Living in Ukraine these days poses no shortage of challenges to beleaguered Ukrainians, not least of which is dealing with a sputtering economy that is lagging significantly behind its European neighbours. The average wage in Ukraine currently sits at around 12,000 UAH per month, which translates into roughly $570 CAD. Compare this to the average wage in neighbouring Poland which amounts to $1,390 CAD, or the Baltic countries where the wage is even higher at around $2,160 CAD. Even Russia, where the economy is also suffering because of declining petroleum revenues and Western imposed sanctions, the average wage still is higher at around $791 CAD per month. It is no wonder that so many young Ukrainians have migrated to Europe to seek employment in recent years.
The wage gap is aggravated by the fact that the price of many goods is comparable to those found in mainland Europe or North America, where wages are much higher. The price of gas for automobiles for instance is currently around $1.15 CAD/L, which is notably higher than what we are paying here in Canada. The cost of basic food items is also not that different than what we are used to paying here. Following are the prices of typical foods in Ukraine, expressed in CAD $: bread – $1 CAD per loaf; milk – $1.20/L; chicken – $4.60/kg; beef – $6.65/ kg; cheese – $8.70/kg; rice – $1.30/kg. The cost of a Big Mac at a McDonalds in Ukraine works out to about $2.70 CAD. When you are only making $570 CAD a month, these prices make the cost of living more than a little problematic. The price of most big-ticket items such as cars and furniture is similar to that found in most of the European Union, where the average wages are two to ten times higher. Fortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the price of beer is still relatively low ($.90 CAD per pint), as well as wine ($4 CAD / bottle) and vodka ($4.30 CAD / bottle).
If you are a pensioner, things are particularly dire. The typical pension in Ukraine is around 2,500 to 3,000 UAH, which is about $120 CAD to $140 CAD. The dilemma in this is that the government recommended standard for expenditures on food for a healthy living for one person is about $160 CAD per month. It is fortunate that most elderly Ukrainians were given ownership of their homes or apartments when the USSR collapsed, because the cost of real estate as well as apartment rentals has also been climbing at a much faster rate than earnings. A small decent apartment in Lviv for instance, will set you back about $285 CAD in rental per month. To buy an apartment in Lviv, you will have to fork out between $20,000 CAD to $200,000 CAD.
The prices in Kyiv are understandably much higher. Monthly rentals there are virtually equivalent to what you will find in Toronto, ranging from $1500 CAD to $3,000 CAD for a standard apartment. Buying an apartment in Kyiv will typically set you back from $150,000 CAD to $1,000,000 CAD.
So how do Ukrainians cope with relatively low wages and a relatively high cost of living? There are a number of popular strategies. For the young and mobile, the best solution is to find a job in a neighbouring European country. Millions of Ukrainians are working in Poland, Greece, Germany, Italy, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and even further afield in France, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and other countries. Most of the money earned is sent back to families left behind in Ukraine. I have numerous young cousins in Ukraine that have followed this route. Married couples are often separated, working in different countries, while their children are tended to back home by grandparents or other relatives.
For those not able to, or who are not inclined to cross borders, there are other survival strategies. There is a large underground economy, where goods and services are bartered or traded without the burden of sales or income taxes. Many Ukrainians, even those living in large urban areas, still have family roots in the small towns and villages or rural Ukraine, and the products of the intensive gardening that goes on there, is sufficient to provide a substantial proportion of their food needs.
One other common practice is extended family and multiple generations living under one roof to share costs and expenses. It not uncommon to have two or three generations of a family living together, particularly in the smaller towns and villages. The lack of proper seniors and long-term care residences in Ukraine makes this even more of a necessity than choice.
Surviving economically in Ukraine these days is a major challenge that is testing the patience and resiliency of a people long used to poverty and hardship. The Ukrainian government should be worried, as these days, a disgruntled and increasingly activist populace is less likely to tolerate the lack of concern and action by the government and the political structures. President Zelensky and his party need to up their game, or their regime will be a short-lived one.