Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 9

By Volodymyr Zviglyanich

Ukraine celebrated the tenth anniversary of its independence on August 24 with the rumble of a military parade in the style of post-Soviet surrealist pomp, which effortlessly transported those watching the spectacle back to the days when there was not even a hint of independence in the air, and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was considered to be a sanctuary of Soviet conservatism. Time, it seems, has come full circle; the noxious fumes of the August 1991 putsch in Moscow, from which Ukrainian independence grew, have paradoxically mixed with the smoke of the Ukrainian military machine, letting the world see for itself both the luster and the squalor of this major Central European state. What are the reasons for Ukraine’s post-Soviet political surrealism? What conclusions can be drawn from this last decade? What is the hope that the next decade will be marked by pragmatism and realism?


Catastrophe theory emerged in the 19th century to explain the geological history of the Earth in terms of the alternation of long periods of relative calm and relatively short periods of catastrophic events which dramatically transformed the state of the planet. It has since developed into a complex branch of science, examining the extreme parameters of unexpected events which fundamentally change the conditions of the existence of some phenomenon or process. Classic examples of natural disasters are volcanic eruptions (the death of Pompeii), meteorites (such as the Tungus meteorite in 1905, whose secrets have yet to be revealed), or the collision of our planet with a huge cosmic fireball millions of years ago, when there was no atmosphere, which resulted in the creation of the Moon. Meanwhile, the loss of Atlantis, mentioned by Plato, still stirs the imaginations of scientists and fantasists…

Unlike natural disasters, which occur as a result of the blind movement of objective forces of nature, social catastrophes are the work of human hands, and subjective factors play a decisive role here. The most immediate examples of social catastrophes are cataclysms such as wars–especially civil wars–, epidemics, famines, the Holocaust, revolutions, and acts of terrorism, such as the recent attacks on targets in New York and Washington. After this, America and the whole world have changed.

As a result of both natural and social catastrophes, irreversible changes take place in the development of an entity or phenomenon; changes which put an ineradicable stamp on the shape of its future existence. In other words, it is always possible to distinguish its state before and after the catastrophe. The very fact of a catastrophe becomes part of our natural historic heritage, such as the disappearance of Atlantis or the creation of the Moon.

In social catastrophes, a huge role is played by the time factor, which is not so important in natural catastrophes, where the clock can be running for millions of years (even light years). During the course of social catastrophes, social tectonic shifts can occur within the space of standard physical time.

For example, during the 1991 August putsch in Moscow, which lasted for just three days, irreversible changes occurred in the psyche of people caught up in those events which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The psychological pain of the loss of a great state can still be felt today by tens of millions of people, particularly the older generation.

From a social perspective, nostalgia for the Soviet past has become a crucial political factor which defines the existence of large political parties in the CIS (particularly left-wing and national-patriotic parties), and influences the outcome of presidential and parliamentary elections. For example, Alyaksandr Lukashenka won easily in Belarus as a consequence of the powerful use of nostalgia for the security of the Soviet past and the promise to preserve it in any way possible.

In Ukraine, a country which has developed in the most paradoxical way thinkable, independence–that is, a deeply social phenomenon, described in many books on politics and the national liberation movement and so on–occurred like a purely natural catastrophe. It came crashing down on the heads of an unsuspecting people who were mainly on their summer holidays or in the country. In other words, it could be compared to the Tungus meteorite falling on a sleepy Kiev, exhausted by the August heat. Kievans could not understand what was going on when they saw scenes from their favorite ballet, Swan Lake, on their television screens, scenes which had become very familiar over the past few years. “Probably another general secretary has died,” they thought. “It can’t be Gorbachev, surely?” That was certainly what ran through my own mind.

It was only when I turned on Radio Liberty’s morning program that I realized that the crazy Politburo leaders had decided to introduce a state of emergency in the country, although they did not have the strength or the means to do this, given that most of the army was out in the collective farms at the time, gathering in the potato harvest.

But in the Ukrainian capital the situation was quite clam; just a few people gathered in downtown Kiev to discuss the events in Moscow. Poor quality photocopies of Yeltsin’s decree rescinding the decrees of the putsch committee were being passed around.

Things began heating up towards 9 pm, when people started coming home from work and the seriousness of the situation began to dawn on them. But downtown there were still no gatherings, demonstrations or meetings either in support of or in protest at the actions of the putsch leaders.

About 2,000 or 3,000 people gathered in front of the Supreme Rada building, in the upper section of the city. Some in the crowd were wandering around with radios tuned into Radio Liberty or Voice of America and other western stations which nobody bothered to jam any more. People looked nervously up at the skies, where two or three helicopters were hovering. For some reason they seemed to expect a paratroop landing.

Then news spread that a column of tanks was standing about 50 kilometers outside Kiev. An unknown general, who was clearly very nervous, told the crowd that the tanks would not get through, because a tank division had been scrambled near Vasilkov on the outskirts of Kiev, and that it had apparently been ordered to close the road into Kiev from the direction of Moscow.

After this, everybody went home, myself included. There was nothing in Kiev even remotely resembling the events in Moscow of those few days–the barricades, the troops, the human ring around the parliament building. Legislators were on holiday, and ordinary people were apathetic about the news from Moscow, as though they did not grasp that the putsch could not succeed without bloodshed.

Assembling hastily for a session of parliament of August 24–that is, after the putsch had already collapsed–Ukraine’s deputies passed a declaration of Ukrainian independence. A year earlier, on July 16, they had passed a declaration of state sovereignty for Ukraine, which gave it limited control over some of the Soviet troops on its territory; hence the reference by the general in the square to the order issued to the Vasilkov tank division.

Among Ukrainian analysts today there is a popular idea that at the time the communist nomenklatura did a deal with the national-democrats whom Gorbachev had released from the camps and hospitals, to declare independence in exchange for a commitment by the democrats not to prosecute the members of the Ukrainian politburo (particularly Leonid Kravchuk, who was then chairman of the Supreme Rada and later president of Ukraine) and the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party (which numbered 500 or 600 people). As a result of this deal, the communist majority in parliament (the so-called “group of 239”) voted for Ukrainian independence.

Consequently, power effectively remained in the hands of what was now the post-communist nomenklatura. The democratic opposition essentially did nothing to bring about achieving real Ukrainian independence on 24 August.

As a result, Ukraine’s independence did not bring to power those who really wanted it and had gone to prison for it. It was brought about by the communist nomenklatura, brought up in the spirit of socialist internationalism, and with the full support of the Ukrainian security services which had been trained in Moscow in the Felix Dzerzhinsky Higher KGB School.

After that it took on a surreal, paradoxical nature. Like the fluid time on the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali’s famous canvas, it was very difficult to pin it down in real terms. Even then it was vaguely reminiscent of the recent Belarusan elections: Independence had sort of happened, but the only signs of it were the sealed buildings of local party offices.

It is therefore not entirely surprising that right from the start Ukrainian independence contained within itself this natural-social dualism and ambiguity; the bitterness of something unfulfilled, something murky. From then on, this stamp of murkiness could be seen–can still be seen–on anything and everything Ukraine does.


The surrealist nature of Ukrainian independence, like the burden of original sin, makes it difficult for the international community to understand what contemporary Ukraine actually is, what its real political and national identity is. Where is it heading–East or West? What sort of economy is it building–market or socialist? And finally, what type of state is being built here–democracy or tyranny?

Unfortunately there are no coherent answers to any of these questions yet, even from Ukrainian political scientists, let alone western ones. For understandable reasons, politicians avoid answering these fundamental questions. Only one thing is clear: In the ten years since it formally acquired independence, Ukraine is still effectively hostage to its own national romantic illusions about what a state worthy of respect should be. It also thinks that the outside world should believe in these illusions and pour billions of dollars into Ukraine in effect as free loans.

The central illusion which Ukraine’s leaders believe in so piously is this: The outside world spent hundreds of years in getting to its current state of economic and social well-being, so it is stupid to expect such maturity from a “young” state. It is better to invest money in “educating” it, and not ask where exactly the money goes. This theme of the “youth” of the state has allowed the Ukrainian nomenklatura to avoid any serious discussion of possible paths of development for the state at all levels and under all leaders from Kravchuk to Kuchma. “Youth” was a successful propagandistic slogan, which worked impeccably on the institutions responsible for the decisions to arrange the flow of billions of dollars into the pockets of the state bureaucracy.

This illusion, successfully implanted in the minds of the western audience–particularly the Ukrainian diaspora, which is mad about preserving its own youthful potency–has also helped the Ukrainian bureaucracy to successfully develop its institutional potential at someone else’s expense. Among the most notable successes in this respect was the purchase by the Ukrainian diaspora–which is by no means the richest in the world–of the Ukrainian Embassy building in Washington and the Ukrainian Consulate in New York. Soon after this, all the representatives of the diaspora who were allowed to work in these buildings were kicked out.

Representatives of the diaspora were forbidden (first by President Kravchuk, then by his successor Kuchma) to criticize Ukraine at the International Ukrainian Forums held regularly in Kiev. In the middle of August 2001, at the third Forum, Leonid Kuchma angrily asked the Ukrainian diaspora what it had actually done for independence, and demanded a written report of the actions it had taken.

The state decided to exploit this useful paradigm of “youth” to the full. In so doing, Ukraine demonstrated probably for the very first time the political aspect of the psychoanalytical exploitation of the subconscious human reaction to everything young and naive. However, the fascination with this useful device has played a cruel joke on Ukraine: To this day it still does not have a clear conception of how to run the state; the division of power laid down in the Constitution is still on paper only. The judiciary in Ukraine is almost completely dependent on the executive, as clearly demonstrated in the investigation into the Gongadze case and the scandal of the Melnychenko tapes, just as in the manipulation of lawsuits against representatives of the opposition and the press. The Ukrainian legislature has been practically paralyzed for the last decade by deliberate attempts by the executive to compel it to work in unison with it, which as a result led to paradoxical delays in taking crucial state decisions. For example, the constitution of independent Ukraine was the last one to be adopted among the CIS states, five years after the actual establishment of independence and the break-up of the Soviet Union. Provisions in the constitution regarding the arrest of citizens only by court order, not by order of the prosecutor’s office, which is controlled by the authorities, have yet to be implemented to this day. Ten years after independence, the individual in Ukraine is still just as defenseless (if not more so) in the face of the actions of the authorities. With no clear conception of its own functions, the state has become a phantom state, a semi-state, which has all-pervasive corruption at its core. This last aspect is probably the weightiest–and saddest–achievement of Ukraine in the international arena. In all corruption indicators published in the international press, Ukraine holds the “place of honor,” at the bottom of the list.

Recently a semi-official organ in Ukraine began circulating official figures indicating unprecedented growth in the country’s GDP and a record growth–up to 20%–in national production. The world is implicitly being invited to believe in the efficacy of president Kuchma’s “reformist” program, and that the economy can work without democracy. To follow this proposed interpretation would be deeply misguided; fortunately the U.S. Congress has not done so, sharply cutting financial aid to the Ukrainian bureaucracy. Ukraine carefully hides away the figures for the actual wages in the country, and for the correlation between the minimum wage and the minimum consumer “shopping basket”. This correlation is actually as follows: The minimum wage in Ukraine is 30-40 hryvnya per month; while the shopping basket costs around ten times more. Bare economic statistics, uncorroborated by independent research, are only designed to activate the traditional Marxist “economic” approach to complex social phenomena which do not reflect the catastrophic fall in the quality of life in Ukraine; the Ukrainian semi-state has neither the will nor the way to improve this.


Is it possible that the situation in Ukraine will change? In other words, will there be a catharsis; will Ukraine’s surrealism be washed away and will it turn into a normal Central European state? This is impeded by Ukraine’s medial position, caught between Germany (NATO) and Russia, the two giants of European politics. Torn between the two centers of global gravity, Ukraine cannot get rid of its semi-statehood, the illusion of “youth” which it took upon itself voluntarily, and, correspondingly, the illusion that it can take serious decisions and wants to improve the life of its people. In a word, the world does not believe Ukraine, and the task over the next ten years will be to overcome this global disbelief and the neglect of this huge state in Central Europe.

Who is capable of achieving this? Recently all eyes were focused on Viktor Yushchenko, who was dismissed as prime minister of Ukraine in April 2001, when the economy began showing the first signs of activity. If Yushchenko takes up the baton of the Ukrainian opposition, criticizing Kuchma for the collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people, he will have to enter into conflict with the president, who is watching over him from a distance, and does not want to see him cross over to the camp of radical critics of his regime. Yushchenko himself has never declared his opposition to Kuchma. So who is he really?

Probably, in accordance with the surrealist-paradoxical nature of Ukrainian politics, his heart is with the oppositionists in their tents on the winter streets; but his mind is with the father-figure president in the warm offices of the presidential administration. Yushchenko himself must decide where his own concept and the popular concept of happiness should meet. One thing is clear at the moment: Nobody–neither the current authorities, nor the opposition, nor the floaters like Yushchenko–has the slightest idea what to do with Ukraine and what the options for its future development are.

The recent terrorist attacks on the blessed West, where Ukraine is supposedly heading, will have the effect of considerably cooling pro-western sentiments in the camp of potential reformers such as Yushchenko or the national democrats of the Right. Ukraine still has to go through its catharsis, to cleanse itself before the world, before it moves into the second decade of its independence, acquired so catastrophically.

Volodymyr Zviglyanich is a senior research fellow of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, a research associate at George Washington University and a senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation.