The Blog

Change Afoot in Ukraine

5:33 AM, Jul 10, 2014 • By CHRISTOPHER NADON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Actually, Ukrainians borrowed this line from the Polish anthem of 1797 (since modified by the Poles).  And when they think of turning to the West they think most of all of becoming a nation like Poland.  Even though Ukraine finally signed a trade pact with the European Union last week, most Ukrainians, mindful of Turkey’s experience, think full EU membership is a pipedream.  Some, like Serhiy Syvoplyas, Deputy CEO of an industrial agricultural firm, think that due to the EU’s monetary and regulatory policies Ukraine’s long term economic interests will be better served by remaining apart.  Moreover, “There’s too much socialism in the EU, especially in its Western parts.  Why would we buy into that?

”  According to Sergiy Pechenov, a programmer who writes software for the construction industry, “Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU trade agreement back in November was the occasion but not the cause of the Maidan protest.  From the beginning it was always about and against Yanukovych himself.”  As Syvoplyas explained, “What everyone feared was that Ukraine would become like Belarus with Yanukovych in the role of Lukashenko and free elections a thing of the past.  No one wanted that future.”  Thus Kiev’s last statue of Lenin, still left standing after Independence and even the Orange Revolution, was at last toppled by the Maidan.  Hammered to pieces and handed out as souvenirs, Lenin was first replaced by the black and red flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and then a golden toilet such as those Yanukovych had installed in his gaudy suburban mansion.  Today the statue's pedestal stands empty.  Although the Lenin metro stop was renamed at the time of Independence, it had remained as a kind of mausoleum shrine to the Bolshevik.  In late February, city workers discreetly disassembled the Soviet decor.  Anti-Putin sentiment has taken the place of the hatred of Yanukovych.  The best selling item at the Lviv Chocolate Factory’s Kiev outlet is a bust of Putin to be broken up and consumed among friends.  “All Together Against Putin” is now one of the more prominent slogans of the Maidan.  Pechonev jokes, “If Ukraine survives, I think we will one day put up a statue to Putin as the man who finally unified the country.”

Independence in 1991 came to Ukraine as if dropped from the sky when the failed Moscow coup led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  No one fought.  No one died.  In 1994 the CIA was predicting Ukraine would split.  But at the time an American lawyer teaching here told me, “Secession?  That takes energy, organization and initiative.  This is the most downtrodden, atomized and passive people on the planet.  They won’t even return defective goods to the store.”    It was hard to argue with his analysis.  Ten years later, the Orange Revolution that kept Yanukovych from stealing the 2004 presidential election demonstrated the emergence in Ukraine of something like civil society as a political force.  But the event is now recalled by Haran as having been “rather festive.”  With the handsome, pro-Western Yushchenko in office, Ukrainians returned to their day-to-day lives confident that the great man would set everything to rights.  It didn’t happen.

Ukrainians do not tend to form voluntary associations.  Under Soviet rule there were no public spaces.  People understandably lived their lives within a small circle of family and close friends.  It was not unusual for Ukrainians both to marry and even remarry within this small group.  According to Iryna Krupska, training manager for Peace Corps Ukraine and herself twice married in her own circle, “One of the most difficult things for our American volunteers to understand and adapt to in Ukraine, is the sharp distinction we make between those inside and outside our circle, and how we treat them accordingly.”  A telling example of this is the common areas in apartment buildings.  In Soviet times when no one owned his own place, it seemed understandable that stairways and entrances would be in disrepair.  Yet this habit of neglect remains long after privatization.  I am currently renting a beautiful, well furnished modern apartment that looks out on Kiev’s Golden Gate, one of the most exclusive parts of town.  Yet the entryway is filthy, dark, stinking of urine with dried blood stains on the broken tiles.  The landing between the 2nd and 3rd floors is usually occupied from early morning until noon by a couple of drunks sleeping it off on flattened cardboard boxes.  It took me all of five minutes to replace some broken bulbs.  That the residents themselves do nothing about the situation is in part due to their distrust of the local police, but more so to apathy, distrust, and a lack of initiative that keep them from pooling their resources to clean up and fix the locks.  In a similar vein and despite an obvious need, attempts by Western entrepreneurs to establish laundromats in Ukraine have failed.  “We literally don’t wash our dirty linen in public,” says Krupska, “even if such an airing is figuratively what democracy requires.”  

Thus for someone who lived in Ukraine in the 1990s, the most remarkable aspect of events in the past six months was the unity and discipline of the protesters on the Maidan who policed themselves and prevented their transformation into a violent mob, as well as the spontaneous emergence of large networks of support to keep them fed and protected from the cold, and supplied with materials for barricades and the elementary means of self-defense.  In his Lyceum Address, Abraham Lincoln wrote of “the powerful influence which the interesting scenes of the revolution had on the passions” of America’s founding generation.  Something similar has happened here to those who lived through the bloody scenes in Kiev and attended the public funerals of the fallen.  Dmytro Tarabakin is the managing director of a successful Ukrainian investment firm that was subject to extortion by Yanukovych’s tax collectors.  He and his fellow workers were active participants in the Maidan.  Now, with the Ukrainian army ill-equipped and unprepared to deal with the Donbass separatists, Tarabakin and his colleagues have formed a network to raise money and purchase equipment for the troops, sometimes taking orders for supplies directly from commanders in the field.  Infra-red and night vision goggles were purchased from abroad.  But they managed to help a local manufacturer of hunting vests convert to the production of body armor at half the cost of foreign imports.  It would be better for the government to be able to sustain itself.  But having private citizens mobilize to pitch in themselves is something new, as is the pride they take in helping out rather than being helped.  “Getting a picture from a soldier’s family of a vest with a hole in the fabric but the plate intact, that’s job satisfaction,” says Tarabakin. 

The barricades and make-shift tents still stand in the Maidan, thinly populated by rather sketchy and marginal types.  Traffic has yet to be restored on Kreshchatyk, Kiev’s central artery.  City residents know the show needs to be closed down, but they hesitate.  “Maidan” literally means public square, but it has now become an abstract noun signifying the people’s vigilance over the government.  And Ukrainians want this to continue.  Last week the Veterans of Chernobyl, en elderly Soviet-era crowd, stopped traffic in front of the Council of Ministers to highlight the inadequacy of their pensions.  When a young man desperately complained that he needed to get through to go to work, an old woman replied, “Look, you had your big Maidan for months in the center of the city. Now we’re going to have our own mini-Maidan for the rest of the afternoon.”  Newly elected President Petro Poroshenko is popular.  But no one speaks of him as anything like a savior or even hetman, as they did after the Orange Revolution of Yushchenko.  Instead it is hoped he will prove to be a good manager, yet one that still needs watching by the boss.  The Ukrainian people are at last showing signs that they are becoming more political.   This past Sunday saw a gathering of thousands in the Maidan urging Poroshenko to end the cease-fire and get the army back to fighting.  On Tuesday he did.  “There have been a lot of small changes in the people’s’ mentality since Maidan,” remarked Sergey Pechenov.  “There’s even been a noticeable reduction in public drunkenness,” an observation confirmed by emergency room medic Volodya Drach.  Anyone who has spent some time in a post-Soviet republic knows this is in fact no small change.

Poroshenko now faces an impossible task.  He needs to oversee constitutional reforms decentralizing power, restructure the economy, reduce corruption, rewrite the tax code and business law, rebuild the army and a reliable police force, and hold new parliamentary elections, all while faced with an aggressive Russian state with a permanent interest in Ukraine’s political instability and that can only be restrained by sanctions imposed from without.  The Ukrainians need both economic aid and military equipment, not MRE’s.  They simply cannot stand by themselves against Russia in the vacuum created by the increasing withdrawal of Western influence.  They don't need to be led from behind.  But they do need to know someone is watching their back.       

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers