Soviet aggression during the Ukrainian-Soviet war resulted in the occupation of Ukraine, and it became one of the founding members of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Soviet government was hostile to Ukrainian culture and language in 1932 and 1933 which resulted in the genocide of millions of people who starved to death.
Ukraine gained independence again when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. This dissolution of communism started a period of transition, from a planned economy to a market economy, in which Ukraine suffered an eight-year recession. Ukraine had high economic growth for the following years until it was caught up in the worldwide economic crisis in 2008, when the economy plunged again. GDP fell 20% from spring 2008 to spring 2009 before levelling out and is just starting to recover today.
Due to these economic conditions, infrastructure is seriously underdeveloped. Roads and transportation have not been upgraded since the dissolving of the Soviet Union. Other than highways, the roads we travelled on got smaller and smaller until the road eventually ran out or had large potholes and weren’t sealed. Driving is recommended at your own risk, as drivers will overtake up to ten cars or trucks deep and police guard sections of road checking for speeding drivers.
Ukraine is one of the Europe’s largest consumers of energy, with the country using nuclear, coal fire power stations, hydroelectricity, wind and solar energy. It receives most of it’s nuclear fuel from Russia but has its own sources of coal and large hydroelectric, wind and solar parks.
We visited Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where today, 5000 people work at the reactor a day. They are working on resealing reactor 4 and are building a new concrete shield to replace a massive sarcophagus built in 1986 that contains the still-radioactive core. The new concrete shelter costs $1.1 billion and will need to be replaced again in a century’s time unless the core can be safely removed and stored somewhere else.
A 30km exclusion zone still exists around the nuclear facility. The city of Pripyat is the actual closest town to the reactor (not Chernobyl) and was built to accommodate workers of the power plant. Evacuation of the whole town happened within hours of the disaster and people were told they could return in three days of the accident. This was later revised and many people left their lives behind, never to return again. Some people have returned to live within the exclusion zone, against the law, because they could not leave the places they were born. Today a eerie landscape now exists with abandoned cars, tractors, buildings and homes being devoured by trees and shrubs.
A legacy of the Cold War also exists near the town of Pervomaisk, in the Ukraine. During this time, Ukraine had more nuclear missiles than any other country outside the United States and Russia. Strategically and secretly distributed throughout the countryside, 176 nuclear missile launching silos were at the ready awaiting a phone call that would then send missiles to hit multiple targets across the United States. The missile silos were surrounded by armed guards and a 3,000 volt electric fences all protecting the deep underground command posts and rocket silos.
On our visit to the Strategic Missile Forces Museum, we saw displays of rocket engines, auxiliary vehicles and disarmed nuclear warheads. On display are models of many missiles including missiles used in the Cuban missile crisis and the intercontinental ballistic missiles known as Satan. This missile was 35 metres long with a diameter of 3 metres and weighed 212 tonnes. It had a maximum range of 15000 km, a shooting accuracy of 0.5km, contained 10 warheads with an explosive equivalent of 750 kilotons of TNT each. The missile was equipped with means for overcoming an anti ballistic missile system. It was a chilly reminder of how close the world came to destroying itself and what is still in use in other parts of the world today.
In terms of agriculture, Ukraine has been one of the powerhouses of world agriculture due to its fertile conditions. 30% of the world’s black soils are in the Ukraine, and 42 million of the countries 60 million hectares is agricultural land where wheat, barley, rye, rapeseed and sunflowers are grown in abundance. Organic matter ranges anywhere from 3-6% and top soil can go down to 40 inches. The climate for growing small seeds is excellent and favourable sunlight hours are experienced during the growing season.
The Ukraine, as of 2011, was the world’s third largest grain exporter. Among the European countries, it is a leader in the growing of sugar beet, buckwheat and carrot and second in wheat (behind Russia) and tomato (behind Poland).
The average farm size ranges from 2 ha to 8 ha, depending on the size of the village when the USSR fell, and is owned by the state government with the people having lifelong leases on it. The ability to find land available for foreign investment companies to lease can be hard work. There is a challenge of getting available blocks of land that connect in one big field. In the case of one farm we visited, on a10,000 ha property, the farmer had some 3,000 landlords. However some of this was simplified by negotiating with 1 or 2 people at the village councils.
28% of the population work in, or are involved in, agriculture and labour is inexpensive. The labour force is willing to work but stealing is a major issue, as the legacy of communism days is still evident, where people think they are entitled to have what you have. A farm operated by a Dutch manager has 300 staff and 60 of these are security guards and he regularly has to put staff off for stealing from him. Corruption and bureaucracy are other issues limiting farming in Ukraine.
As a cropping farmer, Ukraine was unbelievable to see, with its deep black soils and water availability. There is huge potential for expansion and modernisation, and with laws changing on foreign ownership in Russia, and likely to be followed by Ukraine, there are plenty of opportunities and good stories ahead for agriculture. Geographically it has easily accessible ports and borders which allow transportation to major populations of the world.