Ukrainians are not dying on the streets of Kiev because of disappointment with a rejected trade agreement. The protests are the powerful and spontaneous reaction of a beleaguered people who want a better government, economy, and life — and much of the energy for the fight is coming from the nation’s young people.
I had the opportunity to work with many of these young people in 2011 as a Fulbright fellow teaching journalism to students at the National University in Kiev. I was inspired by their commitment to journalism and democracy.
Journalism can be a brutal business in Ukraine. Information is obscured and distorted by officials. Intimidation of reporters is common. Ukraine’s former president, Leonid Kuchma, was implicated some years ago in the beheading of journalist Georgiy Gongadze. It is not a profession for the timid.
Many of my students wore shells of cynicism that hid an inner core of hope and idealism. They had been hardened by life in a nation where government corruption is rampant, and power, both political and economic, is held by billionaire oligarchs who managed to gain control of the country’s principal assets after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The protests in Kiev are the consequences, mostly, of a nation beset by huge economic problems resulting in a chasm between the nation’s rich and poor. A middle class barely exists in Ukraine.
Ukraine is a big country: almost 45 million people and the largest land area of any country fully inside Europe. Its GDP is $341 billion, placing it 39th in ranking of the world’s economies, but, more tellingly, its per capital GDP is $7,500, placing it 133rd. In other words, there is a terribly unfair distribution of wealth.
In Kiev, where prices are similar to the United States, average people earn between $500 and $1,000 per month, but it is common to see imported luxury cars parked in front of expensive restaurants or pulling into gas stations on their way to seaside resorts.
The reasons for Ukraine’s economic mess are many. An absence of the rule of law leads the list, and the lawlessness has created an environment of widespread corruption, including rigged elections. Inefficient industry and the persistence of old Soviet attitudes in some quarters add to the economic problems. Ukrainians see the ways in which their tax dollars are squandered by the government and the high and unaccountable life that many government officials lead, and the result is an unwillingness to pay taxes. About 40 percent of Ukraine’s economy is officially unreported.
Nonetheless, Ukraine is a highly literate and well-educated society. Its IT skills, for better or worse, are notorious. Young people have access to a wide range of media. Some are able to travel through educational programs to Europe and even the United States. They see that a better life is possible. They want that better life. And, as the diverse ages and backgrounds of the protestors in Independence Square demonstrate, their parents and grandparents also want that better life — if not for themselves, then for their children and grandchildren.
A complicating factor for Ukraine is its ties to Russia. These two countries have a long common history. Kiev was the capital of the ancient Rus, and it was the center of Orthodox Christianity among the Eastern Slavs before it moved to Moscow.
The Russians — and many Ukrainians, especially in the regions in the East — see Ukraine as fitting into Russia’s natural sphere of influence, if not its natural empire. During Imperial times, before the Bolshevik Revolution, Ukraine was often called “Little Russia.”
But the Ukrainians have also suffered from their neighbor’s power and dominance. The Holodomor — Stalin’s enforced famine that killed millions of Ukrainians — remains a vivid memory. Today, Russian natural gas, which warms the homes and runs the factories of Ukraine, has emerged as Russia’s lever over Ukraine’s future.
Many Ukrainian students know their painful history and understand the nation’s economic dilemma, but they see the embodiment of their personal ideals in Europe and America and not in contemporary Russia — at least not the Russia that is run by Vladimir Putin.
The events that we are witnessing now amount to scenes from a revolution. Let’s hope that the deal signed Friday by the government and opposition leaders prevents a civil war. It is impossible to know the outcome, but whatever the result, the spirit of young people in search of economic justice and a better life will not fade away, nor will it be erased by riot police, water cannons, and an aging leadership.
Lou Ureneck is a professor of journalism at Boston University.