Ukraine can be a new California if it shakes off its stagnant past

Corruption stifles business at every turn in this former father of Russia. We explore how history could be to blame for this self-defeating culture

On Holland Park Avenue in west London, under the beautiful trees, stands a life-sized monument of a man with a big moustache, wearing a strange dress and hat, leaning on a large ornate cross.

“Saint Volodymyr, the ruler of the Ukraine 980-1015,” says the inscription on the plinth.

Something is not quite right here. Vladimir, an ultimate Viking warrior, from the noble clan of Roderics, known in Russia as Rurics (the royal line, which ended, half a millennia later, with Ivan the Terrible), political genius and, prior to his conversion into Orthodox saint, a very naughty boy, presided over the hotchpotch of tribes and city states he converted to Christianity, which was known then as Rus.

His residence was indeed Kiev, “the father of all Russian cities”, which, a few hundred years later, was to become the main city of the entity called on the map Malorossia (small Russia) and then Ukraine, Ukraina. One can probably twist it some other way, but the name means land on the edge, on the verge, by the side of something else. Vladimir’s concept was the exact opposite: a new Byzantium, the centre of the universe, a thousand-year empire.

Otherwise, it is a perfectly lovely place. It has territory and a population roughly comparable in size to that of France and a climate to match, mighty rivers, forests, and secure warm-water seaports.

Its soils are so fertile that, given the slightest chance, Ukraine easily could have fed this planet twice over. In short, cultural comparisons aside, this should be also a perfectly happy place. This chance, however, was never given. The sheer desirability of its black -soil valleys turned Ukraine into a stomping ground, where Mongols crossed paths with Germanic crusaders, Ottoman Turks with Swedes.

It was in the very centre of the Ukraine near the city of Poltava that the New Russians of Peter I gave such a kicking to the imperial Swedes of Charles XII (the superpower of the day looking for lebensraum) that Sweden never fought a proper war again. For millennia, history was made here, but always by someone else; initially, it was easy for Russians to sport the mantle of liberators, but the “facts on the ground” remained the same: fairly distinct and self-conscious, until 1991 Ukrainians were never left alone to rule themselves, bar a few short and thoroughly chaotic years of independence at the tail end of the First World War.

But was old Russia a colonial power here? Were the Ukrainians a distinct and separate nation? A straw poll would bring a 50-50 split, with eastern Ukrainians giving a clear no, western saying yes and Kiev breaking even…

Before and after the tragedy, the relationship between Russia and Ukraine was comparable to that of English and Scots: everyone cursed at the bloodsucking metropolis; but two out of three corporals in the national army always were Scots – and Ukrainians.

Tragedy started when Russians returned as Reds. It could be surmised that under the rule of Vladimir Lenin/ Joseph Stalin more Ukrainians met grisly violent deaths in proportion to the population than any other nation or country, bar Cambodia: after countless losses of the Civil War came so-called collectivisation: by force, every crumb of foodstuff was taken away from the rural population and cities cordoned off by the military; as a result nine to 13 million people died of hunger in 1929-33.

Food was sold on to Germany, allegedly to prop up Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power. Then came the turn of the cities: doctors, teachers, the whole of the national intelligentsia and middle classes were sent into the frozen grave of the Gulag system. Then came Germans: millions died fighting them off, fighting on their side and fighting both; even more died as “collateral damage”; and out of six million Jews killed by Hitler, about half were those who were trapped within the boundaries of the present-day Ukraine. Then, of course, there was the post-war famine of 1948, a campaign against Cosmopolitans, Nationalists, Formalists, Geneticists…

This death fest subsided only with Stalin’s demise. Tragedy, with a certain abruptness, turned into comedy, although still distinctly a black one. Nikita Khrushchev, himself a Ukrainian, was a jolly sort of henchman. Probably, within the secret depths of his heart, he even was a bit of a Ukrainian patriot. Whatever it was – he gave his native land a couple of precious gifts: the Crimean peninsula, an old colony of Dorian Greeks, a place of poetry and precious memories, conquered for Russia by Catherine the Great; and Odessa, a flamboyant, self-made Russian Hong Kong, a Russian Paris…

Back then it didn’t matter – it was the same dreary USSR all around, everywhere, forever. It mattered even less, because his predecessor Stalin did the same thing first, by playfully lifting the whole of Poland and moving it a few notches west, enlarging Ukraine by a few very European provinces, a few old European cities, thus, as he often did, setting a massive booby-trap for the future.

But it was down to Nikita’s successors, shapeless old men, whom one of Henry Kissinger’s joke writers dubbed Dnepropetrovsk mafia, to preside over the slow, stagnant, menacing demise and ruin of the union, 1000 years (almost to the day) of St Vladimir’s empire. There is a certain irony in the fact that Boris Yeltsin, who signed the dissolution papers, was the first Russian leader in many years (bar quickly dropped-off Yuri Andropov) who didn’t talk with a heavy Ukrainian ascent.

Everyone has inherited something from the old USSR. Ukraine inherited stagnation. There was about a decade of that; then came the big tussle. But Revolution is just a party, a festival of excitement, after which you have to sober up, then go and work on it. They didn’t, and stagnation, in all its manifestations, crept back in.

Contrary to popular belief, in many circumstances there are many things going for stagnation. Like the ground-level corruption in Russia, which can be seen as an equaliser, a lubricant for peculiar Russian laissez-faire, stagnation, to put it simply, can be the only way to save your way of life, to preserve your own unique way of doing things. But that’s when you already are France. Or, say, Italy. When you have already “got it all sorted”. And even then it is very dangerous.

If, as some people say, character makes destiny, the future here is pretty bleak. If the opposite is true, and it is destiny that makes character –changes and builds it up as an opposing force – there possibly is a glimmer of hope; the Ukraine may indeed one day turn into the California of the east, as was envisaged by the benevolent visionaries of the 19th century, and doing business here will become pleasant and easy.

But this is possible only if the chiefs of staff of Ukrainian leaders will stop raider seizure of the property of foreign investors. As is the case with the hotel Ukraine in Kiev. A while ago I noticed the peculiar way the New Europeans of Don Rumsfeld’s quip – Czechs, Estonians, even Latvians – look at us Russians as if saying: do we have problems? You bet we do. But they are European problems, OK?

Now there seems to be a very slim chance that Ukraine may still sign that crucial Free Trade Agreement with the European Union, which would put it on the path to the full EU membership. That, in turn, would make it highly probable that one day the citizens of Ukraine will be able to look at us in exactly the same way.

But there is – and, alas, ever was – a very strong reason to doubt that.

Post scriptum

While I was writing this, big crowds were assembling on the streets and central square of a large metropolitan city. There was rioting, chanting, fighting with police and between the demonstrators. The protesters seemed to have been evenly split. Violence was getting worse, and the clouds of tear gas thicker.

But then, suddenly, government withdrew the riot squads, opened the doors of the buildings demonstrators tried to storm and started talking.

It was, alas, Bangkok, capital of the old kingdom of Siam, the only country in the world which, despite its own splits and troubles, was never conquered – neither by mighty relatives and neighbours, nor barbarians from afar.

Kiev was the next item on the news agenda. Here it was working out as usual.

And, even by this standard, it looked a bit bleak. Now, I don’t want to pee on anyone’s parade, but, using the colour coding, devised for the special needs of the American president with the IQ of a problematic toddler, this revolution would be dubbed “grey”.

And it’s not just the weather. Even the jolly rubbish collectors in London’s Portobello Road,  the majority of  them Ukrainians and, like their mother country, split in opinions along quasi-ethnic, topographic lines, looked rather moody.

Only a timely morbid joke lightened the mood: “surviving twin arrived by coach…” It took me a while to understand that it was about the appearance in Kiev, and on the opposition speakers’ platform, of a brother of the Polish president, the friend of the Orange Revolution, who, a few years ago, perished, along with most of his government, in a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia.

Everyone laughed. We were all assuming it was murder. The joker was staunchly pro-Russian. Not that anyone’s attitude towards the West, the EU or Germany in particular was any less cynical, or, shall I say, realistic.

We were on Portobello Green puffing on Bulgarian Marlboros and swigging Polish beer from cans. Only the brown paper bag over the tin was vaguely Anglo-Saxon.

Look, said my friend, the middle-aged garbage collector, zooming in on Maidan Square on his Android device – they are all middle class in this crowd. It’s like Egypt.

What did he mean? He meant: they are fighting for the indelible European  human right to have a house with a few rooms, a fridge, a bath, a television set; a car, 2.27 children, a motorway with a shopping centre and multiplex… and who would blame them!?

They know they will achieve it soon – if the treaty is signed – like the far more patriotic and idealistic Poles did, by leaving the land. And, like the Poles, some will eventually come back. But only if the circumstances back home have changed. However, how would they change, if ferment of change left?

My friend’s offhand observation was deeper than it sounded: the centre of Kiev, like most of the centres of big Ukrainian cities, is not much different from any other continental European town; a couple of miles out and the landscape turns medieval, or post- Apocalyptic. But, a false paradox, the urban elite overwhelmingly wants Europe, which, in most aspects, is already theirs; those who literally have nothing to lose and stand to gain at least a bit of dignity from the EU, the country folk and those miners, straight from tear-jerking stills of the Great Depression, whom Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych buses around for the purpose of thuggery and spontaneous manifestations of popular support, are staunchly pro-Russian.

Why? Because, as someone who voluntarily stopped being a graphic designer or, say, a journalist and, hence, broke the direct link between his opinions and his income can easily explain: Europe, the third-time-lucky greater Germany, offers hope  in the form of a promise of the huge fat neo-liberal feast, on which they may have no seat;  while Russia, by default, through a glaring absence of any project, internally or externally, offers a false hope of standing still; and the indigenous project, with its interchangeable heroes and villains and its improbable cycle of revolution, counter revolution and back again, offers no hope at all but chaos, default and probably collapse.

On a little screen, meanwhile, they were knocking down the statue of Lenin.

Better late than never, said one of my companions. But what are they going to put there now?

Bismarck, mumbled the one who, I knew, was a citizen of Lutsk.

Poo-tin, chuckled a citizen of Donetsk.

They think Mr Yanukovych tore up their banquet invitation – the elder one, from Kiev, carried on the running comment – and they are right, he did. But on that banquet we weren’t guests. We were food.

Two.

What?

Two banquets. We were food for both.

But without us as food, both are kaput, said the elder.

Each, corrected the one from Lutsk.

With this scary thought we all had some vodka, taking turns from the flask. Afterwards I asked them: What would you do if you were in charge?

Procrastinate, said the first.

Sabotage, said the second.

Wait, said the third.

I had some more vodka.

Alexander Lebedev is the financial backer of The Independent

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