Working in the Land of Brown and Dank: An American USAID Consultant in Ukraine

Photo: Phil Richards via Flickr

Photo cred: Phil Richards via Flickr

by Al Hirshen

In December 1995, when the Dayton Accord ended the war in the former Yugoslavia (Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia), USAID was instructed by the Bush Administration to render aid to these new countries. In its usual infinite wisdom, Congress did not appropriate additional funds for the task. USAID had to cobble together the money from existing programs. Ukraine was one of these existing programs that suffered the consequences: the full-time American consultants were removed from three of the four cities where the aid program operated.

Ukraine’s loss was my gain. Congress’s parsimony and short- sightedness created a consultant job for me, based on my prior work for the international consulting company PADCO (who ran the in-country program). I would fly in for short-term stays over almost a two-year period, to directly supervise the Ukrainian personnel in the USAID programs in Kiev, Odessa, and Kharkov. Also, to oversee the one PADCO consultant who remained full time in Lviv.

The USAID Program was designed to help the Ukrainians transfer ownership of existing apartments from the government to private condominiums, which meant that private housing maintenance and management companies had to be created too.

This may have seemed a good idea to the Washington planners who wanted to push the latest Reagan Administration theory of the benefits of home ownership. Once again I was witnessing a politically motivated housing theory being applied to a situation where the facts on the ground made it unworkable. Unlike in America, there were no laws spelling out the rights and duties of homeowners. Prior attempts to pass such laws had been unsuccessful, and without them any new “owner” was in a legal never-never land. Moreover, the government had not supplied the necessary funds to repair big-ticket items such as roofs and boilers. New owners would be saddled with expenses they could not afford. They rightly thought this made no sense. Ukrainians felt that if they lived on the first floor, why should they be responsible for the condition of the roof or elevator? And why should someone on an upper floor be responsible for a common area like the lobby?

I had the false assumption that people in a communist country would easily understand that they had to share responsibility for parts of a building they owned in common. It did not occur to them that the value of their apartment was based, in no small part, on the condition of the building as a whole. After so many years of looking only after themselves and suspecting their neighbors to be government spies, it was difficult for them to accept that they needed to work together to preserve the value of their apartment building. Because the government had not funded the repairs of big-ticket items such as roofs, boilers and elevators, it made no sense for the tenants to become owners. They would much rather make due and remain as renters. There was no incentive to change their status now.


Upon arriving in Ukraine, my first task was to choose a hotel. That choice was based on whether a hotel had its own working hot water system. You had no choice with respect to heating as the government-operated, citywide heating systems that the hotels relied on would break down or were programmed to start or discontinue on a certain date, no matter how below freezing the outside temperature was. You could always go to sleep in your long johns, underneath all your clothes, and with many blankets on top to deal with the cold, but a cold shower was too uncivilized for my taste.

My hotel in Kiev was the typical brown and dank place that is a staple in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Breakfast was served in small dining rooms on four different floors. Once I found the floor with the babushka women servers who were the most hospitable and efficient, I was all set for my breakfast of brown-bread toast, a fried egg or cheese, and coffee. It was not unusual for me to be offered vodka at breakfast by one of my fellow guests served from their private bottle. Ukraine, like Russia, was and still is a country of alcoholics. A WHO survey found it had six times the level of alcohol abuse of Germany. Twenty percent of Ukrainian men have alcohol and drug disorders. In 2007, the deaths of forty percent of men and twenty-two percent of women were alcohol related. My fellow guests would look perplexed when I said “Nyet” to their breakfast offer.

The hotel contained offices on the lower floors, one of which was occupied by one of the Ukrainian mobs. As I took the elevator to my room on the 8th floor, I often shared it with a mob boss and his armed bodyguards. The about five-foot-seven inch boss would be dressed in very expensive-looking suits. His muscular bodyguards, dressed in less expensive suits, would tower above him. When we rode together in the elevator, the following movie would play out in my head: the doors would open as the mob boss reached his floor and several men with machine guns would start shooting all of us inside the elevator. It would be a vivid example of “wrong time, wrong place.”

One day, as I was leaving the hotel, I noticed the boss getting into his armored Mercedes, with his bodyguards behind him in their Suburban. Only fifty feet from the hotel entrance, both cars screeched to a halt. The Boss got out of his car as his bodyguards surrounded him with their Uzis at the ready. Simultaneously, a car going in the opposite direction also screeched to a halt. A smartly dressed man got out carrying an attaché case. He proceeded to open the case and retrieve a file of papers. He handed the Boss a pen and waited for him to sign the papers. Then everyone got back into their car and drove away. I stood motionless in the street, my heart racing.

The presence and influence of the mob in Ukraine, as in Russia, in this post-Soviet time cannot be overstated. One example was the VVIP service at the airport. One could pay a fee and go to a separate building to avoid the hassle of the crowds at the passport exit control. On one occasion the building was closed. In broad daylight there had been a mob “ hit” over a soured business deal. The hit took place on the tarmac between the VVIP building and the stairs to board the plane. On my next flight from Kiev, the VVIP building was reopened. Life and the mob went on.


A young Ukrainian who headed our Odessa office (he had been a Major in a Soviet Union military intelligence unit), one day told me that an Odessa mob boss wanted to talk to me. I thought it wise to meet with him. It turned out that he wanted advice about how to make condos out of several apartment buildings the mob owned. Thinking it was “the better part of valor,” I said we would assist him. Lucky for us, he never returned.

On one of my trips to Odessa I stayed at a decaying, elegant hotel facing the Black Sea. I had a suite well within the limited USAID hotel budget. It was winter and very cold and gray. I got into bed wearing thermal underwear, a sweater and a coat, and I had three blankets on top of me. Just as I was getting warm the phone rang. Enjoying the warmth, I delayed getting out of bed to answer the phone in the living room area of the suite. By the time I picked up, I was too late to catch the caller. I got back under the covers. Again, just as I was getting warm, the phone rang. This time I rose rapidly, cursing out loud. A female voice asked if I “would like a young woman?” I told her I only liked older women, and not to call again. As I was back under the blankets and about to fall asleep, I heard a knock at the door of the room next to mine. It was “the young woman” who had found a willing client. The women of Ukraine are famous for their beauty and, for many, for their role as prostitutes throughout Western Europe as well as the former Soviet Union. Similar to room service, their services were offered openly at all the hotels I stayed in the Ukraine.

Odessa, the third largest city in the Ukraine, was filled with beautiful, but decaying architecture. It was the home of Pushkin, who was revered in Ukraine and especially in Odessa. In his honor, the old cobblestones on the intersection where he lived have been left in place.


Odessa had a “Jew” Street that once housed the vibrant Brodsky Synagogue. Streets were named for their inhabitants, thus there also was a “Greek Street,” and “Bulgarian” Street,” etc. Looking out on the Black Sea from “Jew Street” I felt, for one of the few times in my life, that no matter how I viewed myself, I was always a “Jew” to certain people. As my brother would remind me: “No matter how I defined myself, to Hitler and the Soviets I was a Jew”. At its peak, soon after the Russian Revolution, more than forty percent of Odessa’s population were Jewish. World War II, the Holocaust, Soviet repression and an exodus after the fall of Communism in the 1990’s reduced the population to three percent.   The blackness of the Black Sea that seemingly went on and on, touched an emotional nerve and made me feel how trapped the people on “Jew Street” must have felt. Between the vast sea and the armies of the neighboring countries who wished do to them harm, there was no escape. In 1941, 50,000 Odessa Jews were massacred by Romanian troops.

I had a similar feeling when I visited the Babi Yar Memorial in Kiev. More than 150,000 people were killed here: Jews, Roma, communists and Soviet prisoners of war. The soldiers machine-gunned the prisoners and poured lye over them before the next group was brought to the site. What I saw was a very wide and deep indentation in the ground where grass had grown over the screams and bodies of the victims. In 1941, 33,771 Jews were murdered here in a single operation. If my mother and father’s families had not emigrated to America 27 years earlier, I might have been one of the victims.

There was still a synagogue in Kiev. I asked an Austrian-Jewish colleague to join me in visiting it on the Sabbath. It would be the first time he had entered a “schul.” (A number of Austrian Jews celebrated Christmas rather than Hanukkah.) The original Synagogue was a very large building in the center of the city. It had long ago been mostly converted to a children’s theatre. We walked around the first and second floors, but could not find the synagogue. Finally, in the basement, I spotted several men in their Tallis and Tefillin. They invited us in. The congregation consisted of 75 people who fitted into a small room. As in my youth, the men and woman sat separately. To my surprise, there were a large number of young people in the congregation. After fifteen minutes my friend and I had experienced enough and left. A smile came to my face as I remembered the deal I once made with my Rabbi in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah; he gave me the green light to go on playing ball with the boys on the block instead of coming to Hebrew school to learn Hebrew and Jewish history if I promised to study my Havtorah from the recording he gave me. I kept my word and my “reading” was a success.


The wedding of the Ukrainian head of our office in Odessa cemented two things for me—a) the role of booze in this society, and b) the absurdity of war in almost all circumstances.

The night before the wedding, the groom hosted a big party on a German ship docked offshore (a way to avoid paying taxes). The chef was French. A new world was coming to Ukraine.

At our table was a close friend of the groom who had served together with the groom as a Colonel in the Soviet Army intelligence. They had figured out ways (including in Vietnam) to either kill or defeat the Americans. Now the Colonel was a senior executive with Mars Bars. I repeat, a senior executive with Mars Bars! I told him I wanted to take him on a tour of the world to talk to young men about the futility of wars of ideological differences, because in the end both sides will work for Mars Bars.

The next day, the wedding party lasted a typical eight hours. The groom’s father, who was younger than I and spoke no English, repeatedly shouted across the room: “Al, vodka”? To which I would respond, “Nyet”. Next, he shouted: “ Al, wine or Al, beer”? Again I responded,”Nyet”. Finally, toward the end of the eight hours he shouted: “Al, Cognac”? I think he was trying to be hospitable to the “important guest.” He could not imagine someone not drinking at a wedding. The same could happen in America, but after the second “no” the American might get, “Al does not drink”. For a man not to drink is unthinkable in Ukraine. Drinking is an essential form of male bonding.

Another example of male bonding was the request of a Ukrainian staff member that we buy several bottles of Vodka to drink on the train from Kiev to Odessa. He wanted to bond with me, but could only do it if he was drunk. The elaborate custom of toasts at a business dinner is not really an opportunity to honor the guest, but rather an acceptable opportunity to get drunk. After one such occasion for a visiting senior USAID woman official, the manager of our Kiev office got “blotto”– very drunk with slurred words, staggering, aggressive behavior, and ending in a “black out” that left him no memory of the night’s events. He turned up the next day badly beaten in a fight he got into on his way home. At the same occasion, many of the Ukrainians who flowerily toasted an important visitor privately told me how they hated her. The toasts were a complete charade. Americans also can be insincere in their toasts of a dignitary, but they normally don’t use the occasion to get “blotto.”


A word about travelling by planes and/or trains is warranted. I would not travel by plane within Ukraine during the winter. Maintenance of the aircrafts was always an issue, but especially in winter. However, it was safer to fly Ukrainian than Russian-made aircraft.

I once took a flight I from Odessa to Kiev. I flew on a twenty-five-seat Russian-made jet (no choice). The inside of the plane was in miserable shape, with torn upholstery covered with tape, and chairs were broken and either didn’t recline or reclined on their own accord.

As I looked out the window I saw several men in suits looking at the plane. One of them had a screwdriver in hand. I imagined them saying: “I do not give a fuck, we need the money, we fly”.   After a thirty-minute delay, the plane took off without incident. An hour later we landed safely in Kiev. After waiting twenty minutes, the door and stairs at the tail end of the plane had neither opened nor unfolded. Finally, the pilot walked from the cockpit to the back of the plane and proceeded to kick the door open, whereupon the stairs unfolded, allowing us to exit.

The trains presented their own problems. First, they were very slow: because of the track beds, a trip that should have taken three hours, took thirteen hours. The train chucked along at a top speed of thirty miles an hour. Second, in winter there was no thermostat to control the heat in your compartment. You were traveling in a sauna. To survive, you had to strip down to your underwear. Third, some Ukrainians had come up with scam of injecting a gas that put the occupants of a compartment to sleep in order to rob them of their suitcases and valuables. The perpetrators enlisted the aid of the women train employees who had the keys to each compartment. Friends I knew had their valuables stolen in this manner on a train between Moscow and St. Petersburg. I was given a tip on how to prevent this from happening: you had to buy Bix candy. This Japanese made small, white candy came in a plastic dispenser that was the perfect size to be jammed into the inside key mechanism and prevent anyone from opening the door from the outside. The only problem to this perfect solution was when you had to go to the bathroom and leave the compartment unlocked. No choice, “the hell with it.” I was not robbed on my several trips to Odessa.


Lviv is a small city in the Western part of the country, near the border with Poland. In the 15th century, the Polish King resided there. It is still today the epicenter of Ukrainian nationalism. If you speak Russian, no one will respond.

The Market Square (Rynok) in the center of the old part of the city is charming, especially in the summer. The Square consists of the towered city hall and forty-four renovated buildings dating from the fifteenth century, among them has wonderful examples of Renaissance-style construction. Rynok is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I would sit at a café and have a coffee and pastry in the early evening, listen to live music and watch the water dancing from the four large statutes of Greek motive (Diana, Neptune, Amphitrite and Adonis) in the receding light. However, in the winter when the streets turn to ice, walking turns into a dangerous situation of “ice skating” without skates. Many times on the stairs and entrance to the City Hall (where I needed to go for meetings) I witnessed people crashing to earth as they tried to enter the building. I managed with great effort and care to avoid this trap.

Again, the treatment of Jews is an ever-present reality just below the surface. My Ukrainian colleagues would tell me about government jobs unavailable to Jews. In 1936, thirty-two percent of the population were Jews. As in Kiev and Odessa, most were killed in the intervening years. It is ironic to learn that Lviv was the home of Sholem Aleichem, the famous Yiddish playwright and author.

Kharkov in the Eastern part of Ukraine (a city of 1.5 million) was the ugly, heavily polluted industrial capital of the Ukraine. Almost fifty percent of its population were and are Russian speaking. The USAID program here was the slowest in implementation. The officials I met with clearly did not want to be there. It would be an understatement to say these former Soviet officials were not willing to modify their old bureaucratic ways and look to the future. Early on, it became clear to me that the meeting would only be perfunctory and moving the program forward would at best be difficult. The cold eyes of the officials made me feel as if I was in an American movie with evil Soviet Union officials who were about to decide my fate.


In May of 1997, I planned to fly from Kiev for a five-day trip to Odessa and to Kharkov for the first and last time, return to Kiev for a day of work and then catch an evening flight to London. There I would meet my wife and start a vacation trip around the west of England. Before boarding the flight to Odessa, I asked my driver to safe-keep a large suitcase filled with clothes for the vacation. There was no point to lugging it to Odessa and Kharkov. He would simply pick me up at the airport with the suitcase, drive me to work and then back to the airport for the trip to London. At the time this seemed efficient and simple. Afraid not!

When I arrived back in Kiev, my driver had a startling announcement: my large suitcase had been stolen from the trunk of his car as he was in line to get gas. What followed was a tale of how “nice guys” get screwed.

His uncle, who worked in our Kiev office, and several other Ukrainians employees of PADCO asked me to swallow the loss of what amounted to $600 worth of clothes. They all said I could afford it better than my driver.  I did not accept their argument. Yes, I could afford the loss better than he (the loss of my favorite worn leather Bombardier jacket was very upsetting). But although the amount of money involved would not break me, I was not, as they assumed, a rich man to whom the amount of money in question was of no matter. Equally important, how could he not notice that the trunk was open while he waited for gas? I never believed his story. All these years later I still believe he was part of the “heist”.

Nevertheless, as a compromise and in order to lessen the immediate financial burden on him, I agreed to have him pay $ 300 now, and $300 in a month, on my next trip to Kiev.   I thought because members of his family worked at our Kiev office he would not embarrass them. Wrong! They continued to think I could bear the loss of money much more easily than he, and they were in no way embarrassed by his non-payment of the second tranche. The driver just disappeared and that was that. When it comes to money, people in third world countries just see it differently than you. This is a reality, and in their place, I probably would take the same position.


Another case of different perceptions had to do with the embezzlement of $55,000 by our office manager in Kiev. It turned out the office manager (OM) had been slowly syphoning off funds over a yearlong period of time. When his theft first came to light it was in the $15,000 range, and I advised Washington PADCO to immediately fire him. Because this embezzlement involved USAID funds, Washington PADCO thought the Ukrainian Government would assist in the recovery, and until this occurred it would be better not to fire the OM. I disagreed, but to no avail. I did not have any faith in the Ukrainian Government because I knew the OM was protected by the mob. When he was drunk he would tell me about his connections. Sadly, I was right. He accelerated his embezzling until he was finally fired. The negotiations with the OM and Ukrainian government for repayment went nowhere. PADCO and USAID were out $55,000, and even though the Ukrainian government was receiving substantial financial assistance from the US government, I felt no obligation to assist in recovering the funds.

In Ukraine where the mob’s influence and corruption was and is rampant, normal Western expectations were misplaced.

A Ukrainian version of truth reigned at a restaurant in Kiev that promised Chernobyl-free vegetables. They never explained how this was possible. On the one hand, it showed recognition of the problems that existed after the accident at Chernobyl (a fire and explosion at a nuclear fuel plant gave off tons of radioactive fallout that drifted east as far away as Norway and beyond.) On the other hand, an official map in the government offices in Kiev showed that the radiation fallout from Chernobyl stopped on the east side of Kiev, and started again on the west side of the city. Miraculously, it just skipped over the Kiev. Eat your vegetables! Be happy, don’t worry! Communist logic and distorted view of reality dies hard. Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to former communist countries.

The best part of working in the “nada land” of Ukraine was the charming sight of elderly couples dancing to live music in the large underground caverns beneath the boulevard intersections. To keep traffic moving on the six or eight-lane main boulevards, one had to cross the boulevard by descending and then ascending flights of stairs. In this underground world people were selling all kinds of goods and performing magic and music. I close my eyes and still see the men’s gray-white hair sticking out from underneath the fur hats, and the women in fur coats and heels expertly whirling around to waltz tunes as the weather above ground is below freezing. Life presents moments to smile even in the land of “brown and dank.”

Al Hirshen is a former civil rights lawyer, member of the Carter Administration, and a development consultant in numerous countries. His book Stories from a Lifetime of Travel is forthcoming in 2018. You can keep up with him on Facebook here.


  1. Entertaining and sad story. A well written description of another layer of hell. It is almost beyond belief that Trump, his former campaign manager Manafort, his current Secretary of State and his entire administration are trying to increase Russian mafia influence in Ukraine and elsewhere. Something is wrong there. To visit Ukraine, as described, has some positives, but the fate of those born there is dismal.

  2. Karin Evans says:

    A most intriguing, insightful story!

  3. Charlie Plant says:

    What a life Al. So much here to think about. The figures of the killings are horrific. Yet, such is humanity. I love the reportorial narrative of the twisted culture that repression has created – the tenants’ inability to grasp sense of community, the “everything’s up for grabs” ethos, embezzlement, theft. Effective portrayal of our own stupidity, and cultural arrogance. And lovely sense of humor, and touches of the beauty of human nature as well – love the ending vision of older couples dancing, with love, underneath the frozen streets . . . . . Thanks Al, as always – your voice is clear. profound, and true. Charlie

  4. Jared Bernstein says:

    Reminds me of a Russian friend who said this was true:
    Pravda or Izvestia published a story about US HHS recommendations that pork was bad for your health. This caused immediate long lines at the pork butchers all over the USSR. Why? It must mean that the there is a coming shortage of pork!

  5. What a journey you had over there, Al! Sounds very difficult and wearing and not going on my to-do list. I did love the dancers and vendors underneath the streets of Ukraine however. As always very well written.