Kellsey Stokes

As Interviewed by Aidan Stokes, March 18, 2018

Kellsey Stokes: In Her Own Words

We talked about how Inga really hated Gorbachev because, as she says, there may have been problems with Communism, but when Gorbachev came, he took away Communism, but he did not fix anything, he didn’t put a good thing in its place.

The year that I was there was in 1997 and it was the very first year that Ukraine had a currency post the fall of Soviet Union, because when the Soviet Union fell, their country started living off government coupons, and it got to a point where the inflation around the coupons had gone crazy, and it was cheaper to burn your coupons than to buy wood... so they would burn their coupons.

There’s a lot of things that were run down, at least on the outside, and I think that was probably for two reasons: One, because of just having generations of just not thinking that the exterior was theirs to take care of, but secondarily also because the Mafia was such a strong presence in Odessa, and if you had something that looked nice, and the Mafia wanted it, you gave it to them, because nobody wanted to upset the Mafia.

The Mafia was already there. They were already a power before Communism fell. They just became more of a power. They didn’t come into being when Communism fell, they just took advantage of there being more of a vacuum than there usually was.

You didn’t wear nice clothes, you didn’t wear nice watches, you didn’t even drive nice cars, because if you had any of those things, and the Mafia saw it, and someone in the Mafia came up to you and said ‘I like your watch’ or ‘I like your car’, you had to give it to them because if you didn’t you would pay.

There were probably 10-14 Ukrainian students that did this program with us that summer, and every single one of them, except one, had to pay $10,000 a year to the Mafia to keep their spot in school. Inga had earned a full-ride state scholarship to attend the university, but she was only able to keep her position by paying the Mafia $10,000 a year. And Olga said the same thing was true for her, Misha said that, both Yulias said that, the only person who did not say that was Oksana, and she came from a rural farm, and so she just lived kinda outside of where the Mafia had its influence.

They talked about how that was just a normal part of life, everyone just expected that. They couldn’t understand that the Mafia was not a norm for any of us.

And I do know, that person that I spoke with who still goes to Ukraine every year on business? He does tech work and he interacts with a company in Ukraine there, and he said that still to this day, even when he goes over, he never knows when he gets there if it’s going to be one of those times of the year when all of the tech has been taken. And I asked him what he meant by that, and he said ‘Well, it’s just a part of the budget in Odessa’, he said, ‘You just plan to have it to be a part of your budget to replace all of your computers and all of your tech at least four times a year, because the Mafia will come and take it... and no one’s going to fight to get it back, you just budget to have to replace it’.