An Orange Revolution

March 16, 2006

Askold Krushelnycky is that rare creature, someone who has grown more idealistic with age. He is also unusual in another respect. In the blowhard world of foreign corresponding he is something of a shrinking violet whose inclination is to underplay his adventures. I have come to know AK well down the years. Yet until now I had little idea of the extraordinary range of his experiences, some of which he modestly – perhaps too modestly – recounts here. This important and moving book is essentially about Ukraine, that great, juicy slab of land whose fate it has been to be torn to pieces periodically by its carnivorous neighbours. It is also a chronicle of the Krushelnycky family, whose lives were caught in the snapping jaws. Running through it like an orange thread is the author’s uplifting story.

He grew up Ukrainian in London and Reading, living a parallel life playing the violin in his English grammar school and the mandolin in the Ukrainian orchestra. The family home was a forum for exile politics. The author’s father Ivan was a controversial figure. Like other honourable nationalists he found himself fighting with the Germans against the Soviets and had to face the awkwardness that fact engendered in a post-war world unconcerned about the complexities of the conflict. His activities in the pro-independence diaspora, first as the editor of an émigré newspaper, earned him Moscow’s hatred and he was denounced as a traitor. His sister Leonida had fallen on the other side of the ideological divide, working as a Red Army nurse. Twenty years after the war ended she and her mother were allowed out to England. This was no act of humanity on behalf of Ukraine’s Communist rulers. Leonida bore a message from the KGB. Either Ivan returned to answer for his ‘crimes’ or the members of the family that remained in their clutches would suffer.

The list of the enemies of Ukrainian independence is long. In the last century alone the land was dismembered at various times by the Russians, the Germans and the Poles. For Krushelnycky the biggest villains are the Russians – they, and the local stooges who worked so enthusiastically on behalf of Moscow’s selfish interests and, of course, their own. The heroes are those strugglers of the Left and the Right who refused to accept their neighbours’ cynical view that Ukraine was merely a territory and insisted, at great cost to themselves, that it was a nation. That fight, as Krushelnycky makes very clear, is still going on today. The collapse of Soviet Communism did not bring the dawn of democracy. He gives a fascinating description of the black ingenuity and cynical ease with which the Ukrainian party elite teamed up with security bosses and the mafia to ensure that power and wealth stayed in their hands. This squalid troika in turn ensured that Ukraine remained inside Moscow’s paranoid embrace, a deal the West was happy to go along with. It was only after 13 years of a corrupt interregnum and the arrival of a new leadership backed by people power that the shackles were finally loosened. Even now, as President Putin’s naked bullying over gas supplies proved recently, the chains have yet to be struck off.

Ukrainian independence was never a fashionable cause in the West. Before the Orange Revolution, few in Britain could place it on the map. The author never lost his father’s faith. As young activist he organised protests outside the Soviet Embassy and smashed the windows of Soviet offices in London. As a journalist he witnessed the beginning of the end of Russian Communism, first in Afghanistan where he spent months accompanying the mujahideen in their long campaign to drive the invaders out. His reporting earned him the hatred of the Russians, who at one point ordered his assassination.

He was in Berlin for the fall of the Wall and in 1990 made his first visit to Ukraine where he went on to probe the crimes of the regime, most notably the murder and beheading of the investigative journalist Georgiy Gongadze. His belief was vindicated in the autumn of 2004 when he stood in Kiev’s main square amid a sea of orange, convinced that Ukraine could become ‘the kind of democratic, fair and above all decent place that my parents and so many millions of their compatriots dreamed about for generations.’

Ukraine has faded from the headlines. But Krushelnycky’s book provides a powerful reminder of why we should care about it. It is the best available guide to the subject and is likely to remain so for some time.