Semi-liberated capitals

Cities Residents in three former Soviet cities are moving meter-by-meter forward (and sometimes back) | Marvin Olasky

Semi-liberated capitals

Picturesque: Tallinn’s Old Town
Rachel Lewis/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

EASTERN EUROPE—Cities are faith-based enterprises. Those of us who live in urban areas survive and sometimes thrive because all kinds of people we may rarely meet—firefighters and technicians, sewer workers and doctors, managers and entrepreneurs—are doing their jobs. In a well-ordered city we expect a little corruption but mostly honesty, and when that faith in essentially fair dealing shatters, many urbanites begin living lives of quiet desperation.

What would it be like to live in cities where almost everything is corrupt, in countries where for half a century lying was essential and truth-telling virtually suicidal? That was the plight of Estonians and Lithuanians from 1941 to 1991, when the Soviet Union finally fell. For Ukrainians, Soviet rule lasted two decades longer, so the oldest generation had no memories of freedom to pass along to children and grandchildren. The recent progress in the capitals of those three countries—Tallinn, Estonia; Vilnius, Lithuania; and Kiev, Ukraine—is halting but nevertheless remarkable. 

The sweetest current story comes from Tallinn, nearly a millennium old and under Danish, Swedish, Russian, or German control during most of its existence. Estonia was independent for 22 years after World War I and has now made it to 22 once again, but architectural remnants of its diverse incarnations remain: present-day glassy corporate offices, brutal Soviet concrete apartment blocks from the recent past, and a charming Old Town (on UNESCO’s World Heritage list) with medieval buildings and cobblestone alleys.

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The good news is that Tallinn has some extraordinary entrepreneurs in their upper 20s and 30s: old enough to remember deprivation under the Soviets and food shortages in the initial years of independence, not too old to have stilled their entrepreneurial enthusiasm. For example, Urmas Järve—enrolled by his mom in computer and English languages when he was small—left school early 10 years ago, at age 17, because he was already deep into computer programming. That hasn’t hurt him because the new Estonian emphasis is on competence, not credentials.

Järve grew up in a house with a white picket fence, an apple tree in the front yard, and room to grow potatoes in back. Now he works in sales and management at a high-tech company he partially owns, has an in-town apartment, and drives a Lexus. He and his friends represent the antithesis of the lying Soviet regime: They want frank talk about problems and quick exposure of governmental inefficiency, and have no patience for either socialism or crony capitalism.

Another young Tallinn entrepreneur, Henrik Pōder, works amid curvilinear, blond wood-and-metal desks with vines and acoustic tiles overhead and beige linoleum underfoot. He worries about “government officials who have no idea what we’re talking about. The politicians should run a company and learn what it’s like to do that.”

Remembering past hardships, Estonians did not spend more when economic crisis hit five years ago: They painfully cut government spending, are now reaping the benefits in economic growth, and have become known worldwide as a flat-tax, business-friendly land of creativity and enterprise. But some also call Estonia the least religious country in the world: What will the 30-year-olds be seeking when their age has doubled and gray hairs march toward the Gulf of Finland?

Vilnius also has an Old Town designated as a World Heritage Site: It’s the largest in Eastern Europe that went virtually untouched by World War II, and its jumble of Renaissance, Baroque, and other architectural style—now with graffitied walls—is fascinating. So is its jumble of a healthcare system, which includes dingy old buildings of the University Hospital, the governmental flagship facility, and gleaming new private clinics.

The Lithuanian constitution promises free healthcare for all, but as Rūta Vainienė  of the Lithuanian Free Market Institute put it, her country’s two alternatives are, “Go private and pay again, or you bribe.” She spoke of how state-paid doctors open a drawer in their desks so patients who want medical attention can put down a wad of cash and “absentmindedly” leave the office without reclaiming it. Or, since the government determines what type of care patients can receive, “to get better medicine, cancer must be heavier, so patients say ‘please worsen my bad news.’ Doctors learn to lie.”

It’s hard to throw off a half-century of deceit. Vainienė  pointed out other negatives of Lithuania’s socialized medicine system, such as overuse by some older people and underpayment to government-issue health staffers: “It’s a big mess. The most important sector is the most messed-up. Dirty. dirty, dirty, dirty.” Three new private clinics I visited are clean, clean, clean, both physically and in transparency: They post price lists and attract visitors from Britain and other countries with national healthcare and long delays.

Vainienė  said she’s paid attention to our U.S. debates over Obamacare and come up with a decidedly pessimistic prediction: “U.S. healthcare in 2020 … people give people bribes, holding their envelopes … waiting in line and dying.” Everyone wants access to healthcare, but Lithuania, like other countries, shows what can happen when government promises too much and can’t deliver. 

The problem isn’t unique to Lithuania. Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, has no Old Town/World Heritage Site: World War II battles largely destroyed the city’s center. Some Soviet construction gracefully took after the old, but many new, concrete buildings are ugly. So is the healthcare system.

One story from Ukrainian Ph.D. student Anatolij Babinsky: When his wife had a caesarian section, he had to offer financial “gifts” to nurses, attendants, and doctors. While she was in intensive care, the pediatrician wouldn’t even check the baby, and nurses would not bring the baby to his wife, unless Babinsky paid extra. He believes bribes are wrong, but he paid up: “When it’s your wife and child, you want to see them in good health.”

Ukraine, of course, had Soviet rule for 70 years, and before that the tyranny of the czars: Such a legacy is hard to shake. When liberation miraculously came in 1991, those with governmental power sold state-owned industries to their pals, who became rich. The result, according to Andrei Barkov, managing director of Nadiya Ukrainy, a HOPE International maker of micro-loans: “Huge industrial operations privately owned by guys who wear Versace and have a dozen mistresses.”

Ukraine’s crony capitalism is an upgrade over communism, but neither inspires entrepreneurial risk-taking among people who had absorbed for decades a Russian expression, “tallest stalk gets the sickle.” The small business owners I talked with in Kiev had often been government employees before the fall of Communism, and their attitudes differed from those of the Tallinn high-tech entrepreneurs: 

Nina Korzh sells perfume in an entry-level marketplace and competes against many other perfume sellers with similar merchandise. She was “out on the street with no job” in 1995, so she went into business, but would prefer being a salaried worker: “If a salary is decent and guaranteed, you feel good and you don’t have to worry about buying or selling stuff. In business you can never say for sure, and you have to take risks.”

Valentina Russel was a construction engineer. She entered the marketplace in 1995 “because there were no jobs and I wanted to be better off. I’m a Capricorn by my horoscope and I read it and understood that I needed to act.” She’s done well and now has a higher-end drapery shop inside a mall.

A HOPE micro-loan has also helped candy-seller Oxana Tsarik, who was optimistic—“I’m hoping for the best”—and smiling as she explained her competitive advantage: “I smile. Most Ukrainians never smile, haven’t you noticed?” Her smile would melt the hearts of customers, but she has a business problem: Summer heat melts her chocolates.

The prime reason for the stern faces even on political posters is cultural, but in part may be economic: Barkov says, “The environment for small business is worsening.” Yes, Ukraine’s entrepreneurs can readily sell cheap goods from Turkey or China, an activity that produces negligible profits, but barriers to entry make it hard for them to move up to a factory that turns tomatoes into ketchup or even to a beer-and-cigarette stand. 

Since small business owners do not know what the government will do, the smart money is on sitting tight and starting no new projects. One of Barkov’s branch managers, Vitaly Tolstikov, summed up the prevalent mood: Entrepreneurialism is hard, people are earning less, and “these days are the worst.” But then he pointed out Bible verses—John 3:16, Proverbs 6:6—on one wall of his office: “They help start a conversation. The clients ask questions, ‘Why are you guys different?’ We talk to the clients about Jesus … and at the same time, we help them improve their social status if they use our loans in the proper way.”

Barkov and Tolstikov recognize that the underlying problem is religious, and the re-empowered Orthodox church is part of the problem. Many church hierarchs enjoy governmental patronage and provide no real alternative to worship of the state, which means ordinary Ukrainians often turn to worship of the bottle. Decades of atheistic teaching in schools continue to have an effect: Many Ukrainians see Christianity only as a set of prayers recited at baptisms and funerals.

Evangelical missionaries tried to change that understanding when they were free to come to newly independent Ukraine in 1991. The initial response was exciting, but time had shown that many Ukrainians only momentarily pledged allegiance to Jesus: As missionary Shannon Ford, in Ukraine since 1999, puts it, “Everyone in the Ukraine has been saved five times.” But he remembers wonderful baptisms by the river, and those who persevere.

Kiev Theological Seminary teacher Mark McDonnel has also worked for years to help shift superficial commitments into life-transformers. In opposition to the Orthodox church’s divide of secular and spiritual, he tries to promote the idea of serving God in a secular environment—and in opposition to the tendency to see children with disabilities as burdens to be discarded, he’s helped to develop special-needs ministries. Some of his colleagues have given up, yet he retains hope. 

HOPE International in Ukraine literally banks on tomorrow: Profits from its micro-loan business go to “Tomorrow Clubs,” which are now Ukraine’s largest children’s ministry. Through 450 of these evangelical clubs, 1,800 volunteers teach nearly 13,000 children—three-fourths from unchurched families—about God’s grace.

I visited one Tomorrow Club that meets on Saturdays in a small church building with yellow walls and a gray tile floor. Seven volunteers in their 20s were leading two dozen children ages 5 to 14 in Bible games and crafts. The children in such clubs learn they are made in God’s image: Ukrainian governmental schools rarely acknowledge that image, but some school principals welcome Tomorrow Club after-school efforts. 

Orthodox priests are trying to stop the slow growth of evangelical churches by telling Ukrainian Protestants they won’t be welcome back for the only events that populate most old cathedrals: baptisms, marriages, and funerals. But the weekly community that new churches and their Tomorrow Clubs foster can trump the occasional Orthodox festivals, much as weekly Christian home fellowship groups in the Roman Empire beat out their big-event temple competitors.

Besides, Ukrainian evangelicals are survivors. One Tomorrow Club helper, Natasha Yedina, 16, made it to the outskirts of Kiev from Kazakhstan despite robbery, the shooting of her mom who turned down advice to have an abortion, family drunkenness, and a host of other problems: “much money, much sin,” she said. Vasily Kachan, pastor of the church hosting the Tomorrow Club, spoke of his father’s years in a prison camp, his pastorate near the Chernobyl nuclear explosion, and a subsequent church transplanting.   

Tomorrow Clubs in one sense don’t seem like a big deal—but in this long-suffering land where the big deals for centuries have turned bad, hope comes from the bottom up.

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