After the declaration of independence in 1991, Ukraine, like other countries of the former Soviet Union, faced many difficult challenges and tasks. One of the key challenges was the economic crisis and the restructuring of the labour market.
In terms of the economic development of independent Ukraine, it had quite attractive conditions – ranking 5th in GDP among post-Soviet republics, having high scientific, technical, and human resource potential, and a favourable geopolitical position. However, Ukraine lacked a substantial middle class, and the economic structure was dominated by the mining and metallurgical complex. This complex was both Ukraine’s hallmark and a burden, as many resources were spent on maintaining it. The complex mainly consisted of large, inefficient enterprises, hindered by the ineffective management of so-called “red directors” – former managers of large industrial enterprises, often party functionaries. This contributed to Ukraine losing potentially attractive foreign market niches to other countries. A notable feature of Ukraine was that only one-third of Ukrainian enterprises had a complete technological cycle and produced consumer-ready products, necessitating extensive restructuring of the economy. Over thirty years of independence, the service sector’s share (a global trend in economic development) nearly doubled, from 28.5% to 54.4%.
Figure 1: Ukrainian Hryvnia, 1995
Different societal groups were affected by economic restructuring to varying degrees, but this period was a significant shock for everyone. Agricultural workers, in particular, experienced dramatic and significant changes. Ukraine, with its vast potential in agriculture, saw the collapse of collective or state enterprises that were prevalent in the USSR. This led to rural unemployment and many young people moving to cities in search of work, often lacking necessary skills. Middle-aged individuals mostly focused on subsistence farming, producing for themselves, and selling their products. Some villagers, using their organizational skills, transformed inefficient collective and state farms into new cooperatives and farms, supporting social infrastructure in some cases.
Pensioners played a crucial role during the transition period. Many families in the Soviet Union lived with multiple generations under one roof, largely due to housing issues. During the transition, when many able-bodied family members lost their jobs and income sources, pensioners often became the sole breadwinners. They utilized their craft skills and work experience to earn additional income during this difficult time, and the new conditions helped many of them regain social activity.
Figure 2: Pensioners helping with corn harvest, 1988.
The situation of people with disabilities, their self-realization, and socialization also became prominent public topics. In Soviet society, this issue was formalized and taboo. As Ukraine transitioned to independence, the principle of “The state pays for your survival – stay at home” gradually disappeared.
The LGBT advocacy movement in Ukraine is worth mentioning separately. During the Soviet Union, this group of citizens was not only vulnerable due to societal attitudes but also subject to criminal prosecution under the law. Independent Ukraine was the first post-Soviet country to abolish criminal prosecution of the LGBT community, and attitudes towards these citizens have been slowly changing, facilitated by state policy and the development of a healthier social space.
Ukraine entered the transition period with one of Europe’s largest armies. Military personnel found themselves in the position of being “forgotten” by society. The army underwent significant downsizing, and thousands of working-age men without civilian occupations became unemployed. The most active among them, with managerial and organizational skills and technical education, became some of the first entrepreneurs, organizers, engineers, and technicians of small industries. Some joined or started private security companies, while others left for other former Soviet countries, most often Russia, and continued to serve there, pledging allegiance to a new homeland.
Figure 3: Participants of the First Congress of soldiers’ mothers in Ukraine. Zaporizhia, 1990. The poster reads: “Mothers not against the army, but against lawlessness in the army.”
Another large, diverse group of citizens was connected to the ideological and propaganda structure in the USSR. During the transition period, some revised their views, rethought their activities, and found fulfilment in various fields. Others adapted and engaged in similar activities, such as teaching history, philosophy, and social sciences in educational institutions, participating in party organizations and social movements. By utilizing their administrative resources and remaining “ownerless” party, public, industrial, and other resources, some of these individuals became wealthy or even oligarchs.
For almost five years, Ukraine operated under the Constitution of the USSR and other laws and regulations from the Soviet era, which significantly limited the country’s economic, political, and social development opportunities. New phenomena often emerged first, with legal regulations following later. For example, during the economic crisis, when people began losing their jobs, “shuttle traders” (small entrepreneurs who bought consumer goods abroad to sell in Ukraine) became widespread. This unorganized trade played a vital role in the development of the Ukrainian economy. In general, citizens during this period became more willing to change their workplace, field of activity, acquire new knowledge and qualifications, and assert their labour rights more actively in the labour market.
A significant characteristic of Ukraine’s transition was the crisis of relations between the government and civil society, marked by the absence of dialogue, lack of experience, and tools of participatory democracy. This form of democracy allows citizens to directly influence decision-making through petitions, inquiries, public hearings, etc., and took years to develop. People perceived the government as a guide rather than a hired manager from whom they could demand effective public administration. The decades-long enforced silence and suppression of dissent led to an explosion of social activity after the USSR’s collapse. Political parties of various orientations, public organizations, national and cultural associations, informal youth movements, and other manifestations of social activity emerged.
Figure 4: Kyiv, December 2013. Vadym Andriychuk in the first days of Maidan – the Revolution of Dignity. The banner reads: “Легалізуйте мудрість”, translating to “Legalise wisdom”.
The 1990s were thus a period of great challenges and crises for Ukrainian society, leaving many individuals from different social groups extremely vulnerable. Simultaneously, this period marked the formation of a new civil society, which played a crucial role in shaping modern Ukraine.
Topic: Electoral law, participatory democracy, participation in democratic elections
Duration: 45 minutes
Materials: links to videos or visual technology (projector, screen), markers, sheets of paper
How to conduct the exercise:
Topic: Entrepreneurial development, career change
Duration: 45 minutes
Materials: photos, space in the room with the possibility to move around freely, words “pro” and “con” printed on a sheet of paper.
How to conduct the exercise: