When government troops burst into the downtown Kiev offices of an opposition party on Dec. 9, party member Ostap Semerak called the situation “insane.” If so, it was the latest mix of rage and craziness in Ukraine’s tragic history.
My great-grandparents were apparently among the millions who died during the famine intentionally brought about by Josef Stalin in the 1930s and the holocaust decreed by Adolf Hitler in the 1940s. Ukraine finally gained its independence two decades ago, and the pro-democracy Orange Revolution of 2004 seemed to put it on the road to political freedom.
Not so fast: Earlier this month President Viktor Yanukovych gave in to Russian boss Vladimir Putin’s pressure and attempted to ditch his country’s growing ties with western and central Europe. That brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the capital city’s streets, where they toppled a statue of former Soviet dictator Vladimir Lenin, sang the national anthem, blockaded key government buildings, and shouted at those in the buildings, “Resignation!” and “Down with the gang!”
Protesters occupied a city administration building. The Associated Press reported that they planned to defend themselves against riot police “with wood planks, metal rods, and bottles of sunflower oil, hoping to make riot police slip if they advanced.” Vitali Klitschko, head of one of the main opposition parties, UDAR (Punch), also happens to be the world boxing heavyweight champion: He asked police “to restrain from using force against peaceful demonstrators.”
Reporting from Ukraine a year ago, I saw that on billboards the faces of political leaders looked as if they had smallpox: Almost every billboard had suffered paintball attacks. Leaders of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are often no more popular than politicians: Many church hierarchs enjoy governmental patronage and provide no real alternative to worship of the state, which means ordinary Ukrainians often turn to worship of the bottle.
Headlines tell of the demonstrators’ desire to bond not with Russia but with the 28-nation European Union. Behind the headlines lies history: Ukraine suffered under Soviet rule for 70 years, and before that the tyranny of the czars. Such a legacy is hard to shake. When liberation miraculously came in 1991, government leaders often sold state-owned industries to their pals, who became rich. Andrei Barkov, managing director of Nadiya Ukrainy, a HOPE International maker of micro-loans, told me last fall of “huge industrial operations privately owned by guys who wear Versace and have a dozen mistresses.”
Some business owners want to turn west toward Europe and others north toward Moscow: The battle is philosophical for many demonstrators but pragmatic for many industrialists. Missionary trainer Shannon Ford emailed me from Kiev that the problem is complex: “Christian leaders know that Europe may offer some economic or political benefit to Ukraine’s people, but that Europe also has a moral and spiritual climate that could negatively impact the people and the Church. Some have said that stronger ties with Europe could open the way for more Ukrainian missionaries serving in Europe which could be a step toward spiritual revival.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry didn’t help earlier this month when he suggested that his priority was American ties with Russia, not with “the Ukraine.” That irritated Ukrainians who will not say “the Ukraine,” a wording that suggests Ukraine is merely a region of Russia’s empire rather than an independent nation. Missionary Ford noted the direction from which real help could come: “Prayer has been continuous as people are seeking God’s will to be done. Even among the demonstrators there is a prayer tent on Independence Square.”