Liberation and convalescence: 25 years of Ukraine’s independence

That I have to sing once more – that consolation did I devise for myself, and this convalescence. [Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra]

Mykolaivka, Luhansk, Ukraine on election day, 7 February 2010This is election day in the village of Mykolaivka in the region of Luhansk in Ukraine, on the 7th of February, 2010. Citizens were choosing who would be the President of Ukraine. I watched them do so, as an official international election observer. They won this right when Ukraine became an independent country in 1991. Ukrainians in the village of Mykolaivka were deprived of their citizenship rights by Russian invaders in 2014, and were prevented from choosing the President of Ukraine in that year. They will not exercise this right again until they throw out the invaders, liberate their land from the occupiers, and defeat Russia.

Even greater than the happiness that comes from being free is the joy that comes from liberation. To release oneself from the bonds of slavery is the greatest political act. Even greater than the enjoyment of good health is the exhilaration that comes from convalescence. To heal oneself from sickness is the greatest life-affirming act. Ukraine has known these moments — and brief episodes they always are — from its day of independence on the 24th of August, 1991, to today, 25 years later. I have witnessed and participated in some of these moments of liberation and convalescence.

24 years ago today was the first anniversary of Ukraine’s independence. I was on Khreshchatyk, the main thoroughfare of central Kyiv, walking down the middle of the road because it was closed to traffic for the day. There was practically nothing to do except walk and talk. That was the point of this moment of liberation. There was no institution, no foreign occupying power, no ideology to shape and script what this day would be for the people who lived it. What Ukrainians did was take what had been the strictly private realm – the “realm of the household” or the “kitchen table life” – and they brought it out into the streets, into the public realm. Because they could. Because they were liberating themselves and healing themselves from the sickness of Soviet life that made them hard and unsmiling in public but generous and warm in private. Divided people before, they were becoming whole in independent Ukraine.

In the 1990s, I watched and even led more of these moments of liberation and convalescence at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. I was a lecturer in politics and the director of an Internet access project. The University itself was and is a grand experiment in academic freedom: trying to be a self-governing institution of higher learning in a city where there had been no such thing going back well beyond living memory. In the lecture hall and the seminar rooms I wanted my students to exercise the curiosity of their active minds in a place where there were no facts, but only reasoned arguments. This is scary stuff: it is thinking without the safety net of dogma. Political ideas from the most horrific totalitarianism to the most fantastic utopia were the intellectual playing field. Some students loved this. Most hated it. They did so for the same reason: the realization that liberty is to be found in political culture and not in institutions is either an uplifting or a catastrophic shattering of the foundations of our life in public: living in the company of others.

Introducing students to the Internet, being technological liberation, was far easier. The students at NaUKMA took to this right away. When they realized that email and graphical web browsers were free to use and could reach anywhere in they world, they became world citizens. At that time, even at this elite university, fewer than one in ten had travelled outside Ukraine or the former Soviet Union. With the Internet, they were bringing the countries of the world to them, within milliseconds. Ancient Ukraine is a relative newborn among countries when it comes to democracies that have contested elections. But in 1994, Ukraine was newly-born with everybody else to the graphical World Wide Web, when my Internet access project made NaUKMA the first online university in Ukraine.

I bore witness to the Orange Revolution in late 2004, when the first serious attempt was made to overthrow the corrupt rule by the oligarchs. Some of the “nomenklatura” devised a system of crony capitalism after independence, where they stole what had been the people’s property in Soviet Ukraine to assert private control over it (which they call ownership). The oligarch system makes the people who live in a rich country poor. The Orange Revolution pitched direct democracy people-power against endemic corruption, and it won. At least it won a single presidential election which was fought between genuine political opponents. It only did this when a second round of the runoff election was conducted, with a heavy presence of international elections observers. I was one of those observers. I will never forget the morning after the election, when the cleaning lady in my hotel gave me a big hug, weeping with joy that the election was won by the candidate she supported, Yushchenko, and that the candidate she hated, Yanukovych, had conceded defeat. She had that moment of liberation. Her vote had counted. Whatever happened afterwards, she had chosen the President of Ukraine.

Then, more backsliding. More “Homo Sovieticus.” More shrugging of the shoulders, and more corruption. More sickness in public life, imposed from above. But then, a stunning moment of convalescence: EuroMaidan happened. In 2013, the spectacularly corrupt President, Yanukovych, went back on his word and said “no” to the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement that had been years in the making. Ukrainian citizens said “yes,” and they did so in another act of direct democracy people-power on the streets of Kyiv. Each time Yanukovych attacked the people with escalating violence, Ukrainians came out in greater and greater numbers. In December of 2013 over a million people gathered to listen to speeches and music, and to chant and sing themselves. “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!” was the cry, revived from the glory days of failed independence efforts of the early and mid-20th century. In February, 2014, Yanukovych slaughtered the “Heavenly Hundred” and then fled his post and fled the capital. The “Revolution of Dignity” was triumphant. All of Ukraine enjoyed a period of liberation that goes far beyond mere independence, and of convalescence that goes far beyond mere health. But it only lasted for seven days. Russia invaded Ukraine. Entrenched in corruption and tyranny, Russia cannot bear the existence of a Slavic people living free, self-determining lives, masters of their destinies in their own homes. The Putin regime reimposed its savage throw-back to Soviet times on Ukrainians who live in Crimea and on most of the Ukrainians who live in Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Today, the Russian invasion of Europe has been held up at the border between Crimea and Kherson and in a pocket in southeastern Ukraine.

The next moment of liberation and convalescence for Ukraine is clear. Throwing out the foreign invaders who came from Russia is liberation. Returning the over 1.7 million internally displaced persons to their homes in Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk is convalescence.

I’ve been in and near Maidan at each of the moments of Ukraine’s national awakening, at each of its telling moments of liberation and convalescence, in the early-mid-1990s, in 2004, and in 2013-14. Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Independence Square – in Kyiv is Western civilization’s gathering place for liberty now in the way that Place de la Concorde in Paris was two centuries ago. I am a passionately interested observer of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Ukrainians will liberate themselves. They will never surrender, and they will never accept the foreign invader on any part of their homeland. They will heal themselves of the sickness of public life, which means they will throw off corruption. From my first experience of Ukraine in 1992 right up to now, the one thing I hear over and over again is the desire for a normal life. Ukrainians are just like anybody else, and they know it. They are Ukrainians, they are Europeans, they are Westerners. They are free individuals and they are natural collectives. Just like anybody else.

Ukrainians are a remarkable people. They are not a people of “the idea” which is why Russian imperialism and Soviet occupation — although it lasted for centuries — damaged but never destroyed Ukraine. 25 years after independence, and after episodes living a truly free life, most of Ukraine is now “normal.” The next act of liberation and convalescence is to defeat Russia. It will happen.

Ukrainians are a people of the land. They are a people of a place that had been the land of barbarians in Ancient Greek and Roman times, but which rose to be Kyivan Rus’ and the heart of civilization along with Constantinople. This history is a felt history, and it imbues public life for all Ukrainians today. Ще не вмерли України ні слава ні воля, goes the national anthem. The glory and the freedom of Ukraine has not yet died. Not as mournful as you think, but actually an insight into the real nature of a group of people becoming free, becoming healthy in public life, which is to endure as a people for as long as “the people” are not-dead-yet.

I marvel at Ukraine. 25 years after independence, not-dead-yet Ukrainians fight for liberation and convalescence. They may not know it, but they are the freest people on the planet.

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