L’viv, Ukraine — It was almost a decade ago when I last visited Ukraine, and the surface changes over that period are immediately evident. Then, my flight from Poland was met by a Soviet-era school bus, sans engine, towed by a Soviet-era tractor: a bizarre jury-rigged hybrid that carted my companions and me to a one-hour wait in a Soviet-era “VIP lounge” at the Soviet-era L’viv International Airport, while the visas we had spent the better part of a day acquiring in a classic Soviet-era bureaucratic muddle were validated. On July 3, my flight pulled up to a gleaming new terminal and, with visas no longer required, I was briskly and efficiently welcomed to Ukraine.
The externals of change are visible both in Kyiv, the national capital, and L’viv, the regional capital of western Ukraine and one of the doggedly persistent centers of Ukrainian national identity during the Soviet period.
The Kyivan skyline is dominated by recently built high-rise apartment blocks, which obscure a cityscape once defined by the distinctive golden domes of Orthodox churches. The cost of the flats in those buildings is such that Ukrainians are leaving the country in droves, unable to afford to live in a capital city whose economic life, like that of the entire country, is controlled by oligarchs allied to the corrupt and authoritarian, if formally democratic, regime of Viktor Yanukovych — a regime that has thoroughly frustrated the hopes generated by the Orange Revolution of 2004–05 and that may succeed in imploding Ukraine’s efforts to sign an accession agreement with the European Union later this year.
L’viv is also changed from a decade ago. Then, the Old Town of this city of many names (Lwow to the Poles, Lemberg to the Hapsburgs, Leopolis to others) featured interwar-era street signs in Ukrainian, Polish, and German (in the old Gothic script, no less). Today, crisp new signage in Ukrainian, with Polish equivalents beneath in smaller, Latin letters, suggests that L’viv is claiming a Ukrainian identity that has been contested for centuries, while acknowledging a cultural debt to those periods in the 19th and 20th centuries when the city was one of the great centers of Polish intellectual life — home, to, among many others, Roman Ingarden, the phenomenological philosopher whose thinking was admired by John Paul II. The Old Town is replete with tony cafés and high-end international shops — Ecco shoes, various Swiss watch companies, the inevitable Benetton — that form the perimeter and immediate periphery of a great central square dominated by an impressive city hall.
The L’viv Old Town also houses the Cathedral of St. George, center of the Greek Catholic Archeparchy of L’viv. In the cathedral’s crypt are the tombs of two men whose names do not figure prominently in today’s debates over the corruptions of the Yanukovych regime, but whose dramatic lives may suggest a path beyond the culture of corruption and conformism that threatens to turn Ukraine into a simulacrum of Belarus — another country in which the intellectual iron curtain has yet to be torn down, with dire effects on both politics and the economy. Andrey Sheptytsky, a man of broad culture, who was the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church for 43 turbulent years, from 1901 until 1944, is buried there. Next to him is the man Sheptytsky chose to succeed him and whom he secretly consecrated a bishop: Josyf Slipyj, model for the Ukrainian pope in Morris West’s novel The Shoes of the Fisherman, and a leader whose dreams of a Greek Catholic Church nourishing the public culture of a free Ukraine are beginning to be realized by the efforts of one of his spiritual sons — who happens to have been born in Syracuse, N.Y.
Whether those dreams come to fruition may be the key factor in determining whether Ukraine, like the Baltic states and Poland, follows the historic path into Europe taken by similar victims of Stalin’s imperialism, or whether it becomes Belarus 2.0: a vast land of shattered hopes and another extension of Vladimir Putin’s imperial revanchism.
The Ukrainian difference
There are many reasons why Ukraine’s transition to democracy and the free economy are faltering badly. Ukraine’s independence was declared as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but, as one analyst recently put it in The Ukrainian Week, an independent Ukraine detached itself from Russia “without clearly separating itself ideologically from its totalitarian and colonial past.” The behavioral models and practices of the late-Soviet bureaucratic state remain in place through a kind of cultural inertia. (I was treated to a minor but obnoxious example of this when my ride from the Kyiv airport to the apostolic nunciature was interrupted by a police shakedown of my driver, who declined to provide the expected bribe to the policeman and received a citation for a faux traffic violation that took longer to write than the Third Catilinarian Oration.) Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko remains imprisoned. Court decisions depend almost entirely on bribes to judges, who hire middlemen to conduct the negotiations over the amount required to yield the decision desired. Yanukovych’s minions and clients dominate the media, and despite a popularity rating below 30 percent, he will be very difficult to defeat in the 2015 presidential elections because of a fractured opposition, government pressure on civil-society associations and organizations, a compliant press, and, of course, systematic cheating.
The refusal of the Yanukovych-dominated parliament to adopt, much less implement, the political, administrative, and judicial reforms required by Brussels and the EU member-states have put Ukraine’s accession to the European Union in grave jeopardy, with many informed observers suggesting that the odds on Ukraine’s being allowed to sign an accession agreement later this year are less than 50-50 — a failure that would delay further Ukrainian integration into Europe for at least three years, while the EU holds its own elections in 2014 and Ukraine tries to sort itself out politically in 2015. Failure to advance along the road to EU accession would, of course, bring a glint of satisfaction to the eyes of the hard men in the Kremlin, who have never accepted the idea of Ukrainian independence and who now dangle the possibility of a Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan-Ukraine Customs Union as an alternative to Ukraine’s joining the EU. That proposal, according to recent polls, is supported by some 57.5 percent of Ukrainians. Yet the same polls report that 59 percent of the country would support EU accession in a national referendum. That the two are incompatible seems not to have penetrated the intellectual iron curtain of Ukrainian public life, behind which people still teach themselves impossible things, like the White Queen in Wonderland.