“I can’t even tell whether we’re at war or not - it feels so unreal,” said Olga Myrovych, an administrator at the Ukrainian Catholic University, when she picked me up from the airport in Lviv, Ukraine.
I was in town to discuss propaganda and reforms with students at the University. There were fifty thousand Russian troops massing on the border as I arrived, but everything seemed almost too normal. “What are we meant to do, spend our time inside Putin’s head? Then he’s won,” Myrovych said.
The new Economy and Trade Minister, Pavlo Sheremeta, was also in town, consulting with local business leaders on revitalizing the G.D.P. We swung by. Sheremeta, an English-speaking technocrat in a dark suit and silver tie, is new and generally trusted. It’s unclear how many others in the new government one can say that about.
I asked Sheremeta about his new job. “The language has changed from Russian to Ukrainian, but the procedures are still the same,” he said. “And nothing is electronic. I come with my iPad and iPhone, but that’s just for private mail.” Local business leaders, he said, are “taking the responsibility out of themselves and trying to put it on someone else. Guys, let’s talk about how to conquer the German market, but that’s a tougher thing.”
Lviv is in Ukraine’s far west, an Austro-Hungarian town that fancies itself the nation’s European pole: people there spoke German, Yiddish, and Polish before switching largely to Ukrainian in the twentieth century. Lviv is beautiful. If you go for a stroll after dinner, you find yourself walking in a trance of cobblestones, churches, and passageways. If architecture is destiny, you start to think, this city belongs with Europe.
Lviv is also the heartland of Ukraine’s far-right Svoboda party, which won forty per cent in parts of western Ukraine, and ten per cent nationally, in the 2012 elections. Svoboda’s agenda used to be Ukraine for Ukrainians. They’ve toned down the official line, but they still help make the Kremlin’s arguments about violent Ukrainian chauvinistic nationalism harder to brush away; their torch-bearing marches are infamous.
Students at the Ukrainian Catholic University come from across the country. Everyone I spoke to supported the revolution; the university is considered a bastion of liberalism. A history teacher had been among the “heavenly hundred” killed in the street protests in Kiev. The students asked me whether Putin’s claims about the revolution being led by a fascist junta were being taken seriously in the West.
I said that blatant lies were easily disproved, but that subtler memes strike fertile ground. We looked at how post-Iraq guilt can be exploited to promote the idea of Russia defending itself from an aggressive West; how Western media has taken on the idea of an ethno-linguistic split in Ukraine when, in fact, many Ukrainians come from multiethnic, multilingual families; and how, in the business sector, the question is of the financial cost of sanctions for the West. The Kremlin is skillful at finding the right argument for quite different audiences. The students spoke about “informational sovereignty,” the need to communicate Ukraine’s message.
“Our past is a minefield,” said Margaryta Tulup, a student from Chernigov. “School books change every year. Every teacher will push a different version according to their passions. State bodies have never built a unifying vision.”
“We need to focus on the present and the future,” said another student.
“Ukraine as a mini European union — a multiethnic and multilingual harmony.”
The next evening, some of the students took me to a bar. Those from Kiev and the western cities joked about where they would draw the dividing line in a new country: Down the middle, along the Dnieper? Further west? It’s a playful hobby in Ukraine, speculating what an allegedly more cohesive country might look like.
Pavlo Ostrovsky, a pro-Maidan student from Donetsk Oblast, in the far east - Viktor Yanukovich’s homeland—looked alarmed. He would end up on the wrong side of a future border. Since the revolution, there have been marches in the city of Donetsk calling for a referendum on secession. The mood there is nasty, Ostrovsky told me; a friend of his, he said, had been killed by Russian separatists during a pro-Ukraine meeting.
But, as they tried to draw their hypothetical border, the students stumbled: Which side would Dnepropetrovsk be on? There’s always a temptation to look at Ukraine as the tale of two cities - Donetsk and Lviv, a tension between the far east and the far west—but it’s in the blurred center that the country’s fate will be decided.
We spent the second session at the University defining the most urgently needed reforms, which don’t fall neatly into geographical divides. The students saw the police as equally corrupt in the west and the east. In order to get a driver’s license, wherever you might be, you have to pay a bribe. The tax police who raid businesses to extort rents speak both Russian and Ukrainian.
The challenge isn’t just stopping bribes but confronting a system where every role is never what it seems: where cops are actually gangsters; bureaucrats are businessmen; state institutions serve private interests; and reformers are nothing of the kind. Theoretical debates about a conceptual model for Ukrainian reforms often crumble into absurdity. The legacy of late-Soviet society, of the doublethink of acting like you believed in Communism when you didn’t, has fostered a sense that politics involves fake parliaments, fake TV news, fake budgets, fake reforms.
The skepticism is multidirectional and, at times, unbounded. “Why don’t the oligarchs in the east do more to control the pro-Russian crowds?” Olga Myrovych asked, before I left. She wondered whether they found the pro-Russian displays useful, because it encouraged Kiev to give them more financial and political power. Similarly, Ostap Drozdov, one of Lviv’s most popular current-affairs TV presenters, told me, when we met for coffee at an Art Nouveau café, that he suspected Svoboda, too, was “part of the insider pseudo-politics. And all their showmanship … only plays into Moscow’s hands.”
Vitaly Portnikov, a Ukranian journalist and columnist, points out that one of the two leading candidates for President, Petro Poroshenko, is viewed as being open to compromise with other oligarchs. For all her overt pro-Europe cries, Yulia Tymoshenko, the other leading candidate, is thought of as being the most amenable to Russia, in part because of the gas deals she signed with Moscow while she was Prime Minister. (While she served time in prison for abusing her power at the time, Tymoshenko has denied any wrongdoing.)
When a tape on which Tymoshenko, most likely referring to Putin, can be heard saying that she wants to “shoot that asshole in the head” surfaced recently, skeptics suspected that Tymoshenko leaked it herself, in order to appear more independent. (Tymoshenko has confirmed that it’s her voice on the tape, but claims that some of her comments have been manipulated; she didn’t specify which ones.) Ukraine has managed to throw off a gangster kleptocracy, but the fear is that it will return to a pseudo-democracy, where all politics is gaudy theatre.
In our final meeting, the students agreed that corrupt officials need to be made to feel they can’t act with impunity; they need to be scared, probably with arrests and firings. But who will be prepared to do it? The West is giving eighteen billion dollars to Ukraine, and maybe local anti-corruption N.G.O.s could be employed to help insure that it’s not all stolen. Because, if nothing changes, the heavenly hundred might have died for nothing. Architecture is not necessarily destiny. The revolution is either only just beginning or it’s already failed.
Originally published: www.newyorker.com