Protesters not only seeking freedom, but also the sort of liberal democracy Americans enjoy.
A mere mile from the White House stands a fittingly symbolic memorial to iconic Ukrainian poet, artist and freedom fighter Taras Shevchenko. While not one of D.C.'s highest-trafficked attractions, it is, nonetheless, an instructive touchstone for Americans seeking to make sense of the ongoing tumult in Ukraine.
Engraved upon the pedestal is the inscription: "19th century Ukrainian poet and fighter for the independence of Ukraine and the freedom of all mankind, who under foreign Russian imperialist tyranny and colonial rule appealed for the 'New and Righteous Law of Washington.' "
Ukrainians have often displayed a voracious and specific appetite for the sort of liberal democracy delineated by the American Founders. Shevchenko's call for the "New and Righteous Law of Washington" is only the beginning.
Even within the past month, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have gathered in the center of Kiev, often bearing the flags of the United States and European Union — symbols of their desire for a closer relationship with the West and a move away from the seemingly inescapable grasp of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Their discontent has deep roots. Ten years ago, Ukrainians gathered under similar circumstances. The 2004 Orange Revolution saw a jaded Ukrainian populace rally around Viktor Yushchenko, a candidate promising Western-style reforms.
Even earlier, in 1969 under Soviet rule, Ukrainians showed a hunger for freedom. Kiev was thrown into turmoil by a visiting exhibition called "Education in the USA." According to historian Serhy Yekelchyk, "although the exhibition ... was not advertised in the local media, rumors quickly spread that its American staff was distributing free copies of America magazine in Russian — a government-sponsored publication advertising the American way of life." In just more than two weeks, the staff had distributed 100,000 copies of the magazine.
Shevchenko's own writings help explain why Ukraine's efforts have often been frustrated. Referencing the Decembrist Uprising of 1825, when Russian soldiers revolted to demand a more representative government like Britain's, Shevchenko wrote:
Oh, butchers! butchers! cannibals!
And did you gorge and loot
Enough when 'live? And when you died
What did you take with you?
A heavy weight pressed on my heart.
It was as though engraved
Upon that granite I could read
The story of Ukraine.
Shevchenko's "story of Ukraine" is this: For every example of Ukraine striving towards independence, there is a counter-example of some resistance seeking to stifle the effort.
Ukraine's last taste of independence came in 1917. Resistance was not far behind. In 1921, the nation was assimilated into the Soviet Union. A few years after this brief brush with independence, Joseph Stalin's "Great Purge" began; thousands of members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia who endorsed Ukrainian sovereignty were exiled or killed. Within the same decade, unconscionable Soviet policies targeting Ukraine led to one of the darkest chapters of modern history and the deaths of as many as 7.5 million Ukrainians — dubbed the "Holodomor."
Yushchenko's 2004 candidacy also turned into a David vs. Goliath affair. Russia poured an estimated $300 million into the election to defeat the Western-leaning candidate, in favor of Yanukovych — long considered a Russian puppet. Yushchenko ultimately prevailed, but not before Yanukovych's allies modified vote tallies, physically threatened Yushchenko's supporters, and successfully poisoned Yushchenko himself in an attempted assassination.
Even the popular 1969 exhibition in Kiev faced similar opposition. As Yekelchyk explains it, "Embarrassed by the long lines ... the Kyivan authorities dispatched 50 propaganda workers to blacken the American social system" and "organized nearby distractions, such as free circus performances, concerts and games."
Ukrainians remained undeterred. The pavilion remained packed the entire month, even after attempted police crackdowns. But the theme persisted: Any move toward freedom, however innocuous, is greeted by equal, opposite reactions from those who would keep Ukraine — and its resources — under their thumbs. Today, Yanukovych and his allies in the Kremlin continue this legacy of selfish exploitation.
Thousands of Americans each day unknowingly pass the Taras Shevchenko Memorial in D.C. It has nonetheless stood for 50 years, in the middle of the world's seat of freedom, pleading for the "'New and Righteous Law of Washington." America has a moral obligation to stand unwaveringly with the Ukrainian people who, 5,000 miles away, now make the same plea.
Ben Carnes, communications director for Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., has worked alongside numerous Ukrainian interest groups.
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