When I was growing up in a close-knit Ukrainian emigre family on the Canadian prairies, one of my English-Canadian father’s most famous jokes was to bang on the door of my sleeping Uncle Bohdan’s bedroom, shouting: “Wake up, wake up, there is a revolution on the streets of Kiev!” Notoriously hard to rouse, Bohdan would charge out of bed and race to the radio.
The joke, of course, was on him, and on all of us in the post-second world war Ukrainian diaspora. When Bohdan’s parents, my grandparents, fled Ukraine, one step ahead of the Red Army, the only thing they were able to take with them was their dream of national independence. As they dragged themselves and their children from German displaced-persons camps into the comfortable North American middle class, it was that dream that shaped their existence.
But by the late 1970s, in the eyes of their Anglo son-in-law and of most of the western world, it seemed as quaint a notion as my grandfather’s old-world hand-kissing. The USSR looked immutable. As for Ukraine, well, as Margaret Thatcher put it on a visit to Soviet Kiev, it was no more a separate entity than the state of California.
As it happened, my grandparents were right. In 1991, as the tectonic plates of Soviet communism grinded and shifted, Ukraine seized the opportunity to become a separate state. To almost everyone apart from the Ukrainians, it was a total shock. What the world had missed was a covert tradition of dissent. On my trips to Ukraine, I had glimpsed only flickers of this. In 1980, my great-aunt Maria, a nun in the underground Catholic Church, told us how, as a teenage novice, she had withstood interrogation after the Soviet take-over: “I told the KGB officer, ‘You can do anything to me. because I know that if you kill me, tomorrow I will be in heaven, and one day you will be in hell.’”
In 1988, when I studied for a year at the University of Kiev, I was at first ignored by my classmates. As a westerner who spoke English and Ukrainian but not Russian, I was odd and therefore dangerous. Then, one afternoon, a young man, Mykola, approached me with a whispered request: did I know the words to the Ukrainian national anthem? The verses were illegal, and my handwritten rendering was passed around in a sort of junior samizdat.
In 1991, as Russian reform and Eastern European revolution exposed the rottenness of Soviet communism, this current of dissent burst into the open. The Ukrainian opposition wanted to shake off 300 years of Russian rule to found an independent state, and to shake off 70 years of communist rule to establish a democratic state. It didn’t have the strength to achieve both.
Russia had repressed those who chose to be Ukrainian, but it had rewarded many who chose to be Russian, or later Soviet. To secure independence, the opposition had to offer the Ukrainian Soviet establishment even stronger incentives to break away. And so it offered them their own state - even those who had spent a lifetime repressing nationalist dissidents were quick to appreciate that Ukraine was rich enough to be worth ruling in its own right.
This Faustian bargain both transformed Ukraine utterly, and left it tragically unchanged. It created the most enduring independent Ukrainian state of modern times, but it left the Soviet-era elite intact. The result was a corrupt regime that was slow to reform the economy and increasingly intolerant of political dissent. The November ballot was to have entrenched its power. Instead, 2004 has become the year that Ukraine seeks to finish the revolution it began in 1991. The opposition is gambling that the issue of Ukrainian statehood is now more or less resolved. It has moved the fight on to what form that state should take: democratic or authoritarian.
The emblems of the struggle tell the story of the political shift. Once the symbols of protest, Ukraine’s national symbols - the anthem, the blue and yellow flag, the trident - have become emblems of the existing state. Today the opposition wears orange. Almost overnight, it has become the colour not just of protest, but of a deeply hopeful people’s solidarity which is touching every human interaction in Ukraine’s transformed capital city. A few days ago my mother flew to London from Kiev. Her normally unadorned fingernails were painted orange and her suitcases were festooned with orange ribbons. Her luggage was also seriously overweight, the sort of thing Ukrainian ticket agents are sticklers about. This time though, the lady took one look at all that orange, flashed her own ribbon, and let my mother through.
Chrystia Freeland is deputy editor of the FT