By Stanley Bill
The picture is eloquent. A long road stretches out into an elevated distance. The relicts of Soviet industry rot in the foreground. The asphalt is pockmarked with craters – more pothole than road. The view slopes sharply away, while the hills in the background form little more than a distant promise of a destination, as the road seems to lose itself in a thicket of leafless trees before it can reach them. The sky is gray and ominous, though lighter shades illuminate the wooded line of the horizon. A single white passenger vehicle picks its way among the potholes, while an old Russian truck lumbers up the hill to greet it.
I took this photograph on the main artery between Drohobych and Boryslav – two medium-sized towns on the cusp of the Carpathian Mountains in the west of Ukraine. The battered surface of the road goes a long way to explaining why hundreds of thousands of protesters – many of them from the western regions – have filled the streets and squares of Kyiv in recent months to demand transformation.
While the newly ousted president Viktor Yanukovych enriched himself and his extended “Family” at the taxpayer’s expense – awarding lucrative state contracts to companies controlled by close associates and his own son – daily life for most Ukrainian people has continued to be an unrelenting struggle with poverty, endemic corruption and disintegrating (or non-existent) public services.
The roads that ordinary Ukrainians travel every day are debilitating. The western part of the country in particular is full of crumbling strips of dirt and gravel like the one between Drohobych and Boryslav. People pack themselves into the private mini-buses that negotiate these weathered tracks, sometimes traveling little faster than the horse-drawn carts of local villagers, weaving around chasms in the asphalt, jolting in and out of deep pits of foaming mud on ancient shock absorbers. Short trips for work, shopping or family business turn into odysseys of inconvenience. Passengers cling onto handrails for dear life as they pitch from side to side, contorted into unnatural poses, pressed up against one another in communal suffering. Perhaps the solidarity of the new Ukrainian revolution began here – in the mingled sweat and resentment of these daily indignities. In the end, such roads exist because Ukraine’s post-Soviet elites have embezzled, neglected and mismanaged instead of governing in the interests of the people who travel them.
For many Ukrainians, the starry banner of the European Union has come to represent the hope of a better future – whatever the Eurosceptics inside the club might say – where transparent standards, sparkling new infrastructure and the rule of law will prevail. Many have seen with their own eyes the positive changes over the western border since Poland’s accession in 2004. So when Yanukovych rejected an EU association agreement in favor of a murky gas-and-cash deal with Vladimir Putin, the rising tide of dissatisfaction with the kleptocratic regime finally surged into Kyiv in the flood of revolution. People had learnt to deal with the miserable present, but now the scoundrels were robbing them of their future as well.
People of the Maidan
Ukraine is filled with intelligent, energetic and creative individuals. In the present conditions, they smolder with frustrated talent and ambition. Kyiv is a world metropolis crowned by religious monuments that embody the symbolic origins of both the Ukrainian and Russian nations – hence the city’s often contested status. Historic churches and monasteries share boulevards and alleyways with innovative modern galleries and a sophisticated underground cultural scene. Streams of working people pour out of the warm caverns of the subway into the snow on winter mornings. Crowds of elderly men and women tango through summer evenings on makeshift concrete dance floors on a leisure island in the Dnieper River. A wandering visitor might stumble into a sprawling art collective – with multiple drink bars, an outdoor cinema and a hive of warehouse work space buzzing with creative activity. On the very same street, a statue of an emaciated little girl – a memorial to the child victims of Stalin’s engineered famine of the 1930s – reminds the same wanderer that suffering is nothing new in Ukraine.
Today’s Kyiv is youthful and dynamic. The educated and creative young people of the capital have played a crucial role in the recent protests, placing their bodies in the paths of bullets on the frontlines and organizing support services for fellow activists who have been beaten, arrested, or both. Students were the driving force behind the earliest phase of the “Euromaidan” in late November. Yet the protests have by no means been only for the young. Divisions of dauntless grandmothers have stationed themselves in front of the Berkut riot police, barking lessons in respect at helmeted young men, some of whom had been transferred into the capital from southern and eastern regions of the country. Many of the protesters made their way to Independence Square from the west.
The western capital of Lviv pulsates with artistic, political and religious life. Baroque churches, an Armenian cathedral and the colorful facades of burgher houses hint at a diverse history, while the present sees the city at the heart of the rebellion against Yanukovych. The main promenade has hosted a permanent anti-government protest camp for years. The cultural scene is more vigorous here than in many western European or North American cities of comparable or greater size. I have strong memories of a “Night of Poetry” at a picturesque, though dilapidated old theater in the center of town, where the galleries seemed on the brink of collapse under the weight of the enthusiastic young people who had come to read and listen to poems all night long. I thought of wealthier places with pleasant new auditoria but nobody to sit in them. Lviv is livelier.
In the nearby town of Drohobych, an alternative theater company collaborates with local university professors and independent journalists to revive the memory of Polish and Jewish life in a region that was multicultural for centuries before Hitler and Stalin. The actors and creative directors tell me with sardonic smiles that they expect no support from the local authorities. If there is no obstruction from city hall, they are happy. One of the university professors confesses that she struggles to pay her rent on a dismal state salary. She does not accept bribes, but she has colleagues who are not so scrupulous. Meanwhile, Oleksandr Yanukovych – the ex-president’s son – and his buddies have become the richest men in the country. When Yanukovych the elder hijacked the hopes of future European reform, the situation went from dire to untenable. People from Lviv and Drohobych – and from many other regional towns – journeyed to Kyiv to join the protests.
When I look at Ukraine, I see a vast reservoir of creative energy suppressed by the rusting and degenerate structures in which it rises. I see young talent slamming into the crumbling concrete walls of a system that can produce no opportunities for them, condemning them to humiliating poverty and feelings of political impotence. I think of student dormitories that look like Soviet prisons – sometimes because they once were. I think of a theater packed with young people who want poetry – or at least a decent job with a dignified salary – but who get corruption, malicious neglect and ugly displays of oligarchic wealth instead. Over the last few months, many of these people have fought bare-fisted to salvage their hopes of a brighter future.
The potholed road from Drohobych to Boryslav tells us something about what might lie ahead for Ukraine. The way to the distant hills remains unclear. Things could easily keep descending for a long time before they finally begin to improve. The revolution’s strength is also its weakness, since it constitutes a genuine popular movement – diverse and decentralized – with no direct links to established political groups. The existing opposition parties have attempted to harness the uprising, but many protesters are calling for an entirely new political class to emerge. The recently released Yulia Tymoshenko – who may run for president in the next election – is a post-Soviet oligarch whose last tenure as prime minister was tainted by party in-fighting and accusations of incompetence. The former boxer Vitali Klitschko looks increasingly out of his depth in the political ring. The Svoboda (Freedom) party led by Oleh Tyahnybok is disconcertingly nationalistic in its rhetoric and has little prospect of uniting a divided country.
The Kyiv protest movement itself is a complex, multi-celled organism. Some of its more radical factions are even further to the right than Svoboda, while nobody seems to know exactly whom or what the impromptu “self-defense” units currently guarding public buildings in the capital represent. More importantly, government and business institutions throughout the country are still infected by a bacterial culture of corruption and cronyism that no protest movement can eradicate overnight. Plum jobs come with connections. State functionaries from doctors to school teachers routinely take bribes. To reach the distant hills of prosperity and fairness, Ukraine first needs an entirely new political and public culture. This might take decades to achieve.
In the meantime, the hulking ruins of Soviet infrastructure, industry and economic mismanagement loom in the foreground. Russia controls the country’s energy supply, all the while stealing jealous glances at the Crimean peninsula. The economy is a mangled wreck. Without international assistance – preferably not of the Mephistophelian kind offered by Putin – the country will default on its foreign debt. Ordinary Ukrainians struggle to find employment and to pay their bills in cramped apartments that often seem to be literally falling apart. Travel abroad is impossible, difficult or humiliating. I know two young female university researchers who faced insinuations that they were sex workers when they applied for visas to attend a conference in Poland. Such outrages are not unusual. Nothing is simple in Ukraine.
The long, potholed road stretches out ahead of the Ukrainian people into an uncertain future. We who live in the European Union cannot walk it for them, but we should do everything in our power to smooth the way.