Eastern Europe

  • How One Man’s Outsized Philanthropy Transformed a Village and May Inspire a New Kind of Giving 

    In the decades that Ukraine has lurched through its chaotic post-Soviet years, Mykhaylo Veselskyy has quietly—and apparently legitimately—built two successful multi-million-dollar businesses. By the time he was 34, his first enterprise had become one of Ukraine’s biggest sunflower-oil producers. He sold the venture for a more-than-tidy profit and plowed the proceeds into a retail grocery chain. He steered that company,Evrotek, through the 2008 financial crisis and has added real estate to the portfolio.  

    But Veselskyy is now taking on what undoubtedly will be the most challenging endeavor of his career: building a society in rural Ukraine. Veselskyy is funding and guiding a top-to-bottom overhaul of the public services—education, health care, business development, and water and sewer infrastructure—in his home village in the Olevsk district of Zhytomyr Oblast in northern Ukraine. The goal is to dramatically improve the quality of life for Radowell’s 1,250 residents and to remake the concept of philanthropy in Ukraine.


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  • Mr. Zelenskyy Goes to Washington

    Two months after his landslide victory, President Zelenskyy is not only reshaping Ukraine’s domestic picture, but he is attempting to establish a new narrative in Ukraine’s foreign policy.  His mindset, style, and the composition of his team varies greatly from his predecessors. They represent generational change. 

    This new generation of leadership has rejected the psychological and emotional ties to Russia held by post-independence Ukrainian political leaders. They are no longer willing to be defined and considered to be within Russia’s sphere. They have obtained confidence through the performance of the Ukrainian military, and they are willing to be aggressive in pursuing new approaches to end the war and Russia’s occupation of its sovereign lands. 


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  • An Open Letter to Mrs. Zelenskyy

    Dear Mrs. Zelenskyy,

    I’m not sure whether I should offer congratulations or condolences on the major life change that you and your family have undergone since your husband won the presidency. That said, I have followed your interviews with the BBC and the Daily Beast with great interest.

    You are impressively up-to-speed on the impossible situation that activists and journalists face in Ukraine. You mentioned the assassination of Pavel Sheremet and the terrible killing of Kateryna Handziuk in your interview with the Daily Beast. As you know, whoever killed Pavel got away with it, and those who ordered the fatal attack on Handziuk are likely to get off. Activists in Ukraine’s regions are especially vulnerable.    

    This is presumptive on my part, but I would like to ask you to do more than your predecessors. Your husband says he wants to make history. I take him at his word, but many people don’t, or they want him to fail. And you face low expectations. No one thinks you’ll go beyond banal speeches about children and education and appearances at schools and orphanages. Surprise us. Make the rights of journalists and activists your signature issue. Ukrainians like and respect you. Use your voice.  


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  • Do Something with State Enterprises Already

    President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is right to emphasize the need to privatize state-owned enterprises. Their reform can bear fruit fast, especially through privatization. Ukraine’s remaining state enterprises are a major source of corruption and inefficiency, as most have been taken over by shadow owners. The return on assets of private companies was four times larger than the return on assets of state-owned companies in 2018. This resulted in $3 billion foregone profit just in one year.

    Most state-owned enterprises should be privatized, while the state should manage the rest commercially, on a level playing field with the private sector.


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  • Preparing for the US-Ukraine Summit

    Preparations are currently underway for a US-Ukraine summit in September. Therefore, it is worthwhile to propose an agenda for Presidents Zelenskyy and Trump when they and their cabinets meet. For this summit to succeed, the agenda must reflect a balance of interests and needs for both sides. Admittedly, Ukraine’s needs far outstrip those of the United States, but Ukraine has the means to promote regional solutions in Eastern Europe that materially advance the interests already outlined by the Trump administration both rhetorically and in actual policy.


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  • Many Ills for Ukraine’s Veterans but One Place to Look for a Cure

    The twentieth floor offers a spectacular, panoramic view of Kyiv. There’s limitless coffee, yellow cushions, plenty of space to stretch out, and fast, free WiFi. A small, fluffy puppy waits on one side of the floor to greet those who pass by. One could be forgiven for mistaking the Veteran Hub for a coworking space, but it’s far more.

    “The space is constructed so that people have complete freedom,” Ivona Kostyna, the co-founder of Veteran Hub, told me in April.  

    Opened in November 2018, the hub is home to twelve organizations that provide free services from legal advice to psychotherapy to Ukraine’s 361,000 veterans who have fought Russia to a stalemate in the Donbas. Housed in the Kyiv Telecenter, it should be a must-visit place for foreign diplomats, aid workers, and journalists to understand just how plucky and resourceful Ukraine’s civil society is.


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  • Potter’s Wheel Spins Anew in Ukrainian Capital

    Walking into Rustem Skybin’s studio in Kyiv, Ukraine, one is likely to find him sitting by his pottery wheel in his skullcap, turning and shaping wet clay for a new teapot spout or a dinner platter. Over and over, his fingers mix wet and dry clay together by hitting and kneading, to get a perfect consistency. The smell of fresh brewed Turkish coffee wafts through the studio with dates on a plate, waiting for a friend. 

    “We must start from the beginning—the meaning of life and balance of the universe,” Skybin said. This is how Skybin started our pottery lessons in 2017. I did not touch any clay or a pottery wheel until the second day. I had expected technical lessons on the art form but instead spent the first six hours discussing what defines life, a home, culture, and a citizen. Skybin’s calming soft voice can make the most complex philosophical topics seem simple, like listening to a bedtime story. He weaves his experience of anthropology to tell stories, and through him, the stories of the Crimean Tatar people.

    The exchange of stories and knowledge is continuous in Skybin’s studio. An artist and anthropologist, Skybin travelled to many villages throughout Crimea to take photos and record the history of the villagers. With more than 700 photos and extensive oral histories, he finds connections despite generations of separation and tragedy.

    The history of Crimean Tatars is a repeated cycle of separation and tragedy. In 1945, Joseph Stalin deported around 500,000, the entirety of the indigenous peoples of Crimea, shipping them off in freight trains to Siberia and Central Asia. Roughly half of them died in the first year. Once the Soviet Union broke apart in the 1990s, Crimean Tatars travelled back to their homeland, if not their original homes. The repatriation was difficult, as most of their homes had been lived in by Russian speaking people for forty-five years. Not even a generation later, in March 2014, Russian soldiers arrived and occupied Crimea, ahead of the current slow burn war in the Donbas. 


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  • Corruption and Courts Matter but Universities Are Key

    Before his sojourn into politics, Ukraine’s new president played a teacher on television who accidentally gets elected president. Once he became the real president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy sent his new deputies to a one-week crash course to “get educated” and learn about strategy, public policy, legislation, and their responsibility as lawmakers.    

    This step, and ironically, his choice to play the role of a teacher in his past life as an actor, may be coincidental but it also might signal that Zelenskyy recognizes the indispensable role education plays. (It doesn’t hurt that his father is a professor either.)

    Zelenskyy’s early statements and priorities have focused on economic growth and the need to root out corruption. Both are important messages for Ukraine, but the new president hasn’t said anything about education. Without reforming higher education, Ukraine will never achieve the five to seven percent growth target Zelenskyy has set.


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  • Ten Reasons Why Trump Should Visit Ukraine

    Barack Obama never visited Ukraine as president, and he was the only US president that didn’t visit independent Ukraine while in office. President Donald Trump should. Ukraine has embarked on a massive overhaul of the country and here are ten reasons why the US president should pay a visit.


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  • The Craft of Kolomoisky

    Many regard notorious Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky as the puppet master behind the rise of Ukraine’s new president. The tycoon’s August 8interview for the Russian media holding RBK is his second major interview since returning to Ukraine in May and his first to a Russian publication in five years. What he says is therefore of particular interest.

    Because of their business connections through Kolomoisky’s influential 1+1 TV channel, it has been assumed that the two have remained in league. But as Zelenskyy came into his own politically, he distanced himself from the oligarch, denying that he was a “toy in Kolomoisky’s hands.” The oligarch told the press that he’s not the shadow leader or grey cardinal either.

    Not everyone bought the line, especially after Zelenskyy chose Andriy Bohdan, Kolomoisky’s former lawyer, as his chief of staff. Was this not evidence, many surmised, that Kolomoisky would control the political newcomer and exert influence on the economic and political life of the country?  Bohdan, however, has served various masters. Seen from another angle, having someone who knows the secrets of a meddlesome oligarch might be an advantage for Zelenskyy. 

    Whatever the reality, Zelenskyy has sought to keep Kolomoisky at arm’s length and this has generated frustration. Kolomoisky began giving interviews that put his supposed protégé in a tough spot. Kolomoisky advised Zelenskyy to follow the example of Greece and to reject the IMF’s austerity program and default. Then, he shocked many by describing Ukraine’s war with Russia in the Donbas as an “internal conflict.” 

    On June 20, Zelenskyy announced that he had reached an agreement with the country’s oligarchs to invest in the infrastructure of the Donbas. "Kolomoisky will invest a lot of money,” he quipped, “but he still does not know about it." But the oligarch promptly shot back that he cannot afford to because the High Court in London has ruled to limit his spending.

    Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian-Jewish tycoon based in Dnipro, sided with Ukraine in early 2014 and organized local militias to stop Russian expansion westward. He fell out with President Petro Poroshenko who, after being elected in 2014, did not dismantle the oligarchic system. Kolomoisky suffered the ignominy of having his PrivatBank nationalized by Poroshenko. Without delving into the reasons and rights and wrongs, suffice to say that he is still involved in litigation related to this matter, and remains determined to recover as much money as he can.

    Leaving aside the PrivatBank affair, what do we learn? 


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