In 1998 my family returned to the U.S. from our first home leave overseas, for what eventually ended up being twelve years living and working in Ukraine—including experiencing first-hand Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. News reports in recent days have rekindled memories of our Ukrainian experiences. My own personal recollections lead me to believe that what Ukraine is experiencing now is not, as some outsiders might think, merely a new chapter in an old Cold War struggle between East and West. The protestors are fighting for more than freedom for freedom’s sake, but a freedom with dignity that has been out of reach for far too long.
Let me illustrate with a family anecdote: One evening over dinner at our eighth-floor Kiev apartment, located not far from the parliament building, our oldest son—a wise lad of eight years—matter-of-factly asserted, “You know what? There are a lot more Mercedes in Ukraine than there are Fords in America.” At least regarding Kiev, he was correct.
This in a country—larger than France and located in the middle of Europe—whose average monthly wage, at that time, was easily equivalent to what an American teenager might typically spend on a summer road trip. Yet, whose post-Soviet property snatching oligarchs commanded political power and wealth that would make Bill Gates blush. And that power increased as they made deals with each other and with Western firms.
Power was to be jealously protected … apparently at all costs.
Almost sixteen years later from the comfort of our living room in Ohio, I watched protestors savagely beaten, with daily accounts of torture by crucifixion, mouths sewn up with shoe-maker’s thread, kidnappings, and officially sanctioned government snipers shooting for the head and heart.
These events in Ukraine are reminiscent of developments in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Animal Farm. Recall the pups raised by Napoleon, the Stalinist pig, to be his secret police, just as recently dismissed President Yanukovych used riot police against peaceful protestors. Similarly, clever-speaking Moses the raven, who represents the Patriarch of Moscow in the novel, is a role imitated by the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine: supporting the corrupt regime, church officials promised stability and wealth in association with the Sugar Candy Mountain of the north.
Orwell, however, had not foreseen the Ukrainian storks—the bringers of life and of Spring. Perhaps because he was as pessimistic as ole Benjamin the mule, Orwell did not foresee leaders arising from salt-of-the-earth folk. Indeed, one of those is my son’s godfather—praying for and struggling with protestors on the Maidan (Independence Square): Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek (Eastern Rite) Catholic Church.
Bishop Gudziak has been on the Maidan with Ukrainians of all faiths since the popular uprising started last November. His message is one of peace and dignity and courage—not about grabbing political power. He has consistently supported the European aspirations of Ukrainians, encouraging Ukraine’s citizens not merely to “seek” what Europe offers economically (Matthew 19:24 precludes this), but for Ukraine to offer its own rich traditions and wisdom to help revitalize a “tired Europe,” as the good bishop says. Indeed, to help heal Western Europe of its profoundly violent anti-life (abortion) and anti-family (homosexual “marriage”) policies as well as the crass individualism and consumerism that threaten, as George Weigel recently put it, “the moral foundations necessary to sustain a free polity and a free economy … ordered to the common good,” Bishop Gudziak sees the Maidan as an opportunity for Ukrainians to give even more of themselves—to contribute to the European project, a project which, by many accounts, has lost its Christian rudder.
Unfortunately, Bishop Gudziak’s message is all but ignored or missed by Western talking heads. In a recent interview on Real News, for example, the anchors focused on sensational sound-bites that, well, “make news”: potential civil war, bloodshed, East vs. West, Russia vs. the U.S., etc. In contrast, Bishop Gudziak stressed that the Maidan was not primarily a political uprising but, first and foremost, a spiritual struggle for the dignity of the common man.
Assuming no overt actions on the part of Putin, Ukraine will resolve its own problems. However, the Russian representative to negotiations, in contrast to his European Union counterparts, did not endorse the political peace accord between President Yanukovych and the protestors signed on Friday. Russian covert actions aimed at undermining the fragile peace must be expected since without Ukraine, Russia cannot aspire to be an empire.
After all, power is to be jealously protected–apparently at all costs.
In perhaps what may turn out to be one of those epic twists of historical irony, Western talking heads will be shocked when Ukraine emerges unified with no real ethnic divisions between Russians and Ukrainians: they will have missed the boat in the same way Western analysts missed the collapse of the USSR. George Bush the elder perhaps best exemplified this myopia in his infamous Chicken Kiev speech before the Ukrainian SSR Parliament in 1991 when he labeled the aspirations of Ukrainians—themselves long-term victims of Russian nationalism—“blood-thirsty nationalism.”
Dignity is not something political scientists can easily quantify or characterize, so in most cases they are blind to the deeper sentiments driving events in Ukraine. Stephen Cohen displays his ignorance of local realities when he misrepresents Ukraine as “two countries”—playing into Putin’s aspiration to grab parts of it if cajoling Ukraine into the Eurasian Economic Union fails.
The struggle for dignity is the primary engine that drives Ukrainians—not East vs. West or other considerations of geopolitical power-dynamics. Ukrainians will be the first to encourage their moribund brothers and sisters in Russia and Belarus to struggle for their freedom; while hard to obtain, freedom is a goal worthy of human dignity. But, not in the devolved sense understood by Western Europeans, that is, freedom for its own sake. Rather, freedom must be ordered to charity and justice.
I speak from experience: four of our seven children were born in Ukraine. During our twelve years there, we witnessed the degradation of dignity on every level. Even small children learned that a small bribe from their parents helped grease the wheels in kindergarten. Westerners who are so preoccupied with the trivialities of life have little to no idea what that means.
One final anecdote: I was working in Ukraine as a gopher for a Western news organization during the initial student hunger-strikes prior to the collapse of the USSR. We would film all day, and then seek out a restaurant at night. What we saw was as close to the final scene of Animal Farm as one could get: the women of power were so into their fine foods and cosmetics and the men were so into their fine foods and women (while the students starved in the streets), that they actually resembled the corrupt autocrats the Communist revolutionaries overthrew over a half century before. Orwell described the transformation of the pig commissars into their former human oppressors through the eyes of the long-suffering animal proletariat: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”