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Everything Everywhere: A postcard from Kyiv...and Kharkiv

Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010

Statue of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko

It’s a between time in Ukraine—a country whose name itself means Borderland. Traveling here at the beginning of November, one has the sense of things being on edge once again; there’s not a sense of nervousness exactly, but more a sense of things slipping from golden autumn into gray winter, a time to hunker down. The days are still warm but they are short and there are still weeks that will grow shorter.

It’s a time I know well. I spent a few years in the 1990s in this country, teaching at a university in western Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer and then directing the Fulbright program and other academic exchanges for the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. In Ukrainian, the name of this month is Listopad, which translates as leaves fall. Indeed they do. Sometimes hope does, too.

Across the country (except for in Kyiv, which held them two years ago), local elections were held on October 31. The result? The ruling Party of Regions, headed by President Viktor Yanukovych, seems to have consolidated power further. That wasn’t a great surprise. Is it a good thing? As in much of politics, that depends on where you stand.

Yanokovych was the candidate defeated in the Orange Revolution six years ago. I came back to Ukraine for the first time in nearly a decade to serve as an election observer during that tumultuous time. A feeling of optimism swept much of the country like a tidal wave.

(Full disclosure re. my revolutionary sympathies: Sashko Polozhynsky, a Ukrainian student I knew from my days a Peace Corps volunteer, had since become a major pop star, fronting the Ukrainian band Tartak. They headlined the victory concert in Independence Square the night after the election in 2004 when the Orange coalition of Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko triumphed. Like Sashko, I was rooting for the orange wave of change. So was another former student of mine, Roman, but even before the election, he sagely quoted to me a Ukrainian proverb: “We wanted better, but it turned out the way it always does.” Indeed it did.)

The Orange coalition floundered far sooner than it should have. Blame infighting and corruption, in part. The once-vanquished Yanukovych was elected president in February. He’s promised stability and now, after Sunday’s election, further economic reform. This cheers the folks at the Wall Street Journal, who await a wave of massive liberalization. I’m more of a skeptic. I recall vividly that, back in 1994, the newly-elected Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma warmed the hearts of folks in Europe and the U.S. by talking the talk of economic reform. What Ukraine got instead was entrenched corruption, a blurring of the line where organized crime ended and government began, and a journalist’s headless body found in the woods.

It helps to remember at times like this that the national anthem of this country is “Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet.” As I write this, I’m in an apartment on Lenin Avenue in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine. I spent the day with doctors at an orphanage, Baby House No. 1, which some faculty and graduates of Santa Clara have worked with in recent years on a number of projects regarding the care of orphans and children with special needs. It’s heartbreaking, soul-stirring work. And as in politics, there is much reform needed in medicine here.

Kharkiv boasts the largest plaza in Europe, with a statue of Lenin, arm outstretched, commanding the center. Nearby is another square, with another statue, this one of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. At the statues feet are figures emblematic of the oppressed peoples of Ukraine. Those are some of their faces in the photograph above. There’s no mistaking the fierce dignity.

This weekend brings the 113th anniversary of the Great October Revolution, but that’s no longer a holiday in Ukraine. Halloween wasn’t a holiday, either, but in Kiev that didn’t stop throngs of teenagers from roaming the main boulevard, Khreschatik, some wearing little red horns and face paint.

Steven Boyd Saum, Editor, Santa Clara Magazine

 

 

 

 

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Tags: Kharkiv, Kyiv, Orange Revolution, President Viktor Yanukovych, Steven Saum, Ukraine