I taught for a year at the Kiev-Mohyla University in 1993-94 and returned to Ukraine this June after an absence of twenty years. Things here have changed.
For one, the civil war between Eastern and Western Ukraine that was much talked about and feared in 1993 has at last broken out, but in a much-attenuated form from what was then feared. Actually, to call it a civil war is inaccurate. The separatists are limited to parts of the Donetsk and Luhanks Oblasts with the other boarder regions around Kharkiv, Sumy, and Chernihiv quiet. The movement is as much or more a product of direct Russian interference than it is of antipathy to the new government in Kiev with its hopeful turn to the West. No one considers the May 11 referenda declaring the independence of the Donetsk and Luhanks People’s Republics legitimate and the inhabitants of those regions are beginning to see the political and economic disaster that would follow from their implementation. Those who can are now voting with their feet, at least until the situation settles.
Last week a rumor spread that the Russian Patriarchy, which has jurisdiction over the Kiev Pechersk monastery, would allow the grounds to be declared part of the separatist movement. A rowdy crowd of 200 gathered outside the entrance to prevent this from happening. A few days before, a similar number of demonstrators threw eggs and paint at the Russian embassy to protest the downing of a Ukrainian military transport with the loss of forty-nine lives. Yet one should keep in mind that Kiev is a city of over 3 million and both incidents were resolved without bloodshed. When the embassy demonstration threatened to get out of hand, Foreign Minister Andre Deshchytsia defused tensions by belittling Russian president Vladimir Putin as a “prick” (to translate rather chastely) and then joining the now bemused crowd in a bawdy Ukrainian soccer chant. He has since been dismissed from his post. This all seems pretty tame in the face of two hundred Ukrainian casualties, many suffered as a result of Russian surface-to-air missiles.
Kiev itself is on the whole surprisingly quiet, not at all infested with the “bandits” and “fascists” described in the Russian media. Most of its citizens have been exhausted by the four months of drama that played out on the Maiden, the occupation and annexing of Crimea, the presidential election in May, and the continuing border war. They want to get back to work and return to a more or less normal life. The cafes and restaurants that line the streets are busy, an unusually warm spring has already filled the fruit and vegetable kiosks, and the National Opera is concluding its season with performances by Rossini and Verde, which some Ukrainians now attend in jeans and sports shirts. People walk around talking on their cell phones, listening to their music through ear buds, drinking cappuccinos and lattes out of paper cups with a straw. Twenty years ago Kiev was a tea town. You could not buy a cup of coffee anywhere. Today, mobile espresso machines are on every other corner. Young people get around on mountain bikes and fixies, some even on skateboards. Blue or green hair, tattoos, and piercings are common enough not to merit special notice. Sushi is the latest rage. In other words, Kievites seem to be living an ever more European or Western style of life.