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The overlooked presidency of Yushchenko

Ukraine’s President Victor Yushchenko holds a candle at the Holodomor Memorial in Kyiv. (Yaroslav Debelyi)
Article by: David Kirichenko

In February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, an event that would come to be seen as a turning point in the fight for Ukrainian national identity. As the country came under attack, the Ukrainian people were united in their resistance and determination to push back against Russia’s aggression while more actively reflecting on the long history of Russian aggression against Ukraine. While much of the credit for this shift in national consciousness is rightfully given to the brave resistance of the Ukrainian people, it is important to recognize the role played by former Ukrainian president Yushchenko in laying the foundations for a renewed sense of national identity.

In the 2004 presidential race, Victor Yushchenko declared his candidacy, much to the dismay of former president Leonid Kuchma. The Ukrainian Constitution prohibited Kuchma from running for a third consecutive term, but he still desired a successor loyal to him. As a result, Kuchma endorsed Viktor Yanukovych, the Prime Minister at the time, as he saw him as a dependable ally who would follow in his footsteps and safeguard his interests. Yushchenko, on the other hand, was a reformist, and Kuchma had no intention of allowing him to become president in 2004.

As the Orange Revolution began to unfold in 2004, it became increasingly clear that the once close relationship between Ukraine and Russia was on shaky ground. Prior to the controversial presidential election, many believed that Ukraine would remain closely aligned with Russia. However, the widespread protests that followed the election, sparked by allegations of voter fraud and manipulation, signaled a significant shift in Ukrainian politics and attitudes towards Russia. The Orange Revolution marked a turning point in the two countries’ relationship, as Ukrainians stood up to demand their voices be heard and their democracy respected.

In a bold move, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Kyiv in 2004 to personally endorse and support Yanukovych in the presidential election. However, the tide turned with the explosive events of the Orange Revolution, which resulted in a seismic shift towards Europe. In the aftermath of the revolution, Russia adopted a fiercely nationalistic stance at home and a more confrontational approach on the international stage. The events of the Orange Revolution marked a significant shift in both Russian and Ukrainian foreign policy.

Yushchenko was a passionate advocate for Ukraine’s integration into Europe and a fierce opponent of Moscow’s influence. His push for strengthening the Ukrainian identity even drew the ire of the opposition party, and he was among the first political leaders to be labeled a “Nazi” due to promoting the native language and culture of the country.

In the 2004 presidential campaign, Viktor Yanukovych and his supporters stooped to new lows by spreading lies and propaganda about Yushchenko, including accusing him of being a Nazi. They even went as far as to plaster billboards of Yushchenko in a Nazi uniform across Donetsk, calling for the “purity of the nation.” This desperate tactic was meant to denigrate Yushchenko and the Ukrainian language and culture he fought to protect, revealing Yanukovych’s blatant willingness to resort to any means necessary to try and attain power. Thus, the term “fascist Ukraine” became popularized and the Nazi narrative was used by Putin to justify his aims in invading Ukraine in 2022.

When Yushchenko took office in early 2005, expectations for his presidency were sky-high. However, Yushchenko, the pro-Western presidential candidate, was facing off against the Kremlin’s preferred nominee. Shortly before the election, he was poisoned and nearly died. To this day, he blames Moscow for the attempt on his life. The poisoning nearly killed him and left him severely disfigured, earning him the nickname “man of sorrows” among ordinary Ukrainians. When people saw Yushchenko speak, they saw a man harmed by a corrupt regime everyone hated, which deepened Yushchenko’s support from the people.

As the leader of the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko found himself at the forefront of the most pivotal moment in Ukraine’s history since independence in 1991. The Ukrainian people were faced with a crucial decision: to embrace self-governed democracy or succumb to the increasingly authoritarian rule of Russia. The Orange Revolution served as a defining moment for Ukraine, a chance to determine its own destiny and chart a course towards a brighter future.

Under Yushchenko’s presidency, Ukraine’s fledgling democracy began to thrive, with greater freedom of the press and higher standards for fair elections. The Ukrainian people, eager to embrace their European identity, saw their national identity closely tied to the ideals of democracy. Yushchenko was instrumental in guiding Ukraine towards its European roots and away from Russian influence, fostering a stronger and more vibrant democracy in the process.

Despite the split between Ukraine’s Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church in 2019, President Yushchenko was a fierce advocate for independence and popularized the idea during his presidency. In 2010, he confidently declared, “I am convinced that we will come to the creation of a unified national church.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Ukrainians struggled to reclaim their national identity, which had been brutally suppressed by tragedies like the Holodomor, a famine in the 1930s orchestrated by Stalin to crush Ukraine’s desire for independence. Forced to conform to a Soviet identity, Ukrainians were left with a legacy that continued to shape their politics even after achieving independence in 1991. The struggle to reclaim their identity and break free from the oppressive past has been a defining feature of Ukraine’s modern state.

For centuries, Ukrainian was viewed as a lesser language under the Russian and Soviet empires, often seen as the language of peasants, and many Ukrainians avoided speaking it. With Yushchenko’s presidency, people began to embrace and celebrate their Ukrainian heritage, and the language became more widely used and respected. Yushchenko believed strongly in the importance of preserving and promoting Ukraine’s national identity, and his efforts contributed significantly to the growth of Ukrainian national consciousness.

One of Yushchenko’s most extraordinary acts was his efforts to help the Ukrainian people collectively face old traumas. He made the Holodomor a national issue. Yushchenko played a crucial role in bringing attention to this tragic event and advocating for its recognition as a genocide. Through his efforts, the Ukrainian people could come to terms with their painful history and remember the lessons of the past to build a stronger and more united future.

With Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, many countries worldwide are learning about Holodomor, and countries like Germany have also recognized it as a genocide of the Ukrainian people. Yushchenko relentlessly tried to educate his people and the world about Russia’s efforts to destroy the Ukrainian nation.

Yushchenko’s office also spearheaded efforts to restore Baturyn, the former capital of the Ukrainian Cossack State, which was brutally destroyed and annexed by Russia in the early 18th century. In a brutal act of suppression, Russian forces massacred 15,000 innocent civilians, including women and children, in an attempt to snuff out Ukraine’s independence.

When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Yushchenko rushed to Tbilisi to show support for Georgia and to issue a warning to the world that Ukraine was in danger as well. Recognizing the threat to his country, Yushchenko fervently pushed for Ukraine to join NATO. In a chilling statement at the 2008 NATO summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin ominously told George W. Bush, “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.” Six years later, Putin showed his sincerity of these words with the invasion of Crimea and the Donbas Region.

Under Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Kremlin candidate who won the 2010 presidential election in Ukraine, efforts to rejuvenate the country’s identity and address its historical trauma were suppressed. In a move highly symbolic of what was to come, Yanukovych’s first act in office was to delete the link about the Holodomor on the president’s official website.

Through Yushchenko’s presidency, Ukraine made significant strides toward consolidating its national identity and reclaiming its history and traditions. By acknowledging and remembering past horrors such as the Holodomor, Ukraine could confront its past trauma and use it to pave the way for a brighter, more democratic future. The strength shown by the Ukrainian people today is a continuation of the work started by past leaders like Yushchenko, who began the arduous process of tearing the country free from the oppressive grip of its tyrannical neighbor.


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