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Judith Miller Visits Ukraine

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KIEV, SEPTEMBER 13—Strolling down Khreshchatyk, the main street of Ukraine’s graceful capital, on a warm autumn day, one sees few signs of the fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists that has killed more than 3,000 in the eastern part of the country since April. The combat in the Donbass, as the eastern gas- and coal-producing region is known, is 450 miles from Kiev, a world away.

Nor are there many remnants of the historic protests at the start of the year in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, where as many as 800,000 Ukrainians triggered Russia’s fury by ousting their corrupt, pro-Russian president and demanding association with Europe, clean government, political freedom and dignity. Ukrainians called their astonishing protests and improbable victory a popular revolution, the second since their separation from the collapsing Soviet Union and independence in 1991.

Maidan, as Kiev’s main square is known, seems peaceful, even joyful, especially at night. The big plaza is no longer racked by explosions, flying bullets and dramatic images of overturned police cars. Gone are the tents and bonfires that warmed the tens of thousands who occupied the square between November 2013 and February 2014 during a freezing winter.

On a Saturday night in September, hundreds of Ukrainian hipsters and families stroll leisurely through the square. Few tourists among them, they gather around street performers and musicians whose repertoire includes Ukrainian folk songs, Russian pop and American rap. Many sing along. A young Ukrainian woman dances unselfconsciously in the middle of a circle of onlookers. Some applaud her wild gyrations, others join her. The square is alive.

On weekends when the Maidan is closed to cars, pedestrians rule. They sit on benches sipping cappuccino. Children lick ice cream cones and scramble up a statue of horses and warriors commemorating one of the country’s endless battles. The tat-tat-tat of drummers practicing for a concert can be heard from the Tchaikovsky National Academy of Music, a Soviet Baroque-style building near the square. The protesters’ hand-painted banners demanding the restoration of Ukraine’s constitution, union with the West and an end to waste and corruption have been replaced by a single giant sign that in bold Cyrillic letters says: “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to Heroes!” Blue and yellow national flags are everywhere.

A vender holding a pair of white pigeons approaches and plants one of the birds on my shoulder. For the equivalent of 25 cents, I can have a photo of the peace pigeon and me. I decline, insistently. I’m from New York, I explain. I hate pigeons.

Much of the damage to the city’s buildings and monuments has been repaired. The cobblestones that protesters ripped from the streets and hurled at security forces have been replaced. Once clogged fountains flow, and meticulously maintained green spaces abound. There is no trash. Kiev, a city of 2.8 million, is pristine by Western standards, and green. The city’s parks rival almost any other in Europe. But look more closely and there are vestiges of the mass demonstrations, the Russian-backed civil strife that followed and the sporadic fighting that is finally petering out in eastern Ukraine after the declaration of an improbable cease-fire in September.

Just off the square is a row of photographs of mostly young men surrounded by flowers, candles and an occasional cross. Ukrainians stop by these memorials to the “Heavenly Hundred,” those who died in the protests. The “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to Heroes!” billboard covers the façade of the historic Trade Unions Building, which was set on fire during the February protests. Though the square and the city seem peaceful enough, Ukrainians remain concerned that fighting could erupt again if Russia wills it, shattering what remains of this beleaguered land’s economy and hope for what several younger Ukrainians called a “normal” country.

This is not my first trip to Ukraine, or the region. When I was based in Paris in the mid-’80s, I traveled widely in what was then the Soviet Union. I had a rule: Never visit a “hero city.” The designation meant that the place had been flattened in fighting during World War II. Unlike Minsk in Byelorussia (present-day Belarus) virtually destroyed in what Soviets called the “Great Patriotic War,” about half of Kiev—a magnificent city on the Dnieper River—survived. In 1986 when I first visited the Ukraine (which means “borderland”), the government took pains to emphasize the country’s umbilical connection to Mother Russia and Kiev’s roots to Ukrainian and Russian nationalism. Seventy-eight percent of the 44 million Ukrainians are ethnic Ukrainians; only 17 percent are Russian. But Russian is still widely spoken in Kiev, as a first language.

Ukrainian and Russian Christian Orthodoxy was established in Kiev in the tenth century. It was here that Prince Vladimir decided to conduct a mass baptism of thousands of Russians in the Dnieper so that the soul of Russia would become Christian.

While many Ukrainians treasure their independence, Russia looms large. So, too, does Ukraine’s Soviet past, and if it were up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, its future.

My favorite Soviet throwback is the “Motherland” statue near the city’s war museum. Constructed in 1981, Mother Russia is a surreal, almost grotesque statue of stainless steel standing over 300 feet tall. Clad in a flowing Greek toga, Mother towers over the city and its churches’ golden domes. In her left hand, she holds the shield of the USSR; in her right, a gargantuan sword pointed at the sky. When I first visited, she was a compulsory stop for official visitors and Soviet schoolchildren. 
Today, young Ukrainians often mock her. “Tin tits,” they call the huge tribute to their country’s suffering and triumph.

Ukraine’s largest and most important city is also among Europe’s oldest. A Slavic commercial center between Constantinople and Scandinavia since the fifth century, Kiev has long been a magnet for commerce and religion. Its central location ensured that it would be overrun by a succession of conquerors—Khazars, Vikings and Mongols. Throughout much of its history, Ukraine has been controlled by more powerful neighbors—the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Poland and then, of course, Russia. Its freedom has been fleeting and hard-fought. In 1918, the Ukrainian People’s Republic declared independence from the Russian Empire, but soon after Kiev hosted the Red Army. From 1922 onwards Kiev was a city of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which had signed a treaty to formally join the Soviet Union. From 1934 on, Kiev was its capital. Soviet rule was brutal. Millions died in a Soviet-induced famine caused by Moscow’s collectivization policies.

Thirty years after my initial visit, Kiev is in some ways remarkably unchanged. Its most impressive and most visited sites remain gloriously intact—St. Sophia’s Cathedral, the Mariyinsky Palace, an 18th-century jewel. The meeting I’m here for—Victor Pinchuk’s 11th-annual Yalta European Strategy, a yearly gathering of diplomats, officials, scholars and journalists to discuss Ukraine’s future, a kind of Davos east—is being held at the city’s armory, Mystetskyi Arsenal, set on 25 acres of prime real estate. The building, once used for weapons’ storage, is being transformed into a massive conference center and museum of art. (For those wondering why we weren’t in Yalta: In March, Russia illegally annexed the Black Sea resort city.)

Across the street is what many regard as the historic and religious heart of the city—the spectacular honeycomb of caverns, churches and an ancient orthodox Christian monastery hidden inside the Dnieper’s hilly right bank: the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. Founded by monks in the 11th century, the Lavra had become Eastern Europe’s most important religious pilgrimage sites a century later. Monks lived, prayed and were buried in the caves.

Religious Ukrainians consider Lavra holy, the center of Orthodox Christianity. Even without foreign tourists, it is mobbed on weekends. But I have neither the time nor desire to take the two-hour audio, candlelit tour. Nor am I dressed properly for a site observant Ukrainians consider a shrine: I’m in a tank top, jeans and flip flops.

Kiev has dozens of museums and small theaters, a world-class ballet and opera companies. But I prefer to see Kiev’s “Montmartre”—Vladimirskaya Street. Narrow and steep, it ascends to the stunning St. Andrew’s Church, built on order of the Russian Empress Elizabeth by Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli in the late 18th century. It is lined by artists selling their work and souvenir stalls offering mass-produced Soviet kitsch—giant Soviet hats, combat medals and hand-painted wooden dolls (the omnipresent matryoshkas), as well as traditional Ukrainian folk crafts and replicas of saints selling for as much as $300 each. Street venders are excellent guides to a city’s pulse. What sells for how much tells a reporter much about Kiev’s economy, its inhabitants’ aspirations and their mood. Like many Ukrainians, “Alex” won’t tell me his last name—another remnant of suspicious Soviet times. He’s glad to sell me hand-embroidered tunics for a friend’s new grandson and granddaughter. But the hottest-selling items, he says, are T-shirts ($20) and baseball caps ($10–$15) that proclaim in bold Cyrillic letters “Fuck Putin.” “We can’t make them fast enough,” he laughs.

Tourism has taken a blow. In 2013, 23 million people visited Ukraine, up from 21 million the year before. Today those figures are declining. The Premier Palace Hotel, a luxury hotel, a ten-minute walk from the Maidan, is filled with fellow conferees. There are few other guests. A hotel employee tells me that more than 70 percent of her modest salary goes to rent in a flat she shares with two women in a new, poorer part of Kiev on the city’s outskirts. She says since the protests began and tourism died, a third of the staff has been fired and the survivors earn 80 percent of their former wages. (The hotel did not return a request for comment.) If it weren’t for tips, she wouldn’t eat, she says, without complaint; she knows she’s lucky to have a job. Nearly 10 percent of Ukrainians don’t. “This is a country of extremes,” she says. “We have a sliver of filthy rich people—the rest are extremely poor.” Ukraine’s tiny middle class has been in some ways the hardest hit by the war and tough economic times.

Anders Aslund, an economist with the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, says that Ukraine’s economic situation is “dire,” in what he calls a “pre-default state,” with gross domestic product falling 10 percent in a year. The country was a basket case even before the war. The corruption that prompted the revolution—and the earlier Orange Revolution in 2004, as well—is endemic.

Ten percent of G.D.P. is spent on energy subsidies and 18 percent on pensions, many of them for retired generals and thousands of other members of the old elite, says Aslund. That leaves little for the country’s working class. A significant portion of the economy is in the east, including Russian-occupied territories where the fighting has ravaged agriculture and industrial plants and mine production. Rebuilding will require billions. Much of the country’s power comes from imported Russian oil and gas, which Moscow has cut. President Petro Poroshenko, a former oligarch known as Ukraine’s “chocolate king,” whose own business suffered when Russia closed its border to his candy, has pledged dramatic reforms. But so far, Ukrainians have been disappointed by the gap between his words and deeds. The impending parliamentary elections may strengthen his political hand. But in September, Poroshenko made good on a key campaign pledge: He signed a trade agreement with the European Union and has vowed to seek full membership by 2020.

Ukraine’s historic divide today, a diplomat tells me over fruit tea at a café in Podil, one of the oldest, hilliest and most striking parts of the city, is neither about ethnicity nor language nor even geography. Traditionally, the western part of the country closest to Poland leans West; industrial, Russo-phile eastern Ukraine seeks closer ties to Moscow. But polls have repeatedly shown since the revolution that a majority of Ukrainians, no matter where they live and what language they dream in, favor independence over union with Russia. The divide is generational: Ukrainians born after, or who came of age after their country became independent in 1991 tend to favor independence. Older Ukrainians nostalgic for the not-so-good but stable days of Soviet rule tend to favor closer association with Russia.

It is younger Ukrainians who fill Kiev’s cafes, bars, offices and rock concerts. They travel Europe on little money (per capita income in 2013 was $3,900, according to the World Bank). They hunger for products and the culture of the West; they are the interns and guides at Pinchuk’s conference. 

Pinchuk, another oligarch whose steel-pipe business has been hurt by his pro-Western stance, has also founded one of Ukraine’s first museums of modern art. On my last evening in Kiev, I visit the PinchukArtCentre. It is jammed with people—overwhelmingly young. Hundreds a day have come to see the latest exhibit by Nikita Kadan, Zhanna Kadyrova and Artem Volokitin, three young Ukrainian artists. Kadyrova’s creation is a large burnt wall in the shape of Ukraine, covered on one side with ash, on the other with Soviet-style wallpaper. A piece of the wall lies at the far end of the room—Crimea. It, too, is ash-covered but alone, severed from its natural place in the wall. Volokitin’s Sisters is a black-and-white video featuring four sisters seated side by side, staring into the camera. They are solemn, occasionally weeping; we don’t know why. Kadan has created a series of illustrated plates featuring drawings called “Procedure Room.” Only when you look closely do you realize that they consist of various forms of torture used by security forces. The exhibition, which captures the city’s mood, is called “Fear and Hope.”


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