Gogol Haunts the New Ukraine

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Efrem Lukatsky/AP Images; Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters
At left, Viktor Yanukovych greeting supporters at a campaign rally in Kiev on February 5, 2010, two days before he won the presidential election; at right, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko challenging the election results in court, February 19, 2010

Viktor Yanukovych, seen five years ago as the vote-stealing villain of the Orange Revolution, was elected president of Ukraine on February 7. The incumbent president, Viktor Yushchenko, the hero of the mass protests demanding fair elections in 2004, had already been eliminated in the first round three weeks earlier. This left Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to represent those who had won the right to a working democracy. Despite a strenuous campaign for the presidency, she received only 45.5 percent to Yanukovych’s 49 percent, with 4.5 percent voting against both candidates. How to account for this dramatic reversal of heroes and villains, and for the democratic return of a man who himself rejected democracy? Ukrainian politics is full of the courageous and the grotesque, and it is no easy task to tell the difference.

The best guide to the careers of Yanukovych, Yushchenko, and Tymoshenko is Nikolai Gogol, who brought the absurd to Russian literature. In his short story “The Nose,” a barber finds the nose of one of his clients in his breakfast roll. The severed nose then takes on a life and an identity of its own. In Ukrainian politics, the disfigured face is that of outgoing President Yushchenko. During the previous presidential election campaign, he survived what could have been a fatal dose of dioxin, and fought the rest of the campaign and then served as president with his face covered with horrible lesions from the poisoning. During his term, European specialists observed the slow purge of the dioxin from his body.

With time, however, this face of courage became the face of failure. Even as Yushchenko slowly regained his physical strength, his political strength faded. What energy remained he devoted to feuding with his former ally, Tymoshenko. Repeating the mistake of every president before him, he created an institution that duplicated the functions of the government, and then fought with Tymoshenko over questions of who would be responsible for which functions.

Tymoshenko, the “queen of the revolution” five years ago, is best known for the traditional Ukrainian braid in which she wears her long blond hair. She presents herself as the only real man in Ukrainian politics, but also as trustworthy because she is feminine. When Yanukovych refused to debate her, she said (reasonably enough) that she could smell his fear. During the electoral campaign, the braid was to be seen resting on a white tiger in posters; on election day, it was just visible above the hood of the long white fur coat that Tymoshenko wore to vote in her home city of Dnipropetrovsk. She ran for president from a seemingly hopeless position, as the sitting prime minister of a country whose economy had shrunk …

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