A hinge in history

The tumult in Kiev 15 years ago seemed a victory for progress and idealism—but the Orange Revolution marked the furthest point of democracy’s advance

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Yushchenko supporters in Independence Square celebrate his inauguration on January 23, 2005 (© YURI KADOBNOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Of all that winter’s acts of bravery, the most memorable, for me, was the sign-language interpreter’s revolt. Instead of obediently relaying the rigged result of Ukraine’s presidential election on the state-run news, she told viewers not to trust the official count, and that she was sorry for her part in the lies. But, amid the euphoria and sub-zero temperatures of the Orange Revolution of 2004, hundreds of thousands of others stood up—literally—for the sort of country, and the kind of future, they wanted to live in.

The epicentre of the revolution was Independence Square in Kiev, known as the Maidan. Shivering amid the crowds as a correspondent for The Economist, it seemed to me that something unequivocally good was happening, not just for Ukraine but for the world. Just over 15 years on, those giddy events can indeed be seen as a hinge in recent history, though not in the way I thought then. This was the moment at which, rather than buckling, the forces of disinformation and authoritarianism regrouped, and began to push back. A straight line connects the ecstasy of the square to the current woes of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic.

Hope seemed to have triumphed. As is the case at mass demonstrations from Caracas to Hong Kong, the urgent question in Kiev was whether the rolling protests would be dispelled by violence. Rumours swirled of troop manoeuvres and sniper-nests, of trainloads of hired thugs and Russian Spetznaz. The latter had reputedly been sent by Vladimir Putin, who saw (and sees) Ukraine as part of Russia’s patrimony, to help install Viktor Yanukovych, the bogus winner of the vote and the Kremlin’s preferred candidate. This is the danger on which the plot turns in my new novel, Independence Square

In opaque circumstances, the threat of skull-cracking was averted. The phony result was annulled, and Viktor Yushchenko, the Western-leaning opposition leader who had been mysteriously poisoned during the campaign, rightfully won in a rerun. (You may remember his disfigured, pockmarked face—a side-effect of the poisoning—from news reports: “This is the face of Ukraine,” he dramatically told the country’s crony-stuffed parliament.) On Independence Square, his joyous supporters waved the starry flag of the European Union, which, for many, connoted the rule of law, clean elections and an end to the corruption that had hobbled the country since it emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991.

‘Elections everywhere have become vulnerable to a technology of lies that, in 2004, was only in its infancy’

All this seemed a victory for progress as well as for Ukraine. Idealism had defeated cynicism; facts beat fakery. Along with poison and ballot-stuffing, the contest had featured a repertoire of dirty tricks that have since become all-too familiar—spurious candidates, paid-for rallies, shady slush funds and “black PR”. One of the outgoing regime’s habitual tools were temnyky, covert edicts that told media outlets what they were to cover and what they must ignore. The truth, and people power, had seen them all off. Girls bearing roses faced down armoured riot police. Idealistic young activists camped out in a frigid tent city on Khreshchatyk, Kiev’s main drag. Defecting officers kneeled on the stage in Independence Square and swore allegiance to the people.

This much courage and determination couldn’t be in vain—or so I thought then. The aftermath taught many people, including me, several lessons: about wishful thinking, the tenacity of post-Soviet corruption and Putin’s appetite for vendettas. At the time, the revolution seemed to herald the unstoppable eastward march of democracy. Instead it marked the farthest point of democracy’s advance. According to the watchdog Freedom House, the following year saw the end of a period of expansion for political rights that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall. After that, freedom entered a long and still continuing global decline.

Convinced that the revolution was a CIA-sponsored plot, Putin set about ensuring that he would never lose the streets and squares of Moscow in the same way, organising tame youth movements to be mobilised when needed. Russia’s relations with America, already soured by the Iraq war, deteriorated further. In the ensuing months I watched as would-be revolutions in nearby Azerbaijan and Belarus were brutally quashed.

Meanwhile, as the Mueller report showed, elections everywhere have become vulnerable to a technology of lies that, in 2004, was only in its infancy. These days, smears are amplified and circulated farther and faster than the social media of 15 years ago allowed. Dark money flows across borders into places and elections where it does not belong. Politicians everywhere have found new ways to circumvent the respectable press. We in the West face the same bamboozling tactics with which Ukrainians were grappling even then, only in more insidious forms. As Misha Kovrin, a fictional oligarch in my novel, puts it, the subterfuge in Ukraine was not a blip but a sign to the future.

From a British perspective, the iconography of the protests is especially poignant. The notion that the EU flag is a universal standard of progress now seems to belong to another age. It isn’t only Brexit—secured in a referendum tarnished by startling levels of mendacity—that has frayed the Euro-enthusiasm of the square. So have the financial and migrant crises, and the advent of a new nationalism in Poland and elsewhere. After the revolution, the dream of pan-European solidarity withered.

And as for poor Ukraine itself: the Kremlin’s man may have lost, but by no means did Putin give up. Five years later, Yanukovych won the presidency at the second attempt. Three years after that, he was dislodged in a second revolution, this one bloody, whereupon Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a war in the Donbas. More than 13,000 people have been killed.

The same pathologies that hobbled the hopes of Independence Square—Ukraine’s precarious position on the border of East and West, the distorting grip of its oligarchs—have recently thrust it into the global headlines. Through Donald Trump’s efforts to strong-arm its government, Kiev has become an unexpected pivot of world affairs. Look closely, though, and it already was.