every city, and their clients are the “Ukrainian women who want to meet YOU”—if you’re a westerner who can get them a visa out of hell. How do these women feel about marrying someone they barely know, and certainly don’t love, just to get a plane ticket out of borscht city? “It’s a good deal for everyone,” said a short woman in a black cocktail dress several sizes too small. “These men get a beautiful young wife, the girl gets to America or Canada, it’s better for everybody.”

Until, of course, the women learn that these men aren’t loaded with either money or emotional skills—and the men learn that these women expect gift after gift, that they never intended to fall in love, and they very much believe in divorce.

I found the third category the most intriguing: local competition.

I was told over and over that Ukrainian women dressed to kill because there are too many women chasing too few men. Why? The answers reveal plenty about Ukrainian society.

First, many men drink so much that they’re uninteresting companions, poor sexual partners, lousy marriage prospects, or violent. Second, many men clearly have poor job and financial futures—they’re under-educated, under-motivated, and living through a poor economy. Third, many men are unprepared for women who are now feeling more entitled and more independent.

The result: the few guys who are good catches can be very, very picky. For better or worse, young Ukrainian women are competing for these guys by advertising their, um, beauty. Or sexuality—take your pick.

Taken together, the three theories—national style, desire to emigrate, and local competition—say a lot about this country and this world. Whether a society is communist, capitalist, corrupt, or confused, female sexuality is still a desirable currency. And it’s too simplistic to say that women who take advantage of their account are just Natashas with low self-esteem.

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