A year ago, presidential election protests shook Ukraine. Vera Rich, who observed the rerun of those elections, returns to find a nation reborn, but its personality as yet unformed
On November 22, 2004, Ukraine's Orange Revolution began with demonstrators in Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosty (Independence Square) claiming that the results of the recent presidential election had been falsified.
For almost three weeks the demonstrations continued, until the Constitutional Court ordered a rerun of the elections. The result, a clear win for the pro-reform Viktor Yushchenko, was then challenged by the loser, Viktor Yanukovych, and it was only after the latter's allegations had been carefully considered - and dismissed - by the Constitutional Court that Yushchenko was inaugurated on January 30 this year.
"It was a revolution with a young face," said Dmytro, a linguistics student from the Kiev-Mohyla Academy (a private post-independence foundation). "There have been student protests before, like in 1990, but then the students depended on the older generation to tell them what to do. In 2004 the older people depended on the young."
The older generation, however, was quick to respond. "Our rector, Vyacheslav Brykhovestskyi, cancelled all lectures and we went to the Maidan. We were there for 17 days (until the Constitutional Court called for new elections). Sometimes we spent the nights there."
Not only Kiev responded. There were students and young people from all over Ukraine," recalls Dmytro, "from Kiev, of course, and from Lviv and the other universities of central and western Ukraine, but also from the east - from Donetsk and Luhansk, and all the heartland of the Yanukovych camp. I made many good friends there."
Remarkably, although the Kiev Maidan was the main focus of the revolution, outside observers trawling the web for information often found that the fullest and most up-to-date information came from sites based not in Kiev, but hundreds of kilometres away in Ukraine's "western capital", Lviv, run by two of the leading academic institutions there, the Lviv "Ivan Franko"
National University (LIFNU) and the Catholic University of Lviv. This was in a large part due to the stance of the LIFNU rector, Ivan Vakarchuk.
In August 2004, the then Government of Ukraine began pressuring the heads of universities and colleges to ensure that staff and students voted for Yanukovych, the candidate favoured by outgoing president Leonid Kuchma.
Vakarchuk resisted and (with no great success) urged his fellow rectors throughout Ukraine to take a similar stand. And when the protests began, and the LIFNU students declared a strike, Vakarchuk at once agreed that "this is no time for studying" and suspended all classes. As the situation built up, he recalls, "we worked to bring it to the attention of whoever we could - to President Chirac, to the Supreme Council of Ukraine, to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to the academic communities of Ukraine and Russia, and to diplomatic circles when it became known that Russia was also sending its military special divisions on to our territory. We produced multilingual translations of all these documents.
And we are now preparing a day-by-day chronicle of events in our university."
LIFNU was particularly well suited to this translation work since it has a well-developed department of translation studies, headed by Roksolana Zorivchak, who in 1991-92 was Ukrainian lectrice at University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Several senior students of the department served as translators for the OSCE and other international observer teams. "We drove round about 20 polling stations,"
recalls Bohdan, a PhD student from the department, "and then, when the polls closed, we stayed at one of the smallest stations to check the count.
Everything was done very correctly and we saw no major breaches of the rules."
One Lviv student played a special role. Sofiya Fedyna, a PhD student of international relations at LIFNU who last year won the student of the year title for Lviv province, had already begun to establish a second career as a pop singer. Pro-Yushchenko demonstrations began in Lviv almost as soon as in Kiev, and so, Fedyna says, "I took part in the revolution from the first day. I was singing at the central stage in Lviv near the Opera House, and also working at the Lviv headquarters of (Yushchenko's ally) Yulia Tymoshenko, collecting food, warm clothes and money for the protesters in the Maidan in Kiev."
During the second week, Fedyna went to Kiev and met Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Yushchenko. Pop music played a major part in the Maidan protests, and Fedyna sang there several times during her visit. She received an invitation to sing at the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe, and has been invited back to Edinburgh as part of the new Festival of Politics in August 2006. A CD of her music is about to appear, and she sings some of her "Orange" songs in English translation.
Yet significantly, Fedyna does not intend to abandon international affairs for music. "If we compare the events of the Orange Revolution with a human lifespan, then we can see that the revolution itself was only the conception of the future child," she says. "To be born it needs nine months, and then of course much more time and effort is needed to bring it up and to form a new strong and successful personality. It is the same for us."
Other LIFNU students played a less colourful, but no less important part.
"I was three days at the Maidan," reported Taras, a graduate student of Ukrainian literature. "My brother took me by car. We were there three days, but then we had to come home as his son, my nephew, was ill. After that, I helped with the university's website. The university was on strike, of course, but we came in just to deal with the news."
A year later, how do the students view the Orange Revolution? Out of a gathering of about 100 LIFNU students I spoke to, all but two felt that things had changed for the better, and those two were undecided. The more cautious, such as Taras, consider that: "It is too soon to tell, and much will depend on the parliamentary elections in March" - a sentiment shared by Hanna, a PhD student of translation studies, whose father is a pro-reform MP. Some expressed sadness about the split between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko. One girl said: "We need all democrats to be united."
One first-year linguistics student, Oksana, was quite emphatic about the improvement. She had - to her lasting regret - accepted a gap-year exchange place in the US and missed the revolution. "Some people don't notice the changes," she says. "But when I came home in June, everything seemed much easier and freer." As a result of the revolution, she is considering changing the focus of her studies from translation and interpreting to politics and international affairs.
Vakarchuk shares this view: "Even before (the Orange Revolution) we spoke openly, clearly and so as to be understood by all, but now we can speak without inner qualms. And the difference is that now such behaviour is not as dangerous as it was a year ago... We have become aware of the possibility of changing our government, changing the way others treat us." Of course, he says, there has been some disillusionment since "our hopes were too high, and a huge nation like ours cannot change its whole lifestyle overnight". And Ukraine still faces many problems on its European path; there are people (and a few political parties) who hanker for the Soviet past, to say nothing of the problem of "the unfriendly policy of Russia".
There have, of course, been some hitches. When Yushchenko dismissed his entire cabinet in the summer, Drozdovskyi said, "some people felt confused.
But nowadays they understand that it was a must and that such things are also a part of democratic change".
Meanwhile, Ukraine's universities are set on their own European path.
Ukraine signed up for the Bologna process in May, with a target date of 2010 for the harmonisation process, and Yushchenko's promise of greater university autonomy is being introduced in ten flagship institutions, including LIFNU.