Inside Ukraine’s revolution
A Q&A with SCM editor Steven Boyd Saum and writer Andrey Kurkov
Steven Saum: Good evening and welcome to tonight’s literary event at Schloss Elmau, for a look "Inside Ukraine’s Revolution" with writer Andrey Kurkov. We’re here to talk about a series of events that began three months ago with mass protests in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and arguably became a defining struggle for European identity, and not just for the 45 million people of Ukraine. But is that still the case? That’s one of the questions we’ll address tonight.
In the last couple of days that struggle has led to the greatest violence in the country’s history since independence, and with more bloodshed today. My name is Steven Saum. I’m the editor of Santa Clara Magazine in Santa Clara, California. I previously directed the Fulbright Program in Ukraine and worked with scholars all around the country, and then served as editor-in-chief of the largest public affairs forum in the United States, The Commonwealth Club of California.
Tonight it’s really my distinct pleasure to host a conversation with Andrey Kurkov, who brings a breadth and depth of insight to the topic that we have before us. And we’ll get into discussing what has lately become truly tragic events in Kyiv and across Ukraine. Andrey Kurkov is a critically acclaimed novelist and essayist whose works include 14 novels and 5 children’s books as well as screenplays and many, many essays. He’s known for his prescient and darkly funny observations of post-Soviet life, as well as Soviet life.
Another way of putting it is this: that he’s a writer who has a tremendous sense of the sweep of history, as well as an incredible eye for the telling details of everyday life. He writes in Russian; his work’s been translated into more than 30 languages, and his novels include Death and the Penguin, The Case of the General’s Thumb, and most recent in English, The Gardener from Ochakov. He’s been a juror for the International Berlin Film Festival and the Mann Booker Prize, as well as writer in residence at Innsbruck University in Austria.
Now, it’s important to note that not everyone finds Andrey Kurkov’s fiction amusing. His novel The President’s Last Love, which includes the tale of a president of Ukraine who’s poisoned by rivals—and was published before the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, where that happened to one of the presidential candidates—subsequently brought a visit from a couple of generals of the Ukrainian Secret Service. That novel also, because of its depiction of Russian President Vladimir Putin—again, this is a novel that was published before the Orange Revolution but looked forward to a couple of years from now—was imagining Vladimir Putin still leading Russia. That novel put Andrey Krukov on the blacklist in Russia and got his books removed from bookstores throughout Russia.
Originally scheduled to join us tonight was Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian journalist and the co-founder of Hromadske TV, an internet broadcaster in Kyiv. She founded the television station just as protests began in Ukraine in November 2013, but the fact that travel restriction itself has become an issue is something that we’re going to talk about tonight. It’s something that’s important as part of the crisis as we’re talking about Ukraine’s connection to the rest of the world and what people understand both outside of Ukraine and within Ukraine about what’s happening.
For tonight’s program we’ll begin with a conversation, with me asking some questions of Andrey Kurkov, and then we’d like to open it up to questions from the audience as well.
Andrey, so again, welcome. The title that we’ve given to tonight’s program is “Inside Ukraine’s Revolution.” You’ve watched protests in your neighborhood, almost steps from your house, from the time they began in November: peaceful, violent, then peaceful once again, now tragically violent. You’re a writer with a sharp sense of the way that words and ideas matter. Is it still right to talk about this as a revolution?
Andrey Kurkov: Good evening. I think from probably 19th of January, yes, it is a revolution, and I would go back to Orange Revolution times first, because I am quite often asked whether it is the same situation and whether it is possible to compare the two periods. I always say that they have practically nothing in common, because the Orange Revolution was organized by the opposition leaders. There was wonderful logistics, everything was well prepared, and strangely enough the danger of violence was much greater in 2004. But the president at that time, Leonid Kuchma, understood the consequences. And in the end, the leaders of the opposition—there were only two leaders, Tymoshenko and Yushchenko, and Tymoshenko agreed that she would just support Yushchenko. So the Orange Revolution succeeded, but unfortunately with not so many positive results. Today’s president, Viktor Yanukovych is the unfortunate result of this revolution.
Five years of democratic government [with Yushchenko as president] left, I would say, the country in a worse state regarding corruption and its moral state than it was during Kuchma’s time—which wasn’t considered a good one. Because of the feud between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko, during the presidential elections in 2010, when Yushchenko got really less of a percentage of the votes than the radical nationalists, then he asked his supporters not to support anybody, and especially not to support Tymoshenko, who got into the second round of elections. So, actually, Yushchenko is partially responsible for Yanukovych becoming the president.
The protests that started on Nov. 21, 2013, in Ukraine were not organized by the opposition, and they had nothing to do with politics in the beginning. The first people who came out onto the streets were the students in western Ukraine, in L'viv, and then in Kyiv, who protested against a non-signing by Yanukovych of the European Trade Accession Agreement. For days and days the students were allowed to protest in many cities in western and central Ukraine. Even the rectors of the universities allowed students either to take time off their studies for the protests, or like in Uzhghorod—there are two universities in Uzhghorod—the rectors said that they could protest, there is a place in front of the local government administration building, but they could do it only after studies. At that time I was traveling around western Ukraine and I was coming and listening to all these speeches.
L'viv is sort of the capital of western Ukraine. I think it is the cultural capital of Ukraine, because people are much more cultured there, better educated, and much more European. There, after 2010 or 2012, in the parliamentary elections, three regions of western Ukraine became the stronghold of the radical nationalistic Ukrainian political party Svoboda, which meant that the local regional councils had a majority of deputies representing this force. L'viv has always ben over-politicized. And suddenly, when the students started protesting there and organized their own sort of Maidan place of protest, they were not letting the nationalist politicians speak from their stage.
Once, actually, the deputy Mickhalchishin—who is one of the most almost fascist politicians represented in this political force—he managed to go out on the stage. He addressed the students, and he asked them to become the victims in the war against Yanukovych and Russia. He was almost pushed away from the stage by the students. Then he immediately announced that these protests are orchestrated by Yanukovych, by President’s Yanukovych’s administration; they’re fake protests because they’re not political.
Then the protests in Kyiv became more active, and the students were joined just by people from Kyiv, because Kyiv also is an intellectual center, a city with almost 5 million inhabitants. And on Nov. 29, 2013, suddenly Yanukovych decided that he had enough of protests. He went to Vilnius, but he didn't sign anything. Instead, he already had an agreement with Putin that he would get $15 billion needed for the empty budget, from Russia. He was going home when the protests were really becoming much more active.
I will try to answer in a more short way...
Steven Saum: But I think it is important—
Andrey Kurkov: It’s important to say that, actually, Yanukovych and his team—his politicians and all the guys who surround them—they have nothing to do with Kyiv. There are no people from Kyiv or from western Ukraine in this group of people. They represent only two regions in the east of the country. The region is called Donbas and consists of two official administrative regions, Luhansk region and Donetsk region.
Yanukovych's minister of police, Zakharchenko, promised him that the main square of Kyiv will be cleared of protest by his return from Vilnius. So at four o'clock in the morning, when there were several hundred protestors spending the night and talking on Maidan, hundreds of riot police in full gear attacked them in a very violent way. The students were beaten up; dozens of them were arrested. They were running up the streets to the upper town, which is 300, 400 meters away—the territory of ancient Kyiv. Monks from St. Michael’s Monastery opened the gates for them, and they rushed in and barricaded themselves inside.
In the morning, when it became clear that there was blood on the streets—nobody was killed, but it was already a shock for Kyiv, because Kyiv is middle class town—nobody expected anything like that to happen, not talking about the shoot-outs and the corpses on the streets.
And then almost half-a-million of Kyivites reoccupied the street, the main square, and started the protests again. The explanation of the night attack of these riot police was first given by the deputy mayor. (Kyiv doesn’t have a mayor already for two years; it is a separate story.) The explanation was that the protestors were not letting the city council people install a Christmas tree. And the Christmas tree was never properly installed. So this is the beginning of the events.
Steven Saum: I think you’re someone, as I mentioned in the introduction, who is sometimes sadly prescient in your writing—because the absurdity factor that’s at play with that explanation is kind of beyond belief. Can you unpack that for a moment: You talked about the Donbas region—Donetsk and Luhansk. One of the clichés that’s often used in talking about Ukraine, and what these protests are about, who supports them or who doesn’t support them is, “Oh, it’s the Ukrainian-speaking west and it’s the Russian-speaking east, and they’ll never get along.” Can you help the audience here understand that with a little more nuance?
Andrey Kurkov: Well, it’s much more complicated. Of course, the journalists ... I watched CNN two nights ago and I was surprised that the TV presenter said, after the reports, after the showing of all this battles with riot police: “Well, it’s the pro-Russian part of Ukraine that is fighting against pro-European,” or vice-versa.
In fact, in the first years after independence, after 1991, one could say that eastern Ukraine was more pro-Russian, but it was never completely Russian-speaking. In the big cities like Luhansk and Donetsk, Mykolaiv, the people who live in the cities speak Russian. In the countryside around the cities there are people who are mostly speaking Ukrainian.
The only territory in Ukraine which is still really pro-Russian—but not completely Russian-speaking—is Crimea, where Sevastopol is rented by Russia as a base for the Black Sea fleet, and where almost nobody speaks Ukrainian. But there are 300,000 or 400,000 Crimean Tatars, who were deported in 1943 by Stalin to Siberia to Kazakhstan. In 1991 they were allowed to come back, and they were resettling in the Crimea, having lots of troubles with locals. The local Russian-speaking population consists of ex-inhabitants of villages in central Russia and eastern Ukraine, who, after the deportation of the Tatars, were shipped in trainloads by Stalin to take over the houses and the property of Tatars. So you can probably understand that it is very easy to spark a real fight there, and there is always a danger that Crimea can become a battle zone.
Steven Saum: And it’s not part of Ukraine in terms of its historical identity, since it was given by Khrushchev to Ukraine.
Andrey Kurkov: Yes, in 1954. Ukraine was, I would say, the source for the top communist party managers for years and years. Out of six general secretaries of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, three were from Ukraine. The most famous are Brezhnev, of course, and Khrushchev. Ukraine joined the Russian Empire in 1654, so to celebrate 300 years anniversary of this reunification, in 1954 Ukrainian Nikita Khrushchev gave, formally, Crimea as present to Ukraine. So for many Russians, Crimea is still Russian territory; and for people who live in Sevastopol—I mean, they don’t recognize Ukrainian flags. Once you are in the public transport, every driver will have a Russian flag on his front window.
Steven Saum: When I was living in Ukraine in the 1990s, Crimea was still on Moscow time. They kept the clocks following Moscow.
Andrey Kurkov: It’s different now—they have the same time, but completely different mentality, yes.
The main difference probably is between east and west—historical difference, which influenced the mentality of people. Because western Ukraine—especially three regions of Galicia, they were taken over by Soviet forces in 1939 after Molotov and Ribbentrop signed the pact about taking territories from Poland to Germany and to the Soviet Union.
Then, of course, the war started. In 1945, Soviet forces took over the control of these territories again, and for 15 years the partisans in western Ukraine were fighting and killing communist party representatives: KGB people and teachers who were teaching Russian language, Soviet history, and communist ideology. Thousands of people were killed. Teachers were sent there just from eastern Ukraine or from Russia, and they couldn't refuse this job, so they had to go and to settle and try to change the approach of western Ukrainians towards Russia. Since then, the attitude there toward Russian language is very negative.
But, in independence, western Ukrainians became more tolerant, because also in L'viv there is a huge Russian-speaking community. Some of them are descendants of the KGB officers, but some of them are just Russian-speaking intelligentsia who have lived there for centuries, since the Austrian times.
Steven Saum: One of the things that I think is important for us to get into talking about tonight, and that we'll probably come at from a number of different directions, is one of the areas you’ve already touched on: with the sense of struggle, of Ukraine being pulled between Russia and the European Union. Can you talk about what the Russian perspective is on this as well? And touch on some of the things that have been said today: We have the foreign ministers of the European Union who have been visiting Kyiv today; we don’t know what the outcome is. But there have been some interesting statements from the Russian prime minister, what he’s calling for Yanukovych to be doing.
Andrey Kurkov: The relationship between Yanukovych and Putin is quite old and complex, because in 2004 during the elections, Putin supported Yanukovych as candidate—not only financially, but in Moscow there were posters with “Vote for Yanukovych,” like he was being elected in Moscow. When the decision was not yet overturned about Yanukovych's victory, Putin phoned him twice to congratulate on becoming the president, which made later a laughing stock of Putin. There were lots of jokes about it.
Then Putin was very bitter about Yanukovych. But Yanukovych probably kept thinking that Putin was supporting him. And in 2010, when Yanukovych became the president, in his program he was promising closer ties with Russia, more trade, and almost sort of reunification—economic reunification rather than administrative.
One of Yanukovych's first decrees when he became the president: He signed the promulgation treaty for the Russian Black Sea fleet bases for 25 years, until 2042. Putin, in exchange, promised to lower gas prices and to speed up economic cooperation. The gas prices didn’t go down, so this was the first sort of blow against Putin. Then Putin started showing his disrespect for Yanukovych quite publicly.
One of the reasons was that Yanukovych created his political party, Party of Regions, on the model of Putin’s party, United Russia. He was trying to create a one-party system where an opposition doesn’t exist. By doing this, in Russian-speaking areas, he suppressed Russian parties, pro-Putin parties, which were small and were funded by Putin. These kind of Russian political parties exist now only in Crimea, but they are very small, they are not active, and they are still taking money from Kremlin.
There was another political party called Rodina, Motherland, in Odessa, where the head of the party—and this was also a pro-Russian party—was sort of forced or blackmailed into joining Yanukovych’s party, and he became the member of the parliament in Party of Regions. Six months ago he was arrested, probably for his pro-Russian activities, and he’s still in prison. So this is one of the reasons.
Yanukovych was still hoping that Russia would help Ukraine and him, whatever happens. The first public shame he suffered from Putin was when his scheduled meeting with Putin in Crimea, as president, Yanukovych was waiting for four hours for Putin to arrive. Putin, instead of going directly to Yanukovych, went to visit some Russian bikers who were camping near Sevastopol, and he spent almost four hours with them. Then he visited Yanukovych for 15 minutes and went on to spend the night with his best friend in Ukraine, sort of a small oligarch and politician, Medvedchuk, who was very important in Kuchma’s time. Medvedchuk was head of the presidential administration in 2001 when there was a famous case of the murder of the journalist Gongadze.
Steven Saum: That actually led to protests in Kyiv. It did not lead to a revolution. But I think one of the things that’s helpful is to understand, in terms of the protests that began in the fall of 2013, this is not the first time that people have rallied by the hundreds or thousands—or hundreds of thousands—in Ukraine.
Andrey Kurkov: Sorry, I didn't explain one more thing. (I will not be able to explain everything, it is impossible!) But what is important to know: As I said, western Ukraine, including Bukovina, which used to be part of Romania, they were only 45 years under the Soviet rule. After independence, they had almost no representatives in the government or in the parliament. There is a very small chance that a person from there, a politician from there, can become president of Ukraine. So they were ignored. They were treated, sometimes publicly, as second-class citizens—and the leading politicians from the ruling party in the recent months, publicly on TV and in interviews, they were addressing western Ukrainians as uneducated peasants.
At the same time, western Ukraine is much more cultured than eastern. More than 60 or 70 percent of books sold in Ukraine are sold in western Ukraine. At the same time, eastern Ukraine has many more prisons and camps than western Ukraine, and they have a higher percentage of population who have spent time in prison—including President Yanukovych, who was twice imprisoned as a young man and spent several years in prison for criminal offenses.
Steven Saum: So who is Yanukovych? Talk about him as a personality.
Andrey Kurkov: Well, he doesn’t have a personality. It’s difficult to start with. He has a biography. He comes from a very poor family, from the mining town of Yenakiieve, near Donetsk. As a young man, he got into troubles physically, and I don’t know exactly the details of his arrests, but he was arrested and sent to prisons twice; there was a third case against him, but it was dropped. Then he started making a career in Soviet business. He became the head of the garage of a transport company, and he worked happily there as the head.
The people who live in this area, they are quite different from people around in other regions. A lot of people there, they were resettled from Russia or from other parts of Ukraine when the mines were developed. This is an area of mines and big factories. To this day you cannot find a lot of small businesses there. It’s all huge, it’s all still Soviet. And people are used to being told by their bosses what to do to receive their guaranteed salaries, and to be paid for being passive.
Yanukovych was supported by the richest man in Ukraine, who comes from this region, the oligarch Akhmetov. Akhmetov pushed him to the position of local governor. When he was governor of Donetsk, he was definitely accepted there by the population. There were rumors at the same time that he was very tough: If he’s not happy with [subordinates], he just beats them up. And if he’s happy, the [subordinates] can find, suddenly, in the pocket of their coat, $1,000 in bank notes. This is the kind of image which was created in Ukraine.
He’s physically very tough. Officially he’s professor of economics. He cannot spell the word professor.
Steven Saum: He’s an author also, isn’t he?
Andrey Kurkov: Well, nobody saw the books. He doesn’t understand what is acceptable and what is not acceptable at all in civilized society, including in Ukraine. In 2011 and 2012 he declared for the [tax] customs that he was paid not by the publishing house but by the Printworks in Donetsk, royalties of $2 million each year, for the books he never wrote. So this was some kind of legalized bribe from somebody in his region. When the journalists started asking to see the books, suddenly Printworks burned down, apparently together with the works by President Yanukovych.
With such a personality and biography, he wasn’t of course acceptable either in western Ukraine or in Kyiv. And Kyiv, during the parliamentary elections and during presidential elections, voted against him and his party as the result. When it was time for Kyiv to have elections in local councils and for its mayor, the mayoral elections were abandoned; the parliament decided, through different legal procedures, that Kyiv doesn’t have to have a mayor. And local councils were abolished, so Kyiv doesn’t have local deputies, except city council—which also was not reelected, because otherwise the opposition would take power there.
So Kyiv is very bitter about Yanukovych, because generally it looks like occupation of the city by a foreign power. He brought not only with himself to Kyiv but everywhere people from his own region. And the history in western Ukraine has been repeated, which is why western Ukraine is so adamant about this party. Because in 1945 all the middle-ranking and high-ranking bosses in every small district or region of western Ukraine were replaced with people from Moscow or from Kharkiv—by Russian-speaking people, communists who were practically trying to control every tiny bit of public and private life.
And now, starting from 2010, all these posts of local police bosses, customs officers, etc., were replaced again by people from the Donetsk region. So it looked and it felt like occupation. These people were behaving the same way as the Soviet KGB officers who were sent in 1945 to settle in L'viv and to take everything under control. They were coming to L'viv, choosing which house they would like to live in, and then checking if they can buy this flat and move [out the family living there].
I have many friends there in L'viv. One of the businesspeople said that immediately when the new 28-year-old boss of city customs arrived from Donetsk, he started inviting the businesspeople and saying that you are importing containers with building materials, so now you have to bring me $5,000 for each container, apart from official tax.
What we have now—this riot against the party and its leader—is caused by this kind of behavior. There was a wonderful joke immediately circulating in Kyiv about the situation: That people in Donetsk are afraid to go out in the streets because once they’re out, they’re immediately captured by somebody and appointed local bosses in western Ukraine.
Steven Saum: So Kyiv has been the epicenter for what’s been happening. Of course, the protests have not been restricted to Kyiv—but the last couple of days, certainly the greatest violence has been there. Can you help folks here understand what have been the most important events—if we’re talking about transportation, if we’re talking about the shooting, if we’re talking about the police taking the Maidan and protestors then taking it back.
Andrey Kurkov: Well, the most remarkable thing about the Maidan and Kyiv is that people who live in Kyiv immediately agreed that the main street of the country, Khreshchatik, and the main square, are not transportation streets any more. They became the settlement of protestors. And Kyivites started helping the protestors. So the protestors, until now, have gotten more than they needed. I don't know about today, but generally food was taken to them. The Kyivites would bring wood from outside Kyiv for their stoves for heating, because all these huge tents, they have heating systems, they have wood-burning stoves, they have electrical generators. So people from Kyiv are bringing petrol for these generators. My wife and I were buying food, mostly buckwheat and things which can easily be cooked—as were thousands of others just circulating there.
In the daytime, actually, until the latest violence, you could see lots of families with kids visiting the protests. There was, for two months, an open university working on Maidan, and people were lecturing on anything. The lectures were by the inhabitants of these protest tents who are mostly from central and western Ukraine. They are not [necessarily] very clever or very educated, but they learned there how to talk politics, how to discuss everything. They came very emotional. Very often they are people from the small towns and from villages, they are real patriots.
Yanukovych told recently in an interview that the protests were started and run by "romantics" who believe that Ukraine can become a better state. These people were definitely romantics, but very quickly this settlement of protests received a very unusual help from Kyivites, some kind of cavalry, which is called Auto Maidan. Activists from Kyiv with their cars, they started supporting Maidan. They were organizing car raids to the ministries, blockage of the road to the villa of Yanukovych, visiting the prosecutor general’s houses, etc. The police started fighting with Maidan, and the Auto Maidan also had their victims: One of the leaders was kidnapped and kept and tortured for eight days, and now he is in Germany in one of the hospitals.
But general there was incredible tolerance from Kyivites' side. I remember when the first barricades were built on Hrushevsky Street, just three minutes' walk from Independence Square. Hrushevsky Street is the street leading to parliament and cabinet of ministers. It was blocked immediately by the police, but then police started attacking the protestors, and this area was taken over by the radicals, by the group called Pravy Sektor, the Right Sector. They started throwing Molotov cocktails at the police, because the police blocked the road with their buses and cars. The buses and cars started burning.
On the left are buildings with people living there. One of the houses caught fire. There were two ladies on the balcony, on the last floor, and the radicals let the fire brigade come and to put the fire down, but there was a lot of smoke, and these ladies were standing on the balcony with this smoke just passing by them and were shouting, “Hey, boys, is the fire already put down or not?” And they were talking to each other like neighbors for half an hour. This couldn't happen probably anywhere in eastern Ukraine.
Steven Saum: Conversely, one of the horror stories that was coming out in the last couple of days was that when people were wounded and ambulances were trying to get in after the riot police had come in, ambulances were not being allowed in to even treat people who had been shot.
Andrey Kurkov: The riot police people and their snipers, they are targeting journalists already for months and months. There were several journalists killed. Today one more journalist was killed on Maidan by sniper. But also the police wouldn't let the ambulances to come from their side. So the ambulances would have to go around the central part of Kyiv to reach the wounded on Maidan.
Steven Saum: Tell us about the journalist who was killed today.
Andrey Kurkov: He was just there with protest. Today, they say it’s up to 100 people killed on Maidan by sniper fire. And the snipers are aiming at neck always or head. There was a young volunteer nurse wounded in neck. She survived, but she’s in a very bad state. At the same time, Yanukovych says that the protestors broke the truce, stopped the truce between the riot police.
Steven Saum: There was the truce that happened right around midnight last night, but by this morning, it had clearly come to an end—and you’re saying that Yanukovych just blamed the protestors.
Andrey Kurkov: Yeah, but I keep thinking that there is also a third part to this protest. Because during the protest, lots of strange things are happening, and very often people are killed in the streets, not on Maidan but outside, not by riot police but by somebody else. Also a couple of dozen activists were kidnapped—definitely not by riot police. Some of them were thrown out in the forest when it was minus 25. One of the activists actually froze to death. He was wounded. One survived; he managed to escape, to find a village. But he said that the people who were hiding their faces, who were torturing them, they were demanding to find out who is financing Maidan, and they were speaking not a Ukrainian variant of Russian, but Russian Russian. So there is a suspicion that, actually, some Russian forces are behind the escalation, and they would like to see the full civil war.
Steven Saum: You had the prime minister of Russia saying today that the Ukrainian government needs to be one that won’t allow people to wipe their feet on it, right?
Andrey Kurkov: Yeah.
Steven Saum: That they really need to stand up—whether it’s to protestors or other governments, the United States or the European Union countries trying to influence the course of events in Ukraine.
We’ll be opening this up here for questions. We have a microphone here that folks will bring around, so if you do have a question, please raise your hand. I think we have one right here in the front. Wait until you get the microphone just so we can make sure we capture it for the recording.
Audience: I have a question about the election of Yanukovych, because you showed us a profile of a politician where you wonder why this guy was elected. For me this is a quite critical question: if he’s correctly-elected president, which more or less makes the riots incorrect or not legal; or is he an illegally-elected president, and then the riots have some legal aspect? Because what you told us about Yanukovych, we wonder why he won a majority at the end in an election which was judged as a correct election as a president?
Andrey Kurkov: Well, the results of those elections were officially recognized, but for many Ukrainians, there are lots of doubts about it. At the time, in the most politicized areas of Ukraine, the turnout for the election was 50, 53, 55 percent. The turnout in the two regions where he is supported was 95, 99 percent. Although, of course, his regions are very densely populated, much more densely than the western Ukraine, yes.
I think the protests were started from despair.
And Yanukovych behaved in a very strange way, because suddenly in September he changed his policy from pro-Russian into pro-European. He officially accepted the state documents that from now on Ukraine is moving toward future full membership in European Union, but we will start with the accession treaty. Even people who hated him started saying that "Finally we are moving in the right direction!" But why did he change sides? He gathered, on Sept. 25, 2013, his deputies in the headquarters of the political party he rules, and he said that we’ve had enough lying of Putin; we have an empty budget. (Actually, the country today owes more than $70 billion. And the December pensions to Ukraine pensioners were paid with the first $3 billion received from Putin.) But he was thinking that the European Union would help Ukraine to get out from what's practically a state of default. The IMF was not going to give any more money until the conditions they demand are fulfilled, and the conditions were to raise the electricity and gas prices for the population. Of course Yanukovych didn't want to do it before the presidential election in 2015, so he was just, I would say, subconsciously looking for ways out of the economic crisis.
But I agree, for the West, he is a legitimately elected president, yes. But at the same time, what makes him illegitimate in the eyes of many Ukrainians is that during three years he practically privatized Ukraine. One of his sons became one of the 10 richest people in Ukraine. He controls the legal system completely. The judges don’t need to discuss the sentence if it is about politicians or regarding protestors. They are sent an already-printed text to read during the court proceedings. So people don’t believe in justice any more. They don’t believe that you can run normal business. The corruption has probably never been as high as now. So for Ukrainians, Yanukovych is not legitimate because of this; he is considered, actually, a criminal.
Steven Saum: When you were talking about the European Union Accession Agreement, one of the criticisms that was made on the macro level, when Yanukovych decided at the last minute not to sign the accord, was that the EU seemed to be offering plenty of sticks but there wasn’t much in the way of carrots for Ukrainians. That was one of the criticisms. But I would also like to hear you talk some more about—because I think it’s an interesting follow-up to that—about the oligarchs beyond Yanukovych’s inner circle who did or do want Ukraine to have greater rule of law, which would presumably come with closer alignment with the European Union.
Andrey Kurkov: The first generation of oligarchs included Akhmetov, Pinchuk, Kolomoisky. They became rich in the mid-1990s and were supporting the president, Kuchma, and not interfering in politics. Then one of them decided to help his compatriot from Donetsk to become the president. At some point it was clear that Yanukovych was not happy to have all these influential oligarchs around him. He wanted to be independent from them, so he started creating his own oligarchy. Because the ones like Akhmetov, Pinchuk, and Kolomoisky are already integrated in the European economy. They have their shares on sale in London, in New York. They have property abroad, they have businesses abroad. So they obviously wouldn’t support a president if he does completely something illegal.
Then Yanukovych brought his own oligarchs from Donetsk and helped them to become powerful, practically with budget money, because of course there is a state order, and all the orders to build something or to buy something were given only to people from this circle. Then the last thing he did, which outraged a lot of people: He appointed a 28-year-old former courier, Kurchenko, as a new oligarch who was given the right to monopolize the sale of bottled gas. Somehow officially now he is one of the richest men in Ukraine.
Yanukovych was doing this in order to create his own financial circle. He had problems with the older oligarchs; the oligarch Kolomoisky, he lives now in Switzerland. He doesn’t come home any more. He owns the biggest bank in Ukraine, PrivatBank, which has some problems now. But Yanukovych obviously wanted to take away from him several big factories and metal works, and I think he managed to do that. He helped to bankrupt his air company, Aerosvit, and then Kolomoisky threatened to destroy his own bank, PrivatBank, which would mean financial collapse for the country. The other older-generation oligarchs are still in Ukraine but they are keeping distance from Yanukovych.
Audience: I’ve got two questions for you, please. The first question is, would you agree based on what you’ve said earlier, that with Russian influence in Ukraine at the moment, that the more the West, particular America, tries to intervene, the tighter the grip of Russia, particularly Putin, will be on Ukraine? And second, what you describe is a very corrupt society, not the society as a whole, but a very corrupt skeleton in the society that makes it almost impossible to have structural reforms. How do you think the West can help, and do you think the West actually has any appetite to help, because this is such an enormous problem?
Andrey Kurkov: Ukraine is a huge chunk geopolitically. The territory is bigger than France or Germany. And of course Putin will never agree to Ukraine joining any forces which are considered in Russia as anti-Russian forces. That’s true. Europe is not really very much interested in Ukraine. Ukraine has two advocates in the European Union—Poland and Lithuania, which are not very influential, but they were very noisy, very active, and they were the driving force for the Vilnius Summit, for all the preparations. Then, when the treaty was not signed and the protests began—and after Jan. 19, 2014, when the first real bloodshed happened—the visits of European politicians to Kyiv looked more like decorative visits just to show Europe that Europe cares, not to do something, because there were no results after the first visit of Štefan Füle and some other European politicians.
America was much more engaged, of course. Victoria Nuland made news with the telephone conversation tapped by Russians obviously, with the American ambassador in Ukraine, where practically she said the truth about the real lack of desire on the European side to influence the situation much.
Steven Saum: In terms of the corruption, maybe if you can follow up on that.
Andrey Kurkov: Corruption is a really huge issue now. There is only one hope that the new generation, I mean, the students who are now 20, 22, 23 years old—they hate this corruption. They are the people who were born after the Soviet Union. They are traveling a lot. I give lectures often in the universities all around Ukraine. In fact, the students in the east of the country are not much different from the students in the west. They have completely contemporary view and understanding of things.
But what Europe could do: There is an issue of visa-free travel which was sort of promised by Europe for Ukrainian citizens. Visa-free travels will become a reality for Moldovans from May 1, 2014, because Moldova is about to sign the treaty [with the EU]. But Russia is doing everything possible now to stop that, also, because Russia has an influence on Transnistria; and there is a tiny enclave, Gagauzia, an autonomous republic where, with Russian help, a referendum was organized on whether to join the European Union or customs union with Russia. I don't know how many thousands of people live there, but they voted to join Russia, and they are inside Moldova.
Steven Saum: And there are still Russian troops there, in the breakaway Transnistria region, on the border.
Andrey Kurkov: It’s not only troops. Actually, it’s the 14th Soviet Army. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, they decided to stay there, and they settled there. So you have a republic populated by the army and families, including soldiers etc.
Audience: How would you advise the opposition [in Ukraine] to move forward to avoid the failings of the first revolution in 2004?
Andrey Kurkov: Well, the opposition is quite hopeless in Ukraine. The opposition caught up with the protests probably two weeks after the protests began. There are three leaders of three political oppositional parties present in the parliament; they obviously couldn't agree who should be the main leader, and they were trying to say that they are equal, but they were not presenting any mutual program of actions. They had problems among themselves, because one of them, [Tyahnybok], is leader of the nationalist radical party Svoboda. Two others are more moderate. Vitali Klitschko, the boxer—he’s the least experienced, and at the moment, the most popular among them, because he’s a boxer; he’s two meters high, like Yanukovych. He made lots of mistakes when his party managed to get into the city council of Kyiv, and then he was practically betrayed by his deputies, who were voting against his decisions. There is a big problem.
And now they are not in control of the protests. Between 10 percent and 30 percent of protestors are ready to listen to what opposition has to say, but the others just don’t care. There is, of course, an issue with Tymoshenko, who is in prison.
Steven Saum: Right, so talk about the third member of the opposition.
Andrey Kurkov: Arseniy Yatsenyuk already was foreign minister and speaker of parliament. He is very experienced. He is clever. He speaks foreign languages, unlike the others. Klitschko speaks German and English, but he usually doesn’t have much to say. Again, they’re so different, and it is clear that even if they win or they manage to form a new majority in the parliament, they will not stick together for a long time.
Then comes the issue of Tymoshenko, because if the opposition wins, they should free Tymoshenko. Once she is out, she becomes the only leader of opposition. And today’s leaders of the opposition will be on the second or third row, and the parliament will not play any important role.
Steven Saum: The idea of Tymoshenko coming out of prison and there being political payback has also seemed like one of the real problems in trying to find some kind of resolution where Yanukovych might agree to early elections, where Yanukovych might agree to move from the political stage—because he turned the political arena in Ukraine into something that it hadn’t been. And then it would be his turn to be on the other side.
Andrey Kurkov: He will be, yes. Because Tymoshenko is a fighter, and for her the war is more important than creating something. She was arrested for the first time in 2001, after she was vice prime minister responsible for energy in Yushchenko’s government with President Kuchma. And after spending two or three weeks in prison, she became a real politician. Before that she was not. But then she was driven by the desire to take revenge on Kuchma, and she tried different ways to take him to court or to imprison him, or to fight against people who surround him, including the oligarch Pinchuk, who is his son-in-law. Now if she’s out, she will be practically spending her time fighting with Party of Regions with Yanukovych and trying to imprison or to punish all of them.
Steven Saum: When the members of the opposition met with international leaders at the Munich Security Conference, it was Petro Poroshenko and not Oleg Tyahnyobok who was among the three from the opposition. Can you talk about Poroshenko and his role?
Andrey Kurkov: He was an active player in the Orange Revolution. He was helping Yushchenko to become president. He was doing lots of things physically himself—like when he and Yushchenko arrived on a plane to Donetsk, the Donetsk politicians and people padlocked the exits from the airport, and Tymoshenko, with a hammer, was breaking the doors. Of course, he’s a very rich man. He’s also an oligarch—not as rich as others, because he’s involved in production. He has several sweets factories—chocolate factories—and bus factories, including on Russian territory. And because of this he was punished regularly during the last two years by Putin. So his products were banned by different Russian services, and now he's had to close down one factory in the east of Ukraine, because Russia blocks his exports again.
He is a moderate person. He is not radical. He is acceptable for many Ukrainians because he has a very good reputation from the Orange Revolution. He is acceptable partially by the east because he is a Russian speaker, and because he looks like somebody very modest who never says anything radical or never tries to promote himself.
Audience: This question actually could be for both of you if time permits. There are so many details and names of different players within this—what is sometimes being called a "revolution" and sometimes being called a "protest," and I would just like to know from either of you: What is a revolution? And is it a protest? And, if we’re going to continue: You had mentioned the Orange Revolution, but things ended up being the same and, in some spheres, worse. What is it when we call something a "revolution," perhaps in a more general aspect? Because it seems as though a revolution has some idealistic qualities to it, but if it’s leaderless, is there a revolution of ideologies? Is there a revolution of ways in which people are interacting in community? In what way is it an actual revolution, as opposed to a protest or an outletting of anger or being vindictive?
Andrey Kurkov: Well, I would say that protests are usually aimed at forcing the government or the president to change things, and revolution aims at changing the government and changing the president, including a legitimate president. The Orange Revolution was called a revolution, but it was generally the protest against falsifications during the elections. But it did change the government, it did change the president.
What we have today probably is not really 100 percent classical revolution, because there is no one leader who can say something to the protestors and they will listen. There are lots of groups, including radical groups, which have their own commanders, and they decide what to do. The radicals want also to take part in roundtable talks with the president. Only the president doesn’t hold any talks. A couple of times he organized for TV roundtable talks with fake representatives of students and people from his own party without inviting opposition leaders.
So I think, for the people in Ukraine, it’s pleasant and reassuring to say and that they are participants of the revolution now, because they hope that the outcome will be as after every normal revolution.
Steven Saum: So to follow up on that, and the question about the Orange Revolution, how we understand that: How important is what’s happening now in Ukraine in terms of the broader sweep of history? Where would you put this?
Andrey Kurkov: It was already very important for Bosnia, because recent protests in Bosnia started after the Ukrainian protests. And the fact that the president of Bosnia is arrested now—it was almost not reported on Ukrainian TV, not to give much hope. But I think whatever the result—I think the influence will be quite incredible.
Austria, for example, and Germany, have huge investments in eastern Ukraine. Eastern Ukraine has a special relationship with Austria, and lots of rich members of parliament from the Party of Regions have business and property in Austria. That’s why, for Austrians, it probably can be painful now to discuss these facts.
When European Union leaders announced today the sanctions, and the fact that they’re going to investigate the foreign accounts of Ukrainian political figures from this Yanukovych camp, it will mean investigating the accounts for Kluyev, for example—the second man in command—in Austrian banks. Kluyev is head of the administration of Yanukovych now. When he opened his businesses recently, and his accounts in Austria, he wrote that he is not a public figure and he is not involved in politics. The representatives of the bank said that it was his genuine mistake. In fact, the bank supported its clients. But I think with these sanctions, of course, the answer may be different.
Steven Saum: So we were talking about Austria right before the program this evening, and about an airplane that was flying to Austria ... Can you talk about that?
Andrey Kurkov: There was news this morning that Austrian air traffic control banned a private jet from Ukraine from landing in Austria; it was turned away. The ex-prime minister of Ukraine, Azarov—who resigned 10 days ago—the first thing he did after resignation, he went to Austria, where his family lives, where his son has businesses, etc. Austria has a special relationship with Ukraine because part of Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. But, somehow, the business relationships Austria has are not with this part of Ukraine but with more sort of post-Soviet part of Ukraine. Strangely enough, in Kuchma’s time, the close ties, including illegal ties, were more often between Switzerland and Ukraine, but now actually Switzerland is not mentioned at all.
Steven Saum: In the introduction I mentioned the closing of transport around Kyiv. Put that in context, and help people understand what has happened over the last couple of days.
Andrey Kurkov: For two days metro was shut in Kyiv, which meant that people couldn't get anywhere, because the city is huge; it’s 40 kilometers from one end to another. And tonight, as we are talking, the road leading to Boryspil International Airport is blocked by citizens who are going to stop parliamentary deputies from the Party of Regions from escaping the country, from taking the planes. Because there was news that Airport Boryspil leaked: that six planes were specially prepared and being kept next to the runway, and they are not scheduled planes.
At the same time, the most surreal picture you can see is that the buses in Kiev are running to Maidan and back—and from two directions—every five minutes.
Steven Saum: The trolley buses.
Andrey Kurkov: Yes, there is a trolley bus and there are buses, and people from Kyiv are just going to the protest place and then taking tje bus home, so you don’t need to walk. Although from some other districts of Kyiv you have to make a long walk.
Steven Saum: And yet at the same time they’ve shut down trains and travelling from the west of Ukraine.
Andrey Kurkov: Yes, for three days the trains from western Ukraine have been stopped. The official explanation is that there was flooding and the rails were damaged—but there were no floods, of course. At the same time, the government was organizing special trains with supporters of Yanukovych to come to Kyiv from Donetsk. The trains arrived in Kyiv, but the people were not allowed out by their bosses, and the trains actually left after a half hour stop in the Kyiv station. So they are not sure, the Party of Regions—the bosses are not sure—what to do next, because the situation is changing every day.
They were hoping that Kyivites would just hide in their flats and let the riot police and snipers disperse and arrest the protestors, but among the protestors there are thousands of Kyivites—and among the killed people there are lots of people from Kyiv, not only people from western Ukraine. Also from the Donetsk region, today a person was killed.
Audience: I have a very practical question. Not only oligarchs want to leave the country. We are a Ukrainian-German couple and we live in Prague, Czech Republic. All of our family from the Ukrainian side who are young—20, 25 years old, and are highly educated and motivated—they want to leave the country. You are working together with students in Ukraine. And for some years, the two of us are working very hard to bring one after the other out of the country to study in Prague, Czech Republic. You understand the visa problems and everything else. I mean, what would you tell to these people? Because these people love the country, but they hate the system, that’s why they are leaving. They have two hearts, and at the end, always the result is, “Please help us to go out.” So what would you tell—you, who are working together with students, who should be the future of any country—what would you tell them, if they are all on their suitcases to leave? Which is, in our point of view, the reality in the country.
Andrey Kurkov: I hope the Western universities will be opening their doors for students on some kind of exchange program, so that the students wouldn't think about immigration, but would think about studies. I, myself, am married with an English lady; we have three kids. So I’m the only Ukrainian citizen in the family. We were married in London in 1988 in Gorbachev’s time, and I refused to settle in Britain. We went back to live and we are still living in the center of Kyiv. I know lots of people who don’t want to leave. But a lot of people of my generation, they want their children to go away, and they’re sending their children away. Actually, the children of all the oligarchs and all the Party of Regions members, they live in England, in America, other places. The daughter of governor of Donetsk, Mr. Shishatsky, she lives in London. Not a single politician from Yanukovych's circle sent his child or children to Moscow universities. There are no Ukrainian students in Russian universities except students from Crimea, because Russia gives money to them in order to come and to live and to study.
Audience: What does it mean for the future of the country if all the clever people are studying abroad and if all the money is in Austria and wherever—the South of France?
Andrey Kurkov: It has already meant that Yanukovych became president. And people from his party, with falsified, with fake diplomas, who never graduated from the universities, are running ministries and different administrations and becoming city council secretaries in Kharkiv, etc.
Steven Saum: Having worked in education myself in Ukraine for about four years, first teaching at a university and then directing exchange programs, I would certainly, for starters, second what Andrey said. First, you hope that international connections, one, create the possibility for students, whether it’s beginning in high school or whether it’s beginning at the universities. Certainly when I began teaching there in the mid-1990s, all the students in western Ukraine where I was, in Lutsk—everyone wanted to learn English and German, because these were going to open up the world, whether you were going to stay in Ukraine or whether you were going to be able to work internationally, because the economy was such a mess. There was the problem with the corruption, and there’s just the matter of one’s livelihood. And certainly that was a factor in the Orange Revolution as well. People have aspirations, whether it’s students who really seem to have helped lead the way in these protests at the beginning, aspiring for a normal country where there’s the opportunity to travel, and the opportunity for being rewarded for the work that you’re doing, having something to pass on to future generations. I’ve seen some of the optimism myself–and Andrey, maybe you can follow up on this–but the frustration and the optimism, and the way that that can percolate, sometimes years later, to the surprise of the students themselves. The realization of what they can achieve by uniting together, whether it’s with the Orange Revolution—where things came crashing down much harder and faster than they needed to, because of fighting amongst those who were the leaders—or what is happening now: Do you think they should be hopeful, Andrey? That’s a question.
Andrey Kurkov: They should be hopeful, of course. After the Orange Revolution we had a wave of returning young Ukrainians who worked for foreign companies, who worked and who graduated from Harvard, from Cambridge, etc., who were hoping that they would be able to be useful for their country. Some of them got jobs in different ministries, but in fact whatever they wanted to suggest was not accepted, because still Tymoshenko and Yushchenko tried to place their friends and relatives and loyal politicians in the posts where, actually, the country needed specialists and professionals.
Audience: Today in international newspapers there was raised the issue of separation of Ukraine. Can you explain some of the interests of international countries like Russia on separating Ukraine?
Steven Saum: Is that a possibility, Ukraine itself splitting apart?
Andrey Kurkov: Theoretically, yes, but I think even the politicians from Party of Regions are afraid of this. Because after the victory of Yushchenko in 2004, actually the same people, including Yanukovych, they gathered a meeting or congress of their party in a small town, Severodonetsk, on the border with Russia, and announced that they are splitting from the rest from Ukraine and they are forming a so-called Severodonetsk Republic. Immediately there was nothing after that, except that they were all questioned by police, by the secret service. They were very afraid.
In fact, Yanukovych, he is quite—what do you call it?—he was never honest, also, with Putin nor with Russia, and Russia is very bitter with him because of one important aspect: Russia tried to control Ukraine through the economy. Russian oligarchs, they are doing what Putin says. They wanted to buy the biggest plants, the biggest steel works. They wanted to take control of commercial ports in Ukraine, etc., and they were always stopped by the same oligarchs who then supported Yanukovych, because they realized that if Russian business, Russian money, comes to Ukraine, there will be no space on this territory for Ukrainian oligarchs.
The only things which Russia managed to put on the Ukrainian market is one or two banks, including Sperbank Rossii; one mobile telephone company; and they managed to buy an oil refinery near Odessa, but it never started working because of different administrative reasons. I talked with the Russian ambassador two years ago. Yanukovych was there already, and [the ambassador] was saying that Yanukovych is a liar: "He just smiles and he promises, and there is nothing delivered to the Kremlin’s table." So, of course, if Russia had any political party and their candidate in Ukraine, they would be happy to dump Yanukovych and to organize coup d’etat or whatever it takes to place their leader, a Ukrainian leader, in charge of the country.
But now, even if the country is split—well, I mean Russia will of course eat up what is there in the east, but it will mean that the local elite will have nothing to say. They will have either to be servants of Russian oligarchs and Putin, or to escape.
Audience: As a very creative and committed author, do you have a vision of Ukraine in the future? Of the future of Ukraine? A vision which is possible to be realized?
Andrey Kurkov: A wish. Ein Traum, sie weiden. Yes, I can see now that it’s impossible to have a non-coalition government in Ukraine. All the parts of Ukraine should be presented on all levels. Everybody talks about federalization as a kind of alternative to splitting of the country, but federalization probably will lead to either civil war or real disintegration of the country.
So my hope would be probably a coalition government and the president as just a symbolic figure with no power. In Ukraine, historically, it happened that always all the main problems happened because too many people wanted to become leaders at the same time. Partially we have the same situation, but we have the leader who doesn’t want to share power and who is responsible for destroying the country in order just to save himself and his control.
There are views that the post of president should be abolished. But in Ukraine also, as we saw with the prime minister Tymoshenko during Yushchenko’s time, when Yushchenko didn’t have this power, he was a symbolic figure. And because of this fight between them during three years, the country didn’t go anywhere. So there should be a dialogue, and of course the east of the country should be included and should be understood. But they should produce a new elite, a younger elite. And they should change probably their economic behavior. Because what they did to keep their voters happy: Their heavy industries and mines are receiving much higher state subsidies than anybody else. So in fact with the budget money they were feeding their voters, giving to a tiny percent of the territory the biggest chunk of the budget. So it should be stopped, of course.
Steven Saum: What you were saying about the concentration of power in the president now, that’s one of the demands that the protestors and the opposition have been making consistently: returning to the constitution of 2004 where the president wouldn’t have as much power to control things. That you would have a parliamentary democracy functioning again, one would hope.
Well, thank you very much to our audience here at Schloss Elmau, thank you very much Andrey Kurkov, thank you for the people listening on the radio and on the web. In terms of a hopeful note, what can we hope for in terms of a best outcome in the next couple days even?
Andrey Kurkov: Well, you know, I’m an inborn optimist. But in the last weeks actually I have problems with optimism. I mean the best outcome would be of course stop of clashes, and that can be achieved by promising early presidential and parliamentary elections, first of all.
Steven Saum: All right, so let’s hope. And thank you once again for joining us this evening.
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