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  • noahchonlee

My First Days in Ukraine

[Warning: Graphic Contents]


I arrived the 26th of May of 2023, one day after saying farewell to friends at a two-month long tech entrepreneur's residency Zuzalu held at a five-star resort in Montenegro where Russian oligarchs park their yachts.

While waiting at the bus station at the border with Poland, I randomly asked a lady for directions. As we talked I discovered she was a professor of entrepreneurship from Ukraine. As an additional incredible coincidence, we had seats assigned next to each other.

During the bus ride, she connected me with Nazar Podolchak, director of the Tech Startup School of Lviv Polytechnic University. Upon arriving in Lviv in Ukraine, I was warmly welcomed and hosted for the night by the father of Svitlana Midianko, a Ukrainian Googler friend in San Francisco. In the morning, I met with Mr. Podolchak and he welcomed me to present to a classroom of students and answer questions about entrepreneurship in tech.

By May 2024, I have now presented as a guest lecturer at universities in Ukraine, Syria, and Zanzibar in East Africa, which is kinda funny considering I'm a freshman dropout. I also find it odd that while my friends who stayed in the military are still training to become officers, I've already been to two warzones. I have all these experiences and none of the qualifications.

Misconceptions About Ukraine

I had thought of Ukraine as a poor country with a GDP per capita of less than $5,000 per year (less than Algeria.) I expected everyone to be farmers.However, I found myself gaping in shock at people zooming by on electric unicycles beneath the grand architecture leftover from the Habsburg Empire. From Montenegro to here, it felt like jumping 70 years forward into modernity. Cleanliness, a high-tech atmosphere, and infrastructure appeared far better in Lviv than in most cities in the USA.

Looking into it, the purchasing power per person (PPP GDP per capita) internally within Ukraine is $11,000 per person (similar to Vietnam's). This still seems absurdly low. The development level and quality of life on the street appearing more advanced in Lviv than San Francisco. Russian threats scaring away investments, devaluing the currency, and making exports artificially cheap may be why Ukrainian developers are paid relatively little. Plus, they cannot easily move throughout the EU. Although Ukraine applied to join the EU immediately after the Russian invasion in February of 2022, they are not currently a part of it. I saw many EU flags around Ukraine.

People were friendly and there was an air of celebration in the beautiful parks. Everywhere I looked I saw people dancing, musicians, people playing sports, and book vendors in the streets. I found myself feeling like I could happily move and live in Lviv.

Meeting Valeriia in Lviv

A Ukrainian friend at a Solaris group house in the AI Cerebral Valley in San Francisco connected me Valeriia who I met at a cafe. She works as a psychologist, so I asked about the mental impacts of the war.

Standing with Valeriia in downtown Lviv

She explained about how she fears that her husband will be called to war and that she might be left raising their two year old son alone. They had decided that her husband would be willing to fight if called. She had moved to Poland before but returned to Ukraine because "it's home."

I encountered that attitude quite a bit.

Meetings in Kyiv

In Kyiv I met with Eugene Zvolinsky, an online contact at a Ukrainian developer firm from my time hiring AI data labelers, and his girlfriend Julia. They treated me to an amazing meal of borsch and I heard about how his mother has been fighting in the front lines.

Meeting Serhii Rebuilding a Neighborhood

A Ukrainian friend at an AI startup in San Francisco, Vazghen Nikolian, connected me with Serhii Korol whose family builds houses. We stood on his street on the outskirts of Kyiv where Russian soldiers had entered his own home and ransacked.

On one side of the street were the charred remains of destroyed houses and on the other side were brand new homes that his family had rebuilt. He explained that as soon as the house is ready, most of the families who used to live there immediately come back even as Kyiv continues to be bombed. I was inspired by how he and the whole community resolutely refused to abandon their homes and continue to rebuild.

He said that everyone wants to show Russia and the world, "We are not dead. We are home."

We received word of some bombings nearby and so we had to drive away from the area to find an open restaurant for lunch.

As we drove, he pointed out a particular place on the street where there was a video of Russian soldiers shooting down a random elderly lady as she was crossing the street with her groceries. He explained that as the families left they knew things could be terrible, but no one expected how brutal the soldiers would be with killing the young and elderly. I could hear his rage in a way I had never heard in anyone before as he talked about a young boy who a Russian soldier had forced to stay in the corner of the house as the soldier raped the boy's mother.

At one point we saw diving kamikaze drones get shot down over our heads that might have killed us if it had landed. I said, "huh," and we kept walking. I took a video of the smoke from that but am told I should not share that for security reasons.

Serhii treated me to some amazing Ukrainian meals and drove me around all day to help find the necessary supplies and a place to rent a car. We chatted about life and listened to some music and I felt very aware of how brief and wild life is. I gifted him my LED nunchucks.

I also met a random friendly family who were excited to show me their pet ferret. I had wondered before coming if people would be culturally cold from the conflict, and I was also aware that visually I look like some of the Russian soldiers from farther east. However, I met many welcoming, friendly, helpful people everywhere.

For my next days driving to the eastern front to deliver medical supplies, see here:



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