Ukraine on My Mind

Kari Liuhto,
Professor, Director,
Pan-European Institute,
Turku School of Economics at the University of Turku,

September 1987: Along with ten of my young compatriots, I arrived at the central railway station of the Ukrainian capital with the aim of taking up studies at Kyiv State University, today known as the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. The unseasonal warmth and the city’s verdant parks could not quite conceal its greyness, and for a capital of two million, its inhabitants seemed to me surprisingly sluggish.

The moribund Soviet economy manifested itself in the austere shelves of Kyiv’s supermarkets, at the heart of the region known as Europe’s breadbasket. These stark realities were also reflected in the Soviet anecdotes with which we were regaled during our stay. According to one, the socialism had even managed to make all the sand of the Sahara disappear in only a few decades.

But to our relief, the lives of Western students were rendered somewhat less ascetic by the reforms ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev. The non-state-run cooperative cafés, for instance, offered a welcome change of dietary pace from the bread, eggs, and canned goods that constituted the entire selection available at our state-owned local shop.

Travelling the country was largely off the table as well, as University policy was to confiscate foreign students’ passports and replace them with state internal documents known as propiskas. Thus we were reduced to staying within a few dozen kilometres of central Kyiv, our opportunities for regional sightseeing and cultural immersion severely curtailed. Nor did it help matters that Kyivans, fearful of repercussions by the KGB, conspicuously avoided contact with foreign students.

While my interactions with the locals were regrettably few, they appeared to me reasonably content with their lives. I was taken aback by the sight of families out in the park with their children, ostensibly unconcerned by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that had befallen the country only the previous year. Though the KGB knew very about the seriousness of the accident, the information on the accident was disclosed to common people much later. Now a popular tourist destination, Chernobyl lies only a hundred kilometres from Kyiv.

Soviet television programming largely revolved around entertainment and culture, with news broadcasts limited to statements by party leadership and panegyrics on the achievements of socialism. Genuine reports from the West were nonexistent. I am put in mind of the propaganda pieces about America’s homeless and unemployed, designed, perhaps, to dampen Soviet citizens’ desire to emigrate.

In those days, life in Kyiv had a decided serenity about it. All was well, or at least appeared to be. But a mere two years later the world witnessed the dissolution of the socialist states’ economic organisation COMECON as well as the Soviet Union itself, and Ukraine declared its sovereignty. Lurking behind the Iron Curtain, it transpired, had been a giant with feet of clay, whose military strength and operations such as the occupation of Afghanistan had served to shield its internal weakness from view.

Military aggression by authoritarian regimes is not, of course, merely a thing of the past, but neither is their superficial stability, punctuated without warning by internal crises and their possible corollaries, radical political transformations and even social collapse.

November 2019: Even though the war in eastern Ukraine has raged for half a decade, most of the country’s 40 million inhabitants are able to lead normal lives.

I have made four visits to Ukraine this year, including one with my family. My wife was rather enchanted with the architecture of Lviv’s old town, while the fashion offerings of Chernivtsi, created in collaboration with Italian and Spanish designers, made an impression on my daughter. We were far from the only tourists there, as 15 million foreigners visit Ukraine every year, and this figure is growing.

Despite the fact that the most acute phase of the Ukrainian conflict seems to have passed, we should not forget that, from the standpoint of international law, Russia’s occupation of Crimea continues and the war in the Donbass region rages on. Nearly 15,000 people have been killed and almost two million Ukrainians displaced from their homes, with many forced to leave the country in search of employment in the West as well as the East.

Partly as a protest against the fecklessness and rampant corruption of their leaders, the spring 2019 presidential election saw Ukrainians flock to a political outsider. Chosen as Ukraine’s new head of state in a landslide victory, Volodomyr Zelensky’s mandate is to tackle corruption, put an end to the war in eastern Ukraine and stimulate economic prosperity.

While glimmers of hope have come in the form of a recent prisoner exchange between the warring parties (despite the recent prisoner exchange, still nearly 100 Ukrainian political prisoners are held in Russian prisons and some 250 Ukrainian prisoners are held by separatists of Donbass), a partial withdrawal of troops from the conflict zone, and a rapid economic growth rate of almost five percent, Ukrainians’ standard of living still lags far behind that of even the poorest EU member state, Bulgaria. When it comes to corruption, the gulf between Ukraine and the rest of Europe stretches even wider. But every marathon, as they say, begins with the first step.

As I reflect on the present situation in Ukraine and the time I spent there as a student more than three decades ago, I am reminded of Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s song “Georgia on My Mind”, whose nostalgic and peaceable lyrics befit today’s Ukraine as well as they ever did the American state of Georgia or its namesake republic in the Caucasus region – although its original dedicatee was probably Carmichael’s sister, Georgia.

In spite of its tumultuous history (or perhaps precisely because of it), the forty-million-strong Ukrainian people has earned its place as a nation among nations over the course of the past three decades. Moreover, they have made no secret of their desire for closer integration with the West. More than a hundred Ukrainians gave their lives to see this dream realized when protests against the authoritarian rule of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych rocked the streets of Kyiv in early 2014.

The substantial progress already made by Ukraine as an independent country cannot, however, undo the geographic realities which force it into an eternal balancing act between East and West. Such is the lot of nations located on geopolitical fault lines, Ukraine and Finland included. There is no doubt that Russia will continue to wield its clout as a regional power to influence Ukraine’s future development. But as long as the Ukrainian people remains united, Ukraine has the capacity to resist external aggression and control its own destiny.

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