Difference between revisions of "Ukraine"
Revision as of 10:18, 11 October 2012
Ukraine (Ukrainian: Україна, Ukrayina) is a country in Eastern Europe. It lies at the northwest end of the Black Sea, with Russia to the east, Belarus to the north, Poland to the northwest, Slovakia and Hungary to the west, and Romania to the south west and south, with Moldova in between.
Most of the country (the central and eastern portions) was formerly a part of Russian Empire; after the October Revolution and the Civil War, the entire country, known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, was a part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe, albeit with a slightly declining population.
Ukrainian history is long and proud, with the inception of Kievan Rus as the most powerful state in Medieval Europe. While this state fell prey to Mongol conquest, the western part of Ukraine became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the 14th until the 18th century, even modern Ukraine owes it a debt of sorts. A subsequent Ukrainian state was able, in the face of pressure from the ascendant Muscovy, to remain autonomous for more than a century, but the Russian Empire absorbed much of Ukraine in the 18th century to the detriment of their culture and identity.
Despite a brief, but uncertain, flash of independence at the end of the czarist regime, Ukraine was incorporated into the new USSR after the Russian Civil War in 1922 and subject to two disastrous famines (1932-33 and 1946) as well as brutal fighting during World War II. As a Soviet republic, the Ukrainian language was often 'sidelined' when compared to Russian to varying degrees; Stalinist repressions during the 1930s, attempts at decentralisation during the Khrushchev administration and the retightening of control during the Brezhnev-Kosygin era of the 1970s and early 1980s. In any case, the traditionally bilingual province had signs in both Russian and Ukrainian in virtually all cities, including Lviv, where Ukrainian is most prevalent. The 1986 Chernobyl accident was a further catastrophe to the republic but also widely considered as an event which, in the long run, galvanized the population in regional sentiment and led to increasing pressure on the central government to promote autonomy.
Ukraine declared its sovereignty within the Soviet Union in July 1990 as a prelude to unfolding events in the year to come. The Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine's Parliament) again declared its independence in early December 1991 following the results of referendum in November 1991 which indicated overwhelming popular support (90% in favour of independence). This declaration became a concrete reality as the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist on December 25, 1991. Initially, there were severe economic difficulties, hyperinflation, and oligarchal rule prevailed in the early years following independence. The issues of cronyism, corruption and alleged voting irregularities came to a head during the heavily-disputed 2004 Presidential election, where allegations of vote-rigging sparked what became known as the "Orange Revolution". This revolution resulted in the subsequent election of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko as President. During ongoing five years the "Orange coalition" broke up and Viktor Yushchenko lost support of majority of Ukranians. Ironically, his former adversary Viktor Yanukovich was elected the President.
Visa requirements and customs
Tourist visas are no longer required for citizens of the European Union, United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Vatican City, Monaco, Iceland, Norway, San Marino, Mongolia, Serbia, Montenegro, Georgia, Hong Kong, Israel, Paraguay, and the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (except Turkmenistan). This applies only for tourist travel lasting less than 90 days . Citizens of Macedonia may visit for 30-60 days visa free depending on the purpose of the trip.
For other countries, visas are obtainable within a few hours of visiting a Ukrainian consulate having received a 'letter of invitation' from one's perspective lodging or business provider.
More information is available at Ukraine's Embassy in your country and/or the Foreign service departments of your national governments (or their embassy websites here in Ukraine).
Always know how much currency you have with you. Customs officials might inquire about the amount being brought into the country. It is prohibited to bring large amounts of Ukrainian currency (hryvnia) in to the country unless it was declared upon leaving Ukraine.
It is advisable to check in advance the customs regulations (e.g. the Boryspol Airport website, which has an English version) as rules and regulations have the habit of changing at short and unannounced notice.
When entering the country you will no longer be required to complete an immigration form.
The cheapest way to fly into Ukraine is through the Boryspil International Airport near Kiev. The main international hubs for these flights are Budapest, Frankfurt, Milan, Munich, Prague, London, Rome, Vienna and Warsaw with several flights a day of Austrian AUA, CSA Czech Airlines, LOT, Lufthansa, Alitalia, Air France, British Airways, KLM; also Ukraine International, which code-shares on these routes with the respective carriers, and another Ukrainian carrier, AeroSvit. Special offers on flights come and go, depending on the whim of the carrier.
Low-cost airline Wizzair started operations from other countries and within Ukraine as well. The only other low cost carrier serving Ukraine is AirBaltic, with flights routing through either Riga, Latvia, or Vilnius, Lithuania. AeroSvit could also be considered a somewhat low-cost carrier. From 2011, Aerosvit offers flights between Kiev Boryspil and London Gatwick. Be advised that if you have a lot of baggage, Wizzair offers 30kg against the others 20kg allowances.
There are several airlines which offer direct flights to cities like Dnipropetrovsk (Lufthansa), Donetsk (Lufthansa, Austrian), Odessa (LOT, Austrian, CSA Czech Airlines), Kharkiv and Lviv (LOT, Austrian Airlines), but they are more expensive.
To fly inside Ukraine, the most common airline is Ukraine International Airlines. It is the unofficial national airline, and its routes cover all of Ukraine's major destinations. Planes used are newer Boeing 737 aircraft. Aerosvit also introduced flights within the country from its hub in Kiev, mainly flying newer Boeing 737 and 767 aircraft.
There are daily direct overnight trains from Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Warsaw, Belgrade, Budapest, Bucharest and Sofia to Lviv or Kiev. When coming from Western Europe there will be a 2-3 hour wait at the border while the train's bogies are changed in order to adapt to a different rail gauge. It's generally quicker and cheaper to buy a ticket to the border and then change trains, rather than wait getting through train.
When you arrive, the road is fairly narrow (no motorway/autobahn this) with a queue of trucks and vans parked to the right of the road; a hard-core parking area with cafe/bar to the left. Don't stop behind the goods vehicles, slip up the side of them and then feed into the customs area when the guy flags you forward (for courteous Europeans, you're not jumping the queue - commercial traffic goes through a different process).
If you're in an EU registered car then make for the EU-passports, passport control section. Thence to Ukrainian passport control and then Ukrainian customs and then you're through. It used to be a nightmare, with apocalyptic tales of 5-6+ hours at the border, but the Ukrainians have made great advances in efficiency and it takes about an hour to make the crossing (2012). Don't expect the border police to treat you in a friendly or even respectful manner, in fact, expect anything ranging from neutral to extremely obnoxious behavior.
Once through, just follow the main road towards Lviv on the E40 - this is the route right across Ukraine to Kiev (and thence on to the east). Stick to this - the main towns on the way are Lviv, Rivne, Zhytomyr.
Watch out about 15-20 km inside Ukraine, in Mostyska, as police have gone crazy about traffic calming measures here (speed bumps or sleeping policemen). They are like icebergs across the road, and very badly marked. There are about four or five sets of them through the village.
Other than that, take care on the road, which although the main east/west highway, and the main road route into the EU, still remains in a miserable condition (surface-wise). You will soon realise why Ukraine has such poor statistics in relation to driver and pedestrian fatalities and injuries. Drive defensively is the optimum advice re the roads, other road users and the walking, riding public.
You can walk across the 200 m long bridge from Sighetu Marmaţiei, Romania. Once you get to Solotvino, Ukraine, you can continue your travel in a car or a train. Bicycling is also a possibility in summer.
Note that you cannot cross the border at Krościenko (Poland) by foot or by bicycle. You must be in a vehicle. Coming from Poland by bicycle in August 2011 it took about 5 minute of waiting to flag down a driver who was willing (and had space) to take a person, a bicycle, and a full cycle touring kit. The actually crossing then took about an hour or so. There was no charge by the driver or the immigration officials.
Be aware that all foreigners are subject to higher scrutiny by police when traveling on public transportation, especially intercity forms of it. Be prepared to show your passport and entry papers and keep your embassy/consulate number handy in case you come across a corrupt official. If you are caught outside your base city without your official documents, be prepared for a big fine.
The quickest way to get around big cities is the so-called marshrutka: the minibuses which follow routes much like the regular buses do. You can generally flag them down or ask them to stop at places other than the specified bus stops. The fare is paid as soon as you get in, and is fixed no matter how far you want to go. This is the same for the conventional buses, tram, trolley-buses and the Metro. Tell the driver that you want to get off when you are approaching the destination.
Each city has an intercity bus station from which you can go pretty much anywhere in Ukraine. Fares and quality of service vary widely.
Ukrainian trains are quite old and slow compared to European standards, but punctual, reliable and very cheap. For example Simferopol to Lviv for €8 on 3rd class sleeping car (platskart) taking you about 10 hours.
Generally, in Ukraine, for long distance the train is preferred over the bus because of their comfort and because often they are even cheaper. The "Lux" sleeping cars have a two-berth cabin. Second class are cabins with four berths. Third class have six berths through which the aisle passes.
Because trains are popular in Ukraine you might have to buy the tickets in advance. This is more often the case for third class. You can check availability and even buy tickets online at  or at Ukrainian Railways e-shop  (website now in English, Russian and Ukrainian). The e-shop offers both domestic and international (CIS only) tickets starting in Ukraine.
It is possible to get around in Ukraine by car, but one must be aware of certain particulars:
The signs are all in Ukrainian (Cyrillic alphabet). Only a few signs (every 200km or so) are written in the Latin alphabet, and indicate main cities. It is recommended you have a good road map (those available are mainly in Ukrainian, but Latin alphabet maps are starting to appear), because place names aren't well posted on road signs.
You are strongly advised to respect the signs, especially speed limits. Be aware that unlike in Western countries, where limits are repeated several times, in Ukraine, an obligation or a prohibition is often indicated on a single sign, which you must not miss. And even these signs are often far off the road, covered by branches, etc. The police are always there to remind you.
Speed in cities is limited to 60km/h (40mph). However people do drive fast anyway.
Speed in "nationals" (single carriageway countryside roads) is limited to 90km/h (55mph). The poor average quality of the roads already acts as a speed checker.
Speed on highways (motorways) is limited to 110-120km/h (75mph).
Be aware that corruption is widespread among Ukrainian police, and tourists are an especially profitable target. When you are stopped for speeding or other offences, officers might aggressively try and extract ridiculous sums of money from you (€100 and up), offering "reductions" if you pay on the spot (the proposed alternative being some unpleasant and more expensive way, all made up). If you're asked anything beyond that, demand a written ticket for you to pay later instead. Don't let them intimidate you. It's very useful to have an embassy phone number handy for these cases. If you mention that, they'll let you off the hook quicker than you know it. At any rate, write down the officers' badge numbers, rank, plate number of the police car, and notify the nearest embassy/consulate in detail, to help fight these corrupt practices.
Fuel is no longer a problem in Ukraine, especially for those who remember travelling to Ukraine during the early 1990s, when petrol was considered precious. Today, there are plenty service stations. There are varying types of fuel, such as diesel, unleaded 95 octane, and (more rarely) unleaded 98 octane; one finds also 80 and 76 octane. Note that if you choose to fill-up in a rural filling station, you will need to pay first, and in cash. Even there many stations do accept credit cards, however.
The state of the roads is a huge subject:
The main roads are OK for all cars, as long as you don't go too fast. Numerous running repairs have created a patchwork road surface, and it will seriously test your suspension - even on the major dual carriageways.
Secondary roads are passable, but beware: certain zones can be full of potholes and you must treat them with extra care, or avoid them entirely. Roads between villages are often little more than dirt tracks and not metalled.
Be careful when driving in towns or villages. Sometimes animals prefer to walk on the road, and they are a hazard for all drivers. You're likely to see plenty of animals hit by cars, so be prepared...
Bicycle traffic is not very common, but you will sometimes see an aged man transporting a sack of grass on an old road-bike or a cycling enthusiast in bright clothes riding a semi-professional racing bike. Those are even more likely to be met on well-maintained roads where the pavement is smooth. Also cyclists will use both lanes of the road in both directions equally ie you are just as likely to meet a cyclist coming towards you, riding on the verge, as you will travelling in your direction. And almost invariably without lights or bright clothing so be extra careful when driving at night and dawn/dusk.
Also, don't be surprised to see plenty of horse drawn carts - even on the dual carriageways.
There are two major bus companies that run buses from all of the major cities to and from Kiev: they are Avtolux , and Gunsel . Prices run about 100-120 hryvnia (13-15 USD) for service to Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv.
The major advantage that the bus service has, is that it leaves from Boryspil and stops in Kiev, so if your destination is not Kiev, its easier then taking a bus to the Main Passenger Railway Station in Kiev.
They are standard coach buses, serve cold drinks and tea, show movies, and make a stop about every 3-4 hours.
They run every few hours.
Avtolux has a VIP bus to and from Odessa that has nice leather seats and is more less non-stop. It departs once a day, takes four hours or so both to and from Kiev and costs about 160-170 hryvnia.
UIA offers cheap flights and can be a time-saving alternative. For example the flight Odesa-Kiev (One-Way) is $180 US (including tax and fees) and takes 1.5 hours. However, be sure to book early for the cheapest fares.
The flights can be booked online via www.ukraine-international.com/, comfortably in English.
WizzAir, as of early 2009, offers flights between Kiev and Simferopol at competitive prices.
Hitchhiking in Ukraine is average. It's possible to go by hitchhiking - usually cargo trucks will take you for free - but it's still worth to try stop personal cars as well. Good people are everywhere; you may be picked up in a Lada or a Lexus. (More usually the former.)
The usual hitchhiking gesture (also used to hail taxis and marshrutkas) is to face oncoming traffic and point at the road with a straight right arm held away from the body. Sometimes, for visibility, you may add a downward waving motion of the open right hand. It's a good idea to write on a piece of paper your destination's name.
Ukrainian is the official language. Near the neighbouring countries, Russian, Romanian, Polish, and Hungarian are spoken. Russian is a close relative of Ukrainian and is most often the language of choice in the south and east of Ukraine. It is safe to assume that virtually any Ukrainian will understand Russian; however, note that in the western parts people may be reluctant to help you if you speak Russian, though to foreigners, Ukrainians will be more forgiving than to Russians.
On the other hand, in the eastern parts and especially Crimea, Russian is the most commonly spoken language. In the central and eastern parts of the country, you may also find people using these two languages simultaneously (so called surzhyk—mix of languages). It is also common for people to talk to others in their native language, irrespective of the interlocutor’s one, so a visitor speaking Russian may be responded to in Ukrainian and vice versa.
Kiev, the capital, speaks both languages, but Russian is more commonly used. So Ukrainian is more frequently met in Central and Western Ukraine, Russian in Eastern and Southern Ukraine.
Young people are more likely to speak a little English, as it is the most widely taught foreign language in school.
If you are traveling to Ukraine, learn either basic Ukrainian or basic Russian beforehand (know your phrase book well) and/or have some means of access to a bilingual speaker, a mobile/cell/handy number (almost everyone has a mobile phone) can be a godsend. Virtually nobody in any official position (train stations, police, bus drivers, information desks, etc.) will be able to speak any language other than Ukrainian and Russian. If you already know another Slavic language, you will, however, be able to communicate as the Slavic languages are closely related. Be aware though that some people simply do not wish to communicate with foreigners, even you speak some Russian/Ukrainian or some other Slavic language.
It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet to save you a lot of time and difficulty.
Ukraine is a country worth seeing and visiting over and over.
Hike in Carpathian Mountains around Rakhiv. Conquer 2,061m Hoverla, part of the Chornohora mountain range.
Kayak down Dniester and admire Kamianets-Podilskyi and Khotyn castles.
Chill out on Crimea beaches in summer.
To shop you will most certainly need local currency (hryvnia). British pound, Euro, US dollar and other currency exchange points are very common in cities, and the exchange rate is usually very fair (except in Kiev, where the exchange rate is higher compared to other cities). However, sometimes and in some banks there are problems with cash deposits (or that is the official version), so do not exchange too many dollars unless you're traveling to the more provincial areas. When doing person-to-person payments you might be able to pay in Euros or US dollars, as those are widely recognized, and you might in fact get better rates than in official exchange points. However, be careful, because it's not legal to make payments with foreign currency.
If you want to buy any kind of artwork (paintings, Easter eggs) in Kiev, the place to visit is Andriivskij Uzviz (Андріївський узвіз in Ukrainian, Андреевский спуск in Russian).
BE AWARE THAT IT IS ILLEGAL TO TAKE OUT OF THE COUNTRY ANY ITEMS OF HISTORICAL IMPORTANCE including badges, medals, icons, historical paintings, etc. This law is strictly enforced at all exit points of the country and one risks heavy fines and/or imprisonment.
If you don't want to have trouble exchanging money have at yourself one of these currencies: EUR, RUB, USD. In South and East Ukraine, it is almost impossible to exchange other currency.
Ukrainian cuisine is quite tasty, but just as other cuisines in the region uses a lot of fat ingredients, especially in the festive dishes. Traditional local food includes "salo" (salted lard) and soups like "borshch" (борщ in Ukrainian) made of red beets or "solianka" (солянка in Ukrainian) which is a delicious meat soup. The first, salo, is perhaps something you might not make yourself try - however is a delicious side dish, as for the soups being a must-have dish.
If you are outside a big city or in doubt about food, exercise caution and common sense about where you buy food. Try to buy groceries only in supermarkets or large grocery stores, always check the expiration date, and never buy meat or dairy products on the street (you can buy them at the market but not near the market).
In most towns in Ukraine there are some very good restaurants. Read the menu boards posted by the entrance of every establishment to help you to choose.
You may also find nice places to eat not by signs, but just by the smoke of traditional wood fires. These are often places where they serve traditional Ukrainian food, including very tasty shashlyky (шашлики in Ukrainian). Restaurateurs are very friendly, and, more often than not, you will be one of their first foreign visitors. Next to the "borshch", you might also ask for "varenyky" (вареники in Ukrainian, dumplings filled with meat, vegetables or fruits) or "deruny" (деруни, potato pancakes). You have to try varenyky with potatoes and cottage cheese in a sautéed onion and sourcream sauce, a fantastic dish. These are just starters, but ones that might fill you up quickly.
The Ukrainian specialty is horilka (the local name for vodka) with pepper. Other kinds of vodka are also quite popular - linden (tilia), honey, birch, wheat. Prices range from $2 to $30 (1€-20€) for 1L. Souvenir bottles are available for higher prices (some bottles reach upwards of $50 (35€)/0.5L). There is a great choice of wine, both domestic and imported. The domestic wines mostly originate in the south, in the Crimean region - known for wine making dating back to early Greek settlement over 2,000 years ago, although wines from the Carpathian region of Uzhorod are also quite tasty. Prices for local wine range between $2 to $50 (2€-35€) per bottle of 0.75L (avoid the cheapest wines, $1 or less, as these are sometimes bottled as house wines but sold as local vintages), however, one can find genuine Italian, French, Australian wines from $50 per bottle and more in big supermarkets and most restaurants. The price of imported wines dropped significantly over the last number of years and trends indicate further reductions in price.
There are a lot of beverages (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic). Ukrainian beer is of very good quality. Beer from barrels or kegs (more common in cafes) is often watered down. Canned beer is not very common in Ukraine and sometimes not of the same quality as the same variety sold in bottles. The best beers are brewed by Lvivske, Obolon and PPB (Persha Privatna Brovarnia). Imported beers are also widely available but more expensive – for instance, a bottle of Austrian Edelweiss can cost upwards of $2 US while average price of Ukrainian beer is $0.50 US. All told, Ukrainian beers are very tasty and gaining popularity elsewhere in Europe.
Of non-alcoholic beverages, one should try kvas – a typically slavic drink made of rye or wheat. During the summer one can easily buy it from designated street vendors. It’s better to buy it in bottles due of unknown cleanness of the barrel. Milk drinks, of all sorts, are also available, although mostly in supermarkets. Bottles of mineral water are available everywhere, as well as lemonades, beer, and strong drinks. When seeking to buy bottled water make sure to ask for "voda bez hazu" (water without gas) otherwise you are likely to be handed the carbonated drink.
Never buy vodka or konjak (the local name for brandy) except from supermarkets or liquor stores as there are many fakes. Every year a few die or go blind as a result of poisoning from methyl alcohol, a compound used to make fake vodkas.
Hotels might be a traumatic experience for a westerner anywhere outside Kiev. The cheaper the hotel, the larger the chance of some quite unfortunate surprises, especially for those not familiar with the Soviet-style level of service which still remains in many places.
There are many mid-range (€25-45) options outside Kiev. For instance in Ivano-Frankivsk (near the Carpathians), the going rate is approximately €35 for a suite (bedroom and sitting room) in one such hotel. Many hotels have the choice between renovated rooms/suites ("western style") and not renovated rooms (East European style). The last choice is more than 50% cheaper and gives you a spacious old fashioned 2 room suite, basic but clean!
There are a number of 5-star hotels in Kiev and one in Donetsk; see guides for those cities for listings. At one such hotel in Lviv, the going rate ranges from €40-60 a night.
Another option is to rent an apartment on the internet before you leave your country. There are many to choose from in Kiev and Odessa.
What many people from ex-Soviet countries do is to go to the railway station, where they try to find people who are willing to rent a room. Prices are usually much cheaper and if there are enough people, offering the room you can make great deals (in Yalta, people are almost fighting to be able to talk to you).
These deals are usually not legal and they will take you to a corner before negotiating. Make sure they have warm water, and don't be afraid to say it's not what you expected when seeing the room.
There are a lot of foreign students in Ukrainian universities. Bribery is huge, you can obtain a diploma here having attended just twice (the first and last days of study) if you have money. That's a hyperbole, of course, but the real life is not much different. Of course if one wants to obtain good knowledge they will, but motivation in such a situation is low.
Getting a work permit (visa) is a necessity for foreigners if they are going to be employed by any legal entity (exceptions apply only for international institutions and representative offices of foreign companies). The work permit is more of a hiring permit. The potential employer has to apply with the labour administration for hiring an non-resident employee. With the application a complete cv, as well as documents showing an accredited education, have to be submitted.
Many people will tell you that you can take a copy of your visa with you. Sadly, some people experience trouble over this. It's always better to carry your passport with you. A photocopy can be refused as proof of identity. A phone call to a local who can help can prove very effective.
Get the details of your local embassy and/or consulates in advance and note their emergency numbers.
If you can it is useful to have a bilingual acquaintance who can be called in an emergency or if you encounter difficulties. If staying for any length of time, it is advisable to get a local SIM card for your mobile for emergencies and for cheaper local calls/texts. These are widely available, cheap (often free) and easy to 'top-up',
As in any other country, using common sense when traveling in Ukraine will minimize any chances of being victim of petty crime and theft. Try not to publicize the fact that you're a foreigner or flaunt your wealth: by clothing or otherwise. With the exception of Kiev, Odessa, and other large cities, foreign tourists are still quite rare. As in any other country, the possibility of petty theft exists. In Kiev, make sure to guard your bags and person because pickpocketing is very common, especially in crowded metro stations. Guides have told tourists to watch certain people because they heard people say, "They look like Americans: let's follow them for a while and see what we can get."
Robberies and scams on tourists are fairly common, especially the wallet scam in Kiev.
But if you are arrested by police or other law enforcement, do your best to inform them that you're a foreign visitor. Not many police officials speak foreign languages freely, but many people are eager to assist in translation.
Don't drink alcohol in the company of unknown people (which may be suggested more freely than in the West). You don't know how much they are going to drink (and convince you to drink with them) and what conflicts may arise after that. Also, many Ukrainians, known for a penchant for a good drink, can sometimes consume such an amount of vodka that would be considered lethal for the average beer-accustomed Westerner.
Your Financial Security
Ukraine is a predominantly cash economy. The network of bank offices and ATMs (Bankomats) has grown quickly and are now readily available in all but the smallest villages. Do check the security of the machine - it would be wise to use one that is obviously at a bank, rather than in another establishment. You can use your credit cards (mostly MasterCard & Visa) or cash traveler's cheques easily. Credit and debit cards are accepted by the supermarkets. But avoid using your credit/debit cards for payments at establishments in smaller towns as retailers are not trained and controlled enough to ensure your card privacy. Instead, it is widely acceptable to pay cash. Locals (especially businesspeople) sometimes carry and pay in cash amounts considered unusually large in other countries. Don't suspect criminal activity in every such case.
Also, it is strongly recommended to avoid individual (street) currency exchangers as there are thieves among such exchangers, that may instead give you old, Soviet-era currency or also coupons that have been withdrawn from circulation since the mid 1990s. Use special exchange booths (widely available) and banks; also be wary of exchange rate tricks like 5.059/5.62 buy/sell instead of 5.59/5.62.
The Euro and US dollar are generally accepted as alternative forms of currency, particularly in tourist areas. They are also the most widely accepted convertible currency at the exchange booths, with British pounds in third place.
The area around the American embassy in Kiev is known for the provocateur groups targeting black people, and there have been reports of such attacks on Andriyivski, the main tourist street that runs from Mykhailivska down into Podil. Particularly in rural areas, having dark skin is often a source of prejudice. Antisemitism is still a lingering problem in some Western regions and/or other parts of Ukraine. However there are two Jewish mayors elected in Kherson and Vinnitsa.
Anecdotal experience is that there is some underlying racism in Ukraine, indeed much of the former Soviet Union. Migrants from Middle and Central Asia and gypsies receive much closer and frequent attention from the militsiya (police). Always have your passport (or a photocopy of the main pages if you're concerned about losing it or if you're staying in a hotel that is holding it) as foreigners are treated more favorably than others. This is not to say that it is unsafe or threatening, but it is better to be forewarned of the realities.
While there's a lot of swimming and diving attractions throughout Ukraine, local water rescue is tremendously underfunded. It is unlikely that you would be noticed while drowning, especially on the river. Use only officially established beaches.
Ukraine has some of the worst statistics for road related deaths and injuries in the world so act accordingly. Take care when crossing the roads; walk and drive defensively: be aware that traffic overtakes on both the inside and outside. Sometimes you even need to take care when using the sidewalks, as in rush-hours the black, slab-sided Audi/BMW/Mercedes sometimes opt to avoid the traffic by using the wide pavements; pedestrians or not. Owners/drivers of expensive cars have been known, at times, to be more careless of the safety of pedestrians. Drivers rarely grant priority to pedestrians crossing a road unless there are pedestrian lights. Always watch out for your safety.
Also be warned that pavements suffer in the same way as the roads in terms of collapsing infrastructure. Take care when walking, especially in the dark and away from the downtown areas of the main cities (a torch is a useful possession) as the streets are poorly lit, as are most of the entries/stairwells to buildings, and the street and pavement surfaces are often dangerously pot-holed. Don't step on man-hole covers, as these can 'tip' dropping your leg into the hole with all the potential injuries!
There is radiation contamination in the northeast from the accident at Chornobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. However the effect is negligible unless you permanently live in Chornobyl area itself. There are even tours to the town of Prypyat' which is the closest to the station. The town is famous for the haunting scenery of blocks of apartment buildings abandoned in 1986, now standing out amid the vegetation which spawned from years of neglect.
Do not drink tap water. Major reason of this is that water in many regions is disinfected using chlorine, so taste is horrible. Whenever possible buy bottled water, which is widely available and generally OK. Ukraine has the highest adult HIV prevalence rate in Europe at nearly 1.5% or 1 in 66 adults. Be Safe.
Respect the fact that Ukraine is an independent nation. You may find that people here are sensitive about being grouped as "Russians". The Ukrainians have their own ethnicity and do not like being seen as Russians.
Don't say "the Ukraine," because that usage is outdated and implies that Ukraine is a region and not a country.
Ukraine is by no means a conservative country with respect to clothing, behavior, and overcharges you if they can get by with it, getting what you paid for (quality).
Raising the issue of Ukraine in the context as being part of the Soviet Union may not be welcomed by the locals. The Holodomor, like the Holocaust, is a sensitive issue. It is probably best to not praise the Soviet Union or Joseph Stalin, Soviet leader during the time of WWII and the Holodomor. Nevertheless, many Ukrainians also remember the recent period of the Soviet Union as the time of economic prosperity.