May 31, 2002 - Topeka Capital Journal: Christie Appelhanz: Near revolt in aerobics class mirrors Ukraine's struggle

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Ukraine: Peace Corps Ukraine : The Peace Corps in the Ukraine: May 31, 2002 - Topeka Capital Journal: Christie Appelhanz: Near revolt in aerobics class mirrors Ukraine's struggle

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Christie Appelhanz: Near revolt in aerobics class mirrors Ukraine's struggle

Christie Appelhanz: Near revolt in aerobics class mirrors Ukraine's struggle

Near revolt in aerobics class mirrors Ukraine's struggle

Mar 31, 2002 - Topeka Capital Journal Author(s): Capital-Journal

POLTAVA, Ukraine --- All I ever really needed to know about Ukraine I learned in aerobics class. The collapse of aerobics class, that is.

Our instructor, Sophia, sent shock waves through this class of university students and one American Peace Corps volunteer (me) with the news.

A coup had captured Sophia. OK, it actually was her husband who had spent the past few months working in Ireland.

With a university degree and fluency in English, he landed a teaching job in Ukraine with a salary barely enough to cover the bills. In Ireland, it got him a job in a hotel restaurant that paid enough to start a bank account.

And now he is taking Sophia back with him in her new red leather jacket and black patent shoes.

She promised the transition would be painless.

Unlike her aerobics classes.

Perestroika (reconstruction) plans were in place. Jenya from the front row would take over the class. Sophia even gave her the big wooden step she always used --- so we knew an era had ended.

This created some uncertain times. We were one mighty superpower of a aerobics class with Sophia.

What would we be without her? Who was this Jenya anyway?

We found out that first class. Jenya kicked where Sophia marched in place. She did sit-ups to Michael Jackson when everyone knows you are supposed to do push-ups. And a couple of times, she got so lost she just stopped.

That is when the aerobic class started acting like the rest of the country. Everyone figuring out how to survive with new leadership in a system so new the ink is practically still wet on the constitution.

Maybe after a year of attempting to teach economics to high schoolers in Ukraine, my brain automatically simplifies everything. Or maybe the lingering fumes in the freshly painted sports hall are getting to me.

But those three groups dealing with the changes seemed awfully familiar to me.

The first group just wanted Sophia back. They moaned and complained about Jenya.

Things weren't perfect with Sophia, but at least we knew what to expect. She barked out the orders, and all we had to do was step with our right foot when she said "napravo" and step left when she said "nalavo."

They reminded me of the Ukrainians who just want to return to communism. Usually they are older, often trying to survive on pensions that make American Social Security checks look like lottery jackpots.

They proudly wear their medals on Soviet Army Day even though now the day is supposed to be Defenders of the Motherland Day.

You can hear them say things that always begin with "in Soviet times." In Soviet times, books were cheap. In Soviet times, children didn't run wild in the streets because they had Pioneer activities to keep them occupied. In Soviet times, I didn't have to collect glass bottles to put food on the table.

They bring flowers to the Lenin statues. They miss the security of state five-year plans. They always speak Russian.

Life is hard for them.

The next group doesn't have a clue what to do when Jenya stops moving. They may step from side to side for a bit. Then they throw their hands in the air and stop.

They aren't used to doing things on their own. So they wait for someone to come along to tell them what to do.

There are a lot of Ukrainians out there just standing around waiting to figure out what to do. These can be people working at the bazaar for about $1 a day who thought capitalism would make things better. Or they are teachers who have worked without a salary for months.

They say things like: "It's our life. What are we to do?" and shrug their shoulders. Sometimes they get fed up and say: "What's the point? Ukrainians have always suffered and always will." Things don't make sense.

Now they can get pictures developed in less than an hour, but it still takes an entire day of standing in line to pay the phone bill.

They can drop in an Internet cafe to send an e-mail, but they better hurry because the water is only on for three hours at night.

New products dot the shelves of shops everywhere, but who can afford them besides the so-called New Ukrainians?

They ignore the Lenin statues. They make one-day plans because things will change anyway. They speak surzhik --- a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian.

Life is hard for them.

The last group isn't really a group at all. Just a couple of people marching, doing jumping jacks or the funky chicken dance (OK, that is just me.) They aren't sure what is next, but they know they don't want to slow down.

They are former Russian literature teachers learning German and English. They are divorced mothers selling Avon who just learned about a balance sheet. They are the entrepreneurs who put shop assistants on commission and attended a customer service class or two.

They are trained well and, sadly, often don't find opportunities to put those skills to use in Ukraine so they move to big cities or emigrate to other countries. Like Sophia's husband.

The business types say things like, "In 2000, GDP grew 6 percent after nine years of rapid decline." The other ones just say, "Things will get better if we work hard."

They fight to topple the Lenin statues and rename streets and square with Ukrainian heros instead of Russian ones. They make their own 10-year plans. They speak Ukrainian every chance they get and are proud of it, thank you very much.

Still, life is hard for them.

After a week of pauses in the aerobics routine, there was talk in the locker room of a revolt. Or maybe just finding another aerobics class.

Then, Jenya stepped up to the leader's step the following Monday with a new hairstyle and acting as if she watched a Tae Bo tape or something over the weekend.

It wasn't what Sofia did, but it worked. And this time you heard a "molodezts" here and there in the locker room. (That translates to "atta boy," but people actually say it.) So, rest assured, everything stabilized in my aerobic class even without Sophia.

Guess we will have to wait a few years to check the pulse of the rest of the country.

Christie Appelhanz is in Ukraine volunteering with the Peace Corps. Her column will appear each month in Prosper. She can be written at A/C 2, Poltava, 36000, Ukraine.

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Story Source: Topeka Capital Journal

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Third Goal; COS - Ukraine



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