Sunday, May 12, 2013

Can a country die?

Today I read a very interesting article about the slow death of a country.  Go ahead and read it.  I'll be here when you get back.

It was interesting, right?

Now, I consider Ukraine a very unusual choice of country to highlight.  With "only" 43 million people is my adopted homeland really on the verge of extinction?  Many Eastern European countries have fewer than 10 million and have a similar shrinking problem.

On Sundays I sing with the older adults who gather near the monument of Ukraine's great bard.  I love the way they sing.  It's much throatier and meaningful than the way young Ukrainian's sing.  There's this one woman with platinum blond hair who might be 50 might be 80 - and she opens her mouth so wide when she sings.  I follow along with her, because I can always tell what word she is singing.  This group grows smaller and smaller and there are no other young faces to take their place.  I ask my friends - my truly patriotic friends - if they know these songs, and they don't.  And I wonder who will sing these songs when they are gone.

Oh, the cancer gets many.  It's a symptom of a below average health care system and a possible side effect of Chornobyl.  The scientists say that there was no rise in cancer risk associated with the meltdown, but no one believes them.  Death is a fact of life here.  Working with University students, I see mostly the deaths of grandmothers and grandfathers.  In the gypsy village, most only live into their 50s - many don't reach the retirement age in Ukraine: 55 for women and 60 for men.

It seems that those who beat death up until that point are excessively good at tricking it.  Like the obituaries in the Mission Monthly (Gertrude Elizabeth Oglethorpe, ___insert impossibly advanced age___ almost died of cholera and dysentery as a missionary in Africa in her 20s, but after surviving that, nothing was going to take her out.) it seems like those who survive truly thrive.  The elderly here have the edge on many things.  Not just singing.  Shoveling snow for example.  I don't think you can legally shovel snow unless you are 80, or at least look it.

The birthrate here is lower than any other country on earth I've been told.  1.3 children for every married couple.  They literally pay women to birth children here.  They pay you to raise your children.  They give you years of maternity leave.  And yet it seems that multiple children are a sign of great wealth of terrible planning or both.  When multiple families share a one room apartment, I wonder how children happen at all.  There is no economic certainty, and few people see a way to get their heads above water.  Even though many of my friends have stable jobs, none of them have more than one child.

And every time another friend leaves for the states, rumors swirl that he or she is planning to immigrate.  It causes me great pain to see the best and the brightest run away from an impossibly broken system to try to make their way in another broken system.

A true patriot will have many children (for Stalin, for Hitler, for whomever is in charge of propaganda) but this case falls apart in Ukraine for political reasons.  I wish the article would have explored these political forces in more depth.  They are powerful, and at least for Western Ukraine, they hold the answer to this riddle.

But, this country is filled with life.  Economic growth is a little slower than inflation, but it is happening and will speed up soon.  My married friends talk about having babies in the plural.  Some want three or four.

At a picnic, they asked those in the circle if they could only have 10 children or none which they would choose - and every Ukrainian answered 10 children.  It was purely hypothetical (and, to be fair, there were more Ukrainian men than women answering the question!) but it is telling.  I think that our young people see a way forward.  Yes, they want jobs and careers and to be successful, but they care deeply for the families they will create - and they care deeply for the country they will live in.

They give awards for families with many children.  In a televised acceptance, a haggard mother of eleven brushes her gray hair away from her eyes and squints into the light.  How does one prepare an acceptance speech for such an honor as this?  Her brood fidgets in a line from tallest to shortest as she tries to sound educated in front of people who seem to think she's an idiot.  In the end it seems she is only defending her alternative lifestyle.  This is her choice, and she is happy with her decision.

Long gone are the large farm families where each child is an insurance policy against poverty in old age.  Only gypsies and the truly devout eschew birth control and the choices it ensures.  But perhaps, as Ukraine finds its financial footing, more and more women will make the choice to grow a large family.  In support of their beloved country.  In deference to their own mothers who just want more grand-babies.  Or, perhaps, because that is just what they want to do.          

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