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…

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