In Ukraine, History Looks Ahead

KIEV, Ukraine -- It is more than seven months since Ukraine's Orange Revolution triumphed, with the swearing in of Viktor Yushchenko as president. For many Americans, the spectacle of thousands of people camped for weeks in frigid tents in Kiev's Maidan, or Independence Square, was their first lesson that Ukraine is a nation, not some pseudo-state on Russia's rump.

Viktor Yushchenko during swearing-in ceremonies

I would have loved to have been in the United States seven months after George Washington first took the oath, in 1789. Technically speaking, Providence would have been in a different country, since Rhode Island was still refusing to ratify the Constitution. There, and up the Post Road in Attleboro, U.S.A., I imagine one would have heard a degree of griping that high hopes so recently held hadn't seemed to have changed much.

Ukraine is at roughly the same historical point in the 14th year of her independence as we were in the 14th year of ours. The very independence much of the world doubted has held. A failed confederation -- in Ukraine's case, one ruled by the squalid survivors of the old régime -- has been reformed.

Most importantly, in both countries "We, the people" spoke, were heard, and thereby put a revolutionary imprimatur on the history of their country. In our case, it was the "miracle at Philadelphia" -- the Constitution itself.

In Ukraine's case, it was the nation's refusal to accept the perpetuation by fraud of rule by a corrupt oligarchy propped up by the former imperial power's meddling leader, Vladimir Putin.

In history, Ahmed Ben Bella -- the liberator of Algeria who proved too incompetent and corrupt to govern successfully -- is a much more recurrent figure than George Washington -- the man with the bravery to be "first in war" and the humility to be "first in peace."

The jury is out on Viktor Yushchenko. To date, he has been at odds with his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, over anachronistic price controls on meat and energy, which she favors. He has been stymied by his socialist allies in Parliament, who have voted against reforms required for Ukraine to join the World Trade Organization. At times, he has seemed less than supple in dealing with these matters.

But more to the point, I think, is that he is an honest man leading a country needing (to paraphrase Jimmy Carter) nothing so much as a government that is as honest as its people. Under Mr. Yushchenko, television stations no longer go black when they offend the government.

He has preached religious, ethnic, regional and international tolerance -- reaching out to the West; visiting and receiving Mr Putin; and publicly rededicating a cemetery where Polish soldiers who died fighting Ukrainians are buried.

On my recent trip I took the pulse of the nation with a 2,000-mile tour to four of Ukraine's largest cites:

- Lviv, in the west, is a hauntingly beautiful Central European city of narrow streets and richly varied architecture of many centuries.

- Dnipropetrovsk, on the Dnieper - Ukraine's Mississippi - is a Soviet-built industrial ghetto. Throughout their empire, Soviets scarred the landscape with box-shaped buildings. But their planners did one thing right: They set these buildings off from one another with avenues bordered on both sides with wide swaths of grass and trees. The present effect in Dnipropetrovsk is of some beauty; as better buildings rise in the future, one can imagine great beauty.

- Kharkiv, in the east, and almost in Russia, is a gem: a city of fine buildings radiating from one of the world's largest cobblestone squares, which, as one reaches its edge, turns into an enormous park and urban wild.

- [Kiev] But to understand Ukraine politically in the summer of 2005, one needs to see Kiev, the national capital. The Maidan, where the revolutionists of fall and winter camped, is two wide avenues that meet to make cruciform.

These avenues are bordered by street-level sidewalks some 30 yards wide, which in turn are bordered by raised sidewalks of equal width. Only at the edge of these second sidewalks do buildings of seven to ten stories rise.

The result is one of the great places in the world for human beings to gather on foot for business or pleasure, or to pursue love or revolution. A few are still camped out to present grievances to Mr. Yushchenko, which I'm told he sometimes receives in person. But most of the thousands on the Maidan this summer resemble a "be-in" from the 1960s.

Every imaginable food and knick-knack is for sale. (There's even a chance to pose for a picture with an owl or a monkey on your shoulder.) Hundreds gather to watch break dancers, who perform day and night. It is Fourth of July and the Prague Spring rolled into one, with no Soviet Union to spoil the party!

Regardless of how Mr. Yushchenko performs, I don't think there is to be a turning back. Something essential has changed: The quickened walk of fear of the authorities, which every totalitarian state produces, has disappeared.

This summer, Ukrainians walk idly, like American teenagers at a shopping mall. "We, the people" have taken over. As it did in America in 1789, what this portends, in my opinion, is national greatness.

Source: The Providence Journal