I left our apartment and walked out into the day’s last light. We had been in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, for two days and I was still trying to get a sense of what the current political and economic crises were doing to everyday life. That wasn’t why I was going – I really wanted to see the show. But justifying the abandonment of my wife and children for an evening by calling it geo-political sociology research seemed like a good idea.
I was headed for St. Sophia’s cathedral, not far from our apartment in central Kiev. Tonight’s production was “French Spring”, an outdoor laser show projected on the side of the cathedral. A Ukrainian friend had given me the heads-up on this. She had written me an email, in Russian, describing the show. Reading her enthusiastic recommendation of “a laser show with a rock ‘n roll soundtrack projected on the side of one of Orthodox Christianity’s most venerated places of worship” made think I had botched the translation. But Google Translate seconded the motion, so, shrugging, I went.
I walked past the city’s main square, the Maidan. This had been ground zero for the protests in 2013 that led to Ukraine’s (most recent) revolution, the Euromaidan. I am using the word “revolution” because it’s the word the Ukrainians use, but it’s not entirely accurate. Not a single seat in the Ukrainian national parliament changed butts – it was only the president, Viktor Yanukovich, who left office. The people responsible for drafting the laws of land were the same the day the protests ended as they were the day they started.
How Yanukovich left office is also often lost in today’s propaganda melee. He wasn’t removed from office physically, legislatively, or otherwise: he fled on his own accord. For several days no one, including deputies from his own party, knew where he was or whether to expect his return. Surprisingly, Yanukovich actually managed to ding the opposition with this enigmatic departure. They had wanted to keep the proceedings in line with the Ukrainian constitution, but there was nothing in the constitution about what to do if the president were to vanish. Eventually the political process moved forward, but Yanukovych had thrown an effective, if temporary, spanner in the works with his Houdini impression.
Separating church and state
I arrived at the square outside St. Sophia’s gates just as the last of the sunset was still sparkling off the golden domes of St. Michael’s Cathedral down the street. During the unrest of 2013 St. Michaels’s had opened its doors and offered sanctuary to wounded protesters. Anecdotally, church attendance has risen since then, probably because of the church’s demonstration that it was not beholden to earthly powers and could still follow in the heal-the-sick spirit of its founder.
I was half-an-hour early. I walked around to kill time, and to stay warm, slaloming around pairs and triads of friends taking selfies. There were some gray-hairs and some parents with young children, but the crowd was mostly 20-somethings. During our trip I asked a few people in this age bracket, who were too young to have lived in the USSR, what their take was on their Soviet heritage. Nobody was too cold or too hot on the subject; they recalled with pride the scientific and academic accomplishments of the time, and just as easily listed the bread lines and closed borders as good reasons to have moved on.
But there must have still been some strong currents under the calm surface. When we arrived in the small city of Zhytomyr hoping to see the large statue of Lenin on the town square, our host sheepishly told us it had been torn down last year, along with most of the remaining Lenin statues in the country (some of which were then decapitated for good measure). Apparently the Ukrainians’ reconciliation with their Soviet history was not yet complete.
Peace through lasers
My expectations for the quality of the show had been low – I imagined a bunch of laser pointers going around in circles. As the music kicked in and the razor-sharp graphics began climbing up the side of the bell tower, my jaw dropped. I realized: my last laser show would have been at some arena rock concert 25 years ago. Laser technology has obviously improved since then and I hadn’t been paying attention. I felt like the proverbial native in the jungle being impressed by a butane lighter.
The 20-minute show was broken up into three-minute segments. The advertised general theme of the show was freedom, and each segment had a sub-theme. I assume the bit where the sheet of news print tore itself to pieces had something to do with freedom of the press. And the vines strangling the tree, maybe that had something to do with GM crops – freedom from or freedom to plant, I’m not sure.
The show offered some optimistic allegories for Ukraine’s current conflict (or any armed conflict anywhere, I suppose). On Sophia’s facade appeared blast holes from mortar fire. The laser-drawn building began to burn before finally collapsing. Then, from the ashes arose a flock of white doves.
How quickly the white doves might arise from Ukraine’s current smoldering rubble is at the front of everyone’s thoughts. The Ukrainians we spoke with pulled no punches about the troubles they were facing. They were clear-eyed about Ukraine needing to solve its problems itself and no one expected those white doves anytime soon.
The enemy within
Even if the separatist troubles in the Donbas region disappeared tomorrow, Ukraine would still have a monumental task ahead. Ukrainians are quick to mention the deleterious effects of government corruption, how hard it is to get anything done through official channels or to know how much some municipal service fee or license will cost.
A Ukrainian friend pointed out that the restaurant we were walking past was one of the best and most successful in town. Then she mentioned that the place was owned by the mayor’s wife. After a pause, I asked if that seemed odd to her. She sighed, and said yes. The problem, she continued, is that there are a limited number of people with both the desire and skills needed to run things, whether it is a place to eat or the local government. Until the pool of talent gets a little deeper, there is bound to be some double-dipping.
All of the people under thirty that we asked want to travel to the EU to study or to work. Germany and Poland are the favorite potential destinations. These millennials spoke of schemes to get there which all sounded like variations of “I know a guy who knows a guy”. There were long-lost relatives in EU countries that might be able to help, or some exchange program, or a rumor of an internship. The number of shady ads in the subway offering work visas in the EU was evidence of the value of such permission slips, and the desperation to get them. The Ukrainians want to go.
Some worry of an impending exodus of all the country’s young talent, but maybe it will be part of the solution. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union each of the three Baltic countries has had a president who grew up and was educated in the US or Canada before returning to run the place, and all three countries have, in fits and starts, prospered since independence. Perhaps this is a way forward for Ukraine – let the smart kids leave to study and work in a more advanced economy, see how it is supposed to operate, and then come back and fix everything.
Discussions with the Russians
During our trip one of our children wore a blue jacket and another one wore a yellow jacket. Periodically they would stand next to each other and exclaim, “We’re the Ukrainian flag!” They knew this because the flag and its colors are everywhere in Kiev. The French Spring’s finale was a frenetic dance of yellow and blue across Sophia’s flank. Had my children accompanied me that evening they would have immediately recognized the symbolism.
If there is a bright side to Ukraine’s current agonies, it’s that they have forged a sense of nationhood that was missing earlier on in the country’s independence. We were told that, previously, regional differences were amplified and used as wedges. Now, that intramural competition and antipathy has been replaced with patriotic commiseration.
Surprisingly, to me anyway, the palpable sense of Ukrainian nationalism in the air did not have a corresponding anti-Russian element. Even the graffiti didn’t mention retribution; it was always a riff on a United Ukraine, leaving un-spraypainted any mention of an aggressor. The one stridently anti-Russian message we saw (and, it must be said, saw often) was the roll of toilet paper available for purchase that had Vladimir Putin’s picture on each sheet.
A complicating factor for the emotions of many Ukrainians is that they have friends and relatives who live in Russia. It’s hard to embrace a nuke-the-bastards mentality when the enemy includes your aunt and uncle who used to give you a couple roubles for your birthday. Ukrainians are frustrated by Russia’s actions and attitudes because most of them didn’t view their budding courtship with the EU as an anti-Russian maneuver; rather, they saw it as an escape route out of their economic stagnation.
When the laser show ended the crowd made for the one street out. It was a tight crunch but everyone remained calm, even the parents with small children. I was impressed.
I walked back down the hill towards the Maidan. A woman who had come into the city to join the protests in February of 2014 described to us the tactics she and her friends used to maintain a presence on the square for so many weeks. The organizers kept just a skeleton crew on the maidan around the clock, but their cell phones were on a hair trigger. When the police (or worse, civilian militia bussed in from the east) began to appear, they would send out swarms of tweets and in minutes the maidan would once again be packed with tens of thousands of supporters. The security forces would have no choice but to retreat.
The contrast of pictures of the square during the protests, full of riot police and clouds of tear gas, against the placid mood we witnessed during our stay was striking. There are memorials for dead soldiers, with their pictures and attendant candles, but they are flanked on all sides by cafes and mobile coffee wagons. Perhaps signifying Kiev’s return to big-city normalcy, the only aggression I experienced on the Maidan were the hawkers who have captured pigeons, clipped their wings, and then hassle passers-by to photograph them for an extortionate amount of money.
Do you need room for cream in your revolution?
On my walk home I was buzzing from the excitement of the show and the good-natured crowds. Ukraine did not feel like a country on the verge of collapse. People were polite and friendly. The grocery stores were full. The subway ran smoothly – and more often, in fact, than what I am used to in Chicago. It was difficult to come to grips with the colossal challenges staring the country in the face, while never being more than half-a-block from a hot latte.
At the very least, our trip netted Ukraine two more proselytizers: the sighting of any object decorated in blue and yellow still elicits from our children cries of “Ukrainian flag! Ukrainian flag!”