Second hand Ukraine


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Article by: Yaroslav Hrytsak
On Ukraine’s 26th independence day, we would like to offer you an essay by historian and journalist Yaroslav Hrytsak, author of the book “25% percent or how to beat history.” In it, Mr. Hrytsak analyzes the path Ukraine has gone since its independence and the road that is still ahead.

At first glance, lots has changed in Ukraine over the last three years. But the more changes, the more visible it is how much the country’s development is burdened with the past. What is wrong?

Independent Ukraine emerged as a result of the fall of communism. But it happened quietly. Unlike the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian one in 1917, which led to great geopolitical changes, the velvet revolution of 1989-1991 did not give birth to any new “ism.”

Communism was overthrown by an old “ism” – consumerism. Communism had many enemies. But one of them was the strongest – everyday life. Where communism came, the bright colors on the streets, the noise in the cafes, and the variety of goods in the shops disappeared. They were replaced by the sad canteen, deficits, and rank-and-file clothes. It was possible to put up with domestic unattractiveness while there existed revolutionary terror or revolutionary enthusiasm. But the terror has died with Joseph Stalin, and it was hard to imagine Leonid Brezhnev and any other late Soviet leader in a revolutionary budenovka.

A poster of the early 1920s calling to enroll in the Red Army. The soldier wears a budenovka hat.

A poster of the early 1920s calling to enroll in the Red Army. The soldier wears a budenovka hat.

“Connections” and “procure” are two key concepts that determined the life of any Soviet family. And it was possible to live, even survive, for a long time. As the classic wrote, a person is ready to adapt to any trouble, provided that others live the same way. All were equal in their poverty, and this was called justice.

However, there were exceptions: young people, creative intellectuals, residents of the western outskirts of the USSR, which were “sSovietized 20-30 years later. They either remembered how they were once or just wanted to dress and behave differently – as they have seen in French films and in Polish magazines. This memory and these aspirations became sublimated into the image of a mythical West – a free non-communist world where everything exists and nothing is forbidden. This image became all the more desirable and more convincing given that the real West remained inaccessible. Judging by the memories of the leaders of the Donbas mining movement of 1989, even the Donetsk miners dreamed of living like in the West, to receive a salary like in America and social guarantees like in Sweden.

If there were survival contests in the world, Ukrainians would win first place.

Independent Ukraine emerged as an alliance of three unlikely communities – the national (or nationalist) western Ukraine, refurbished communists in central Ukraine, and the said Donetsk protesters.

The first imagined independent Ukraine painted in the colors of the blue and yellow flag, the second – as a chance to preserve their power, and the third – as a generous and cheap consumer basket. The hopes of the latter were not groundless: as predicted in 1990 by Deutsche Bank, in the event of the collapse of the USSR, the Ukrainian SSR had the highest chances for rapid economic development out of all the Soviet republics.

But two of the three hopes did not come true. Independent Ukraine was neither national nor successful. On the contrary: the first years of independence had turned into an economic catastrophe. Few remember, but in 1994 a special issue of The Economist magazine devoted to Ukraine came out, with the eloquent title of “Ukraine: The birth and possible death of a country.”

In the 1990s, the West still came to Ukraine, disguised as second-hand. A new culture born in the post-Soviet space become a culture of the new Russians or – in our performance – the new Ukrainians: magenta jackets, golden chains and ostrich leather shoes. It is easy for a historian to recognize this kind of culture – a culture of glamour, a rich fashion for those who were poor yesterday.

A "new Russian" was the symbol of the wild 90's

A “new Russian” was the symbol of the wild 90’s

Another innovation was the culture of the “gangster 1990s:” sportswear and Russian chanson – those who also sought to rise up, serving the interests of the Nouvea riche.

A "gopnik," featured in this street art, embodied the gangster culture of the 90's

A “gopnik,” featured in this street art, embodied the gangster culture of the 90’s

The first years of Leonid Kuchma’s rule [from 1994] were the turning point. On the one hand, his first government launched the necessary economic reforms, on the other – it was during its first term that the oligarchic system was formed in Ukraine.

There was, of course, one more specific Ukrainian feature. Unlike the neighboring countries, the economic collapse of the 1990s did not lead us to authoritarianism. With the exception of the Baltic States, Ukraine is the only one which passed the democracy exam. And what is especially important, Ukrainians passed it on an empty hungry stomach.

Unlike the neighboring countries, the economic collapse of the 1990s did not lead us to authoritarianism. With the exception of the Baltic States, Ukraine is the only one which passed the democracy exam. And what is especially important, Ukrainians passed it on an empty hungry stomach.

Yes, Ukraine did not become a developed democracy with established traditions, rules, and institutions. Our democracy arose rather as a democracy by default on the basis of regional and oligarchic competition, where no region, no oligarch was able or didn’t even try to lead the country alone. Although imperfect, it was a democracy. The democratic features of the Ukrainian political system are easily spotted: the power changed depending on the elections, and it was difficult to predict who will win the next time.

Almost ten years of continuous economic growth from the late 1990s to the 2008 crisis together with the democracy by default  launched new processes, the consequences of which Ukraine still experiences today. The main one is the formation of a new middle class. A predominantly young, educated class, represented by inhabitants of large cities, where there were more opportunities for conducting new, non-oligarchic business. What is also important: this class was formed thanks to the Internet and travel, and the absence of “a single TV button” in the country did not make it, unlike Russia, dependent on authoritarianism.

The two Maidans [the Orange Revolution in 2004 and Euromaidan in 2014] had largely become the revolutions of this new middle class. Tellingly, both happened on the wave of economic recovery. This paradox corresponds to the typical behavior of this class, which first manifested itself during the youth revolutions of the 1960s in the West: its representatives rebel when things get not worse, but better, because the protest is connected not so much with interests, but with the values of self-expression.

Euromaidan, Kyiv, December 2013

Euromaidan, Kyiv, December 2013

This new middle class is the backbone of a dynamic civil society. The only thing it still can’t do [in Ukraine] is to organize itself into a viable political project. Therefore, political life in Ukraine during 2000-2010 remained the system that had developed under Kuchma, with leaders who are his “children”: Yushchenko, Yanukovych, Tymoshenko, Poroshenko.

And beyond the islands that create the middle and oligarchic class, there remains the great sea of impoverished second-hand Ukraine. It wants to live in Europe, but misses the Soviet times, bites into the ground or goes abroad for work – and shows miracles of survival. If there were survival contests in the world, Ukrainians would win first place.
A shot from the film "The nest of the turtledove" telling about the life of a Ukrainian work migrant in Italy

A shot from the film “The nest of the turtledove” telling about the life of a Ukrainian work migrant in Italy

That was the case in the past. But, apparently, it will remain so in the coming years. After all, a political class with the will to change the rules of the game has yet to form in Ukraine.

At first glance, a lot has changed in the country, especially in the last three or four years. Of the three unlikely allies in 1991,  only one is left: Western Ukraine. But it has changed a lot, gradually moving east, from Kyiv and the Dnipro river. The biggest economic change was the transformation of the national economy: from the mid-2000’s, the service economy exceeded 50% in the gross national product and has been growing ever since. To a large extent, the conflict between the separatist Donbas and the rest of Ukraine can be interpreted as a conflict between the industrial past and the post-industrial future of the country.

The more changes in Ukraine, the more noticeable how its development is aggravated by the past. And it’s not about linguistic issues or different competing models of historical memory, but in the vitality of old schemes: widespread corruption, a large shadow sector, a lack of institutional trust, which corrode the national body like cancer.

Finally, not only Ukraine, but all its neighbors are trying to overcome their past. And that makes our country attractive: in this struggle, it does not give up and continues to try.

And here’s what’s even more important: if up till recent times, Ukraine and Europe had coped with their own crises independently, then it hasn’t been so in the last 10-15 years. The more Ukraine gets europeanized, the more Europe becomes ukrainianized. The problems of the latter – the instability of political and economic structures, refugees, social inequality, and populism – are increasingly similar to Ukraine’s problems. And Putin’s attempt to overturn the post-war geopolitical system makes Ukraine and Europe situational allies.

Of course, the key question remains: “Will the next European-Ukrainian crisis lead to a promising solution?” In other words: will there emerge a new “ism” that can replace all the old ones, including consumerism? Nobody knows this, because the question is not in knowledge, but in actions.

However, in searching for a response, Ukraine and its experience now cannot be ignored. If the west and east of Europe want to survive, they must take responsibility one before the other. And this means to rise above the level of consumerism. It was enough to overthrow communism, but not enough to build a new world. Yes, now the world is far from perfect and is not at all ideal. But it is convenient for living, not surviving.


Yaroslav Hytsak is a Ukrainian researcher, historian, and journalist. He is a professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University and Director of the Institute of Historical Research of the Ivan Franko Lviv National University.





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  1. Avatar zorbatheturk says:

    Euromaidan was a gigantic middle finger salute to the rodent in the Krumlin, Vladolf Putin. It said GET LOST. FUGGOV. We don’t need no stinking Putinism…

  2. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

    While Professor Hrytsak correctly pointed out many key issues that must be dealt with in Ukraine’s road to become a just democracy, there were also some other specific and critical matters that should have been addressed as equally important. These issues which although lengthy are also intertwined and include the absolute necessity of implementing major positive changes involving a corrupt Ukrainian Parliament, Executive, Government and its civil bureaucracy, as well as Constitutional reform, Judicial reform at every level including its bureaucracy (ie. judges, courts, police services, correctional services, customs and immigration, etc.) and finally the critical issue of comprehensively dealing with corruption (oligarchs included) in general. In addition, there are even more matters that must also be addressed along the road to reach some decent level of prosperity although it will require much investment and a great deal of assistance from Ukraine’s allies. Some of these issues involve major improvements in Health care, Education, Transportation (air service, railways, roads, etc.), Social Services (including the matter of displaced people from the war in Donbas), the entire Armed Forces (including the establishment of a fully trained professional service corps, modernization, lethal weapons and new equipment, etc.), new and modernized infrastructure, especially when Crimea and Eastern Donbas are recovered from Russian occupation), dealing with the language issue and finally, dealing with Putin the Pederast and the Russian dreams of resurrecting a new Russian Empire. A very large plate to be sure but it can be done with patience, determination and much assistance from Ukraine’s allies. As for Russia, if they want to rejoin the human race, they will have to stop their nonsense, open their ears and eyes and follow the positive performance of their so called long lost older brothers (from the Russian perspective) from Ukraine.

  3. Avatar Murf says:

    The trouble with Ukraine achieving independence in 91 is that it came to easily.
    The USSR didn’t die in a fiery cataclism but a sight of relief.
    Not with a bang but a whimper.
    For Ukraine nothing was fought for.
    Nothing was sacrificed.
    Nothing was learned.
    And nothing proven.
    The Maidan changed that.
    Let us hopefhrcounter revolutionary forces are not allowed to undo what was accomplished at such terrible cost.

  4. Avatar Quartermaster says:

    “In other words: will there emerge a new “ism” that can replace all the old ones, including consumerism?”

    The answer to that question is quite simple – no.

    The path the west has taken is more than mere consumerism, but a full blown materialism. The US, as a very good example, has turned its back on its founding principles and has adopted a modern version of paganism – secularism, which is completely at odds with what made the US great in the first place.

    The US has been going on pure momentum since 1860, the year Lincoln was elected. Lincoln took office in early 1861, and he immediately started a war that allowed him to refound the country, and which has led to the near lawlessness of the US. Christianity is being actively pushed from the public square, and as the US population turns its back on God, the problems simply increase.

    It’s easy for people in Ukraine to think the US is rich and so has few problems. To the
    contrary, the US is in deep trouble and we have our own version of Soviet Revanchists who have become truly unhinged after the last election, and the viability of the US as a country is being seriously called into question.

    Turn to God. God has he has revealed himself in scripture. Certainly not the God of Russian Orthodoxy and Kirill. Only a national spiritual awakening, where the God of
    Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob becomes the center of national life, will save Ukraine from the path it, and the west, are on.

  5. Avatar Tony says:

    Interesting article but I can’t really understand what the big problem with consumerism is. The author puts it on the same plane as political philosophies but I don’t see the relation and it’s hardly explained. The author should propose a realistic alternative but I think this is where the problems begin.