This little known fact, long suppressed by Soviet censors, helps to explain why, after two months of harsh winter weather, Ukrainians are still manning barricades against their government.
Beneath the amiable, and sometimes jovial, exterior of many Ukrainians is a hidden self-discipline, nerves of steel, and an impressive ability to cooperate under duress for a common cause.
Many Westerners, myself included, assumed that the pro-Europe protests of late November would blow over after a week or two. Protesters would fold their tents and redirect their political energies toward the March 2015 Presidential election.
Two months later, in face of riot police clubbings, sniper fire from rooftops, and drenchings by fire hoses in Arctic weather, Ukrainians still stand tall. In fact, there are more protesters than ever. President Yanukovych is tossing concession after concession, hoping to avoid an early, South American-style departure from a back door of the Presidential Palace.
Yanukovych, a 63-year-old Soviet man, faces a new, post-Soviet generation of Ukrainians. They think of themselves as Europeans. And, little understood outside of Ukraine, much of this generation grew up worshipping the feats of the UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Study photos of the demonstrations: increasingly, you will see the red and black flag of the UPA. Listen for the ritual chant: “Glory to Ukraine – Glory to her Heroes.” That is the old UPA greeting from the 1940s.
What also drives the protesters? Sharp knowledge of the neighborhood.
To the North is Belarus, and to the East is Russia. Belarus is run by a healthy 59-year-old dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. Russia is run by a healthy, 61-year-old, authoritarian, Vladimir Putin. It may only be biology that will stop these two men from running their countries for another 15 years. With both countries locked in the political deep freeze, Ukrainians can clearly see their future in this Slavic troika — and they don’t want it.
In the Kremlin’s worldview, Ukrainians are falling victim to the eternal anti-Russian alliance of Poland-Lithuania-Sweden. Once again, these historic enemies of Russia are thrusting down where they do not belong, threatening Russia’s Black Sea underbelly.
Putin’s attempt to export his economic and political model to Ukraine seems doomed to failure.
Russia, the Saudi Arabia of the North, floats on a sea of oil and gas. Putin can spend $50 billion on the Sochi Olympics, allow half of the money to be stolen, and no one will raise a peep. Why? Because there is money left over to pay salaries and pensions on time.
But Ukraine is a normal country. Like France or Brazil, it is forced to make products other people want to buy and to live largely within its means. The Russian model does not work in Ukraine which exports corn and steel.
In a tight economy, unchecked corruption is a driver of protest. On the Maidan protest square, there is a widespread conviction that one of the President’s sons Oleksandr, a trained dentist, has worked hard during his father’s first 1,000 days in office. His business empire is believed to be now worth nearly half a billion dollars.
Protesters say the politically connected steal businesses. Entrepreneurs are wary of starting new companies. In this environment, the best option for young people is to emigrate to Western Europe to work as second class citizens.
This explains why Ukrainian protesters say they fight for “European values.” This is shorthand for courts, judges and prosecutors that crack-down on corruption and the theft of businesses by powerful politicians. This is the crucial software of a modern market economy.
Modern Russia lacks the above. As a result, Putin has lost Ukrainians’ hearts and minds. And $15 billion in Russian credits are not turning Ukrainians around.
Further driving the protests is President Yanukovych’s surprisingly inept handling of the demonstrations.
He played the geopolitical game well, walking the European Union to the altar last November, and putting Putin into fits. By doing this fake move to the west, Yanukovych was able to shake the Kremlin down for the $15 billion in aid.
But on the domestic front, time and time again, his security forces overreacted. Each time the protest spirit was lagging, a smart phone video would capture his riot police committing a new atrocity. In response, the EuroMaidan protest square would pop back up again, from 2,000 people to 200,000.
In the latest video to go viral, riot police can be seen stripping a man of his traditional Cossack uniform, then making him stand naked in the snow while policemen kick and taunt him.
Patriarch Filaret, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, has said this Cossack symbolizes Ukraine: naked, tortured but holding his head high and not surrendering to brutal force.
Indeed, some people think Yanukovych is dealing with the opposition because his government is running out of bodyguards. Hundreds of riot policemen have been injured, and several units in the western part of the country have switched sides. The Ukrainian Army leadership has made it clear that it will not move out of the barracks in this political battle. Equally important, Yanukovych’s oligarch supporters may be calculating that it is best to reform now than to face a revolutionary government that might nationalize their assets.
The emergence of a pro-European, anti-corruption government in Ukraine could prove to be an existential challenge to Putin. With pro-Russian groups in Crimea toying with secession, Russia’s President might be tempted to send Russian “peacekeepers” to Ukraine, a la Prague 1968. But he will have to wait one month. Acting now would spoil his long awaited $50 billion coming out party for “The New Russia” — the Sochi Winter Olympics, just across the Black Sea from Ukraine.
So, for now, the red and black UPA flags proliferate at demonstrations, waving over the coffins of martyred protesters. The flags signal no compromise, no retreat. The colors stand for “Ukrainian red blood spilled on Ukrainian black earth.” As it looks now, the only thing that will melt the snow and ice barricades in Kyiv may be general elections in May.