Kiev: New Leader, Old Troubles

Dysfunction still prevails in Ukraine, especially in the war-torn east; for the rest of the country, the challenges are financial.

Parade in Ukraine
Zelensky is a new type of leader in the former Soviet Union—young enough to have been shaped by the years following its demise. (Alamy)

Ukraine greeted the news that it was in the middle of the most consequential scandal of the Trump administration with a collective shrug. “I read the transcript of the call—Trump didn’t pressure Zelensky,” my uncle, a retired engineer, told me one evening this fall while I was visiting Kiev. “The Americans are making an elephant out of a fly.” My aunt, stirring borscht at the stove, murmured in agreement.

To be sure, Ukrainians are used to surreal politics. Fifteen years have passed since Ukraine produced one of the biggest scandals of the post-Soviet era: a promising presidential candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, suffered dioxin poisoning after having dinner with Ukrainian security service officials, leaving him to campaign and protest for his eventual office with a face the color and texture of gravel. Nine years later, attention shifted to Ukraine again when clashes during a mass uprising in favor of European integration, known as the Euromaidan Revolution, claimed the lives of more than 100 people. Then came Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the outbreak of a separatist movement in the country’s east; seven percent of Ukrainian territory remains occupied. And this spring, Ukrainians elected as their president a comic named Volodomyr Zelensky, whose only political credentials were that he starred in a popular sitcom about a well-meaning history teacher who improbably ascends to the country’s highest office.

My mother is Ukrainian, and I have been visiting the country for more than 15 years. In that time, I’ve seen the kind of changes that don’t make for headlines: running water becoming available 24 hours a day, lights illuminating the streets at night. More and more of my relatives have money for the occasional luxuries: a dinner out, a trip to a nearby European country, English lessons for the kids. Ukrainian art, literature, and film feel both vibrant and unique, as if they have awakened from a very long slumber.

Yet dysfunction still prevails in many aspects of public life. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the war-torn east, where buildings remain in shambles and medical and government services are in disarray. For the rest of the country, the most severe challenges are financial: the average Ukrainian earns about $420 a month, making Ukraine the poorest country in Europe after Moldova. Bribes are still a solid workaround to obtain desired outcomes in hospitals, educational institutions, and the courts. Given these factors, and the increasing ease of working in European countries like Poland, Ukrainians continue to go abroad for employment in large numbers, sending home the money that has facilitated for many a taste of middle-class life.

Other factors make Ukrainians nonplussed by their role in the Trump impeachment scandal. Most notably, Ukraine is in the midst of a tremendous political moment of its own—a moment that has been billed as an opportunity to tame its raucous politics and secure for its people the prosperity they have long hoped for.

Given his unorthodox background, Zelensky was not the obvious frontrunner for the Ukrainian presidency. After he announced on New Year’s Eve last winter that he was entering the race, however, he quickly took a big lead. The Ukrainian public was desperate for fresh faces. The sitting president, an old political hand named Petro Poroshenko, who came to power in 2014 after then-president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in the aftermath of the Euromaidan Revolution, had succumbed to the same corruption and inefficiency that plagued every Ukrainian president before him.

Zelensky’s celebrity was surely an asset in his quick rise to political prominence, as was his hammy yet sharp comedy. His role as a history-teacher-turned-head-of-state in Servant of the People cast a presidential glow on him that worked both on many of his countrymen and on Zelensky himself.

Being a native Russian speaker from the country’s east also earned him support. When I asked Dan Kaluzhny, a 24-year-old doctor in Kiev who voted for Zelensky, whether he watched Servant of the People, he winced. “No, no,” he said. “I like books. I don’t think it’s a very good idea to support a comic and actor. But I had no choice.” Kaluzhny, who grew up in Donetsk, an eastern Ukrainian city currently controlled by separatists, believed that Zelensky, unencumbered by Poroshenko’s nationalist sympathies, had the best chance to negotiate peace with Russia. He also hoped Zelensky would end the persecution of the Communist Party, which under Poroshenko was essentially outlawed.

Zelensky captured 73 percent of the vote in the April presidential contest, an unprecedented margin in Ukrainian politics, and won majorities in practically every quarter of the country. At 41 years old, he is a new type of leader in the former Soviet Union: old enough to remember the Soviet period but young enough to have been most shaped by the years that followed. He speaks English haltingly and with a heavy accent, the mark of someone who learned the language as an adult, not from elementary school, as many Ukrainians do now. His sphere of reference and celebrity have largely been confined to Ukraine and Russia. Since taking office, he has had to work on his Ukrainian, the official state language and the default tongue of about half the country.

Yet he brings to his office a millennial’s awareness of the power and mechanics of personal brand. In a country where teenagers like to organize “photo sessions” in which they and their friends pose as fashion models, Zelensky posts video clips of his weightlifting workouts on Instagram. His telegenic wife, Olena, is on the December cover of Ukrainian Vogue. As president, he has had photo ops in the capital with Robin Wright, Tom Cruise, Mila Kunis (a native of Ukraine), and Ashton Kutcher. He has also dropped the f-bomb in official remarks. “We talk to society without mediators and without journalists,” the head of presidential administration told a reporter this summer.

Still, as a leader and a symbol, he hints at a more socially progressive Ukraine. At a public event in October, a man with a cross hanging around his neck heckled Zelensky about how he was going to stop George Soros from “spreading the perversion of homosexuality.” Zelensky badgered the man back. “We live together in an open society where each person can choose the language they speak, their nationality, and their orientation,” he responded. “Leave those people alone, God.” It was a remarkable appeal to tolerance given that only 14 percent of Ukrainians in a recent poll said that homosexuality should be accepted by society (compared with 94 percent of Swedes).

Zelensky is also Ukraine’s first Jewish president, a notable development in a country where nationalism trends extreme, “kitchen” anti-Semitism remains common, and history is rife with anti-Semitic violence. Discussion of Zelensky’s Jewish heritage was remarkably absent during his campaign, even in circles where he is deeply unpopular.

Upon taking office in May, Zelensky sought to give the public the performance they voted for. He dressed down incompetent public officials in Odessa and Kiev. He arranged a prisoner exchange that returned more than 30 Ukrainian prisoners of war from Russia, including the celebrated filmmaker and writer Oleg Sentsov. His administration submitted more than 70 anticorruption laws to parliament. This summer, for the first time in recent memory, more Ukrainians than not responded that they believed their country was headed in the right direction. When Zelensky called early parliamentary elections for July, his massive popularity held; he is the first Ukrainian president to command a single-party majority, positioning him to enact the agenda that he sees fit.

In early October, as Washington was roiled by the testimonies of government officials detailing the Trump administration’s troubling Ukraine dealings, Kiev was enjoying a particularly lovely babyne lito, or “grandmother’s summer” (grandmothers loom large in the Ukrainian psyche). The trees along the Dnieper River were flush with yellow, red, and bronze, and the sun glinted gently off the steel sword held aloft by the Rodina-Mat, Kiev’s more severe cousin of the Statue of Liberty. As the month progressed, however, a thick mixture of fog and smog settled over the city, an increasingly common event, and Kiev registered worse air quality than Beijing.

The city’s residents pushed through it; there was much work to be done. The media had started referring to Zelensky’s administration as the “green printer” on account of all the new legislation it was passing (Zelensky is close to the word greenzelenyy—in Ukrainian and Russian). Government types dashed between meetings about all the issues being addressed by new legislation: large-scale privatization, corruption prevention, orphan care, outer space.

Even so, Zelensky’s approval rating was slipping from its historic highs. On October 1, the president had announced that Ukraine would sign on to an agreement, called the Steinmeier Formula, that could clear the way for the reintegration of the Donbass, the region in Ukraine’s east that has been under the control of Russian-backed separatists since 2014. Vagueness about the plan’s implementation quickly turned it from a potential feather in Zelensky’s cap to a liability. The Steinmeier Formula “is a technical detail that became a symbol,” Mykola Kapitonenko, an associate professor at the Institute of International Relations in Kiev, told me. Those who oppose it frame it “as giving up Ukraine’s interests to Russia.” Within days, thousands of Ukrainians had gathered in the city’s main square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, for the first major protests of Zelensky’s tenure. The yellow and blue bands of the Ukrainian flag mixed with the red and black of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a World War II–era nationalist formation that has been embraced by the country’s small but well-organized far right, which has played a central role in opposing the formula. “Glory to the nation, no to capitulation,” the protesters chanted.

Added to this are increasing signs that Zelensky may not be so much a break with the past as its continuation in a younger, hipper form. Since he entered politics, Zelensky has been dogged by rumors that he is the pawn of Igor Kolomoisky, a burly 56-year-old oligarch who owns the television channel that has aired many of Zelensky’s shows. Kolomoisky is also a cofounder of PrivatBank, the country’s largest bank. He left Ukraine after the country nationalized PrivatBank in 2016 upon discovering a $5.6 billion hole in its balance sheet—an amount equal to roughly six percent of the country’s GDP. The bank had “almost no real assets,” Valeria Gontareva, the governor of the National Bank at the time, told a trade magazine in 2017. “Its corporate loan portfolio was an empty shell, a pyramid.”

Kolomoisky returned to Ukraine after Zelensky’s victory, and Ukrainian courts are now reconsidering PrivatBank’s nationalization. His influence is being felt in other ways as well, perhaps most acutely by Gontareva, who has become a target of intimidation tactics at the hands of what she has called “Kolomoisky’s clowns.” In September, a house she owned outside Kiev burned; about two weeks earlier, her daughter-in-law’s car had been torched. She has been sitting for interviews in a wheelchair because of injuries she sustained after being hit by a car in late August in London, where she now lives, a misfortune she suspects may not have been an accident.

Zelensky has denied Kolomoisky’s influence on him, ordered an investigation into the arson of Gontareva’s home, and publicly supported PrivatBank’s nationalization. But he continues Ukraine’s long tradition of crony politics. Zelensky’s administration is peopled by many former employees of his production company, and Kolomoisky’s former personal lawyer, Andriy Bohdan, serves as the influential head of Zelensky’s presidential administration. This arrangement does not set the stage for optimal policymaking. “In order to negotiate with Russia, you have to have a complicated, well-thought-out strategy that takes into account a lot of nuances,” the international relations expert Kapitonenko said about the conflict in the Donbass. With Zelensky’s team, “that has never been on the agenda. They don’t have the necessary expertise.” Reforms in many other areas have been either vague or partial. Maksym Kostetskyi, an anticorruption expert and consultant, said that although judicial reform, signed into law in November, is “more positive than negative … it’s not systematic once again. They leave this room so that if anything happens, they still have the instrument to influence the judiciary.”

One reason there is so much urgency to Zelensky’s agenda is that he wants to produce results while he still has some control over his ragtag majority. More than 250 new deputies joined the parliament under Zelensky’s banner when it convened in August, their lack of political credentials an asset on which the party campaigned. The more experience they acquire, the more likely the majority will become factionalized and indebted to outside interests. Already that time seems to be arriving: in late October, the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office announced that it was investigating media reports that reforms to property management procedures were stymied after 11 MPs from Zelensky’s party accepted bribes amounting to $30,000 each.

The president is “very tired,” Bohdan told the online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda the next week. “Tired from the negativity. … He tries very hard. He goes everywhere all the time. He has many international-level meetings that Poroshenko never dreamed of. … And it is very hard. It takes a lot of strength and energy.”

Born in western Ukraine in 1928, Stefania Midyanka remembers life under both Nazi and Soviet domination, and still hopes for better times. (Anna Yatsenko, Territory of Terror Museum)

Earlier this year, I spent time far from Kiev, in Staryava, the village in western Ukraine where my grandmother was born. I enjoy going there precisely because, unlike Kiev, the village has not changed much—not in the 15 years that I have been visiting, not since my grandmother was a girl. The homes in the village remain humble, designed to facilitate a life spent largely outdoors. The foothills of the Carpathian Mountains ring the village and are as lush and pastoral as if they had been conceived by a painter’s eye. A common sight is a wooden outhouse perched just beyond a tilled field, its door ajar and gently swinging in the wind. I didn’t consider until recently, though, that the villagers themselves might not relish as I do that Staryava seems frozen in time.

In Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine,  a museum called the Territory of Terror has been recording oral histories of elderly Ukrainians. The museum’s researchers do not need to be selective about whom they interview—anyone who has survived into old age in Ukraine has suffered in a terrible way. In June, I arranged to meet the researchers and travel with them to Staryava so that they could add the story of a local woman I knew named Stefania Midyanka to their collection.

At 91 years old, Stefania is as close as Ukraine comes to a living embodiment of its own history. When she was born in 1928, the area, called eastern Galicia, was just a generation or two removed from serfdom. The poverty people lived in was medieval. My grandmother, a contemporary of Stefania’s, described to me once the gleeful anticipation she felt as a child as she waited for her elderly relatives to give her the crusts of bread that they lacked the teeth to consume themselves. The crusts “were like candy,” she said. Amid such scarcity, Stefania told us, misanthropy flourished.

The ethnic Ukrainians of Staryava had coexisted alongside Polish and Jewish minorities for centuries, but during World War II, the uneasy peace between the ethnicities ended. The Soviets deported the Poles; the Nazis imprisoned the village’s approximately 100 Jews, including one of Stefania’s friends and classmates, Frida, in a ghetto. After a few months, the Nazis took them to a cliff on the outskirts of the village and shot them. (They still lie there in unmarked graves.) If Staryava was like other villages in the region, some local Ukrainians helped the Nazis. Eventually, Stefania’s family moved into the house that Frida and her family had been forced from. They remain in the house today. Details like these are shared matter-of-factly by Staryava residents, now virtually all ethnic Ukrainians; the realities of survival are no surprise to anyone.

In her 20s, Stefania was jailed for telling a Soviet official that her brother’s imprisonment for failing to meet a collective farm quota “was something the fascists would have done.” She was released after six months, but her brother spent three years in a gulag labor camp in Siberia where the conditions were so vicious that even “the fleas ate for Stalin.” When she was freed, she married a local man and started a family. She has already outlived one of her children, who died of alcoholism. She worked at a village butcher shop for 40 years until it was shuttered amid the economic collapse following the demise of the Soviet Union.

After Stefania’s formal interview with the researchers was over, her granddaughter had her husband and children help her fill a dining table with bread, cold cuts, freshly picked vegetables, and chocolate. Horilka, Ukrainian vodka, was poured, and the conversation turned to current politics. Here Stefania’s voice rang with new anger: at the pervasive drunkenness and poor work ethic she saw in the village, at the greed of the country’s elite.

“Chornovil said that in 50 years, Ukraine would get a little bit better,” she said, referring to Viacheslav Chornovil, the legendary Ukrainian dissident-turned-politician who commanded significant public support in western Ukraine in the bleak years after the fall of the Soviet Union. He died in a car accident in 1999 and is remembered by his acolytes as a victim of his country, though whether he was a casualty of a political hit or Ukraine’s dangerous roads is debated to this day.

“Fifty years,” Stefania repeated. She was the only person sitting in that room who could actually fathom what that amount of time felt like, and I understood in a new way the immensity of the task that lay before Ukraine. “Thirty have already passed,” she said. “There are still 20 left.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Megan Buskey’s book, Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet: A Family Story of Exile and Return, will be published next year. She writes the Ukraina SOS newsletter.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up