I spent Christmas Eve huddled in an unheated Lada, just west of Russia’s border, reflecting. Much of what I had just seen and heard was difficult for me to accept, let alone understand.
Sunday, as I sipped on my venti latte from Starbucks, I reflected again, but this time I was filled with hope.
Over the holidays I traveled to Ukraine as one of 12,000 election observers for the Dec. 26 presidential elections. Before arriving, I didn’t know much. I knew there had been a round of rigged elections that led to general strikes. I also knew that the leader of the “Orange Party,” the party that requested the recount, was Viktor Yushchenko, because I had seen the scarring effects of dioxin poison on his face on CNN.
When I arrived in Ukraine, they began assigning observers to different areas. Being 22 years old, I wanted to go to where the action was. I asked for an assignment in the city of Donetsk, the home base for the corrupt “Blue Party.”
We traveled from Kiev to Donetsk on a bus. On the outskirts of the city, we saw several mansions — houses that you would expect to see in the Hamptons, or maybe the French Riviera, but not in Ukraine. Puzzled, I asked the bus driver.
“Ukraine is a very rich country,” he began, “But the wealth is isolated in the hands of few.”
He went on to tell me stories of government officials raiding the coffers of the Ukrainian people to further their personal wealth.
One example was of Pavlo Lazarenko, a politician who left the country after stealing over $100 million from the government. Another was of Victor Pinchuk, whose investment group bought a government steel company for about $700 million less than that of the highest bidder — presumably because he was married to the president’s daughter. The bus driver raised his hand and pointed.
“That is his house.”
I unpacked my bags and walked around the city with a translator named Roman. He was a student from a very “Orange” area of Ukraine. When we got to the center of the city, in the center of the main plaza, something caught my eye. In the middle was a 40-foot-tall statue of Lenin.
I looked to Roman for clarification. He told me that during Soviet times, this was a very Russified area.
“The history of this area is tied very closely to the history of the Soviet Union,” he explained. “Living under Soviet rule for so many years brainwashed them.”
And the government was still trying to rule over a brainwashed people. The media was government-owned or regulated, and was only a mechanism of propaganda. Journalists who did rebel were killed, as were dissenting political figures.
The day before the elections, Christmas Eve, we were to make our rounds to different polling stations in the area. We approached a small town very near the Russian border. As we approached the town, three tall nuclear reactors dominated the skyline — a mark of the centralized planning that took place here. It was eerily reminiscent of Chernobyl.
At the polling stations themselves, the people were all very polite. They had nothing to hide — they were not the ones orchestrating the corruption. Many invited us for a cup of coffee to get to know each other.
We accepted some of the offers. After some small talk, our conversations were almost always driven to politics. One man told me that “it is well known that election observers are the instruments of the American government.”
After vehemently arguing that it was my role to ensure the objectivity of the election process but getting nowhere, Roman pulled me aside and told me, “This is what brainwashing does to people.”
On our ride back to the city, Roman explained why these elections were so important. Between 1930 and the end of World War II, 12 million people, possibly more, died here. More than 60 times the direct death toll of the tsunami, and about twice the number of Jews that died in the holocaust, this was the number of civilian Ukrainians that were killed struggling to maintain their heritage. Prior to 1930, this struggle had waged for over 200 years.
This struggle was about to end.
With the inauguration of Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine would have its first president to come from the people. It would also have its first president that rejected the corrupting incentives of the Soviet power structure.
As evidence of his legitimacy, 200,000 people lived for weeks in a tent city set up in the center of Kiev. They braved sub-zero temperatures and wore orange to show their support for Yushchenko and to protest for free elections.
When all of the votes were counted, Yushchenko won the election by a clear margin. I returned to Kiev, and made my way to see Yushchenko’s victory speech.
Standing in the middle of a packed square, I could feel the entire crowd moved almost to the point of tears.
“For 14 years we have been independent and now we are free,” he said.
It was then that I understood the distinction between independence and freedom. Lives have forever been altered. There is a sense of awe in the people that they have undergone a metamorphosis. And I can attest — I am a new person myself.
Between Ukrainians, there is a bond that can’t be described in words. They understand the responsibility that has been passed on to them by their ancestors, and they are not willing to let go of the past. The shackles of totalitarian rule have been lifted, and it is with pride that they look to the future. They are finally free.
And so it is that I sat at Starbucks, part of my usual Sunday routine. Looking through the news, I saw hundreds of thousands of people crowded in Independence Square in Kiev for Yushchenko’s inauguration.
Some critics argue that this was not a revolution, but a mere transition. Whatever the case, if you still don’t believe that the world has changed, I urge you to read the reports of the many people who attended the inauguration.
And if you were to stand in Independence Square, on that day, surrounded by all those people, in a sea of “Orange,” reflecting on the costs paid for this freedom, I promise, you would be a changed person too.
Mark Semotiuk, Daily Bruin, University of California