KIEV-- It is a Sunday afternoon in late August and from a visiting delegation of Canadians and Americans, this observer is able to obtain a rare ticket for a very special event. It is a concert to be held on the eve of Ukraine’s 7th year of independence, at the enormous and luxurious hall now remaned "Palata Ukraina (Ukrainian Palace)," which was formerly a theatre for communist party gatherings. The president, Leonid Kuchma, will be in attendance. Security is tight. I have to bring my passport and an official invitation. Before the concert, the head of Parliament is to give a speech.
I arrive. Birthday party banners in assorted pastels and in the nation’s official blue and yellow colors of the flag wave in the breeze in front of the building, Yet also outside the building, I already see the country’s political and ethnic tensions come to the fore. A contingent of the Russian Communist Party, holding a red flag with a star, is picketing the occasion. “Russian is the language of Ukraine,” one sign says. “Western Ukraine Invasion.” says another. “We are a democracy,” I hear someone comment on the signs with typical native sardonic humor. “Freedom of speech is allowed here.”
In this capital city in the central part of the country, Soviet and czarist influences linger, as they do in the county’s eastern parts. Russian is the language one predominantly hears in the streets. In Western Ukraine, however, which only came under Soviet Rule in 1944 and was once a part of the Austria-Hungary Empire, a different, Europeanized outlook prevails. Ukrainian is the language spoken there, and reminders of Soviet rule have long been destroyed. Here in Kiev, however, the party is obviously still powerful. (And after the economically difficult days of independence, there are many here who look to the more predictable days of communist rule, having experienced little else.) After all, during the last elections, Ukraine elected a communist president.
The theatre where the concert is to be held is truly grand, has the best and most modern accommodations I have seen since I have been in Ukraine; it is so unlike the neglected institutes with their poor sanitary facilities, the homes and even hotels without running water, all reflections of the fading infrastructure of a country whose government has long neglected quality-of-life issues. This theatre rivals Lincoln Center, is typical of the grand style in which communist party officials lived. But what I find quite eerie here are the sealed, sound-proofed doors.
It is clear that gathered here are not the nation’s ordinary people, but its elite. The government officials are there. The military is assembled. The entire diplomatic corps is there. There are the “new Ukrainians,” many of whom are the former apparatchiks who have succeeded in “business dealings.” There is the old guard. Then there are the few invited guests like me from Canada, America, and Western Europe.
Before the concert begins, the military band strike up a tune -– The Ukrainian National Anthem. “Ukraine has not died yet, neither its fame or glory,” it begins. Just a few years ago, singing this anthem was a crime against the state, which carried with it a penalty of 10 years of imprisonment. All stand at attention, including old communist party officials decked out with war medals.
What I see appears to be a national display of unity. Yet as I think about what I witnessed outside I find myself looking over my shoulder as I edgily take notes.
Then the Head of Parliament, Alexander Tkachenko, then gives a speech in Ukrainian, not in Russian as was mandatory here not too long ago. He directly addresses the issues facing the country: the economic crisis, the famine, the fading infrastructure . He talks of Teddy Roosevelt who brought America out of its depression days, admits to ethnic tensions between Ukrainians and Russians, addresses Ukraine’s fear of Russian imperialism, talks of building a future for Ukraine’s children. In short, his words sound impressive, and he seems as if he is openly and sincerely addressing the issues of a country in crisis.
But many here are skeptical. “It is one thing to say and another to do,” someone observes about the seemingly earnest talk about the country’s problems.
And when Tkachenko makes a plea for cooperation, suggesting being good friends with Russia, many Ukrainians here bristle, seeing the specter of Russian domination, an end to freedom and beginning of renewed fear. (After all, many I have spoken to here believe that if Ukraine is to survive as a nation, if it is to solve its troubles, it must distance itself from Russian woes and forge closer links with the West. Ukraine’s economic problems, though severe, are not as extreme those of Russia; its currency, the hrivnya, not as weak as the Russian ruble. And to bolster its currency, to prop up the country, the International Monetary Fund has recently made it a recipient of a loan. For similar reasons, the United States also makes Ukraine its third-greatest recipient of foreign aid.)
After the speech, I am handed a glass of champagne. “To Ukraine’s future,” a member of a group says and we raise our glasses.
Then comes the concert, a prodigious display of the musical talent that the county is known for: A young boy plays on the piano; another child prodigy plays the violin; I fall in love with the voice of the tenor who sings with an army band. There is a display of national dance, balletic in form. All the regions of the country are represented. There is even religious choral singing. The concert ends with “Mnohaya Lita,” a traditional Ukrainian birthday song . “May you live many years.”
After the oppression of Soviet rule, this celebration in Ukrainian is quite an event. Yet, I wonder about what I have just witnessed. I think about the appearances and reality theme that has traditionally pervaded Soviet relations with the West. Indeed, I wonder if what I observed was a mere display put on for invited guests from other countries, not unlike the “Potemkin” villages guests were limited to seeing when they came to the former Soviet Union.
Of course, I look for the press. The BBC is there, but I see no American papers represented. With news bureaus still based in Moscow, the events in this country roughly the size of France go uncovered. When I later stop by at a news agency, I find the AP reporter does not even speak Ukrainian, but Russian and English. He asks me to translate and recount for him in English what I just observed. The event, obviously, was not covered by him.
The next day, the Independence Day festival begins with a military parade I stand in a place reserved for visiting Americans and Canadians, not too far from the reviewing stand. Generals standing up in rigid form in the back of convertibles are driven by past the stand. Soldiers, sailors march. There is parade of tanks, then, of army trucks filled with rocketlike weapons. I am only 3 feet away.
“Nuclear missiles,” observes a teen-aged boy standing next to me. “And those are larger nuclear missals,” he says.
“And these, I suppose, are the largest ones,” I say to him about the third group of laden trucks. “How do you know so much about missiles,” I ask.
“I learn about them in school, he says.
“Why don’t you speak in Ukrainian?” a woman asks him.
“We are taught to speak Russian in school," he replies.
Minutes later, two men holding a banner that says “Glory to UPA (an organization of Ukrainian freedom-fighters during World War II)” are ominously led away by the authorities.”
Next comes a parade of artists, singers, then Olympic candidates; Young people, competing in soccer, gymnastics, karate, basketball, among other sports, are represented. “Our twin brothers will whack Tyson,” another observer says, referring to an upcoming wrestling match to be held in Ukraine.
After the parade is over, the streets are flooded with crowds. Concession stands are all about. As I walk back to my hotel from the parade, I ask for directions in Ukrainian. I find no one will speak to me. I have to use Russian. As I write this later on, fireworks keep going off into the late night....