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Aug 31, 2014 | 14:06 GMT

12 mins read

A Journey Through Europe's Economic Crisis

A Journey Through Europe's Economic Crisis
(ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's Note: Below are field notes from Eurasia analyst Eugene Chausovsky's travels across Eastern, Central and Western Europe in 2013. "My goal for the trip was to explore the topic of the European economic crisis, which was the major geopolitical issue at the time (this was 6 months before the Ukraine uprising began). My intent was to see the crisis from up close and from many angles. I stayed in locals' apartments rather than hotels, took public transportation over taxis and eschewed air travel for trains."

Arriving in Kiev, Ukraine

Kiev was weighted with snow, pedestrians wrapped against a cold north wind when I arrived in the city toward the beginning of March. The apartment I was staying in happened to be just a few streets away from Kiev's Independence Square, or Nezalezhnosti Maidan, where Ukraine would experience an uprising less than a year later.

A Journey Through Europe's Economic Crisis

A Journey Through Europe's Economic Crisis

Working by day and taking long walks through the snow-covered streets at night, I often found myself wandering along the grand Khreschatyk boulevard (which would be a central point in the anti-Yanukovich protest movement six months later) or traversing the winding Andriyivskyy descent. When not enveloped in mass demonstrations, central Kiev is a striking place to explore. I walked on Yaroslaviv street past the Golden Gate, an impressive and imposing fortress constructed nearly a millennium ago, preserved in a mixture of coral brick and wood. I strolled along Triokhsviatytelska street, past the sky blue St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery, which overlooks the attractive Podil neighborhood, the city's traditional merchant quarter.

Outside of the center, however, Kiev is an altogether different place. I took the metro — an old and rusting Soviet-era system submerged deep in the city's underground — to Livoberezhna, a drab array of Soviet apartment blocks on the east bank of the Dnieper river. There I spoke with a working class couple in their mid-30s. They told me that times were tight, but they were doing OK, as most of their living was made off the books. As it turned out, getting paid cash-in-hand was common practice. Elsewhere I spoke with some pensioners who told me that medicine and staple food items like bread and potatoes were getting more and more expensive, but that pensions — a meager 200 hryvnias a month (less than $25 at the time) — hadn't budged in years. They were getting by, but just barely.

When it was time to leave Kiev I purchased an overnight train ticket for my next stop: Chisinau, capital of Moldova. The train left Kiev's central train station shortly after midnight, arriving at the Moldovan border around 3 a.m., where my sleep was interrupted by a loud knock on the compartment door. Before I could even open it, the door was flung open by a customs official, a dour middle-aged woman with bright red hair and a cold, almost lifeless expression on her face. She brusquely demanded my passport, which thankfully I got back after 30 minutes, and only 30 minutes after that the train resumed its journey. Customs checks in this part of the world are not a pleasant experience. 

A few hours later I awoke to a commonplace Soviet landscape: Old, seemingly abandoned factories rusting beside sparse villages comprised of tiny, solemn-looking houses and dilapidated apartment blocks. A little over 16 hours and 500 kilometers (310 miles) later, I arrived in Chisinau.

Chisinau, Moldova

Leaving the train station for my lodgings for the night, I found myself in a poor and run-down neighborhood not far from the city center. Walking on to the Bulevardul Stefan cel Mare si Sfant, Chisinau's main boulevard, interspersed with elements of both classical European and Soviet architecture, I expected to find the street lively on a Saturday night, like it had been during my last visit to Chisinau, two years earlier. But it was very quiet and almost lifeless this time around. I wondered if the crisis had anything to do with that. Moldova is, after all, known as the poorest country in Europe.

The next morning I went for a longer walk, contemplating the city's churches, which are quite beautiful compared to the bland Soviet architecture to be found in much of Chisinau. They were packed with people on a Sunday, in stark contrast to the nearly empty streets of the previous night. Perhaps yet another sign of the crisis, I thought.

When it came time to leave Chisinau, I found the train station almost entirely empty, also a curiosity for a weekend afternoon. In my train compartment, I became acquainted with a Russian-speaking Kazakh man who grew up in Moscow during the Soviet era and was now living and working in France. He told me that he traveled frequently to the former Soviet Union for his work, and had ended up spending weeks in Chisinau on his latest trip. He reminded me of a man I had met on an overnight train from Kiev to Moscow a few years earlier — a middle-aged Armenian raised in Azerbaijan who went to university in Russia, but was living in Ukraine with business interests in multiple countries.

Both had characteristics of the typical Soviet man — known colloquially as Homo Sovieticus — one you are liable to meet on any overnight train journey across the former Soviet space. They were both well traveled (at least within the region), very hospitable (anything they brought to eat or drink is not only offered but demanded to be shared), and both had some vague and shady business that it is always better not to inquire too much about. 

This train ride was even longer than the previous one, about 18 hours, which gave us plenty of time to chat. Careful not to ask too many questions, I determined that his line of business was in security services for "high-profile people," and that business was good. Security is a line of work that always seems to do well in spite of poor economic times, and perhaps because of them.

The train stopped a few hours into the ride and the entire compartment shifted with a jarring thud, indicating that we had reached the border with Romania. As well as marking the official transition from the former Soviet Union to Europe, it was the conversion from the Soviet rail gauge to a European gauge system. The switchover took well over an hour, accompanied by a further customs check (by another cold and stoic middle-aged official) on the other side of the border.

Bucharest, Romania 

When the train arrived in Bucharest early the next morning I traveled from the railway station to my accommodation via the underground metro, which was cleaner and slightly more modern than the old Soviet-era metro stations in Kiev.

Staying in a cheerless apartment building on the outskirts of central Bucharest, I found the dingy complex typical of the Stalinist and Soviet-style structures of the period. In an otherwise attractive city of cobblestone streets and classical European architecture, this particular urban space was courtesy of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who ruled the country in Stalinesque fashion for nearly 25 years until his violent overthrow in the revolution of November 1989.

Of the various people I met during my stay, I particularly remember a Romanian engineering professor in his thirties who, despite his respectable profession, said he earned only 300 euros per month in Romania, forcing him to live with his mother and travel by train to conferences in Germany, rather than take more expensive flights. Here was a person who, by all accounts, should have been doing well, but wasn't: Someone who was living the crisis first-hand. He was not optimistic for the future, figuring that things would only get worse before they got better. He even said that many people were starting to look back on the Ceausescu era with a certain degree of fondness, at least for the sake of stability.

When it came time to leave Romania, I was glad to experience my last customs inspection (and midnight interruption). Hungary marks the official entrance to Europe's Schengen zone, which assures freedom of travel among Schengen members.

Budapest, Hungary

I awoke as the train pulled into central Budapest. Still groggy from the ride, I attempted to get oriented as I walked out into a drizzly and piercingly cold morning.

The flat I stayed at belonged to a local who was traveling outside the country. House-sitting in his stead was a friend, a student originally from Latvia. He was in Budapest on Erasmus program, an international university exchange program quite commonly used by students in EU countries. Also staying in the apartment were two female university students from Berlin, in Budapest for a short stop during their spring break. 

Soon after my arrival Budapest was enveloped by a snowstorm, which limited my exploring but gave me plenty of time to chat with my temporary roommates. I was able to get a fascinating insight into the economic crisis. The Latvian student told us he had no desire to return to his native Latvia, which was one of the worst-hit countries in the crisis. It was almost impossible for him, a marketing major, to get a well-paying job there, so he preferred to work odd jobs in Budapest after finishing university rather than return home. 

The girls, meanwhile, lived in the economic powerhouse of Europe and were far less impacted. German unemployment rates were at just over 5 percent, one of the lowest in Europe, and neither of them had any concerns about finding a job once they finished school. The contrast was stark — students that were the same age, with similar educational backgrounds, and who shared the same continental landmass and economic union, had much different prospects because of their respective countries. 

The snowstorm finally let up and I immediately gravitated to the Danube, the waterway that splits the city in two, flanked by some of the most beautiful Baroque and Renaissance architecture in Europe. An evening stroll along this river is alone worth a visit to Budapest.

Vienna, Austria

After just a few short hours on a fast, clean international train, I arrived in Vienna. From Wien Meidling station to the suburbs, the subway system was modern and efficient, and Vienna was a distinctly Western European city. The classical European architecture was unblighted by Soviet apartment blocks, the streets were clean and well maintained, and there was a certain orderliness that was easy to spot without even getting off the metro train. The Iron Curtain had long since fallen, but in many ways, its effects on the countries that used to be behind it still lingered.

I went to Stephansplatz and stood in awe of a beautiful city where neo-Renaissance architecture and modern office buildings stand side by side. Countless tourists wandered the streets, enjoying outdoor cafes, fancy restaurants and luxury boutiques. This was a city of overwhelming glamor and glory, and though the continental reach of Austria's empire is long gone, the riches of its capital city remain.

Amid these comparative wonders, I was curious about how people were affected (if at all) by the current economic crisis. For this I talked with my temporary flatmate in Vienna, a native Macedonian who had lived in the city most of his life. He confirmed that Austria was relatively unscathed by the crisis, having the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union at just under 5 percent. It was the economic stability of Austria that brought his family to Vienna from the much poorer and much more politically volatile Macedonia. Macedonia was outside the European Union, but he was lucky enough to have dual citizenship thanks to his mother's employment at the Austrian Embassy. He was earning a master's degree in physics that was likely to land him a steady job once he graduated, a prospect that for many others — like the student from Latvia — was unfortunately not so certain.

Purchasing an overnight train ticket to Rome, I found myself in a clean and comfortable compartment, unmolested by border authorities. Waking to the beautiful sight of the Italian countryside, rolling green hills, punctuated by Mediterranean-style villas and fertile farms passed by as the train made its way south into the Italian peninsula. I was served croissants and coffee for breakfast by a friendly, clean-cut young Austrian attendant wearing a suit — a far cry from the disheveled and apathetic attendants crewing the trains in Eastern Europe.

Rome, Italy 

I stayed with a family in central Rome but none of them were around much. Their housekeeper, however, just so happened to be from eastern Ukraine and relished the fact that she finally had someone to speak to in her native Russian.

She told me she had moved to Italy with her husband, but had since gotten divorced. With a single income, she was barely making ends meet as a housekeeper. Unlike Austria, Italy was deeply affected by the crisis, with one of the highest unemployment levels in Europe, over 12 percent. She sent whatever money she could to her daughter, who still lived in Ukraine, which left her just enough to get by. She presented another unique case of someone afflicted by the crisis, which was more pronounced in southern Europe than in Austria and the northern European countries.

Rome itself has been endlessly documented so I paid a visit to the outskirts of the city, where the architecture is less aesthetically pleasing and tourists are absent. There I spoke to a university student, who, like many of her fellow students, was deeply concerned about her job prospects after graduation (Italy's youth unemployment rate is one of the highest in the European Union, at around 43 percent). Many were enrolling in master's programs in anticipation of being left out of the job market altogether. She felt lucky to even have a part-time job, something that most of her friends were not able to get. At the end of the day, she had her parents to fall back on, an increasingly common situation, but their collective outlook for the crisis was not positive. In contrast with the bustling and festive atmosphere of central Rome, this conversation felt oddly fitting in this less glamorous periphery. It was on this note that I ended my European journey.

Reflections

One major takeaway from the trip is that when assessing the impact of a crisis in Europe, place matters. Where you are in the Continent, where you are in a city, and even how you travel in between places generates very different impressions. It was also clear that statistics of GDP growth and unemployment levels, while useful as a guide, do not tell the whole story. Things like family support networks and the shadow economy often serve to blunt the impact on people in the countries worst hit, yet they don't appear in the numbers.

Now, more than one year later, the crisis continues and may well persist for quite some time yet. The dividing lines of Europe, in terms of levels of development, the impact of the crisis, and all its associated political and cultural friction are very much still there. But given the history of Europe, the fact that many people in EU countries are able to not only coexist peacefully, but travel, work and live throughout the Continent at a tough economic and political time, is no small feat. 

Perhaps this is why, despite all its economic and political problems, the European Union has so far managed to stay together. And perhaps this is what makes many people in countries outside of the bloc, especially those close by like Ukraine and Moldova, look longingly towards Europe in hope of a brighter future. 

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