What has impressed me the most here is how much Ukrainian has taken the place of Russian. When I was in Odessa (a very much Russian speaking part of Ukraine) I had asked about Ukrainian being taught as a foreign language to the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Odessa. My teacher made a really big deal out of emphasizing that Ukrainian was not a foreign language in Odessa and at the time I didn't really understand why. The fact of the matter is that in Ukraine all of the signage is in Ukrainian and only Ukrainian. This extends to most shop signs (with the exception of Crimea) as well. Also there are few Russian-language schools in Ukraine and pretty much everyone regardless of what part of the country they are from or what language they speak goes to Ukrainian- language school. Even if many of the older teachers end up teaching in a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian, the fact of the matter is that if you grow up in Ukraine today you are surrounded by Ukrainian (it dominates tv too). In that sense you can't talk about Ukraine being a 'foreign language' even if you are living in the Russian speaking East.
This all impresses me even more because this was very much not the case in Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan, like in Ukraine, you had a native language that suffered as a result of direct or indirect Soviet promotion of Russian. After the collapse of communism in both countries you had attempts to promote the 'native language.' Efforts in Kazakhstan have been far less successful. First of all in Kazakhstan you have the problem that in comparisons to Ukrainians in Ukraine, Kazakhs make up a much smaller percentage of the population. Then there is the issue where as an educated speaker of Russian can probably understand about 60% of Ukrainian with no exposure to it before (both being Eastern Slavic language), Kazakh apart from a few loan words shares very little in common with Russian and is much harder for Russian speakers to pick up just by watching tv. In Kazakhstan, however, there is the added complication that given the choice between Kazakh- and Russian-language school even Kazakh speaking ethnic Kazakhs will often choose Russian school (the better textbook are in Russian).
In any case, the official rhetoric when it comes to language is very similar Ukraine and Kazakhstan, the results, however, have been very different. I suppose I am just impressed by the success of ukrainianization in Ukraine, especially considering the failure of a previous attempt in the 20s.
Anyway, over the past couple of days I have been spending time with young Ukrainian bankers. I had answered some ads in a Kiev English language paper from people willing to trade Russian for English (I done most stuff here on my own) and ended up meeting with two of them. Both were more or less my age and were trying to work on their English for career purposes. Both were really nice and were native Russian speakers so it was interesting to get their take on things (as products of the post-Soviet period both were also fluent in Ukrainian and had no real concerns about the expanded use of Ukrainian), and one of them had taken part in protests here in Kiev during the Orange Revolution so that was interesting. Though I was glad for the company, I have to admit that both in terms of the breadth of their interests were a little dull so I will be looking forward to shaking things up a bit when I head to Minsk.
I had wanted to come to Ukraine because especially after the Orange Revolution because I really felt like there was hope here. Hope in the sense that there was an up and coming generation that was talented and energetic and unhampered by media censorship or a completely rigged electoral system (the latter not being the case in Russia or Kazakhstan). Change is possible in Ukraine. After having spent in total of about a month in Ukraine this year I can say there is hope in Ukraine, the media is truly free, elections are free, but the sheer number of problems the country faces makes that hope difficult to realize if there aren't politicians capable enough to tackle them even if they are popular. Ukraine has tremendous class divides, housing is crushingly expensive (even for the poorest quality), villages are dieing out, alcoholism is a way of dealing with everyday life, life expectancy is low, cronyism and graft are prevalent, and women face huge discrimination and little help is raising the children they often have to provide for on their own on salaries that aren't sufficient for one person to live off of. All of this makes the hope that exists in Ukraine bittersweet. Yes in Ukraine there is a better chance of addressing these problems and the problems of those without connections in general, but even if they are better than in Russian or Kazakhstan the probability of addressing all of these problems effectively is slim. None of which is helped by the fact that politicians are more focused on fighting each other than helping people.