Ukraine: Hoping without hope

Toward the end of my semester of teaching in Ukraine in 2012, I asked a graduate student whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about his wobbly country's future. He quoted the 19th-century poet Lesya Ukrainka: "I'm hoping against hope."

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I thought of those words often while watching the astonishing collapse of President Viktor Yanukovych’s government last winter and I think of them now that Ukrainians have elected a new president and are hoping for calm after six months of turmoil.

This is a land where every promising development is followed by a crushing setback. Consider the past century:

  • 1914-1922: The Austro-Hungarian Empire teeters and then collapses, offering the possibility of an independent Ukraine. Instead, the newly formed Soviet Union continues Russian dominion over the eastern part of the territory and Poland absorbs the west.
  • 1939-1945: Ukrainian nationalists pin their hopes on the Nazis driving the Soviets out of Ukraine. Instead, it's the Red Army that does the driving, with the result that those lands that had become part of southeastern Poland at the end of World War I are added to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic at the end of World War II.
  • 1991-2004: Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine becomes an independent country at last. But the transition to a privatized economy is so badly managed that a rabbi I met in Lviv recalls going into shops where the only things on the shelves were "a left shoe, a rotten potato and a shmata."
  • 2004-2010: Yanukovych's blatant attempt to steal the presidential election from opponent Viktor Yushchenko draws millions of orange-clad protesters into Kyiv and forces the nation's Supreme Court to invalidate the results. In a re-vote, Yushchenko wins easily. The Orange Revolution is a glorious moment. "There was this wave of positivity and hopefulness and youthful energy," recalls Michelle Goldhaber, an American who served as an international election observer that year. The young nation seems poised to become more democratic, more open, more European and less corrupt. But the new government fails spectacularly. New corruption scandals arise. By 2010, apathy in western Ukraine and strong support in his native east enable Yanukovych to rise, Nixon-like, from the political ashes to win his rematch with Yushchenko.
  • 2013-2014: As many fear, Yanukovych's administration is even more corrupt, more authoritarian and more Russia-friendly than those of his predecessors. And so last fall, protest returns to the streets of Kyiv. The West is captivated by tableaux of ragtag citizens building barricades and bonfires in defiance of helmeted cops and frigid weather, culminating in Yanukovych’s flight into Russia: another shining moment followed by the Russian annexation of Crimea and a growing Russia-abetted separatist movement in the east.
  • May 25, 2014: True to form, the election of Petro Poroshenko as the new president and its promise of a return to stability is followed immediately by violent clashes in eastern Ukraine between the separatists and the Ukrainian military.

As ever, the future of Ukraine may be decided by non-Ukrainians. Putin appears to be backing off. But if he believes that he has been chosen by God or history to reconstitute the glorious Russian empire of the czars, it's doubtful that sanctions alone will deter him.

It's easy for opposition leaders like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to stand with the Maidan protesters — including, appallingly, Oleh Tyahnybok, the anti-Semitic head of Ukraine’s leading far-right party — and decry President Obama’s "fecklessness," but does anyone really want to cross swords with Putin over Ukraine?

No wonder Ukrainians like to sum up the country's less-than-sunny outlook by quoting that line about hope from Lesya Ukrainka. No wonder the first line of their national anthem is often translated as the less-than-triumphal "Ukraine is not yet dead."

Frank teaches journalism at Penn State University. He was a Fulbright Fellow at Ivan Franko National University in Lviv in the fall of 2012.

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