This is a true story, as truthful as memory will allow. In 2002, I was visiting Lviv as a guest journalist for the Soloway music festival, and staying in a cabin by a lake in a forest some ten miles from the city centre. The hotel next door was a hunting lodge, where there was a caged black bear in the parking lot outside. It was enormous and very angry.
It had been captured locally and its fate was to be taken to a zoo. While it waited in its wooden cage, my Ukrainian friends were concerned for its health. It was not used to such treatment. It was throwing itself against the slats, attempting to break out. My guide called it Vlad, after Vladimir Putin, recently elected as the president of the Russian Federation.
We were a bit afraid of Vlad. It had form. It killed sheep and attacked villagers; and its cage seemed not very secure. It was a living reminder of the wild woods, where there were wolves, bears and other dark forces. But it calmed down over the next few days, lay asleep in one corner, and woke up for meals.
Lost in the forest, fearful of Vlad
On the last night of the festival, we celebrated in a Lviv bistro, and took a late taxi back to the lake cabins. On the way back, we dawdled behind a line of pilgrims, making their way to a local shrine for a holy ceremony. We were not allowed to pass. We proceeded at walking pace behind them, before the car overheated, and broke down.
We were lost in the forest on a dark, cold night. Our driver phoned to find another cab, but it was two in the morning and none was available. We had planes to catch. Should we sleep in the car until we were rescued, or leave the car and walk the last fearful miles? Was another bear, Vlad, even more terrible, plotting his revenge from behind the trees?
Yanukovych versus Tymoshenko: to join the EU or not to join the EU
I can remember the mixed emotions. “Letting I dare not wait upon I would, like the poor cat i’th’adage”. They stayed with me as a kind of metaphor for the troubled times ahead. Ten years later, I was in Kyiv, holding a seminar on cultural policy, hosted by the British Council. The Ukrainian president was then Viktor Yanukovych, who in 2010 defeated Yulia Tymoshenko in an election that many observers believed to be rigged.
This election offered two futures for Ukraine. Tymoshenko wanted her government to apply for membership of the EU. She was considered to be pro-West. Yanukovych was the pro-Russian candidate. He came from the Donetsk region in East Ukraine, where he had been governor, and spoke Russian as his native language.
Yanukovych’s support from America and Moscow
Of the two campaigns, that of Yanukovych was the more professional. It was funded from Moscow, but had, as its head of communications, Paul Manafort, a US Republican lobbyist, who later became Donald Trump’s presidential campaign manager.
With the skill of his profession, Manafort reversed the line of attack. Yanukovych was perceived to be Kremlin’s stooge, the tool of an aggressive neighbour. Manafort developed the counter-argument that the real aggressors were the EU and NATO. Some believed him. When Yanukovych came to power, he arrested Tymoshenko as an enemy of the state.
Opinion in Kyiv was heavily divided. My friends were all supporters of Tymoshenko. They had to be. There seemed to be no other choice. But these were chaotic times. Since the days of Gorbachev’s perestroika (reconstruction) in the 1990s, when the rouble fell to levels barely seen in a national currency, speculators had gathered around to seize what they could of Russia’s natural assets in a parody of Thatcher’s privatisation.
The contest between liberal democracy and right-wing populism
Some were honest investors. With hard currency from the West, the old Soviet cities were transformed into bustling modern playgrounds. Some were idealists, like George Soros, who wanted to establish liberal democracy in countries accustomed to authoritarian rule. Others were plunderers, who compiled vast fortunes by seizing control of the reserves of oil, gas, gold and minerals from the continent beyond the Urals, and protected their wealth by acquiring banks and property in London, the world’s prized Laundromat of dirty money.
On the heels of the plunderers minced the scoundrels, who wanted to make money and mischief in equal proportions. They revelled in the imperfections of others. Look at the corruption in the EU! The barbarity of the US! The sly charms of the British! The decadence of the French! How dare these hypocrites point the finger of reproach at the former Russian Empire and the natural affinity of the Slav peoples?
The scoundrels had their successes. They sat Trump beside Putin, buddies in power, and conned the British public into leaving the EU for no apparent benefit whatsoever. They had their setbacks. Aaron Banks wasted his money. Nigel Farage never got into the British parliament. Following Robert Mueller’s investigation into the influence of foreign powers in the 2016 US Presidential Election, Manafort was sent to prison for several months. Trump used his presidential rights on leaving office to pardon and release him.
None of these scandals, mishaps, escapades, what you will, even began to describe the real tragedy of the times, its cynicism and moral confusion. Fake facts are not accidental: they arise from the state of mind when truth no longer matters. The patriot is not someone who boasts of national pride, but who lives in a country of which they can feel proud.
The Maidan Revolution and ousting of Yanukovych
In 2014, Yanukovych was driven out of office – and the country – after protests which became known as the Maidan Revolution. They spread across Ukraine from Lviv in the west to Kharkiv in the east. His support had come from the districts that bordered Russia in the East and from the Russian-speaking population in Crimea. Russia invaded and took control of these regions. Ukraine was in no position to resist these incursions and the countries of NATO and the EU did not come to her assistance.
When I was in Kyiv, you could feel the birth pangs of modern Europe. You could feel the resentment of those who lost power, the rising confidence of an independent Ukraine, and, out of sight, you could feel the big bear, Vlad, battering against the walls of his cage.
What, if any, is the West’s role in Ukraine?
As if in a dark wood, it was hard to know what to do next. Should NATO and the EU rally to the support of Ukraine, not one of its members, and risk the wrath of Putin’s Russia? Such an act might trigger a wider European war with calamitous consequences. Not to do so, however, might encourage Putin to more acts of aggression, such as the invasion of Ukraine.
I can only go by personal experience. We dithered in the stranded taxi before deciding that we should risk the dangers of the forest, and walk the few miles to the lakeside village. We were being, or so we thought, very brave. When we opened the car doors, we were greeted by an uplifting chorus of nightingales that stayed with us, kept our spirits up and sang throughout our journey home. We lost our fear.
When the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, defiant in his bunker, addressed the EU Assembly by Zoom and received a standing ovation, it was as if the door to all our futures had opened. We knew who we were, what our priorities were and where our destiny lay. The days of moral confusion were gone.
The angels sang.