Sche ne Vmerla Ukraina

Every time I'm in Kyiv, I go out to Poznyakyy to visit my relatives. Poznyakyy is a neighborhood on the right bank of the Dniper River. It's a humbling mass of dilapidated Soviet-era buildings, with creaky elevators that barely work and long columns of rundown sunrooms that stretch up the sides of the buildings and seem on the verge of collapse.

Notes from the Orange Revolution

I. Cousin Lida will someday be 30

Every time I’m in Kyiv, I go out to Poznyakyy to visit my relatives. Poznyakyy is a neighborhood on the right bank of the Dniper River, and home to many Kyivians who aren’t foreigners. It’s a humbling mass of dilapidated Soviet-era buildings, with creaky elevators that barely work and long columns of rundown sunrooms that stretch up the sides of the buildings and seem on the verge of collapse. The streets are wide and dusty, and there are barely any trees. When I first visited Ukraine, in the summer after my junior year in college, Poznyakyy was where I went first. My initial impression, upon seeing the neighborhood, and this was my impression of all of Ukraine, was that it rivaled Chicago’s Ida Noyes Housing Project in its soul-crushing ugliness.

I visited Poznyakyythe night before the second round of elections. Ihor, my mother’s cousin, is an engineer, and Tanya, his wife, receives a pension from the Ukrainian government because of a Chernobyl-related illness. Tanya was born in Russia, and met Ihor in the exile settlement where my family was sent after World War II. Their daughter, Lida, lives with them. She’s 21 years old, and a student of English at a local linguistic academy. Though she’s been at it for over four years, she doesn’t understand me when I ask her what’s she’s been up to since I saw her last. We revert quickly to Ukrainian. Tanya and Ihor are ambivalent about Yushchenko. Tanya says Yanukovych seemed more professional in the first debate. Ihor is less critical, and thinks Yushchenko will be a better president. Lida is relatively quiet, as she always is, slowly stirring a spoon in her cup of tea while she listens to her parents energetically voice their opinions. It’s clear that she’s not very engaged with politics. I’m not sure what she engaged in, though I can tell that she’s comfortable with her family and feels at home and content among these late afternoon teas.

Tanya and Ihor soon go so they can make it to the supermarket that has recently opened in Poznyakyy. On her way out, Tanya shows me a flier that has been placed in her mailbox that day. It’s an announcement, supposedly released by Yushchenko’s “Nasha Ukraina,” that says the voting the next day has been cancelled because too many election violations have already been confirmed. It’s not a very good fake. The photo of Tymoshenko and Yushchenko on the flier is so blurry it might as well be George and Laura Bush. I can tell however that it’s a picture taken before Yushchenko was poisoned by the dioxin that has since ravaged his face. In that sense, it’s flattering.

Lida and I start talking after her parents leave. She’s an extraordinarily thin woman with a high voice. This makes her speech bird-like, as if she’s just chirping away. It turns out she’s decided to vote for Yanukovych in the second round. I’m really surprised, because most of Yanukovych’s supporters are from Eastern Ukraine, and Kyiv is strongly pro-Yushchenko. Her dad watches Channel Five, the country’s only independent television channel. She’s just seen her mother wave around a flier that proves that Yanukovych and friends are obviously screwing with the elections. But Lida seems unswayed. When it comes down to it, she says, she thinks that Yushchenko is going to die. And she really, really hates Yulia Tymoshenko, who she thinks will be Yushchenko’s successor.

We go back and forth for awhile and then she says: “The thing is, my life won’t change. I’ll still be living here when I’m 30, whoever’s president. My husband and I still won’t be able to get our own place.” Lida has already been married for two years, and her husband, a trolley-bus operator, often spends the night with her at her parent’s apartment in Poznyakyy. He often, however, doesn’t; because of the long and late hours that he has to work, he is forced to stay with his parents, who live much closer to his job. He is not allowed to drive the trolley-bus to Lida’s place, apparently.

I returned to Poznyakyy a week into the Orange Revolution. Tanya set an elaborate table for lunch, and we watch the proceedings of the Ukraine Supreme Court, which is hearing the special case about the falsifications of the second tour. None of them have spent much time in the Maidan. Ihor went by after work one day and says that he leaves it to the people, the narod, to do the demonstrating. Lida has not been at all. Yet they are glued to the television, every one of them, hooting when a particular scandalous violation is presented. It’s clear that they’re all captivated, though not necessarily along partisan lines, with what is happening in their country. I ask Lida at one point who she will vote for if indeed there is a third tour. Now, she says, she’ll have to think about it.

II. I switch topics

I came to Ukraine four months ago on a Fulbright grant to research political exile in the Soviet Union. It’s a topic that I have some connections to. My grandmother was one of many Western Ukrainians deported by Stalin after the war. My mother was born in the Urals, and lived there until she was 13, when she, along with her mother and one of her sisters, immigrated to Cleveland.

So that was my topic, but then the revolution happened. Now I’m focusing on Ukrainian dissent more generally. It’s not a complete switch, because the experiences that people like my grandmother endured, people that still live in this country and call it home, very much influence what’s happening in this country now. You only need to go to one rally in L’viv, where the white-haired, gold-teethed babushkas and grandfathers are as numerous as the student contingent, to know where the opposition movement has its backbone. These people kept the idea of a Ukrainian independent state alive throughout the Soviet Union, and began to work for its very existence twenty years ago.

III. I love L’viv

L’viv has often been called little Paris, or Krakow’s younger sister. You can sort of see it. L’viv has long, winding, incomprehensible streets like the Marais in Paris. It also has three-story Austo-Hungarian buildings and a big castle, or at least the remains of one, like Krakow. But it also has dumpsters overflowing with trash around almost every corner, and the distinct smell of sewage in the air. Unlike Paris and Krakow, L’viv does not have a river. Its city planners buried it a couple of centuries back, and built the city’s main street on top of it. Now the city suffers chronic water shortages (most of the population only has water six hours a day). And the water shortage may have something to do with ubiquitous smell of sewage in the air.

In short, L’viv is much poorer than Paris or Krakow, or even Kyiv or many other big Ukrainian cities. Yet it is ideologically robust. L’viv has been the traditional bastion of Ukrainian culture and nationalism, and its inhabitants almost uniformly supported Yushchenko in the first and second rounds. Western Ukraine has strong ties to Europe; it was only incorporated into Russia’s domain during the Second World War. It’s not entirely a story of darkness and light: the extreme elements of the Ukrainian nationalist movement are centered here, too, people who want Ukraine”for Ukrainians.” But for the moment, their only palpable presence is in the neo-Fascist graffiti found all over the city, even on the plaque marking the site of L’viv’s main synagogue, which was mostly destroyed by the Nazis in 1942. They don’t stage rallies or try to burn anything down.

On the other hand, the student opposition group allied with Yushchenko, Pora (“it’s time”), is very active in L’viv, as it is in many Ukrainian cities. Pora regularly holds rallies throughout Ukraine, stages concerts for liberty, and after the first round of elections constructed a “barricade” around the Soviet monolith of Ivan Franko, the 19th century Ukrainian philosopher and thinker, which faces the façade of L’viv National University. The barricade, which grew over the coming weeks, was constructed mostly of broken furniture. It didn’t really obstruct traffic or keep anyone from doing anything, but it was a barricade, and the students proudly manned it 24 hours a day, passing the time by waving Ukrainian flags, drinking beer and playing the guitar. Possibly they fell in love. There’s a lot of downtime in a revolution.

Just before the run-off, I visited L’viv’s Pora headquarters in the basement apartment in the center of the city. It was just what I imagined a student opposition movement’s headquarters would be like. A lanky blue-eyed Slav with a cigarette dangling from his lips stood guard at the door. The apartment was full of smoke, loud Ukrainian pop music, and college students lounging around on uncovered mattresses or portable refrigerators that held bottles of carbonated water and beer. It was incredibly hot. I was immediately offered a cigarette by a group of teenagers critiquing Pora posters that would be pasted around the city to raise awareness about the movement. I refused. A black-haired girl with multiple piercings passing by asked me somewhat condescendingly if I wanted to risk my life. The student who escorted me in snorted and told her that I was an American. As if that answered the question!

The back room was a forest of cables and wires. Petro, a third-year history student at the National University of L’viv, was the only one there, and he was staring attentively at a computer screen. Dissidence in Ukraine has grown, he explained, because the conditions have gotten worse and the organization better. He appears to be right. Even though respectable polling agencies say that Yanukovych does have a significant amount of legitimate support, the presence of his supporters was negligible during the Orange Revolution. Lida did not go out onto the Maidan to defend her vote for Yanukovych. On the other hand, Pora has active chapters in every oblast in Ukraine, even those in the East and the South. During the Orange Revolution, students from Luhansk, Donetsk, Odesa and the Crimea all camped out on the Maidan. There’s still a sizable Yushchenko tent city, in Dniperpetrovsk, another Eastern town, and it’s even larger than the one in L’viv.

IV. Christmas in Kyiv

Yesterday was the last day for legal campaigning, so Yanukovych threw a big rally for his supporters in Kyiv. He had a pretty good turn-out. The major anxiety is that he’ll be able to round up a couple of thousand people who will cause trouble in Kyiv after the elections. He’s already said that he’s prepared to reject the election results.

Yushchenko led a rally here on Wednesday night in the Maidan, and a lot of people came. The opposition has called on the people to return to the Maidan tomorrow to defend their choice. They probably will. And the tent city is still going strong. But as for today, not much is really going on. Some people have taken to celebrating Christmas according to the Roman calendar, so they’re inside with their families. But I suspect things might heat up in the coming days.

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