Ukraine's Endangered Revolution

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine, Europe's second largest country, lurches on toward democracy as an election looms that may change its course.

When Viktor Yushchenko rises each dawn to begin the longest days of his life, he stares hard in the mirror. "The president doesn't recognize himself," an aide in his inner circle confides. "For him, it's impossible to square the face in the glass with the man inside."

For millions of his compatriots, however, Yushchenko's face—bloated, pockmarked, and deeply discolored—is a fitting symbol of their long-suffering land, scarred by the past yet surviving against all odds.

For years Yushchenko bided his time. Throughout the dark era of former President Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine, a nation of 46 million in a land larger than France, devolved into a fiefdom of regional clans and robber baron oligarchs.

Reformers mounted feeble assaults on the halls of power, but the country was held captive by a criminal regime atop a foundering post-Soviet state. For Ukrainians who yearn to escape Russia's shadow and join the rest of Europe and the West, Yushchenko stood as the last great hope.

Then, almost on cue, came Yushchenko's brush with death. During the tense days leading up to the 2004 presidential election, then candidate Yushchenko fell gravely ill and had to be spirited out of the country for emergency treatment.

Austrian doctors discovered the cause of his near-fatal sickness: dioxin poisoning. Yushchenko survived, but with a disfigured face that fueled outrage at the old regime, believed by many to have ordered Yushchenko's assassination.

Instead of killing him, however, his rivals became unwitting handmaidens of his revolution.

A declaration echoed across Ukraine in the wake of Yushchenko's ascent: Ya stoyav na Maidani! It means "I stood on the Maidan," Independence Square in the heart of Kyiv. It also means, I was there, I stood up for freedom, I have a right to expect change.

During those tense wintry weeks when the old regime tried to hijack the election and the future hung in the balance, Ukrainians young and old flooded the capital, setting up a tent city on the Maidan and taking over the Kreshchatyk, Kyiv's central avenue that doubles as Ukraine's main street.

For weeks the world watched the standoff, wondering if civil war would erupt between western Ukraine, Yushchenko's stronghold, and the country's eastern half, home to most of Ukraine's eight million ethnic Russians.

It didn't happen. Surrounded by riot troops, the protesters stood their ground in peace. Their only weapons were banners, T-shirts, scarves, and balloons, all the same orange color.

The Orange Revolution was born.

Source: National Geographic excerpt