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Fixing Ukraine’s Villages One House at a Time

If you’ve ever been to Ukraine’s countryside, you may have noticed that many villages look like holdouts from the late nineteenth century. Dirt roads are the norm, water frequently has to be hauled from wells, and outhouses abound.

Don’t blame the villagers for that. Put the blame squarely on Joseph Stalin and the Communist Party. Collectivization destroyed Soviet agriculture, while the forced starvation of 1932–1933, known as the Holodomor, destroyed the Ukrainian peasantry. Nazi occupation policies during World War II only made things worse, while continued Soviet neglect of agriculture condemned the peasants to a nether existence up to the end of the Soviet Union. Collective farmers had a third-class status that some analysts even compared to modern-day serfdom.

Independence did little to revive the countryside. The collapse of Soviet central planning led to the collapse of most post-Soviet economies, Ukraine’s included. Inefficient collective farms fell apart and were replaced by subsistence farming; villagers headed for the cities or, if possible, Western Europe for work, and the village population, already aged and poor in Soviet times, became even more so. Out-migration also changed the sex balance. Before 1991, the only surefire way of leaving one’s village was to be drafted into the army: a trend that favored young men. Nowadays, it’s mature women who are most likely to get jobs as global nannies and Euro-housecleaners.

And yet, as a drive through Ukraine’s countryside shows, many villages appear to be experiencing a building boom. A big reason is the remittances that Ukrainian labor migrants to Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, and Poland send home. Another reason is that those who’ve stayed are proud of their villages and want to raise their socioeconomic development. A third is that some provincial governments provide villagers with micro-loans for capital improvements of their homesteads.

For example, take the Lviv Province Fund for Supporting Individual Housing Construction in Villages, in existence since 2000, which disburses loans as part of the “Your Own House” program. Borrowers only need to live, work, and build housing in rural areas, and, of course, be able to repay the loan according to the terms of the loan agreement. Those are very generous: you can get a loan for up to 20 years at 3 percent per annum, while the banks charge almost 30 percent. Provincial inputs into the fund’s budget have grown from 219,500 hryvnia in 2005 to almost a million (or about $123,000) in 2012, while the central government has provided a total of 9.9 million hryvnia since 2000. In that same period, repayment of loans has jumped from 119,500 hryvnia to more than 1.1 million. From 12 to 35 buildings and roughly 1,000 to 4,000 square meters of land are involved on an annual basis: not a crash program, obviously, but the improvements add up. Most important, the improvements are real: houses get fixed, roofs get replaced, homesteads are modernized—and more than 320 families’ immediate lives have gotten better. You’ll be happy to know that loans are distributed without regard to “nationality, religious beliefs, sex, or family status.”

The head of the fund happens to be a good friend of mine, the 59-year-old Zenoviy Drevnyak, who may have learned a thing or two about regional management while on a three-monthinternship with a Washington, DC, NGO in the early 1990s. “Zenko” is no political activist and no biznesmen. He’s just a regular guy who wants to make his country work. And if you’ve been to Ukraine, you’ll know that there are thousands of people, men and women, young and old, just like him: low-key patriots who understand that, in the final analysis, they are responsible for Ukraine’s future.

Zenko’s latest scheme is to revive the tiny village of Sernyky, located about 45 minutes southeast of Lviv. Sernyky encompasses Rehfeld, a settlement founded by German farmer-colonists in the late eighteenth century. They were “repatriated” to Germany by Hitler in 1940, and the village became completely Ukrainian in the aftermath of World War II. Zenko bought a dilapidated house formerly owned by one of the Germans, Adam Lang. He and his wife fixed it up, set up an organic garden, and hold weekly grill parties for friends, neighbors, and relatives. He also helped refurbished a broken-down chapel, established a Sernyky website, and reached out to a website that serves as a meeting place for descendants of German colonists from Galicia. Zenko’s hope is to attract German tourists and, at some point, perhaps even convert the village’s other run-down chapel into a small museum.

This could all turn out to be what Germans might call a Schnapsidee (a crazy idea),but then again: warum nicht?

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