By Josie Logsdon
A Global View on Local Politics
Vlad knew he wanted to get out of Ukraine, to discover other parts of the world. Vlad calls Cherkasy home, a decent city in central Ukraine. Since he was 17, Vlad had been studying around the world to understand different cultures, politics and economics.
Josie Logsdon: How old were you when you first moved away from home?
Vladyslav Alforov: I moved from home when I was 17.
JL: To Oklahoma?
VA: No, I went to an international boarding school in Armenia, so I pretty much finished high school back home then did two more years of high school, just because it was a very different environment, very diverse, very open-minded, very tolerant. My parents first thought it was some sort of trap, they were like, “You’re going to a cult, they’re gonna make you build that school.” But I said, “It sounds like I actually got a scholarship for something that will give me an opportunity to actually study abroad later.” That’s sort of the predominant desire back home – to get out of the country because it’s stagnant in some economic ways, socially it’s very depressive in some ways.
JL: Do a lot of students go abroad?
VA: So I would say around one-third of my peers study in Poland because they believe that Poland – you know, European Union – it is more financially secure, there’s more opportunity. But I wasn’t interested in Poland. I decided to find some other ways to get out of the country – which I’m not proud of right now. I wouldn’t say that it was a good move to just be ignorant of any kind of positive change I can implement in the country. But back then I was like, hey, in order to find my voice, I need to get out of here. So I managed to into the program United World College. After two years in Armenia, I had to apply to college, and Oklahoma was one of the schools that sent agents to the boarding school to advertise the college. Oklahoma ended up being one of the two colleges that gave me good scholarships.
JL: What was the other school?
VA: It was Bennington College in Vermont. It’s very artsy, very “no curriculum, here’s your advisor do whatever you want.” I chose Oklahoma. I’ve never regretted it. I really love the university with the amount of extra-curricular involvement, and the vigor is really excellent here. I may have some issues with the state of Oklahoma, as a non-driver, I’m a person who may have some issues with the perks of capitalism. But I’m really grateful for my experience at OU.
JL: What do you want to do next?
VA: I think I wanted to be a journalist even before – even back home I was interested in writing. I was more creative and artsy as a kid. I think the academic pressure takes that away. The more I learn, the more interested I am in journalism. I want to be specifically involved in investigative journalism. When I was in Armenia, I learned about their, like, it’s not a war, it’s more of an armed conflict. There is the region on the border that they’re fighting for, and I didn’t even know about it. Although I lived only a two-hour flight away, not even across the world. And it’s crazy people are fighting, dying, and in the West, we can do more with information on those conflicts. I mean, in the US, how many people know about the Armenian conflicts – many people just know Armenia because of the Kardashians. I would like to make people more aware of critical situations across the globe. So, human rights violations, corruption, armed conflicts, stuff like that. That’s why I wanna get involved.
JL: So is there any draw to take what you’ve learned abroad back to your home country?
VA: Yes, especially with the current political state back home. We chose a new president and new parliament, and now I can sense this sort of political and social upheaval. It seems like people are once again motivated to work for the benefit of their country. They are actually inspired and they were made to believe that the change for better is possible. And it is. I believe that Ukraine is one of the most promising democratic powers in the western world, let’s say, because I see that people want more transparency and less corruption. They want more proper governance and control over the governmental actions.
JL: So what have you learned that can influence what you can do in Ukraine?
VA: I took this course online on corruption over summer. And they talk about two different natures of corruption. One is institutional and one is exceptional. So in the US, when a politician is corrupt, it’s very easy to get rid of that one broken element in a chain. That works most of the time. In the Ukraine, corruption isn’t an exception in the chain, it’s the nature of the system. Its institutional corruption. You can’t change things by switching one person for another, because that person is going to likely be just as, if not more, corrupted. So how do you go about it? That’s where media comes. I feel an urge to come back and contribute as a journalist, especially being schooled abroad, because there is such a need for transparent reporting in journalism. News should be more analytical than anecdotal. There is the growing need for more sincere and professional journalism. So yeah, I want to come back. Maybe a couple years ago, I would have seen that as a failure. Like, yeah, I managed to get out, but now if I come back – that’s a complete disaster. But I don’t think like that anymore. It’s more of a continuation of the logical circle. I grew up there, my heart is always there. You know, I always say “There’s only one country that’s better than Ukraine, it’s Ukraine if it was a bit better.” That makes me want to come back. If not us, who.
JL: How did the corruption affect you as a kid?
VA: It’s very interesting; the corruption is from the bottom-up. Of course there are politicians accepting bribes, but back home, let’s say you want to put your kid in a public kindergarten. Well, there’s this line of kids waiting to get in. By the time your kid is one or two years old, they should already be in line so that by the time they have to go to kindergarten, there’s a place for them. But if you want to move a little bit ahead in line, you just have to bribe someone. If you want to get preferential treatment in a public hospital, you have to bribe someone. The thing is healthcare is free back home, but not really. School is supposed to be free. I went to a public school, but my parents still paid, not really bribes, but I don’t know how lawful that was. Like “parents contribution for the cleaning of a classroom,” or “parents contribution toward textbooks” or something like that. So corruption is everywhere. It’s just so widespread. And people always give crap to the government, about the bad roads or something, but nobody wants to pay taxes. Nobody pays taxes. 50% of business is illegal in one way or another. You receive your salary in an envelope, and that paycheck isn’t taxed. You get that cash, but it doesn’t get taxed. My mom is an entrepreneur – I know half of her stuff isn’t “clean” or not as legal as she would like. But she influenced me in that way, she doesn’t participate in what she considers immoral. She lost several jobs because her bosses would ask for her to cross the line dealing with taxes. Unfortunately, we have to deal with it on a daily basis.
JL: Have you ever bribed anyone for better treatment?
VA: We did pay someone off one time. When I was supposed to go to Armenia, I needed a new passport. The names on my birth certificate and my passport didn’t match up, so I couldn’t get a new passport until that new name was in there. So we went to the agency responsible for renewing my birth certificate and they said their official was on paid leave until August, so they couldn’t do anything. And I had to leave by July. So my mom went to talk privately to that person and they ended up resolving it – I don’t really know how.
JL: Do you feel bad for family or friends that still leave there now that you’ve experienced different places?
VA: Well, traveling is one of my biggest passions in life. The more I travel, the more I understand it’s not better here or there. It’s just very different in many ways. I cannot claim that I’m so mesmerized by the United States because it’s prosperous and everyone lives so freely. Like back home, nobody knows what student loan debt is. There are different dynamics. I don’t feel bad about my friends and family that still live back home. I sometimes feel bad about their choices or their worldview in general. I go back home every time I get into arguments with my friends, saying, “If you want better roads, how come you can park where ever you want and not pay anywhere and nobody will fine you.” And they tell me to imagine that some guy is gonna park illegally and even if he does get fined, he’s not gonna pay it. So when I was at the court clerk last week and I asked someone what happens if someone ignores their letter for jury summons, she just said it’s really bad, they’d send the sheriff or something, but that doesn’t really happen. They don’t ignore it. That was a culture shock for me. People know here the system works. That is so weird for me. Because at home people get letters to join the army, and they just ignore those letters because they know there will be no enforcement. It’s sad to see that my friends and family seem not ready to do something about it.
JL: Did you get one of those army letters?
VA: I did.
JL: Did you ignore it?
VA: I did not ignore it. As far as I understand, you get a waiver when you go to a higher-education establishment. I read the constitution and it seems like it applies to when I study abroad. So I told my mom to bring documents to the office proving that I go to university because I didn’t want to break the law. She said she talked to her boss who used to work at that office, and he said that it’s better to just avoid dealing with it. They’re not gonna do anything about it. They physically summon people two weeks out of the year. The rest of the year, they’ll send out letters but they won’t come looking for you so it’s just easier to ignore it. Eventually, I made my mom give them the letter. They’ll send me another summons when the document expires.
JL: Will you go to the army then?
VA: I don’t think so because I’m planning to do a masters. I mean, the thing is, even if I’m back home and I’m not at university and I’m just working, the odds are I’ll just find a way not to go to the army. I’m trying to be frank here. I don’t wanna waste a year of my life. I don’t feel like there will be anything good coming out of that.
JL: What’s one thing you’d bring from Ukraine to the United States?
VA: Let’s see. I’ll have to think about it. If I was to share one thing with Americans, it would be a passion for travel. A passion for embracing the culture, embracing the difference. I’m often saddened by how culturally isolated this nation is. America is very self-sufficient. Ukraine is not. I grew up listening to French music, watching Russian and British TV shows. I grew up learning four languages. And it’s just very different. So I would bring the passion for discovering other cultures.