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From an ivory tower intellectual to a participant of the Orange Revolution
Oleksandr Panasyev, a translator, tells his story
of an ivory tower intellectual finding himself right in the heart of the Orange Revolution.
“A difference between a democracy and
a tyranny is not in that bad things do not happen
in a democracy — they do, but in a democracy
the wrongdoings are exposed by the media
and the wrongdoers are brought to justice, and in
a tyranny the wrongdoers are the ones who rule.”
A British politician
On January 19, I intended to wait for the decision of the Supreme Court which, as was widely believed, was to be announced any time that night, I succumbed to fatigue and fell asleep shortly before midnight. When I woke five hours later, I fumbled for the turn-on button on my radio which sits on a table beside my bed but in my nervous eagerness I could not find it. When at last I did, the first station I tuned to was the BBC World service. “Ukraine’s Supreme Court on Thursday upheld Western-leaning Viktor Yushchenko’s victory in a presidential poll re-run, clearing the way for his inauguration and ending weeks of turmoil… Court Chairman Anatoly Yarema, issuing the ruling just before 3 a.m. after days of deliberation, said the judges had rejected an appeal by Viktor Yanukovych, Yushchenko’s rival in the December 26 election, that the ballot was unfair…”
An enormous relief flooded through me, leaving me, strange as it may seem, physically exhausted. I could not go back to sleep, running over through my mind the events of the past several months, months of great tension, of upsurge of hope, of hope shrinking, of depressing moments of violent indignation and of disabling frustration, of uplifting moments of great emotional and spiritual catharsis.
I am not a religious person, I admit; after years of soul searching and being at one point in my life very close to becoming an Orthodox priest, now I’m what is usually described as a deist. And yet I find it strangely significant — though, of course, it could have been no more than a curious coincidence — that the first round of the presidential election in Ukraine was held on October 31, Halloween or the Day of All Saints when the forces of evil are chased away by the forces of goodness; the runoff election was held on November 21, the day when the Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of the Archangel Michael, the Great Warrior who leads the struggle against the Fiend; the re-run of the runoff election was held on December 26, right after Christmas (new hope is born?), and the Supreme Court entered the final day of deliberations on January 19, another great Orthodox Church feast, that of Epiphany and Baptism of Christ.
Why should a Supreme Court decision affect a rank-and-file citizen like me? Why should I care at all? Two politicians vying for power — one wins, the other loses — where do I fit in? I’m not a member of any parties; until early fall 2004 I did not read local newspapers, I did not watch local news shows, I did not take part in “political” conversations except for rare occasions (and mostly to express my indignation about such corrupt individuals as President Kuchma and his henchmen). I was a typical representative of the intelligentsia who live in their ivory towers of scholarly books, of art and of music. I cannot even say I belonged to Ukrainian intelligentsia because I’m of a very mixed ethnic background — from my father’s side I have Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and German blood in me; my mother introduced Uzbek, Tartar, Mongol and Persian blood into my veins. For most of my life, I was of western leanings in my political orientations. Culturally, I was an admirer of Ancient Greece and Rome, of Medieval France and England, of the Italian Renaissance, of the British aesthetic movement of mid-nineteenth century, and of a short period in Russian culture that spanned about fifteen years from the end of the nineteenth century to 1917, the year of the Bolshevik revolution. The language in which I did (and do) most of my writing, diaries included, was English, and I talked English with my children; the language I talked to friends was Russian, though until I was six it was mostly Ukrainian that I spoke. I was a cosmopolitan in a very direct sense of the word.
In the soviet times, I was, as long as I remember myself, flagrantly anti-soviet (though my parents were upright soviet citizens, mom in particular). The older I was getting, the more anti-soviet I was becoming. I tried to keep my mouth shut and avoided to express my opinions openly, even in front of my friends, but it did not save me from being put on the KGB black list. The list of “whys” I hated the soviet regime so much is a very long one indeed. In my rejection of the soviet system I went much further than that. The more I learnt about its past, the more I hated it but I was too cowardly to come out into the open and make my views public. But I was perpetually seething inside — I was a citizen of a country whose government and the ruling party caused millions upon millions of its citizens to die a terrible death of starvation and man-made, “artificial” famines, who died, shot by firing squads, who died of exhaustion in concentration camps, who died needlessly in wars (the “peaceful” Soviet Union in seventy-something years of its existence launched wars of aggression against Poland, Japan, Finland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan; it was about to launch war against Germany only to be hit pre-emptively by it; the soviets supplied arms to terrorists all around the globe; they supported militarily repressive regimes in dozens of countries). The country I was supposed to be a proud citizen of did not allow me to read books that I wanted to read; it denied me the right to listen to music that I wanted to listen to; it denied me the right to travel freely abroad; it denied me the right to express my views freely; it made me live in fear and misery; it made me stand in long lines to buy the basic necessities of life; the soviet regime did its best to deny me the right to think.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it came as a great liberation. It was difficult to believe though that the monster had expired of senility, with very little blood spilled. Though I was among the supporters of Ukrainian independence at a rally near the building of parliament when the decision was being taken to officially proclaim Ukrainian independence, I remained largely indifferent. I was just happy with the fact that “the evil empire” disintegrated. The nationalist cause did not attract me, I chose to stay where I was — far from being involved in any way in political or national issues.
I was greatly overjoyed at the demise of the Soviet Union but when I saw who came to power my joy quickly turned into dismay. “The same old shit,” to use not a very polite expression I picked from an American who was describing his second marriage. Former soviet communist party bosses and apparatchiks were back in comfortable chairs in government, parliament and ministries. In presidential elections the choice was between “bad” and “very bad,” and I ignored the calls “to come to the polling station and give your voice for the candidate who will care for the Ukrainian people.” Once I voted for a nationalist candidate but not because I really trusted him but to spite “the commies.”
In the early 2000s, I felt some vague political stirrings in me. I realized that the old, nasty anti-soviet hatred began to creep into my nervous system again. It began to be getting so bad that whenever I saw President Kuchma’s face or heard his voice, his bad Ukrainian, I began to experience bouts of revulsion. All this lying, corruption of unprecedented proportions, was definitely getting under my skin. And yet I did not join the Down-With-Kuchma movement that flared up in 2001. I went to a rally or two, was disappointed with the people who spoke at them — either disguised communists or dishonest business tycoons, I decided, and passed the tents of protesters in the main street thinking that nothing could be changed by such protests.
Compared to the soviet times, the stores offered an abundance of products and things; at supermarkets you could buy food that you had only read about or seen in the movies in the soviet times; book stores had books that I eagerly bought; I had an access to the Internet and could read New York Times and any other papers or magazine on the web with my morning tea; working as a translator for English-language magazines I earned enough for rent, food, books and occasional trips to the sea. So, there were enough reasons for me to be more or less content.
In the 1990s, I read a lot of memoirs of Russian intellectuals in particular, describing the disastrous events of 1917, revolution and civil war. And I was horrified to discover that most of intellectuals at that time preferred to stay above the fray, letting the Bolshevik scumbags grab the power. When they began to protest or join the anti-Bolshevik forces it was too late.
In the summer of 2004, a process began in me that gradually led to my miraculous civic awakening. I realized with horror that at the presidential election to be held later in the year, one of the candidates, was to be Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian prime minister, who, in my eyes looked and acted like a person of little education, little brain power, no civility and no competence in the ways of running a government (it turned that he had a criminal record and two terms in prison). A figurehead, a puppet his bosses believed would be easy to manipulate? His bosses included Kuchma, business tycoons (“oligarchs”) from Donetsk region in the east of Ukraine, and the top boss of them all, The Big Brother in Moscow, President Putin. To have a prime minister with a criminal past was humiliating in itself but to have such a person as president was a bit too much for me. The only real political figure who could stand up to him was Viktor Yushchenko, an MP, and a former prime minister, originally a banker, a person with presidential ambitions. I have to admit I did not trust Yushchenko too much either — for me he was one of those who made it real big and now wanted to make it even bigger. But I shuddered to think what this country would turn into if Yanukovych replaced the disgusting Kuchma.
Probably, a turning point came when I was approached with a request to do a translation of a book about Yushchenko, or rather it was not so much about him but a compilation of his speeches, public addresses, reports and interviews. I suddenly realized I could no longer remain a mere observer of the events, albeit an indignant one. Yushchenko seemed to be more and more like an embodiment of a totally new spirit. And what was most surprising for me — I realized that while talking to people I preferred to speak Ukrainian. I began to relate to Ukrainian songs, I began to read Ukrainian books! Me, reading books in Ukrainian, by Ukrainian authors? Impossible — with my snobbism, with my Nabokov? And yet it was me, a sort of a different me though.
Then came the news of Yushchenko being followed by secret agents, of Yushchenko’s car being almost pushed off the road, of Yushchenko being prevented from speaking at the rallies, and finally of Yushchenko having been poisoned. The massive anti-Yushchenko propaganda in its meanness and nastiness and idiotic brutality equalled if not surpassed soviet anti-western and “anti-imperialist” propaganda. I was horrified — with Yushchenko gone, there was no one who would be able to successfully oppose Yanukovych at the election. With the media effectively bridled, I was “back in the USSR.” With the connivance of Kuchma and in fact with his direct involvement, Yanukovych threw in all the “administrative resources” he had at his disposal, beginning with his cabinet of ministers down to local authorities. Yanukovych’s propaganda machine did not mince words and called Yushchenko “a Nazi,” “a bloody nationalist,” “a traitor who will sell Ukraine to the Americans.” There was only ONE TV station that dared to provide more or less unbiased information, Channel 5. I relied mostly on the BBC Ukrainian service and Svoboda (Liberty) Radio broadcasts, both being foreign-based broadcasters. Those in power wanted to close down Channel 5; they did make a Kyiv FM station that re-broadcast some of the Svoboda programmes break their contract with Svoboda and stop broadcasting. It was an almost total information blackout. Yes, some information could also be gleaned from the Internet, but the number of people with an access to the Internet like me was very limited, in the countryside in particular.
In spite of the enormous pressure and election-rigging mechanism working full time, Yushchenko won by a narrow margin in the first round. The mood at the rally held shortly before the runoff was buoyant. I hate crowds. In fact, being in a crowd makes me feel physically sick; I experience nausea and dizziness, but then at that rally in the central square of Kyiv, Maydan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) for the first time in my life when I did not feel oppressed by the multitudes. And I was very much surprised by the friendliness of the people around me — smiles, no pushing, no swearing, no drinking typical of a very large gathering of people. There were people from all walks of life, and of all ages.
But Yanukovych and Kuchma did not intend to lose the runoff. I will not retell here the fraudulent and criminal methods they used to rig the election. It has been described in the press and was analyzed in court (one of the greatest gains of the Orange Revolution was the change of attitude of the media — most of the TV stations and the papers began to provide more or less unbiased information). The Supreme Court judged the runoff had been falsified and decreed the rerun to be held in December. It’s all history, but that short period of time between late November and late December revealed a new country to the world and made me a different person.
When I learned of the preliminary results of the November 21 runoff, I was shocked though I thought I was prepared to accept any results. I spent the whole day, with the exception of several hours that it took me to go to the polling station and return, glued to the television, watching Channel 5. Exit poles showed Yushchenko in the lead! Great! Your rigging efforts, Mr Yanukovych, did not help! Little did I know what was in store for me, and for millions of Ukrainians. Shock and dismay were followed by mounting anger — Yanukovych was ahead by about three percent! How could that be? And then information about massive fraud began to pour in. Anger changed into an emotion which closely resembled the one I experienced when in August 1991 I heard the news that President Gorbachev was “incapacitated” and the GKChP (State Emergency Situation Committee) was taking over. Another Bolshevik coup. Frustration and despair overwhelmed me. But then I heard on Channel 5 that a rally was to be held later in the day, Monday, November 22. I began calling friends and passing this information on.
I went to Maydan not because I was one of the supporters of Yushchenko — I was there because I felt I absolutely had to do something about it, I did not want the sovietism winning all over again, I did not want Kuchma and Yanukovych to rule the country of which I was a citizen. And my being there, on Maydan, protesting, seemed to be the only thing I was good for.
I’m a pacifist and abhor violence but I felt I was ripe for committing violent acts — smashing something, burning down buildings. But when I joined the crowd that was swelling by the minute I experienced a change of mood — the people who were there on Maydan were indignant but not violent. It was so amazing to see dozens of thousands of people gathered at one place with an intent of PEACEFULLY demonstrating their indignation at being cheated out of what they thought was their victory. It was even more amazing to see tents being pitched in the main street that cuts through Maydan, with people coming from all over Ukraine to stay in these tents. People came from distant villages and towns to stay in those tents and defend their dignity — I never thought they had any dignity at all!
“Those were the days, my friend, I thought would never end.” On the one hand, I was emotionally and physically exhausted and dearly wanted to see the conflict resolved, the sooner the better. On the other hand, I realized I was living through an experience that would never be repeated. Even if massive protests erupt again over whatever political issue may be the cause in the future, I don’t think there will be such a spirit uniting them. I’ve always thought that I could express in words pretty much everything that I wanted to express but I don’t think I’ll be able to explain coherently what it was that made my being there, with people on Maydan, or blocking the buildings of parliament, cabinet of ministers or presidential administration, so special, so spiritually uplifting. I felt I was witnessing events of a great significance but it took some time to figure out what the significance was. At last I realized that I was a witness and a humble participant of a battle of the future against the past, of Good against Evil. The soviet past, soviet mentality and soviet corruption rallied behind Yanukovych. Yes, there were — and are — millions of people in Ukraine who have never gotten rid of the soviet mentality, people with the desire to escape from freedom, full of fear of the future, people satisfied with what little they have (their slogan being, “be happy with what you have, even if it’s pretty miserable existence”), people who, for generations have been brainwashed by soviet and then by Kuchma-Yanukovych propaganda, people who believed that America spells trouble, that Russia is our best friend (never mind that Russia’s fraternal love entails loss of sovereignty and of liberty), people who thought that you can’t buy bread with freedom and democracy. In fact, for most of these Yanukovych’s supporters freedom and liberties and civil rights were empty words. They are the people the soviet power was based on.
Yushchenko embodied the hopes for a different future, for a truly sovereign Ukraine, in which generally accepted human values would be upheld, where basic democratic principles would be introduced, where speaking Ukrainian would not be regarded as an aberration or evidence of lack of culture and low prestige, where human dignity and decency would be regarded as assets rather then liabilities.
I wore an orange arm band and an orange scarf. On cold days, in driving snow there was so much spiritual warmth generated by the crowd that I did not feel cold. Several times I openly wept, overwhelmed by emotion, when Ukrainian songs were performed on the stage erected on Maydan. The first time it happened I could not understand what was it that moved me so much — I, a Led Zeppelin fan, moved to emotional tears by a Ukrainian song? Unbelievable! And yet I was there, among the hundreds of thousands of people, caught in a great emotion.
When Yanukovych, speaking at the rallies of his supporters, called Yushchenko’s supporters kozly (literally, kozel means “a goat,” but the word is used offensively to refer to someone who is no good; this offensive use may come from the underworld reference to a pederast) and orange rats, I took it as a personal offence. And I am sure so did millions of others. Can you imagine, say, President Bush publicly calling Kerry’s supporters “those scumbags” or “silly asses”? My God, this person wants to be president of my country, I thought. For me, Yanukovych represented blatant lies, falsehood, insincerity, low culture and the soviet past. His wife, speaking at a public meeting in a city in Eastern Ukraine, said that it was Americans who organized this “orange abomination,” it was Americans who supplied warm boots to the protesters and delivered oranges infused with narcotics “to make the orange protesters lose their minds.” It was more than just an extremely silly thing to say — it was another piece of evidence that confirmed my correct assessment of the forces Yanukovych represented. The very fact that several key figures, his press secretary included, in his campaign left him immediately after his “victory” was also very telling.
Maydan gave me so much of positive energy, gave me, a pessimist down to the very core of my being, an optimistic hope, I began to believe that change was possible indeed, that Yushchenko, with all his inconstancies and weak points, was nevertheless the only person who could lead Ukraine into a better future, who could put Ukraine on the map of democratic nations. There is something very sincere and nice and decent about him, on a purely human level and though I’ve never met and will never meet him he does send the good vibes.
The phenomenon of Maydan will, of course, be studied by sociologists, political scientists and psychologists. I’m not in a position to pass judgments or make assessments but when hundreds of thousands of people come together at one place and not a single case of violence is reported over the period of more than three weeks, when people bring food and clothes and medicines to share it free with those who need these things, when all you hear are words of support, of good will and of good cheer, when you realize that though you are only one of many thousands you also matter, then it means that something much more profound than an opposition rally is taking place.
Photos by Oleksiy Onishchuk
Photo by Yu. BUSLENKO