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.
At the time of independence, Kiev was very much a Russian speaking town. When I ask about the situation today, most Ukrainian speakers say it is still Russian while the Russian speakers say Ukrainian predominates. Both are about right. What is clear is that young people favor Ukrainian. This makes sense given that those under twenty-five have received almost all their education in Ukrainian. But no one has given me a hard time for speaking Russian and I have yet to witness a single instance of language policing. Olexiy Haran, a professor of international relations at Kiev-Mohyla and popular commentator on Ukrainian politics, told me that he traveled to Luhanks at the end of March just before the separatist movement began to stir. He made it a point to speak Ukrainian to see if it might provoke a reaction. No one cared. Even the nationalist Svoboda Party has backed away from language politics. Of course, in the East that has now changed. “But you should understand,” Haran told me, “many of the Ukrainian soldiers now enlisting to put town the terrorists are themselves Russian speakers.” Ukrainians object not to those who speak Russian but to those they characterize as “Moskal,” by which they mean chauvinistic Russians intent on re-establishing the hegemony of Moscow. A poster in the center of the Maidan declares (in Russian, not Ukrainian): “We love Russians. We despise Putin.”
In the late 1990s many Russian speaking Ukrainians reconciled themselves to independence as a result of Russia’s Chechen wars. Watching the official Moscow coverage of the conflict and then the accounts in the Ukrainian and foreign media, they concluded, “We might not be doing so well, but at least were not doing that and then lying about it.” Today few things disturb Ukrainians more than the willingness of the Russian public to swallow their media’s accounts of the Maidan and the border war even when other sources of information are easily available. Yet, this too, has had good domestic effects. Software engineer Laryssa Parfenenko is nearing retirement and like many her age looks back on Soviet times with some nostalgia. She had remained something of an admirer of Putin’s decisiveness and strength, that is, until she recently returned from a vacation at a Russian resort in Turkey. There she met and spoke to so many Russians with lurid fantasies about fascists patrolling and controlling the streets of Kiev that at first she almost thought them to have been drugged. She no longer admires the one man most responsible for such misinformation.
Ukrainians like to claim that unlike Russians their own form of nationalism is patriotic but pluralistic, and in practice they have been as good as their word. Russian speakers in Ukraine have fared well, especially in comparison with their counterparts in, say, Kazakhstan, a republic that somehow still manages to maintain good relation with Putin. Even over the past four months, with passions running high over the Crimea and Donbas, international organizations have found no evidence that the rights of ethnic Russians are being threatened or suppressed. Whether Ukrainians practice the virtue of an inclusive tolerance out of necessity or choice is probably beside the point since there is no prospect that such necessity will disappear in the foreseeable future. And there is a real difference in national character from the Russians. No one in Ukraine feels tortured or humiliated by the loss of past glories. What kind of country opens its national anthem with the verse “Ukraine is not yet dead”?
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.