Tragedy has many times befallen the people of Ukraine in the last century: millions of deaths during the Great Famine of 1932-33, a Jewish population nearly wiped out by the Nazis, the worst nuclear accident in world history in Chernobyl and a rapid decline into poverty when the USSR disbanded in 1991. Today, the nation and its youth struggle to reconcile a troubled past with a future full of promise.

Sarah Royce
Homeless people in Lviv pillage garbage cans for food just feet away from a ritzy shopping district. (JASON COOPER/Daily)
Sarah Royce
Mitre Pablovich outside his home in Kiev. (JASON COOPER/Daily)
Sarah Royce
A woman and her daughter walk in front of an empty lot in Lviv, the western capital of Ukraine. (JASON COOPER/Daily)

 

KIEV, Ukraine – “I liked Soviet times much better than now. Life was better then,” reflects Mitre Pablovich, 75, as he sits on a bench outside his crumbling apartment building. Pablovich is a recently retired electrician and has lived in Kiev his whole life. He shares his tiny three-bedroom flat with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and their college-aged son. On most days, though, Pablovich spends more time outside his building in the fresh air than cooped up with his family. He is doing what he can to enjoy his retirement.

“I am still a happy man. I have a good family. We have water, food and gas. That’s all that matters,” he adds. However, his furrowed brow, stoic expression and frequent complaining suggest otherwise. Pablovich felt like the current government in Ukraine had let his family down. As citizens of the Soviet Union, they could be sure that in retirement they would be taken care of completely. As it turned out, Pablovich and his wife, who is still gainfully employed at age 70, had to work for many more years than they planned. Even more troubling to Pablovich is that his grandson cannot find a job.

“Before (the collapse of the USSR) young people would finish school and get jobs. Now it’s a big mess with these kids. They have nothing to do. I hope they can get jobs,” he says.

Pablovich is not the only person in Ukraine concerned with youth. Despite a solid education system, a product of the Soviet regime, many young Ukrainians are worried about their own futures. Young adults are in the unique position of having been raised in both a communist and capitalist society. In school they were taught the ideals of Soviet society, hard work and community, while at the same time they were bombarded with Western messages of excess and wealth. Make no mistake about it; young Ukrainians are also a part of the MTV generation.

Perhaps it is this fascination with western culture that led to the democratic revolution this past winter. Young people from all over Ukraine flooded Kiev last November to protest widespread election fraud. Even the success of the youth-led political movements has not secured young people’s role in bringing Ukraine out of its current economic and political rut.

Meanwhile, Pablovich has other worries closer to his mind than the state of Ukrainian youth. The apartment building he has lived in since 1967, the year it opened, is in complete and utter disrepair. The building is full of rotting garbage, and flies swarm in the stairways. The elevators that service the six-story building shake their way up and down the shaft, a trip not fit for the faint of heart. Outside, gangs of unemployed young men and teens roam the streets, drinking the day away. Homeless people are passed out in the community vegetable garden adjacent to the building. It is a scene common to poverty stricken neighborhoods the world over, and is something Pablovich has to watch and deal with every day.

Pablovich and the other residents of the building haven’t always lived like this. Just 15 years ago, this same building was clean, safe and considered one of the nicest complexes in all of Kiev. It was reserved for workers who had been valued members of the Communist Party, like Pablovich, who, as a dedicated worker, earned favor and respect in the eyes of his peers. The city was well taken care of by the government, until that government closed up shop. Since the communists left, the residents have been forced to take care of the building themselves because the new regime had neither the will nor the financial backing to continue with the maintenance of what is now private property. Sadly, the residents also didn’t have the money to fix the elevators or hire maintenance crews. Over the years, the people have done what they could to keep the building livable, which isn’t much considering most of them barely have enough cash to survive. In the mid-’90s, 63 percent of the population was living on just $4 a day.

The maintenance of this one apartment building across the Dniper River from majestic central Kiev is just one example of the enormous changes the people of Ukraine have had to cope with as they shed their communist past and begin life in a democratic nation.

 

The Last 14 Years

Pablovich’s story is not at all uncommon. Millions of Ukrainians are struggling to adapt to a new way of life, even 14 years after the fall of communism. This is most evident in the older generation- those who had to learn to embrace an economic system they grew up thinking was evil. However, the capitalist mentality has not been totally lost on this generation. Thousands of elderly woman sit on the streets and in Kiev’s metro stations selling all sorts of goods from bags of sunflower seeds, used books and watermelons to training bras and knock-off DVDs. The hope for these women is to make enough money to support themselves and their families, even though most barely make a few dollars a day. In the saddest cases, old babushkas – grandmother in Ukrainian -simply beg for money. Judging from the joyful reaction of few such babushkas to the donation of the equivalent of one U.S. dollar, they barely eke out an existence.

Ukraine certainly isn’t the only poverty stricken nation, but its widespread existence there illustrates the difficult road a country faces when it transitions from a planned economy to a free market. Privatization, the process of returning government property to the private citizens and corporations, is a painful and difficult task. It has taken years to redistribute property back to individuals, and there is still more privatization that will take place over the next decade. Some of the sales of public assets have been called into question in recent years. Many of the country’s top industrial assets, like natural gas fields and Soviet-era factories, were sold at undervalued prices to rich oligarchs who were deeply involved with the post-communist political leaders, which created a wide gap between the rich and poor. Most Ukrainians had little chance to capitalize on the release of public property, and thus were not able to begin creating their own wealth.

Throughout the ’90s, the situation worsened in Ukraine. Corrupt politicians and the elite class of super wealthy individuals prevented the country from achieving the economic growth that was being experienced in the rest of Europe. People would go to work, but wouldn’t receive paychecks. Organized crime and Mafia assassinations were becoming commonplace. In addition, Ukraine was closely allied with Russia, and when Russia’s economy collapsed and the value of the ruble tumbled throughout the ’90s, the economy of Ukraine fell apart as well. The country was on the brink of total chaos.

The Ukrainian people, who had endured so much over their history, were becoming frustrated. A new generation of energetic Ukrainian youth was ready to embrace democracy and capitalism. They were ready to make a change and turn Europe’s largest country into a political and economic powerhouse. They were looking westward toward the European Union, toward the United States, and they wanted in. Revolution was brewing in Ukraine.

 

The Orange Revolution

On November 21, 2004, the Ukrainian people voted for the third president of Ukraine in a runoff election between the two highest vote getters from the primaries. The candidates, Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych, spent a combined $500 million dollars in a bitter campaign that featured personal attacks and special interest television ads. Yanukovych was the handpicked successor to Leonid Kuchma, the outgoing president who had been in power since 1994. Additionally, Yanukovych had the support of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation.

Yushchenko was the Westernized alternative to Yanukovych. His dream was to lead Ukraine toward eventual membership in the European Union and NATO in order to become less dependent on Russia. The European Union, the United States and other western nations endorsed Yushchenko, as he represented a changing of the guard in the former Soviet bloc. All of the polls leading up to the election predicted Yushchenko winning by a close but clear margin.

When the results came in, Yanukovych had won with 49.4 percent of the vote to Yushchenko’s 46.7 percent. Stepan Chop, a senior at Lviv University who had campaigned for Yushchenko, remembered hearing the news.

“I was totally shocked. We didn’t think it could happen.” Chop and thousands of other students couldn’t believe that their man, Yushchenko, had lost the election. There were rumors of widespread voter intimidation and fraud, so Yushchenko supporters, most of them college students, boarded trains for Kiev.

“When we first heard that Yanukovych had won, we just went to Kiev. I felt like I could change something,” Chop said.

One day after the election, Stepan and other Yushchenko supporters had shown up in Kiev to protest what they viewed as a fraudulent election. They wanted to see Yanukovych’s victory repealed.

“We didn’t even know where we would stay,” Chop recalled. “I spent the first night in the October Palace. The whole floor was full of people. There were thousands of us in the city.”

Those same people who arrived in Kiev to protest the election results started banding together. Viktor Yushchenko urged them to make a stand against Yanukovych and the incumbent government’s illegal theft of the presidency. The people responded in a way that hadn’t been seen in Eastern Europe since the Solidarity Movement in Poland in1980. Hundreds of thousands of frustrated Ukrainians, most of them young and motivated, gathered in the city center, camping out and protesting day and night. Soon a tent city developed, turning the central square into a sea of orange, the color of Yushchenko’s campaign. The people sat there through the bitter cold nights of the Ukrainian winter, refusing to leave until their voices were heard.

Over the next weeks, the Orange Revolution, a democratic and peaceful fight for justice, emerged. Because the country was almost evenly split into Yushchenko and Yanukovych supporters, the possibility of violence was also hanging in the balance.

Chop, who became the media coordinator for the tent city, recalled an incident where 25 busloads of police approached a rally during the first few days of the revolution.

“Everybody wanted to fight,” he said, “but thankfully the police showed up and turned back.”

Not everything worked out well for Yushchenko and his supporters. At the height of the revolution, Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin, which left him with severe facial deformations. Rather than this incident ending the protest, it only spurred on the revolution and hardened Yushchenko’s will to go on.

The protesters were able to organize and create a huge international buzz, and certainly the poisoning helped bring attention to their cause. Soon, the government had no choice but to rule the first election illegal and call for a revote.

Under the intense scrutiny of the international press, the next set of elections featured much less corruption. This time Yushchenko came out on top, leading many Ukrainians to believe that their country was on the brink of economic and political rejuvenation.

 

A Country Divided

Ukraine celebrated its 14th year as an independent nation this past August, and it provided the people a chance to reflect on the results of the revolution that occurred eight months before. Yuri, a 17-year-old who participated in the Orange Revolution, was in Kiev to celebrate his country’s breakaway form the Soviet Union. After President Yushchenko addressed the crowd, which was much smaller than the one that got him the revote, Yuri spoke about how proud he was.

“My country is ready to become great,” he said, “We will soon join the EU and the people will be happy.” Whether or not that turns out to be true remains to be seen.

Not everyone is as happy as Yuri. The country was divided before the election and still is today. Many people feel that Ukraine would be better off if was more closely aligned with the Russians, who are fellow Slavs with similar outlooks on life.

“The independence day should be a day of mourning, not a celebration,” said Dimitry Grigorenko, a Ukrainian who had spent the last four years in New York studying and had returned to see his country changed.

Grigorenko believes that Ukrainians have sacrificed their morals and values by embracing capitalism and democracy. He points to the frequent displays of public intoxication and high levels of unemployment, both things not tolerated under Soviet rule, as indicators of his country’s wayward turn toward the West.

There are many people who agree with Dimitry, and many more who feel that Yushchenko hasn’t lived up to his promises. While the president has only been in office since December, his supporters are disappointed he hasn’t done more to bring them Western-style wealth. It’s a slow process, turning around a country, but many people just aren’t that patient. The Ukrainian people have dealt with a lot in the past, and now they seem to be dealing with the fact that even leaders who preach of democracy and transparency often aren’t what they seem. Even Stepan Chop, who had supported Yushchenko from the start, had his doubts about the future.

“The Orange Revolution did great things for Ukraine. We have freedom in the media, we are more European in our outlook, but after eight months, I see that the new people in charge are behaving like the old people,” he said.

However, in the end, Chop and the thousands of other young people who supported Yushchenko are generally happy with the results.

“I would do it again,” Chop said, “There weren’t that many changes, just the outlook of the people and the country is different. We proclaimed a new way of life.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *