The stained-glass windows of Podilske’s towering concrete cultural hall radiate the idealized vision of Ukraine’s Soviet past: bucolic scenes of bountiful wheat fields, agricultural mechanization and content families toiling the land for the greater good.
The modern reality is very different. Many of the village houses and farms are abandoned. The bus calls twice a day to take workers away to a nearby town, leaving behind pensioners, the unemployed, and schoolchildren.
Like many villages, Podilske’s future appears bleak. As Ukraine prepares to choose its next president in elections scheduled Sunday, one of the biggest challenges remains its sluggish economy. With unemployment at close to 10 percent, it’s in the rural villages where the hardship is felt most – once the breadbasket of the Soviet collective system, but now struggling to stay competitive in a global economy.
Podilske, which lies some 140 kilometers southeast of Kyiv, achieved minor fame in 2015 when it elected the country’s youngest mayor, Artiom Kukharenko, who was just 24 years old when he took on the role. For the past five years he’s been trying to stem the tide of young people leaving the village for a better life.
“What does the youth need today? A house, a decent job, which provides a decent salary, which may offer them a start. The poor credit system that we’ve got is a huge burden, not only for the youth but also for people who are better established,” Kukharenko says.
Everyone VOA spoke to voiced the same concern. The village school’s Ukrainian language teacher, who gave only her first name of Lilya, says most of her students leave after graduation.
“It’s clear that people want more money, and there is no vision for that in small villages. So that is why quite a lot of young people just go abroad.”
Viktor Lytsik, who heads the Podilske’s cultural center, agrees.
“We don’t have anywhere to work here. All the people have to go somewhere else.”
Seventy percent of Ukraine’s land is given over to agriculture, which generates $18 billion in exports. Mayor Kukharenko says agro-industrial corporations are swallowing up family farms and jobs.
“No matter who is to become a president, they must pay attention to the creation of new jobs and social security of the people, because the economy has ground to a halt, not only in villages but also in small towns as well.”
Few of the villagers who spoke to VOA voiced optimism that any of the presidential candidates offered the answers to their problems.
Kukharenko says the high unemployment leads to alcoholism and mental illness among some residents. It seems a bleak future. But for a dose of optimism, head to Podilske’s primary school.
Ukrainian folk music blasts out of the stereo as a dozen six-year-olds rehearse for the upcoming national dance championship. The students embrace the traditions with enthusiasm and are determined to win the competition for their village.
Two elder children told VOA of their hopes for the future.
“I don’t want to leave Ukraine. But I want to go to another city and then return here to look after my parents and look after my village,” 10-year-old Anastasia Rudenko said.
Her friend Julia Shilova also plans to leave the village.
“I want to go to the most polluted places in Ukraine, to the cities, and work on improving the environmental problems there.”
Their big ambitions are welcomed by teachers and parents, but underline the challenges ahead as Ukraine’s rural populations head for the cities.
In villages like Podilske, the biggest battle is survival itself.