I’m just about at the end of a three-week reprieve from Siberian winter. Well, sort of a reprieve. I’m in Ukraine, near the city of Odessa, in a village called Usatovo. What am I doing here, you ask? This is the location of a Lutheran seminary where I’ve just finished teaching a course.

At first I thought I’d rather be in Odessa proper. It’s on the Black Sea and has a reputation for being a beautiful city and cultural center. In my time here, I’ve been to Odessa more than once and have had some chance to walk around and see the sights. The place is pleasant enough. But over the years I’ve become a bit jaded when it comes to European cities. After all, I’ve been to Prague twice. Most cities fall short in comparison with golden Prague. True, Odessa is on the water, but the biting sea wind with its numbing chill makes it impossible to contemplate enjoying that this time of year.

So here I am, in a village that has little to commend it. Or does it? To me, this place is in some respects more intriguing than the city. It’s like nothing I’ve seen anywhere—although they tell me it’s a typical Ukrainian town.

Here there are mostly private dwellings instead of apartment buildings. These places have real character. And virtually all of them are behind walls, fences, and gates.

Yes, it seems Ukrainians like to be walled in, as though they live in medieval castles designed to ward of enemies and plunderers.

Some of the houses are very humble, as are their surrounding barriers.

Some are fabulously ornate, with decorated iron gates and stone or brick walls.

For no obvious reason, the two extremes are found side by side. Here the old real-estate adage “Location, location, location” doesn’t so much apply. New wealth, faded elegance, and deep poverty sit hand in hand.

Compared to Siberians and, I would say, northern Russians in general, Ukrainians like bright colors on the outside as well as the inside. Even the residents of poorer dwellings seem to make an effort to gladden the eye with varied hues.

As is common in towns in this part of the world, Usatovo has an Orthodox church, a relatively new structure that is well designed and impressive against the landscape. 

Also typical is the World War Two memorial, where the names of the local soldiers who perished are recorded and honored. Many Americans don’t realize that the greater part of the war was fought on the territory of Russia and Ukraine, and that the Soviet Union—and the Germans—lost more men to this fight than all the Allies put together—and the Germans—in other theaters. That is reflected in the list of casualties, which seems quite long for such a small place.

Now that I’ve gotten over the surprise of the living arrangements in Ukraine, my next task is to determine why it’s this way. What is it about the Ukrainian character that likes to be walled in? But that’s beyond the scope of this piece. Maybe some other time.