Train Stations and Supermarkets in Ukraine

First published in the Ukrainian Weekly, July 1, 2012:

L’viv-born economist, Ludwig Von Mises made the case that capitalism forces people, even enemies, to cooperate and serve one another. This is so evident, we often fail to see it.

Consider buying something at a store. It is typical for both customer and cashier to say “thank you.” This mutual expression of gratitude reflects how both parties benefit. The customer receives his product, and the cashier, on behalf of the owner, the customer’s money. They are both happier and the world becomes a better place.

The mutual benefit only occurs for businesses relying on voluntary patronage. It doesn’t exist where people profit from tax dollars — for example, at the train station. This brings me to my personal experience buying tickets in Kyiv’s “Vokzal.”

I was been told you can buy tickets online in Ukraine, but the website looks confusing. You must register. Also, after you buy them online, you go to the train station and cut in front of the many exhausted travelers waiting on long lines just to receive online-purchased train ticket. I can’t imagine doing that. So, for my stay in Ukraine, I’ve resorted to standing on lines at train stations to purchase tickets.

For my non-Ukrainian readers, let me clarify how horrible this experience is: The station is perpetually crowded and smells like body odor. By my estimate, the average wait in Kyiv is thirty minutes. You have to demonstrate your capitulation to the system by stooping to speak through a little portal to the impatient clerk. You have no idea what train tickets are available or how much they cost until you get there. A decision must be made the instant you get the information and there doesn’t seem to be any way to get an overview of what’s available.

You ask for Thursday night, they tell you, very rapidly what’s leaving on Thursday night, which types of cabins, times of travel and cost. It’s an awfully large amount of information to process quickly, especially for non-native speakers and especially if you’re a nice person sensitive to the impatience of the people behind you.

It gets worse.

On a recent visit to the train station a young man asked to cut in front of me, just as I reached the front of the line. Perhaps he had bought a ticket online. “Thirty seconds,” he said. I nodded. Good manners are only a weakness in a bureaucratically managed enterprise.

He was indeed finished in thirty seconds, but a lady sensed her opportunity and asserted her place behind the young man. I told her she couldn’t cut, and even posted my arm, but she snuck around my other side as soon as he finished.

She jumped straight into a heated argument with the clerk. The clerk refused something but she wouldn’t accept it and kept arguing. Eventually, the clerk put a cardboard sign in the window that read “Technical break,” dropped the venetian blinds, and left her booth, switching off the light.

This shouldn’t have caught me by surprise.

Various times are printed on the glass of the booth. Though they weren’t labeled, I’ve since learned these were the technical breaks. Each booth has five or six technical breaks during the day and they range from ten to sixty minutes in duration. This one was supposed to be twenty minutes long, and I decided to wait it out rather than move to a different line. She returned on time, but then spent five minutes counting money with another lady. When I finally had her attention, she told me that nothing was available on the day I wanted to travel, or the day after that. I couldn’t make an immediate decision about what to do, so I left empty handed.

Most Ukrainians would probably think: “Of course, that it how it works at the train station. That is how it always worked, and that is how it will always be until the end of time. There is no alternative.”

One must be able to imagine progress before achieving it. Imagine a supermarket. I shop at the Mega Market near Olympiski Stadium metro station. In fact, I went there just to cheer myself up after my failure at the train station. I like choices. I like polite people.

At Mega Market, I don’t have to ask which products are available. They are advertised with beautiful pictures and sometimes, attractive people hand me leaflets as I wander the aisles at my own leisurely pace. I get free samples. I can touch, hold and even smell things before I buy them. The biggest miracle of all, however, may be the checkout.

There is no glass between me and clerk. I don’t have to stoop. They smile and demonstrate good manners. They never take technical breaks. A girl only leaves her station when her replacement arrives. Even if they did take breaks, it wouldn’t matter because the lines are always short. Do train station bureaucrats stumble through supermarkets in utter awe? Do they consider the managers there to be super-human geniuses?

Economist Frederick Hayek distinguished between two economies in every society. There is the voluntary economy, where exchanges rely on voluntary patronage, and there is the coercive economy — so called because it runs on taxes which are collected coercively. For the sake of good manners, peace, and making the most of the little time each of has on this Earth, we should remember how we are treated by each.