Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ukraine: Part Two

Sitting with my back turned, I watched the table of Ukrainian girls behind me at the other end of the pub.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” My friend, a fellow Canadian participant, asked me.

I turned back around to face him and the other participants at our table, “Lots. You’ll have to be specific,” I replied.

“You and I are going over there,” he demanded while those beside us listened intently.

“I’d rather not.”

I went back to watching the nine girls across the room who were absorbed in their jovial conversation and when they burst into fits of laughter the prospect of interjecting became even more terrifying. I didn’t know the first thing about hitting-on one complete stranger let alone an entire group. I could only refer to my strategy for confronting black bears in such a state of anxiety.

“What are you afraid of? We’ll just go over there and say hello.”

Was it so simple? My inner alpha-male was telling me this situation should be paralleled to some death-defying feat straight out of a shitty action film: My friend was the fearless maverick who’d flown this mission many times before, but he was still in need of a seasoned wingman to fly perfect formation and engage all targets… I guess my friend’s figurative air-force was having something similar to a bring-your-child-to-work-day.

His mind wasn’t changing, “Get up!”

“I don’t seem to have my balls on me today. I think they fell off this morning and rolled behind some furniture. Tell you what, I’ll go home and have a look. When I find them, give them a quick rinse and figure out how to reattach them, I’ll think about joining you next time we’re here.” At this point he was standing beside my seat, “… ALRIGHT, I’M UP!”

We stood at the end of the girls’ table with all of them staring at us. It was up to my friend to justify our intrusion, “Hi, we’re Canadian. Can we sit down?”… I wasn’t sure whether I’d followed Tom Cruise into battle or a hell-bent kamikaze pilot. To my surprise his ambiguity worked like a charm.

Smiling, they made room for us and insisted we have some cake since we’d caught them celebrating a birthday. Their university coordinated our exchange program so they’d seen us around campus and wanted to know how we were enjoying our stay. They were part of the massive student population inhabiting the small town of Ostoh and, like the many people we’d met, they were hospitable and genuinely interested in getting to know us.

My friend led the conversation beautifully while I sat perfectly motionless in attempt to reduce my visibility and eye-balled the girl sitting next to me so, if she were to make any sudden movements, I’d be ready to run outside and climb the nearest tree.

Without warning my incontinent friend was up and off to the washroom, leaving me to fly solo. I thought I was taking things slow and easy by discussing music, but the moment I unknowingly mentioned several of these girls’ favorite bands they startled me with a loud cheer of recognition. I turned to see if anyone witnessed this overreaction and everyone back at my table looked just as shocked by my charisma as I was. Instilled with new found confidence, I asked them what I really wanted to talk about… the Orange Revolution: A country-wide uprising that embroiled many outside interests and became an international media extravaganza in 2004-05.

… I’d never experienced such a complete turnaround in a conversation with people I’d been so new acquainted, where any formality requiring us to uphold innocuous small-talk was completely disregarded. I was now in a forum where these girls held no reserve expressing their raw emotions.

“It makes me sad to think this has happened,” someone expressed, “I’ve given up. We have no control.”

“We are good people! We don’t deserve this!” someone else mentioned.

For Ukraine, the disintegration of the soviet empire didn’t elicit the upheaval seen in other satellite states: East Germans emigrated in droves once crossing their borders no longer entailed passing patrol officers’ cross-hairs; Embattled Romanian citizens stormed government headquarters to dispose their stubborn dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu; Protesters in the Baltic States withstood Soviet tanks that had come to clarify the limits to Gorbachev’s “restructuring;” Once the empire lay in ruin, Ukrainians voted for independence and their old ruling elite half-heartedly stepped from one model of government to another. No longer taking orders from Moscow and out from under a one-communist-party-system, this oligarchy was still uninspired to take democratic reform beyond learning a new political language.

Corruption became increasingly prevalent throughout all levels of society as opportunists strived to benefit from compounded economic turmoil and weak political opposition; this meant anything from paying bribes to avoid police harassment to hearing about vote-rigging come election-time. These similar problems had long plagued Romania, Belarus and Russia and Ukrainians were growing tired of following suite. In 2000 the death of Ukrainian journalist, Georgiy Gongadze, murdered shortly after criticizing President Leonid Kuchma, was indication to many Ukrainians of the consolidation required in challenging a corrupt authority.

Presidential candidate, Victor Yushchenko, hoped to represent frustrated Ukrainians during the 2004 elections. His alternative was looking west for a leading example. Many nations that had struggled coming out from behind the Iron Curtain found promising opportunity integrating into Europe, so Yushchenko set his sights for joining the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization rather than focus on maintaining strong ties with Russia.

Vladimir Putin, well versed in geopolitics and looking to renew Russia’s prominence in the world, became placid with concern watching his neighbours turn away and NATO moving closer to his doorstep. Ukraine was of particular concern because the fate of Russia’s western naval front in Ukraine’s Sevastopol was under question, most gas-lines sending Russia’s chief export to all of Europe bypassed Ukraine and there was still significance in Kyiv being epicenter of Russian history.

So Putin and his administration put their stamp of approval on Yushchenko’s opponent, Victor Yanukovych: protégé to outgoing president Kuchma and likely to continue operating Ukraine within Russia’s sphere of economic and military influence. Yanukovych was endowed with strategists and funding from Russia, the only problem was that many Ukrainians would no longer stand for the electoral fraud required getting him into office.

These girls I spoke to had joined the hundreds of thousand other Ukrainians who’d camped for days, weeks or months at Kyiv’s Victory Square during the winter of 2004 and 2005. They refused to recognize Yanukovych’s victory in a runoff election after a blatant show of voter intimidation and ballot-stuffing.

“We were angry about Yanukovych, but we were also happy Ukrainians were coming together,” someone recalled her week in Kyiv. “Knowing we were going to finally change things was exciting.”

Student movements helped bring citizens from across the country to the street in demand of another election in spite of, what most believed to be, an attempt on Yushchenko’s life. Earlier that fall, he nearly died of dioxin poisoning after having dinner with Ukrainian Security Services officials.

Just as Gongadze was for Ukrainians, Yushchenko’s scared face was a wakeup-call to the international community, causing many world leaders to denounce Ukraine’s election results. The prospect of Yushchenko making a slightly larger and friendlier Europe was appealing to the Western World at a time when a pro-active Russia was inducing memories from the Cold War.

During the 90s Boris Yelson’s foreign affairs looked more like a harmless transcontinental pub crawl, now an ambitious and calculative Putin stood-by Yanukovych to recognize his stolen presidency. No one was proven responsible for Yushchenko’s poisoning, but it seemed like a maneuver straight out of a KGB handbook. Yushchenko conjured massive support from western leaders who remembered the comfort in establishing buffers between them and an unpredictable Russia.

Pressure mounted as media from around the world came to broadcast the community of tents in Kyiv while the Ukrainian military stalked the periphery. Once a new election was agreed to, legions of international monitors came to ensure its fair conduct. Yushchenko won with 51.99 per cent of the votes over Yanukovych’s 44.19, without further crisis.

This was the point in the story where I'd left off two years earlier. I was fascinated by the extensive media coverage the revolution generated in North America. While it was an uplifting story for viewers it was short lived. International headlines were quick to change topic, possibly leaving those who did’t comb the back-pages to assume there was betterment forever after.

Now it was 2006 and these girls were disheartened by Yushchenko failing to fulfill his promises. Ukraine was no closer to an EU membership because corruption was still rampant within government. In-fighting had divided the champions of the revolution, giving Yanukovych the clout he needed to be appointed prime minister during the 2006 parliamentary elections. Concessions Yushchenko made for constitutional reform after the revolution came back to haunt him because it was now undetermined who would hold greater power, president or prime-minister. In other words, Yanukovych took his tug-of-war with Yushchenko off the streets and into office.

“What was the point of it all when we wanted to keep Yanukovych out?”

Yushchenko has been a disappointment.”

“You have to be patient. Too many people are angry because they expect results immediately,”

“One good thing is there’s greater freedom of speech.”

Once my friend returned from the washroom and listened to the girls’ frustrations he appeared to panic internally. He probably figured the worst outcome of having me fly this mission was watching me get shot-down; little did he know I’d be dropping a cargo of chastity-belts and leaflets preaching the virtues of abstinence. Leaning towards me, I could hear the urgency in his voice as he whispered, “Can we please talk about something else?” The mood changed the moment the subject was dropped, like the topic had never been mentioned, and we all enjoyed the rest of the night as carefree young adults.

The immediate charge of this conversation was surprising to me but I would soon realize discussing the revolution usually struck a nerve with Ukrainians; tapping into an overwhelming reserve of sentimentality that could change the tide of any conversation. Testing the political atmosphere in 2006 was opening a door to let a hurricane through the room. This excited me because I figured pandemonium usually provided the most immediate learning experience.

Well… the first thing I learned was how to come to terms with my limited understanding. As an outsider, dealing with a convoluted issue only widened the disconnection between me and my surroundings. Conclusions became harder to reach. Language and cultural barriers already led to my misunderstanding of others, but an impassioned discussion could really amplify people’s erraticism to the point where reading people became an act of inventing fiction. When things got too strange all I could do was fall into the warm embrace of confusion, especially when dealing with my host-family…

By simply opening a door I immediately came face-to-face with what my host-father must have looked like thirty-five years ago. This was surreal enough an experience I questioned whether I just stepped out of the bathroom or some decrepit time-machine my host-father constructed so he could finally beat me down and haul me off to the tool-shed for interrogation. This stone-faced young man looked me up and down.

“Meet your host-brother,” my counterpart introduced us, “he has come from Kyiv for a visit.”

His cold and inquisitive eyes locked onto me as we shook hands – mine still wet after washing them. He seemed in search of anything that would assist him in shaping a first impression and, with the little trust established between us at this point, I probably brought him to the conclusion that all Canadians couldn’t refrain from splashing around in toilet water. I couldn’t have come up with a more suiting introduction.

When there’s more eye-contact than dialogue between two people they’re most likely in a showdown rather than a conversation. That was my thinking, as I sat opposite end of the kitchen table from host-brother. His deadpan stare hadn’t averted from me after we’d joined my counterpart and host-mother for dinner. He must have learned the art of intimidation through years of stink-eye staring contests with his father. A look that intense can trick the brain into believing its telepathic capabilities: “Why are you really here? Couldn’t my mother just have gotten another cat?... the moment you look away I’m coming over this table to attack you with a flathead screwdriver.” I could only stare back in shock.

Tarzan’s aimless meandering began annoying my host-mother who was busy cooking. I pulled him against me so he was out of her way, hopefully averting a full song and dance.

“Stupid dog,” my counterpart scolded – He held little regard for the smaller creatures incapable of walking upright and earning a decent income.

With the articulation of a two-year-old, I said, “My favorite dog, Tarzan,” in Ukrainian.

My host-mother and counterpart laughed and shook their heads. Looking at my host-brother I saw he now had a coy smile. Did I just prove myself a simpleton in his eyes? He didn’t waste any time in finding out. He leaned forward and finally spoke.

“He wants to know if you know anything about the Orange Revolution,” my counter-part translated.

“Sure…. YushchenkoYanukovych.” I replied.

My host-brother’s facade instantly melted as if I’d said the magic words. Suddenly we had a lot to discuss.

He, like the majority of ethnic Ukrainians in Western Ukraine, had his heart set on Yushchenko’s plan for modernization, particularly obtaining that EU membership meal-ticket. Unlike the girls at the pub, he didn’t seem disillusioned by Yushchenko’s failures, rather, he felt increasingly perceptive to Russia’s hand in Ukraine’s politics, that is, spotting the strings leading from Yanukovych’s appendages to Putin’s hand. My host-brother was on one side of a growing divide between western Ukrainians and the large minority of ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Maybe, if I were on the other side of the country I could have met the mirror image of my host-brother. Someone who spent the revolution in counter-rallies supporting Yanukovych, was suspicious of western persuasion, considered the abolishment of communism as one failed experiment in westernization too many, remembered NATO as an instrument of the Cold War. When this person described Yushchenko as “western-friendly” it was probably euphemism for “puppet, pawn or stooge.”

Did my host-brother’s contempt for Russian persuasion have foundation? The days when Ukrainians endured Soviet misconduct wasn’t distant memory to my host-brother. Many of his generation suffered health problems resulting from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 when a Kremlin cover-up left citizens unaware of their exposure to fallout from a nuclear power-plant meltdown north of Kyiv. After several days the truth surfaced with the gradual infiltration of outside media reporting a massive nuclear cloud spreading across the globe. This has left a lasting embitterment not only towards the pretense of Gorbachev’s “openness” but Russia’s underhandedness in general. However, these were the days before drastic reform. Was my host-brother seeing Russian coercion?

Earlier that January, my host-family was of many who went without heating for several days when Russia’s state controlled Gazprom cut gas supply to Ukraine. This was when contention between the two countries over gas-prices finally peaked. It started when Russia raised Ukrainian’s gas prices to European standards preceding the revolution, causing many to revile this as a bullying tactic in retaliation to Yushchenko’s installation. Defiance ensued and Ukraine was accused of it stealing gas on transit to Europe. Russia’s reluctance to continue subsidizing post-soviet states led to similar rows with Georgia and Belarus.

My host-brother and I talked all evening. My interest in the revolution was of great interest to him and I was happy to have cleared-up my misconceptions of him so quickly. It was late when we shook hands, said goodbye and he left the house. I was under the impression our discussion was finished for the night.

After I’d settled into bed my host-brother burst through my door and turned on the light. He was waving CDs in the air.

“Uh,… hmm… uh, revolution!… uh, uh…. hmm… revolution!” his struggle for English didn’t damper his excitement. It was just as unnerving to have him now embrace me in camaraderie. What the hell did he want? Did he think he found a new camping buddy for pitching-up outside parliament?

My counterpart wasn’t far behind him, “He wants you to listen to some bands that played for the revolution.” Was my bedroom now a revolutionists’ hideout? Walls can begin to close in very quickly. My counterpart saw Tarzan was in the room and became angry, “Tarzan… out!”

“The dog stays!” I snapped.

Now my host-brother’s coy smile seemed one of understanding as he nodded to my counterpart to forget about the dog.

I turned to ask Tarzan what we’d gotten ourselves into, but he was preoccupied with chewing off his new cast, consisting of a Coke bottle and nylon-stocking.

We sat around a ghetto-blaster and listened to music like one of those nuclear families seen in 1950’s stock-footage who gathered around to watch their radio as if it were a television, except I was in my pajama bottoms and my host-brother in his winter jacket.

He was still buzzing from the excitement of the revolution while describing the performances he saw in Victory Square. Political change might not have become reality for him but he saw a newly instilled sense of unity between Ukrainians. These were his days to feel good about being Ukrainian and that hasn’t been easy.

Throughout history imperial Russian resorted to campaigns of violence to prevent nationalism and to ensure unity within Soviet sates. Ukrainian nationalists weren’t exclusively persecuted, particularly during the Stalin years; it was common for poets, teachers or anyone advocating the Ukrainian language to be exiled to Siberia.

Independence in 1991 was opportunity for ethnic Ukrainians everywhere to distinguish themselves from being ‘little Russians’ who spoke in their obscure dialect. Nowwhere was there a more distinct Ukrainian identythan the wester provinces which had known brief tastes of cultural freedoms under European occupation before World War One. The days of Russian assimilation now over, Ukrainization efforts were left to contend with a prominent Russian pop-culture.

My host-brother could easliy give the impression that even today simply 'being Ukrainian' constituted having a stronge indignation towards Russia. Even his lessons in culture somehow digressed to Russia's inferiority. The language barrier made it difficult for me pick-up his finer points, but his sentiment was vague enough to seem familiar…

“He says he doesn’t like George Bush,” my counterpart translated.

“Huh?... ok... he remembers that I’m Canadian right?”

“He remembers.”

My host-brother awaited my response, as if looking to find a mutual distain for an overbearing neighbour. He wouldn’t have to look far to meet a Canadian who was generally indignant towards the US. His rant was just as subjective as many of the rants about America I’ve heared back in Canada. Maybe this tableside banter was typical everywhere in the world where there was a more powerful country nearby. I just become alarmed when I’d hear such impassioned generalities go beyond the table.

We participants sat in an auditorium listening to the official greeting from the rector of Ostroh Academy National University.

This university was a recreation of a famous 16th century academy and staunch defender of Ukrainian identity - We Canadians were reminded of the faux pas of speaking Russian in its halls. During the revolution the university was a strong voice for Yushchenko - A staggering majority of students attended protests.

After the pleasantries the rector addressed one of his concerns, “I’ve known many Canadians who come here and like to drink. Know there are sever problems with alcoholism in Ukrainian society, so out of respect, please avoid drinking excessively.”

I was following this line of reasoning until his conclusion, “…alcoholism hadn’t been part of Ukrainian culture until Russia brought it here through years of occupation.”

It was strange enough such a strong accusation came with no pretext, but my biggest concern was figuring out the point to his last comment.

What was this supposed to invoke, especially with Canadians? Was this line of reasoning useful in deterring Ukrainian youths from alcoholism? How did it make the participants who could be considered more ethnically Russian feel? Was there a cost to this logic? Was this perpetuating resentment? Where is the line between patriotism and chauvinism?

It felt as if I’d been sitting at the table listening to one of my host-brother’s more impassioned rants. What kind of history makes for this kind of animosity?

History became relevant with a simple ride through the country and watching people living amid the apocalyptical remnants of a different world. Soviet statues left standing for no other reason than neglect. Everywhere massive factories, once making Ukraine leading manufacturer in the Soviet Union, stood empty, gradually disassembling themselves.

While walking through a park in the nearby town of Rivne, several participants and I came across a group of elderly men bustling around benches and tables in the cold. From a distance they looked to be some determined chess club, but when walking amongst them we saw they were selling a vast collection of soviet relics, primarily war medals. Tables were covered with a variety of awards brandishing pilot-wings, red stars or hammers crossed with sickles; all intended as high achievement at one time. Some things told direct stories of people’s lives, such as the pictures of long-lost relatives on military identification cards, but everything shared a common story about time served under an old empire. It was as if, for the sake of a couple of hryvnia, they were absolving themselves of their past just as someone in Canada would be freeing himself of clutter in a yard-sale. Was this indication of desperate times or deep-seeded apathy… maybe both? It was a shame these old-men weren’t congregated here for the sake of healthy competition, so then it wouldn’t have seemed a show of total defeat.

I bought one medal that had caught my eye. It was a medal celebrating someone’s accomplishments in collective farming, a policy that made for one of the worst memories in Ukraine. The Kremlin enforced the collectivization of Ukrainian agriculture for distributed throughout the empire but there was a gross discrepancy in what Ukraine gave and what it received, leaving millions to starve to death in a famine of 1932-33. Declassified material shows Stalin’s brutal regulation measures and his general contempt for Ukrainians. Ukraine has now declared this event as a genocide, which Russia refutes.

This medal celebrated a staple of the Soviet system that had such dire consequences here. I couldn’t even imagine such a history.