It can be tempting, having survived through the past few turbulent years in the UK, to think that its politics are uniquely messy, dysfunctional, or just plain weird. A couple of recent visits to Ukraine put paid to such ideas for me.
The recent TV series, Chernobyl, as well as the accompanying media coverage of the area, highlighted one of Ukraine’s most dramatic events of the past 35 years – the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. But go a little further back and you have the horrors and tragedy of World War II, where Ukraine lost 6 million of its citizens (around one eight of its population). And soon after the war ended, tens of thousands (and possibly vastly more) died in a famine which was inflicted on Ukraine, in effect, by the Communist leadership; fear of disappointing Stalin meant over-reporting of crop yields in distant Ukraine, and essentially the entire harvest was dispatched to other parts of the union, leaving Ukrainians dying of starvation in huge numbers. “Ukraine” means “at the edge” in Russian, which from Moscow’s perspective is what it was in terms of its empire. Stalin wanted to teach these peasants who resisted collectivisation a lesson, and so many believe the famine was no accident.
In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and, to the joy and relief of many, Ukraine won its independence. But the drama certainly didn’t stop there.
In 2004, after a disputed election, Ukraine experienced the first of its post-independence revolutions. The supreme court ruled that the election result that had indicated a victory for the pro-Russia candidate Viktor Yanukovich (let’s call him “Viktor 1”) was fraudulent, and the Orange Revolution brought huge protests to Maidan Square in Kiev. Eventually, after a re-running of the election, his opponent pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko (“Viktor 2”) was elected, but not before this young, good-looking politician had been poisoned by a serious toxin, almost dying, and ageing about twenty years in the space of a few months. Most observers suspected Russia.
The West celebrated this victory. But the party didn’t last, and by 2006 Yanukovich (“Viktor 1”) was back in power. The following year Yushchenko’s (“Viktor 2”) Orange revolution comrade, Yulia Timoshenko, became PM. In 2010, however, the pendulum swung back and Yanukovich reclaimed the top job.
By 2014 revolution was afoot again. The “Revolution of Dignity” (also known as “Euromaidan”) saw Maidan Square rocked by protests after Yanukovich (“Victor 1”) decided not to sign a preliminary agreement with the EU, as he had previously signalled, but instead to join a Customs Union with Russia. 98 people died in the resulting riots. Yanukovich was eventually removed and fled to Russia where he is still hiding. His ridiculously ornate, over-the-top palace on the outskirts of Kiev, where he lived with his family, can be visited today and is known locally as the”Museum of Corruption” (see photo below)!
In response to the ousting of their man, Russia stepped up the pressure: in February 2014 Russia annexed Crimea. A controversial referendum a month later saw 97% of Crimeans vote to join Russia, a result not recognised anywhere else but de facto control was established and, to all intents and purposes, Crimea has been a part of Russia since.
Eastern Ukraine, generally more positively disposed to Russia, was also targeted and destabilized by local militias with Russian support fighting against Ukraine’s army. While the West was sympathetic to Ukraine, they were not invested enough to do anything of substance.
But the drama and the twists didn’t stop there either.
Fast forward to 2018 and a comedian stars in a Ukrainian-based and Ukrainian-made Netflix series called Servant of the People. It is the story of a teacher with no political experience whose rant about corruption goes viral and he somehow ends up as President. In 2019, the lead actor who played the President in the series, a man with no political experience, and without any party or policy platform, ran for President – and won with a landslide. He clearly looked the part!
His party, hastily thrown together in the aftermath of the Presidential election, and named after the TV show, “Servant of the People”, boasts sportsmen, artists and actors as parliamentary candidates. They are widely tipped to gain an unprecedented majority of seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections. A coalition with Holos, a newly created party, is also being discussed. Their leader is the lead singer with a rock band.
Previous shenanigans in elections have seen a party lead by Darth Vader, and a parliamentary candidate legally change their surname to “Against all candidates” in an ingenious way to capitalise on voters’ disaffection. The UK’s Monster Raving Loony Party of the 1980s seem positively quaint and tame by comparison.
Perhaps one more character worthy of a Netflix drama is Nadiya Savchenko. A former Ukrainian soldier, she was captured by Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 and brought to Russia to face trial. She promptly went on hunger strike. Her trial was broadcast in Russia and Ukraine. Wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the Ukrainian trident and from within a cage she sparred with the judge, refusing to acknowledge the court’s authority. Her grit, bluntness, and fierce determination contrasted with the behaviour of Ukraine’s politicians in the face of Russian’s aggression and made her a hero in Ukraine.
She was released in 2016, as part of a prisoner exchange for two Russian spies caught on Ukrainian territory, and returned to Ukraine a bona fide hero. Many tipped her to become president, such was her popularity amongst the populace, and she was quickly elected to parliament with a huge majority. However, Savchenko was arrested earlier this year (2019) for planning a coup, including an alleged plan to blow up Ukraine’s parliament, with logistical support believed to be coming from Russia! She has now been stripped by parliament of the immunity from prosecution she had been given on her return from Russia and awaits trial. Conspiracy theories abound: well, of course they would.
In light of all this, I have to conclude that Brexit, Theresa, Boris, Jeremy 1, Jeremy 2 et al, are a rather colourless bunch of characters and storylines; Ukraine is where the drama is at.
Yet despite all of this drama, Ukraine remains a safe, varied and fascinating place to visit – with interesting narratives and characters anywhere you care to look. Why not look have a look at what we offer in Ukraine?