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The Orange Revolution

Last autumn, Ukraine imprinted itself on the political consciousness of the world for the first time in its history. In what was christened the “orange revolution,” vast crowds wearing orange scarves gathered in subzero temperatures in Kyiv’s Independence Square to demand a fair election for president. They won. Under its new president, Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine can move toward what he and his allies hope will be a working democracy and market economy under the rule of law, and toward membership in the European Union.

Observers have placed Ukraine’s “orange revolution” in a sequence of peaceful democratic revolutions stretching from the “velvet revolutions” of 1989 in Central Europe, through the “rose revolution” in Georgia in 2003, to what some are already calling the “cedar revolution” in Lebanon. Many Ukrainians are understandably delighted by this attractive labeling, so different from the largely negative or nonexistent image they have had in the past. Yet we must look beyond the news headlines to discover how and why this change has come about, and what its consequences may be.


The history of Ukraine begins a thousand years ago, when the rulers of a trading state based in Kiev—or Kyiv, to use the Ukrainian spelling—converted to Byzantine Christianity. After the Mongol invasions, Kyiv and surrounding lands were absorbed by the then combined state of Poland-Lithuania, in which Ukrainians were exposed to the influence of the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation. As Russian power extended westward, educated Ukrainians offered their services to the Russian empire. The Ukrainian language, related to both Polish and Russian, allowed them to assimilate easily. As nationalism emerged in the nineteenth century, Russians came to see Ukraine as a branch of their own nation. At the same time a Ukrainian national movement began to articulate a distinctive Ukrainian culture.

However, Ukraine failed to achieve independence in 1918. Attempts by Ukrainians to found a state were blocked by Bolshevik and Polish forces. Woodrow Wilson did not think Ukraine was a nation, and the Western powers conceded Ukrainian lands to the Russian White Armies in the hope that they would defeat Bolshevism. In 1921, Ukraine was divided up between the Bolsheviks and Poland.1 The Bolsheviks granted Ukraine generous space within the new Soviet Union, but the peasantry in Soviet Ukraine was destroyed by the collectivization of agriculture, while the Orthodox Church was subordinated and corrupted, and the intelligentsia was decimated. Among Stalin’s worst crimes was the organized famine of 1932–1933, which took the lives of at least three million people in Soviet Ukraine. His regime was displaced in 1941 by the Nazis, who regarded Ukrainians as racially inferior, and brutally treated them as such. Ukraine’s Jewish population was all but eliminated in the Holocaust, in which the German occupiers were aided by the collaboration of a minority of Ukrainians. Some Ukrainian nationalists attacked and killed local Poles. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers starved to death in German camps. Yushchenko’s father, who survived Auschwitz, was one of the lucky few.

With the return of Soviet power at the end of the war Ukrainian lands were gathered into one political unit. In 1945, Stalin annexed western Ukraine from Poland, thereby bringing people with a different experience of politics into the Soviet Union. Some of them came from Galicia, a part of Austria between 1772 and 1918 that was incorporated into Poland. These Ukrainians were mostly Greek Catholics, their “uniate” church combining an Eastern liturgy with subordina-tion to the Vatican. Between the two wars the Galicians had been citizens of Poland, which, while an increasingly authoritarian state, generally allowed free expression and accepted the rule of law. After 1945 Nikita Khrushchev, the Communist official in charge of Ukraine, took control of the Soviet pacification of its western part. It was he who added the Cri-mean peninsula to Soviet Ukraine in 1954, giving the country its present shape.

Soviet power weakened or eliminated in Ukraine those elements of civil society—private farms, churches, the intelligentsia—that had helped to prepare the way for the velvet revolutions in its more fortunate neighbors, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia. Still, when the USSR collapsed in 1991, Ukraine had a name, a capital, a place on the map. But its independence arrived without a major popular movement to shape it.2 Its foundations were fragile. Many in Russia refused to accept the reality of Ukrainian independence.


During the 1990s, Ukraine was an electoral democracy undergoing a shaky transition to a post-Soviet version of capitalism. Between 1994 and 2004, the regime of President Leonid Kuchma, in which the President appointed almost everybody that mattered, adopted increasingly corrupt, brutal, and undemocratic methods. Kuchma pioneered what has been called “the blackmail state.”3 Having itself encouraged widespread corruption, his administration blackmailed officials and private citizens by threatening them with evidence of wrongdoing gathered by the secret police—such evidence being known as kompromat, the old Soviet term for “compromising material.” Kuchma also cultivated intimate relations with some of Ukraine’s new industrial barons, letting them take over state assets—particularly coal, steel, and natural gas—and giving them other favors in return for their political support. The system seemed to work.

After World War I, the Ukrainian conservative Vyacheslav Lypyns’kyi had an optimistic thought: even a corrupt Ukrainian state, if it lasted, could create a Ukrainian nation. The rich would adapt to its laws and seek connections with state officials. Those with no cultural attachment to Ukraine would see themselves as citizens of a Ukrainian state if they had a stake in its institutions.4 The 1990s put these ideas to the test. Agile businessmen and women took over former state assets, created and exploited monopolies, and made lucrative investments. In far-eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border, Rinat Akhmetov, the son of a miner, accumulated a fortune now estimated at more than $3 billion, starting with coal and steel. By financing political parties, these oligarchs—generally Russian speakers from the east—got themselves elected to parliament. Many of them moved to Kyiv and courted favor with President Kuchma. One of them, Viktor Pinchuk, married Kuchma’s daughter. Such oligarchs had a vested interest in the survival of Ukraine. In an enlarged Russia, or a restored Soviet Union, they would have been small fish in a big pond, their connections of little value.

Kuchma’s Ukraine endorsed the institutions and the symbols of independent statehood. It had embassies, an army, its own police. The national anthem used by the briefly independent Ukrainian People’s Republic after World War I was restored in 1992, and amended in 2003. Every night on television people saw the outline of their country on the weather map. Ukrainian was the state language. Foreign journalists were asked to use the word “Kyiv” rather than “Kiev.” Teachers at elite schools used Ukrainian in their classes, and the texts of civil service and university exams were in Ukrainian. Even as much of the political elite continued to speak Russian off camera, the public use of the Ukrainian language became a sign that the state was established.5 Kuchma himself published a book entitled Ukraine Is Not Russia.

In 2004, the Kuchma system outdid itself. Viktor Pinchuk and Rinat Akhmetov acquired the privatized Kryvyi Rih steelworks, although their bid was $800 million lower than that of a consortium led by US Steel. One favor deserves another, so Akhmetov helped to finance the presidential campaign of Kuchma’s prime minister and handpicked successor, Viktor Yanukovych. Had Yanukovych become president, Ukraine would have remained independent, but its resources would have been even more tightly controlled by a few oligarchs. However, Kuchma’s system had two major flaws. First, Ukrainians had the right to vote. Both Kuchma’s regime and its candidate, a supremely uncharismatic politician with two criminal convictions in his youth, were unpopular. Second, not everyone with money and political power was satisfied.

Julia Tymoshenko, for example, was an oligarch with a grievance. An economist from the east Ukrainian industrial center Dnipropetrovsk, she made her money speculating in natural gas, exploiting loopholes that allowed state-owned firms to pay for energy with goods that could be resold rather than in cash. In this way middlemen (or women) could amass their own fortunes. Tymoshenko was known as the “gas princess.” Then, as a government minister between 1999 and 2001, she closed those very loopholes, and forced the energy sector to become part of the cash economy. Along with the former central banker Viktor Yushchenko, then prime minister, she worked to reform Ukraine’s economy. Kuchma fired them both, and put Tymoshenko in prison. Her courage and her refusal to be cowed made her an appealing figure. She was soon freed. However, it was Yushchenko who became the most popular Ukrainian politician. He was able to attract those entrepreneurs who believed they could prosper in an economy where connections with the regime counted for less and the rule of law counted for more.


In November 2000, the headless body of Heorhiy Honhadze, a journalist known for his criticism of Kuchma, was discovered in woods outside Kyiv. Audiotapes purportedly leaked by one of Kuchma’s bodyguards recorded a voice that sounded like Kuchma’s giving orders that Honhadze be done away with. For a few months, Ukrainians took to the streets to demand a “Ukraine without Kuchma.” Protesting students built a tent city in Kyiv. Although their movement failed, this popular mobilization was a new experience for thousands of Ukrainians.

Three years later, Viktor Yushchenko led a candle-lit vigil in memory of the millions of victims of the Stalinist political famine of 1932 and 1933. The presidential campaign was well underway, and many Ukrainians admired the way Yushchenko asked quietly for public remembrance of the national past. But his opponent, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, had Kuchma’s support, financial backing from oligarchs, and unlimited television coverage. With little access to television, Yushchenko campaigned everywhere in person. He countered televised attacks on him by making personal visits to villages, shaking hands, showing his face.

Last September, several weeks before the election, he was poisoned by a dose of dioxin. The first symptoms appeared after he had dinner with senior secret police officials, although no connection with the poisoning has yet been definitively established. He returned to the campaign with his formerly handsome face horribly ravaged by severe acne and scar tissue. This, he said, “is the face of Ukraine today.” The Kuchma administration secretly instructed television channels to call the claim of deliberate poisoning a “bare-faced lie” and a campaign trick.6 A TV channel owned by Viktor Medvedchuk, an oligarch close to Kuchma, suggested that Yushchenko’s illness was caused by questionable personal habits.

Despite all these obstacles, Yushchenko won a plurality in the first round of presidential elections last October 31. On Sunday, November 21, during the second round, the Kuchma regime coordinated a campaign to falsify the voting results. That evening, it announced a victory for Yanukovych with a margin of about 3 percent. President Vladimir Putin hurried to congratulate him. However, independently commissioned and Western-funded exit polls made it clear that Yushchenko had won a decisive victory.

  1. 1

    Smaller parts of today’s Ukraine fell to interwar Romania and Czechoslovakia.

  2. 2

    The pro-independence movement Rukh set the terms of debate during 1991, but failed to win elections.

  3. 3

    Keith A. Darden, “Blackmail as a Tool of State Domination: Ukraine Under Kuchma,” East European Constitutional Review, Vol. 10, Nos. 2/3 (2001), pp. 67–71.

  4. 4

    See Ivan L. Rudnytsky, Essays in Modern Ukrainian History (Edmonton: Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies, 1987), pp. 447–461.

  5. 5

    See Oxana Shevel, “Nationality in Ukraine: Some Rules of Engagement,” East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2002), pp. 386– 413.

  6. 6

    Text in “Temnyk po khvorobi Iushchenka,” Ukrains’ka pravda, October 1, 2004. A temnyk was a secret instruction issued by Kuchma’s aides to television stations, guiding the presentation of certain topics.

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