I first heard this phrase in 2009 on a train from Budapest to Vinnytsi in central Ukraine. It was Easter and I was travelling to post-revolution Moldova with my classmate and friend Maria who was on her way home to see her mum in Kyiv.
“Fuuu, Ian. It’s Ukraine!” was her dismissive response to my somewhat flippant observation that our late-night train journey was much darker since crossing the border from Hungary into Ukraine.
I understood ‘Fuuu Ian’ as it was a familiar phrase that Maria deployed, on a regular basis, to indicate her disappointment with me (be it real or feigned), but what I didn’t know at the time was that she had also hit me with a favourite Ukrainian one-liner – ‘It’s Ukraine’.
If you spend time in Ukraine and ask any questions (let’s be honest, its hard to understand many things here), then it won’t be long before someone responds with: ‘It’s Ukraine!’. This usually happens as your Ukrainian friend/guide/host shrugs their shoulders and turn the palms of their hands upwards, sometimes pushing their bottom lip out in a kind of ‘I don’t know’ pouting posture.
At first this can be confusing and even irritating because it doesn’t tell you anything apart from the obvious and self-evident fact that you are in Ukraine. Taken literally it makes no attempt to answer your question, whatever it might be. It’s a lazy non-answer which, roughly translated, means: I don’t know.
However, after hearing the phrase a few times, you’ll start to understand that Ukrainians deploy this linguistic duo in various different ways. In fact, the intentional ambiguity of the answer means it can be used at almost any time to express a wide range of feelings.
The most common use is to express cluelessness. A simple ‘It’s Ukraine’ usually does mean “I don’t know” and to be fair, it is usually understandable. How can anyone be expected to explain some things in a country where many things are inexplicable?’
However, in addition to the common “I don’t know” there are many other variants:
There is an exasperated ‘Yeah, it’s Ukraine’, meaning ‘what do you want me to do about it?’.
The sympathetic ‘it’s Ukraine’, meaning ‘sorry I can’t help you, you know this place is bonkers.’
A stern or disappointed ‘Well. It’s Ukraine’, meaning ‘you are not at home, you are in Ukraine, show some respect’.
The mischievous ‘It’s Ukraine’, usually said with a cheeky smile and meaning ‘welcome to the ‘wild East’ anything is possible here’.
‘Of course. It’s Ukraine’, means ‘yes, we do that here’ and is usually said with a threatening ‘Do you have a problem with it?’ look.
An excited and playful ‘It’s Ukraine’, means something like ‘Wooohaaa, yeah baby – this country rocks like no other!
There is a sad, fatalistic and depressed ‘sigh, it’s Ukraine’, meaning ‘this country sucks, it will never change, I hate everything’
…and finally there is the advisory/warning ‘It’s Ukraine’, which means ‘get used to it’, or ‘deal with it’ because it ain’t going to change any time soon.
In many ways this is a catch-all catchphrase, but what, you may ask, if you want a real answer to a non-rhetorical question?. Perhaps you genuinely do want to know why their are so many different ticket windows (sixteen) at Chop train station and ‘it’s Ukraine’ isn’t helping you on your quest to find one that’s open and sells the correct tickets.
Well, in this case it can be frustrating, but try to relax and go-easy on your friend or whoever just said ‘it’s Ukraine’ with a shrug. The phrase serves as a national survival technique. It’s a kind of safety blanket or defence shield that can be thrown-up to defend Ukrainians against a whole load of nonsense in a country of impossible contradictions, cumbersome bureaucracy and genuinely inexplicable craziness. It’s a coping mechanism which simply deflects many of life’s daily annoyances and it lets them carry on with life without going crazy.
When Polish Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Mlosz was asked what people might have learned under years of communism he replied: “Resistance to Stupidities”. This phrase embodies that resistance.
You see, taking a deep breath and muttering ‘its Ukraine’ is far better than throttling the ticket office attendant who just slammed the window in your face and went for a break at 16:23. It trivialises the absurdity of the woman at the local accommodation office who one day refuses to speak to you because its not her department and she knows nothing about your problem, and the next day tells you everything you need to know, and it is way, way easier than seriously and accurately trying to find out why babushkas run at full speed through Palats Sportu metro station at 05:30 in the morning carrying large bags.
It’s Ukraine!. Enjoy it.