I recently traveled to Ukraine to take the temperature of what so many pundits have described as the new Cold War. Traffic on the road from the main airport to the center of town slows to a crawl as cars and trucks pass one by one through a roadblock. A few yards on, a decorative soccer ball and whimsical billboard welcome visitors to the 2012 European Championship, a stark reminder of a time before Euro became an aspirational prefix to freezing, flame-lit nights on the Maidan. Inching through the checkpoint, I remembered coming to Ukraine that summer on the slow train from St. Petersburg and the pleasant evenings I had spent in Donetsk’s parks and Kiev’s cafes. It was joked around the capital then that the last time so many Swedes had descended upon Ukraine was the Battle of Poltava. This summer, the invasion is real and has nothing to do with soccer or Swedes.
Over the course of two weeks, I spoke with journalists, local politicians, academics and private citizens, less as a journalist myself and more as an analyst and an interested student of the Soviet past. I asked what Maidan meant for them, what the country might look like in five years and how its systemic problems might be addressed in a manner acceptable to its diverse constituencies. Barring good answers to tough questions, I asked them if they were hopeful that the worst was over. I found optimism tinged with perplexity, hope melded with denial, and faith that power may be derived from principle.
Underneath the veneer of confidence generated by the recent presidential elections, lies deep confusion about what to do and profound worry about whether the country is up to the tasks that confront it. The temptation to blame Russia for Ukraine’s myriad problems is understandable, but Russia has neither caused, nor can it resolve the cultural and economic contradictions of Ukrainian society.
Ukrainians turned out for Poroshenko, despite an afternoon thunderstorm in Kiev that drenched voters, because most of them knew that his victory was sooner or later inevitable. A Yulia Tymoshenko voter, Natalia, told me, “I voted for her not because I thought she would win, but because I trust her, and our problem is that no one trusts anyone here.” More typical were the undecideds who broke for Poroshenko because Yulia (it is always “Yulia” in Ukraine—a branding blessing and a feminist curse) was too much of a known quantity. “We’re tired of her,” Denys, a software engineer, told me, “tired of her false self-presentation and her shady deals. Some of my friends wish she had never been let out of jail.” More than once I heard it presented as an indisputable fact that she faked her famous back injury to draw attention to herself. In the end, the heroine of the Orange Revolution came in second with a mere 13 percent. This year was the first time in the history of Ukrainian presidential balloting that a candidate has won in the first round, and however skeptical the country is of turning power over to an oligarch and a former government official, they cast their votes strategically to give him a mandate for decisive action.
Many, including the newly elected mayor and former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, hoped that these elections would turn a corner in Ukraine and that the Maidan would disperse. In the words of Viktor, a Ukrainian banker working in London, the elections would provide “a chance to build and create something new.” Some on the square have heeded the call to return home to build civil society or to take up arms with the newly formed National Guard, but most remain in their shanty town surrounded by piles of paving stones. While for now, the ability to reassemble at Maidan is by far society’s greatest check on future abuses of power, the square today is a blight on the city, resented by those who feel that their efforts are cheapened and their site of memorial profaned by the unwashed radicals in fatigues.
When asked what made last winter’s protests different from the Orange Revolution, many, including Joseph Zissels, a prominent leader of the Jewish community and veteran of the Maidan, cited the fact that in 2004, falsified elections were brought under constitutional scrutiny by the will of the masses. In 2014, an elected president was ousted, though not before he was responsible for the death of over 100 activists. The revolutionary character of February’s events is both a blessing and a curse for Ukraine. On the one hand, Maidan was the foundation of a new nation built on principle rather than historical happenstance. “Heroyam slava,” (glory to the heroes) is graffitied and chanted around Kiev in the hope that these martyrs will provide the country with the roots of a new national idea and identity. On the other hand, Maidan was an extralegal seizure of power that has left whole regions of the country feeling disenfranchised. One version of events cannot exist without the other, as surely as revolution begets counter-revolution. It is not in the nature of revolutions to be clean, and this is not the standard by which they should be judged. There is no shame in admitting that the Maidan protests succeeded in part because of the far right’s readiness to fight the police and to take their blows. This does not make the protests a “fascist putsch.” Under Yanukovych, Lviv declared independence just as Donetsk did under the provisional government. The measure by which a revolution should be judged is not its legal niceties; it’s a question of what came before and what happens next.
It is hard to convey the awfulness of the Yanukovych regime and the indignity suffered by the Ukrainians who had to live under him. Corruption is not even an adequate word, because it implies that somewhere beneath lay a system of laws to be corrupted. In fact, bribes, no-bid contracts, political violence, chronic underdevelopment and embezzlement were not perversions of the system. They were the system, and the kleptocracy underpinned every facet of life from medicine to education to justice. In Odessa, I am assured, the standard payment to avoid conviction is $1,000 for every year of the likely sentence. A young woman there named Yulia told me of her attempts to get her stolen bicycle back through the courts. The police had the bicycle and the thief, but it was not obvious that the bribes demanded by the authorities and the shame of buying justice was worth the value of the stolen property. Everyday indignities such as these were of course punctuated by spectacular disgraces. In the summer before Maidan, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest the leniency shown to police who had kidnapped and gang-raped innocent women. Never forget that in his past life, Yanukovych himself was a Soviet hoodlum too.
After losing Crimea and with the Donbass teetering, Kiev painted itself yellow and blue, hanging banners bearing the slogan in Russian and in Ukrainian, “A United Country.” The largest of these is on a central department store (now closed for renovation) which is owned by the country’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov. Many in Ukraine and abroad were excited when Akhmetov opened the gates of his Mariupol steel factory and sent his workers to clear the streets of separatists. The tide, it seemed, was turning, and it appeared that the oligarchs, Akhmetov included, had come off the fence to side with Kiev. “Better late than never,” they said. Ukraine, however, is not Kiev, and to understand the country’s politics of suspicion, it pays to leave the capital.
Three hundred miles due south of Kiev’s new money lies the port town of Odessa, the Naples of the Black Sea. Customs fraud is to its existence what automobiles are (or were) to Detroit. Extensive catacombs (the world’s longest, according to locals) run beneath the town, where, for centuries, goods have been ferreted from the Black Sea on to the markets of Eurasia. In a more modern twist, a growing number of Chinese nationals have moved in to shuffle goods through the port and have gained a reputation for their skill at “negotiating” customs. (It’s no accident that China has a consulate there.) Tourism, the other mainstay of the local economy, is slow for early summer, and without the annual swell of Russian spenders and incoming cruise ships, Odessa feels poorer and emptier than usual, if every bit as resplendent.
As we looked out from the empty port into the Stygian waters, my companion, a political consultant and painter named Aleksei, sighed, “Everyone knows what they’re fighting against, but no one knows what they’re fighting for.” Wiser words about the present crisis have rarely been spoken. In Odessa, there is deep suspicion of the authorities in Kiev, frustration with government corruption and incompetence, and a world weariness that comes from high unemployment and average salaries of a few hundred dollars a month. Odessites were divided by Maidan, but the city has never interested itself much in politics. They are Russian speakers, but this, too, is an unremarkable and uncontroversial fact of life. The tragic events of May 2 shocked the city, but left their mark with mutual demonization and swirling recriminations. Pro- and anti-Maidan activists are fascists and beetles in this retelling. (Note: Pro-Russian separatists are called kolorady, short for Koloradsky zhuk (Colorado beetle), because of the orange and black ribbons of St. George they wear in honor of the Russian military.) What worries Aleksei and other wise men of the community is how the values and expectations derived in Kiev for a cleaner, more honest life can be realized in cities so much poorer than the capital. It is much easier to refuse a bribe when you can make a livable wage legally.