When we were in Ukraine a year ago much of the country seemed divided between joining western Europe on one side and Russia on the other. Now, the Ukrainians are fighting over the direction it will go. The public demonstrations we saw have turned into battles, with Russia pursuing its own agenda.
Everyone we spoke with last Fall was frustrated with the situation. After 21 years of independence from the Soviet Union, the economy still was struggling. Everyone was equal under the Soviets, but some were more equal than others – as George Orwell pointed out. This class system still prevailed in Ukraine, with a minority thriving but the majority struggling. Some young people seemed better able to cope with the changing world. They had both the energy and the skills to meet the demands of a free market. Older men and women had, for the most part, been left behind. They were the ones we saw in menial jobs or behind tables and stands trying to sell souvenirs to tourists--often their own possessions. We also encountered angry and restless young men who weren’t able to get a start on the ladder upward.
Most of those under forty wanted to embrace the West, join the European Union, abandon the patronage of Russia. To them western Europe meant progress, hope for the future, the freedom to lead their own economic lives. They also saw the EU as way to escape the corruption plaguing their country. They hoped for a stable currency and fair wages once they become part of Europe. Above all, they yearned for a government that would respect them.
Some older Ukrainians, however, feared the West, its materialistic values and lack of morality. In Kiev, we saw a parade of priests and nuns and Orthodox Church followers marching on the main boulevard, carrying banners and passing out leaflets condemning homosexuality. As the New York Times recently reported, conservatives there worry about “European” values and equate the EU with loose living and perversion.
Memories are long in this part of the world. The Soviet Union, after all, deliberately crippled the Ukrainian economy when Stalin instigated the great famine of 1932-33, demanding that Ukrainian grain be sold abroad to support industrialization elsewhere in the Soviet Union. People reminded us that more than seven million peasants, mostly children, starved to death in one year. They also told us that when the Soviet Union was collapsing the Ukrainian Communist Party bosses were the first to personally embrace the free market and privatization of business and industry. As a result, some Ukrainians today definitely are more equal than others. We saw clusters of big black cars and the husky men dressed in black who invariably came with them, while other people rode old buses and trams or drove ancient Soviet Ladas that were a joke 30 years ago.
This past year, many of the people in eastern Ukraine have embraced their ties to Russia, which has moved aggressively to claim the eastern chunk of the country as theirs. No one we spoke with predicted this, but now it seems to have been inevitable.
If the people of Ukraine did celebrate Thanksgiving, I suspect that they’d be giving thanks for having survived thus far, as well as mourning those who have not. Maybe none of us has a reason to be complacent this year. Although the United States economy has improved greatly during the past six years, many people here are struggling to survive. Like Ukraine and all too many other countries, we have the Haves and the Have Nots, those who are “more equal.”
Maybe what all of us most have to be thankful for is hope, hope that tomorrow will be better, that some kind of justice will emerge, and that we’ll continue to survive—and perhaps find a little more security and happiness.