As each year passes, Ukraine makes itself known to the world. It writes its own history — cements itself into the international community. As new challenges and triumphs come and go, August 24th 1991 recedes further and further into the past.
Every Ukrainian who lived at that time experienced independence in a highly personal manner. Some were directly involved in the process, while others observed with bated breath. Ukrainian Chicago Magazine asked three Ukrainian Americans, with different perspectives, how they experienced Ukraine’s independence, and what hopes and fears they have for Ukraine today, as it faces new uncertainties.
By Julian Hayda
“I moved to Kyiv in October of 1990 to work at the International Management Institute. Independence was still not something that seemed possible, although there was a sense of hope that things would change significantly — that Ukraine would have much more autonomy from Moscow.
That was confirmed with the March 1990 sovereignty referendum — then talk of independence was more and more in the air. In the summer of 1991, I was with a group of IMI-Kyiv MBA students doing an internship in the United States. We were tracking the news ‘back home’ as best as we could.
I recall first being uplifted by the news that President George Bush would visit Ukraine; then being dismayed by his ‘Chicken Kiev’ speech; then soon thereafter, following events in Moscow as the August putsch unfolded. The group of Ukrainian students was very, very worried that it would turn out badly — but the images of Boris Yeltsin standing on the tank won the day, the coup quickly collapsed, and Ukraine’s parliament declared independence on August 24.
Even so, the feeling of ‘finally, independence!’ only came with the December 1, 1991 referendum with the vote for independence from the people of Ukraine.
I remember celebrating that night, but feeling eerie about it. Celebrations were only within a few narrow circles, you really didn’t see it on the streets of Kyiv. Maybe the cold got in the way. There was a sense of ‘everything has changed’ yet ‘nothing has changed’ at the same time. That manifested itself in the following years while I was working both in Kyiv — until 1999 — and later, broadly helping the country transition to a liberal democracy.
My older brother would quip, “You can take Ukraine out of the Soviet Union, but you can’t take the Soviet Union out of Ukraine.” Even now, we see that continued struggle as Ukrainian society and its government structures battle corruption, try to establish the rule of law, strive to give rebirth to Ukrainian language, and inculcate a culture of true citizenship.
But a watershed moment came in 1991. With all the dilemmas and problems, it is still more inspiring and comforting to continue the struggle under one’s own blue and yellow flag”.
I have a «pre-history» of my realizing that Ukraine will be independent.
I grew up in a family of very loyal Soviet citizens, servants of the Soviet state, for whom any thought of independence of Ukraine would seem crazy. But then I began to study at a graduate school in Moscow in 1981. Living in Moscow, I suddenly realized that I was a foreigner there. I spoke Russian fluently, but my pronunciation and manner of speech, my favorite readings etc. immediately made it apparent to Muscovites that I was from Ukraine and that I was not one of them.
Then I met a company of friends from Ukraine, including some who were from the extreme west of the country: Carpathian mountains, Transcarpathia. I learned a lot about their customs, songs, traditions, and became more convinced that I, just like them, belonged to a country that was not exactly part of «Russia» or the USSR.
One day, I had a conversation with a Russian, a true-blue Muscovite, who, all of a sudden, said, «you know, I believe that in just 20 years or so, Ukraine will be an independent country!» I was amazed. I myself still did not imagine that Ukraine would be a separate state.
That conversation was in 1983, and Ukraine became independent in 1991. That was just after eight years, not 20. I remember that immediately after that conversation, I was convinced that Ukraine would be independent some day.
In August 1991, I was already in the USA, at the peak of the anti-Gorbachev coup in Moscow. I read in a newspaper that Ukraine declared sovereignty of her laws over the laws of the USSR. From that moment on, I knew that the country of my birth was, indeed, independent.
As a Ukrainian American raised with this deep connection to Ukraine, my first reaction to the word of independence was of course euphoria. Growing up in a world where no one knew what Ukraine was — people asking if it’s the same as Russia — it was moving and mind blowing to see the Ukrainian flag go up in Kyiv. Our parent’s generation wept at the sight. All of us could not believe it had finally come to pass — and through implosion and deliberate choice by Ukrainian leaders.
So many of us wanted to go to Ukraine to work, witness events, and be there in a finally independent Ukraine.
Businesses, media and government suddenly had to cover events from outside of Moscow. Many of the journalists covering Ukraine as stringers were Ukrainian Canadians or Americans — Marta Kolomeyets, Chrystia Lapychak, Chrystia Freeland — and the US Embassy had a number of Ukrainian Americans serving. The Embassy had to be transformed from a small consulate in a Soviet Republic to a full-blown Embassy in an independent state, which happened to have nuclear weapons. I had the privilege of being there for a short time with other Ukrainian Americans in the first months after the referendum.
IIn the initial weeks and months after independence, there was a palpable sense that the Ukrainians were just as surprised as anyone to find themselves in an independent state. Ministers were answering their own phones and the parliamentary committee tasked with drafting the new Ukrainian constitution had books scattered about the table with titles such as ‘Constitutions of European States.’ The easy stuff was done quickly: disbanding the Communist Party, taking over their property in Kyiv, changing the flag, updating the hymn. The hard part of governing — rule of law, transparency, effective political parties — is still going on. And that work and those choices need to be left to the people of Ukraine. That is something that is at times hard for the diaspora.
So everyone — Ukrainians, the US government — realized everything would be different. Even those in Ukraine who wanted to cling to the old system and power structure quickly realized they needed to change their approach.
The process still continues in Ukraine. I suggest that Ukrainians are still trying to figure out what exactly they want their country to be and what is the best way forward.