Volume 18 Number 2
Ukraine '- a Forerunner for Russia?
01 April 2005

There can be no foreign city closer to the heart of a Russian than Kiev. The two countries’ history is so intertwined that events in one have a deep impact in the other.

In 988, Prince Vladimir of Kiev, the paramount Russian city at the time, had himself and his subjects baptized in the Greek Orthodox Christian faith. That faith remains the national religion of the Russians today, surviving the sacking of Kiev and 200 years of subjugation by the Mongol empire, the shift of the power centre to Moscow, and the 70 years of official atheism under Communism.

In Muscovite Russia the country around Kiev became known as Ukraine (‘borderland’). Its western half came for long periods under Polish-Lithuanian and Austro-Hungarian rule. Over the centuries, and conscious of its distinct language, it developed its own separate identity and sense of nationhood. Finally in 1991 the whole of Ukraine, east and west, successfully declared its independence from the disintegrating Soviet Union.

For a Russia enthusiast it has been fascinating to follow last year’s democratic revolution in Kiev, now capital of independent Ukraine. For there can be no foreign city closer to the heart of a Russian than Kiev, embodying as it does the Russian concept of the ‘near abroad’. The two countries’ history is so intertwined that events in one have a deep impact in the other.

For the Ukrainians it has been a moment when politics attained a spiritual level, experienced as people’s power. Participants found themselves actors in a historic moment transcending their individual lives. Peace, order and self-discipline characterized the demonstrations in Kiev’s Independence Square against the result of a blatantly rigged election.

A young woman wrote from the Square: ‘For the whole week I haven’t seen any drunk people. I didn’t have a drop during the whole time. I don’t want any!... There are no police at all! No violence!... I am at the Square not because I’m for Yushchenko. Not because I am against Yanukovich. I am against being deceived!’

Another from Crimea in Eastern Ukraine rejoiced that people also demonstrated for national unity.

There is a sense of the miraculous when the ‘force of truth’ suddenly breaks through the weight of fear, stagnation, oppression and corruption. A Swiss colleague who visited Kiev at the beginning of February writes that those who experienced the change ‘seem to walk with their heads held a bit higher, with their inner candle burning brighter as they face the many challenges ahead’.

It has been one more breakthrough in Europe’s struggle over the last century to establish peace and win democracy for all the peoples of the continent.

Russia too experienced its own miraculous moment when a shortlived coup in 1991 attempted to turn back the reforms of the Gorbachev era. The Moscow crowd that confronted the tanks outside the Parliament building was able, with Yeltsin’s decisive leadership, to persuade the army not to obey the conspirators. But Russia’s progress towards democracy since then has been difficult and hesitant.

I was born during the Second World War and grew up at the height of the Cold War. This may have influenced me to see the struggle for freedom and democracy as the fundamental theme of contemporary world history. It can be argued that most other reforms depend on an open society and transparent, accountable government.

For those like myself who value what Russia has already given to the world through its culture, spirituality and history, Russia itself remains a crucial ‘prize’ in moving the world towards a new era of democracy.

History has made Russians appreciative of strong leadership. True, a high order of leadership will be needed for a future of reform and modernization. But it is also time to recognize that Russia’s true strength is in all its people, not in ‘strong’ government, oil wealth, or an imperial posture. This is not a new thought; it permeates one of the greatest novels of world literature, Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

For that ultimate strength to be developed, Russia’s 150 million people must be allowed to develop, not only in their famous intellectual powers but in their consciousness of the individual responsibility of all citizens, and their ability to exercise it. Russia will find its future strength in the growth of its own democratic society.

A lot could depend on Ukraine’s path from this point. An honest presidential election (second time around) with honest media coverage has been a significant national achievement. Maintaining the reform momentum at all levels—a tough task—would confirm this advance and draw together the two halves of the country. As a Ukrainian friend wrote to me during the demonstrations, ‘The challenge of shifting from the outburst of truth to abiding in truth is a serious issue.’

Much of the impetus for the latest breakthrough came from west Ukraine with its historical links to Central Europe. But the Russian-speaking east of the country will have an equally vital role as intermediary with Russia. A united Ukraine (also known as Little Russia) with a dynamic democratic culture could have a significant effect on the thinking of Great Russia as it finds its way forward.

Peter Thwaites from Sydney, Australia, is a translator and linguist and a former member of the International Council of Initiatives of Change.