Inside Ukraine’s revolution

Along the road to crisis: hope, despair, and a Q&A with writer Andrey Kurkov

Inside Ukraine’s revolution
Students started it: A pro-European movement rally in Kyiv on Nov. 26, 2013—the third day of protests over the government's decision to scrap a key pact with the EU. Violence was yet to come. Photo by Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images


It was a chilly November morning 18 years ago when I visited an army base in western Ukraine and stood on the edge of a concrete-reinforced cavity that had once been a missile silo. I looked down into the hole and thought of the times that this missile and those around it might have flown, accidentally or on purpose, raining death on a scale humanity had never seen. But now the missiles were being taken apart and packed up, the nuclear warheads shipped back to Russia. An American engineer from Bechtel was supervising the silo’s destruction.

I was there at the base near Khmelnitsky because I was working for the U.S. Embassy, directing the Fulbright program and other academic exchanges, trying to build connections between American and Ukrainian scholars and students. Two U.S. senators were en route to that army base, too, for a ceremony that included the final explosion destroying the silo. Months later, the secretary of defense would plant a sunflower where once that nuclear missile stood.

I have a piece of paraffin from the seal that covered the top of that silo. I also keep, on the windowsill of my office at Santa Clara, a farewell present from some students I taught as a Peace Corps volunteer at Volyn University: a hand-carved wooden figurine of a mother eagle feeding her young. “I know it’s not as big as an American eagle,” said Roman, a sandy-haired student of linguistics. “But it can still soar.”

I went to Ukraine because the end of communism seemed to me the big story of the end of the 20th century, and I wanted to be a part of that story: to see for myself the transition that could only happen to a society once, and perhaps I could play one small part—if nothing else, immerse myself in the time and place and try to make sense of it. There were stories long buried—layer upon layer upon layer—that could now be told. And there were stories emerging that they, the Ukrainians, needed to be the ones to tell, to write: to work toward epiphanies and resolutions that they wanted their children to see.

One of the stories with a more hopeful recent turn had to do with the Jesuits, who had arrived in Luts’k centuries before. They built a collegium that became renowned as a center of education in the region. In 1639 they completed the Peter and Paul Cathedral, inspired by the Gesù in Rome, with arched windows encircling a great central dome, and a grand baroque edifice with square columns. After the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known there, the region was absorbed into the Soviet Union. The church became a warehouse; then it was a museum of atheism, complete with model dinosaurs and a diorama of the solar system. In the early 1990s it was treated as a holy place once more. Restoration money came from Germany. Priests came from Poland. I went to Mass with colleagues and friends who would talk of kinship and division across borders, the tragic yesterdays and uncertain tomorrows.

The name “Ukraine” itself means “borderland,” a useful awareness to bring in understanding the place of the country of 45 million people in history and geography: east of Poland and Slovakia and Hungary and Moldova and Romania, south of Belarus, west of Russia, bordering the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, one-time breadbasket of the Soviet Union. In 1991, in a nationwide referendum, the people of Ukraine voted overwhelmingly (even 56 percent in Crimea) for independence from the Soviet Union.

A lot has changed in the past 20 years. At the same time, not nearly enough has changed in terms of aspirations being realized. And despair takes a toll. During the Orange Revolution a decade ago, millions rallied around an idea and cause that nobody—including themselves—thought possible. I returned as an election monitor. Roman, since become a computer engineer, offered some cautionary Ukrainian wisdom: “We wanted better, but it turns out the way it always does.”


Here’s another quote: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is, that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here, because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” Neville Chamberlain said that in September 1938. He was talking about Czechoslovakia (Prague is closer to London than Vienna) and signing over the Sudetenland to Hitler—a moment cited frequently in recent comparisons to Russia’s accession of Crimea.

The salient point here is less the blunt fact of ignorance—how can you know everything about the faraways?—than taking refuge in it. That said, it’s not as if most of us need to learn this stuff for the quiz tomorrow and it is 20 percent of your grade for the course. Though there is the test of every day, in terms of what you do with what you know—and what you’ll learn the next day and the next—to heal this broken world.

Maybe that doing includes: teaching in a mining town in western Ukraine, as it has for Alexandra Angel ’10, or working with HIV-positive kids also in western Ukraine, as for Jessica Barnette ’10—both Peace Corps volunteers; or teaching literature in Donetsk on a Fulbright, as for Charley Phipps, S.J., back in 1991; or working with Ukrainian doctors to help transform care of infant orphans, as for Hannah DuVon M.A. ’07; or researching a book on the color revolutions, as for political scientist Jane Curry. Then, in that country with the national anthem “Ukraine Has Not Perished Yet,” along comes the greatest crisis Europe has faced in the 21st century.


More to it: Read a transcript of the full conversation with Andrey Kurkov.

The worst day of violence in Ukraine’s revolution came on Feb. 20. That night, internationally renowned writer Andrey Kurkov joined me for a public conversation at Schloss Elmau in Germany—a locale designated to host the G7 economic summit in 2015. Kurkov is a Ukrainian novelist and essayist who lives in Kyiv and writes in Russian; his work has been translated into more than 30 languages. He is known for darkly funny and sadly prescient observations of life across the former USSR.

Our Q&A (here edited and condensed) captures a sense of the fear and desperate hope that shaped the revolution through the next day—when events took a startling turn: An agreement was brokered between opposition leaders and Ukraine’s president—who then fled the country. An interim government was formed. And Crimea, following a rushed referendum at the end of a gun, was annexed by Russia.


SCM: You’ve watched protests on the Maidan, only steps from your house, from the time they began. Is it right to talk about this as a revolution?

Andrey Kurkov: From January 19, yes, it is a revolution. Protests that started on Nov. 21, 2013, were not organized by the opposition, and they had nothing to do with politics in the beginning. The first people on the streets were students in western Ukraine, in L’viv, and then in Kyiv, who protested against the president, Viktor Yanukovych, not signing the European Union Association Agreement.

In L’viv, when students started protesting and organized their own sort of Maidan, they would not let nationalist politicians speak from their stage. Then protests in Kyiv became more active, and students were joined by people from Kyiv—a city with almost 5 million inhabitants. On Nov. 29, Yanukovych decided that he had enough of protests. At 4 a.m. on Nov. 30, when there were several hundred protesters spending the night on Maidan, hundreds of riot police in full gear attacked. Students were beaten up, dozens were arrested; some ran up the streets to the upper town, where the monks from St. Michael’s Monastery opened the gates for them, and they barricaded themselves inside.

In the morning, when it became clear that there was blood on the streets—though nobody was killed—almost half a million Kyivites reoccupied the main square and started the protests again. The explanation of the night attack by riot police was first given by the deputy mayor: that the protesters were preventing the city council from installing a Christmas tree.


SCM: A cliché often repeated in talking about Ukraine, the protests, and who supports them or who doesn’t, is: “It’s the Ukrainian-speaking west and it’s the Russian-speaking east, and they’ll never get along.”

Kurkov: It’s much more complicated. The first years after independence in 1991, one could say that eastern Ukraine was more pro-Russian, but it was never completely Russian-speaking. In the big cities—Luhansk, Donetsk, and Mykolayiv—people speak Russian. In the surrounding countryside people mostly speak Ukrainian.

The only territory in Ukraine that is still really pro- Russian—but not completely Russian-speaking—is Crimea, where Sevastopol is rented by Russia as a base for the Black Sea fleet, and where almost nobody speaks Ukrainian. But there are 300,000 or 400,000 Crimean Tatars who were deported in 1944 by Stalin to Siberia, to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. In 1991 they were allowed to resettle in Crimea—but they encountered lots of trouble. The local Russian-speaking population consists of ex-inhabitants of villages in central Russia and eastern Ukraine shipped in trainloads by Stalin to take over the houses and the property of Tatars. It is very easy to spark a real fight there, and there is always a danger that Crimea can become a battle zone.

For many Russians, Crimea is still Russian territory; people who live in Sevastopol don’t recognize Ukrainian flags. In public transport, every driver has a Russian flag on his front window.

The main historical difference is between east and west. Western Ukraine was taken over by Soviet forces in 1939, after Molotov and Ribbentrop signed a pact taking territories from Poland. In 1945 Soviet forces again took control of these territories, but for 15 years partisans fought and killed Communist Party representatives in western Ukraine: KGB people, as well as teachers of Russian language, Soviet history, or communist ideology sent there from eastern Ukraine or from Russia. Since then, the attitude to Russian language is very negative.

It is important to note that the politicians and oligarchs who surround Yanukovych include no people from Kyiv or western Ukraine. They represent only the Donbas region—Luhansk and Donetsk. So Kyiv is very bitter about Yanukovych. Generally it looks like occupation of the city by a foreign power.

But I think the protests were started from despair. What makes Yanukovych illegitimate in the eyes of many Ukrainians is that, in three years, he practically privatized Ukraine. He brought his own oligarchs from Donetsk and helped them become powerful; government orders to build or buy were given only to people from this circle. One of his sons became one of the top 10 richest people.

He controls the legal system completely, so people don’t believe in justice. They don’t believe that you can run normal business. Corruption was probably never as high. So, for Ukrainians, Yanukovych is not legitimate; he is considered a criminal.


SCM: That comes back to the larger issue of corruption in the country.

Kurkov: The new generation—students who are now 20, 22, 23 years old—they hate this corruption. They were born after the Soviet Union. They travel a lot. I give lectures in universities all around Ukraine. Students in the east of the country are not much different from the students in the west. They have a completely contemporary view and understanding of things.



SCM: Beyond language as a factor, what about the sense of Ukraine being pulled between Russia and the European Union—and Putin’s relationship with Yanukovych?

Kurkov: The relationship between Yanukovych and Putin is quite old and complex. In 2004, during presidential elections, Putin supported Yanukovych—not only financially, but in Moscow there were posters with “Vote for Yanukovych,” like he was being elected there. Before the decision about Yanukovych’s victory was overturned, Putin phoned him twice to congratulate him.

Yanukovych created his Party of Regions on the model of Putin’s party, United Russia: as a one-party system where an opposition doesn’t exist. To do this, in Russianspeaking areas, Yanukovych suppressed other parties funded by Putin. These kinds of pro-Russian parties now exist only in Crimea; they still take money from the Kremlin.

Then Putin was very bitter about Yanukovych—who probably kept thinking that Putin was supporting him. In 2010, when Yanukovych became president, he promised closer ties with Russia—almost economic reunification. He signed the prolongation treaty for the Russian Black Sea fleet bases for 25 years. Putin promised to lower gas prices and to speed up economic cooperation. But gas prices didn’t go down. Then Putin started showing his disrespect for Yanukovych quite publicly.

For a scheduled meeting at his residence in Crimea, Yanukovych was waiting for Putin who, instead, spent almost four hours visiting Russian bikers camping near Sevastopol. He visited Yanukovych for 15 minutes and went on to spend the night with his best friend in Ukraine, Medvedchuk, a minor oligarch and politician.



SCM: What about the possibility of Ukraine itself splitting apart?

Kurkov: Even politicians from the Party of Regions are afraid of this. Russia tried to control Ukraine through the economy: Russian oligarchs wanted to buy the biggest plants and steel works; they wanted control of commercial ports. But they were always stopped by the oligarchs who supported Yanukovych and who realized that if Russian money comes to Ukraine, there will be no space on this territory for Ukrainian oligarchs. Two years ago, the Russian ambassador told me, “Yanukovych is a liar. He just smiles and he promises, and there is nothing delivered to the Kremlin’s table.” If Russia had any political party and their candidate in Ukraine, they would be happy to dump Yanukovych and to organize a coup d’etat or whatever it takes to place their leader, a Ukrainian leader, in charge of the country. Now, if the country splits, Russia will eat up what is there in the east.


SCM: So what’s your hope for Ukraine?

Kurkov: My hope would be a coalition government and the president as a symbolic figure. In Ukraine, historically, the main problems have happened because too many people wanted to become leaders at the same time. But we now have a leader who doesn’t want to share power and who is responsible for destroying the country in order to just save himself and his control.



A Q&A with writer Andrey Kurkov: Listen to the entire conversation.

Story updated May 4, 2014, to correct location of the work Alexandra Angel did with the Peace Corps. –Ed.

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