New Year's in the New Ukraine

Fireworks in Independence Square
Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 31 2004 1:37 PM

New Year's in the New Ukraine

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Ringing in a new era in Kiev
Ringing in a new era in Kiev

KIEV, Ukraine—A little over a month ago, my best friend called me from Kiev, where he was on assignment. "I have never been happier in my life," he screamed into the phone. "You can't imagine what I've seen and what I've felt!" I could, actually: I've covered revolutions before. It really is one of the best things in a journalist's life.

This is why I am here today. I came to cover the revote in the presidential election. After the sitting president and prime minister tried to falsify the results in November's election, millions of people flooded city squares across the country. They also blocked access to all the government buildings in Kiev, the capital. For a while, it looked like there may be bloodshed, but then the Supreme Court ordered a revote: The revolution won, peacefully. Victor Yushchenko, the candidate of the revolution, won last Sunday's re-vote by more than 8 percent, though the loser still refuses to concede defeat. I've stuck around in case something goes awry—though it certainly doesn't look like it will—but also so I can be around for the ultimate celebration: New Year's in a country that believes it is entering a new era. New Year's is the most important holiday on the calendar in this part of the world, so my family has come from Moscow to join me. I want my 7-year-old son to remember this revolution.

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Giving his victory speech in Independence Square two days ago, the president-elect said: "This year we are not going to celebrate New Year's on the couch at home. We are going to celebrate it in the square." He promises to be there just before midnight.

His speech was not yet over when the most spectacular fireworks display began right over the square. It was a perfect metaphor for the revolution: The fireworks exploding overhead would have been too close for comfort if the people standing there hadn't felt invincible. But they had come right up against confrontation, they had faced down violence—and won. So it was right that what sounded like artillery fire was merely a show.

A man standing next to me trained his videophone on the fireworks display. The picture on his little screen reminded me of Soviet-era postcards of fireworks at the Kremlin and Red Square. This was when I finally felt what I'd expected would hit me sooner or later: an acute pang of jealousy. A display like this in Moscow would inevitably occur against the backdrop of symbols of the Soviet past. Same with the language of revolution: In Russian, it's the discredited language of Soviet ideology; in Ukrainian, it is the rhetoric of liberation. "We have rehabilitated the word we," says Oksana Zabuzhko, a best-selling Ukrainian-language author and one of Kiev's most prominent intellectuals. And I think the reason Ukrainians were able to do that is that their revolution spoke Ukrainian, a language that was, in a sense, lucky to have been suppressed rather than hijacked during the Soviet period. So now Yushchenko and his coalition partners can say words like we, the people, or our future—and sound like they are talking about the Ukrainian people and their future rather than recycling the long-discredited symbols and promises of the past.

This is the advantage of politicians in former colonies: Nationalism, which is always the easiest and most obvious choice of ideology for uniting people behind you, actually has a chance of being progressive and even enlightened in these places. The trick is to recognize how briefly that can be true. Russian-speakers in Ukraine (these can include ethnic Ukrainians, especially those living in the east or the Crimea, while in the western part of the country, ethnic Russians are likely to speak Ukrainian as their first language) are already on guard, wary of becoming marginalized in their own country. The revolutionary politicians are aware of these fears and have tried to calm them, but so far they clearly lack the sensitivity to finesse the many cultural, social, and linguistic pitfalls in a country where a large minority—the Russian speakers—are all the more afraid of being trodden upon precisely because they used to be the privileged part of the population. Following Yushchenko's speech, for example, the organizers of the rally, which has been going on for more than a month, played the Ukrainian national anthem followed by an Orthodox hymn called "God Save Ukraine." Nearly 2 million Ukrainians are Muslims (mostly ethnic Tartars)—one of the largest Muslim populations in any European country—and another half a million or so are Jews; the number of Catholics in Ukraine is the subject of endless debate, but 7 percent of the population seems a reasonable guess. For now, the Orthodox Ukrainians at the helm of the revolution are happy to include all-comers in the celebration, and the minorities feel generous enough to accept, but, with issues of national, ethnic, and language identity on everyone's mind, it may turn out to be a very short honeymoon.

But for now this always-hospitable city is bursting with a welcoming sort of joy. A few weeks ago, when I e-mailed a colleague—an opposition journalist here who has gone through hell in the last few years—with a question, she answered my query and added, "Just come. It's unforgettable. The mood of the people has changed completely. They are so proud, they all feel that they are individuals, a people. I am so proud that I live in Ukraine. I dreamed of being proud of my country."

I think it's going to be a great party.

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