Over a decade ago I had the privilege to teach for five years at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Throughout that period I worked with brilliant students alongside an innovative faculty in the midst of a university determined to help take Ukraine into the modern world at the dawn of the global age against stiff odds.
I remember one student in particular. I will call her Olga (not her real name); she was a resourceful and witty young woman who never tired of asking tough questions and challenging the conventional wisdom in the classroom. When Olga graduated in 2000, I asked her what she planned to do. Her answer was immediate.
“I plan to stay right here and work for my country,” she said. “Some of my friends have left Ukraine to live in Europe or America or Canada, but I believe Ukraine has a real future and I want to be part of that future. In fact,” she concluded, “I want to help make a new and better future for all of us.”
My hopes soared. That was 2000.
Earlier this year, the Ukrainian government announced with great fanfare that 2011 would be the “Year of Education.” On the surface that seemed like an inspired choice I thought of Olga and our conversation of 11 years ago. Within weeks of the announcement, however, Yanukovych administration offered an education budget that reduced the previous announcement to the status of a Potemkin Village - in effect a mirage that masked a nonexistent world behind it. Almost unbelievably the proposed budget sharply reduced a significant number of departments and whole schools at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, severely crippling their capacity to continue. Funding for the law school was cut by 50 percent. Ditto for the School of Social Work. Law schools in L’viv and Ternopil were also reduced, up to the point of closure in several cases. By contrast, schools in southeast Ukraine, stronghold of the government’s ruling elite, received increased funding.
Unnerved, I decided to contact Olga to get her perspective on these fast moving events. The initial attempt to reach her failed and I soon learned that she had left Ukraine and moved to Brussels.
Not to be denied, I persisted. Finally, after several tries, I found her in Brussels, working at a bank. When I reminded her of our conversation over a decade ago when she promised to stay in Ukraine, her reply was both straightforward and deeply troubling.
“Yes,“ she answered without hesitation or apology. “I left my country. And you know why, Dr. Gleason? Because the government and official society of Ukraine are dead set against progress and development of any normal kind. Of course they will deny this but it is a cover up. They are corrupt and opposed to the rule of law and very afraid of competition across the board. They care only for power and control.
“But,” she continued, almost without taking a breath, “there is a thriving Ukraine. It exists. And in significant numbers. Just not in Ukraine very much or in shrinking numbers. For the most part it exists abroad, in places like Berlin, or Toronto, or New York. There you will find Ukrainians, most of them quite young, ready to start businesses and companies. They – and I – are hard at work.”
I turned the conversation to the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Olga’s reaction was scalding.
“Yes,” she replied in a hushed tone, almost as if she expected to be overheard. “The government detests places and schools like Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, while pretending to favor progressive and modern education. It is almost as if people at the top do not understand anything about our contemporary world and where we are in history. And the final result will be the same, I fear. We will see another wave of talent rushing abroad in search of a better life for themselves and their children.”
“Will you ever go back,” I finally interjected.
“Ukraine is a rich country,” Olga exclaimed after along pause. “We have untapped potential everywhere one looks. I come from the central region of Ukraine and our land is full of possibility of wealth. However, it is being held back by a system that is both incompetent and distrustful of an open society based on a rule of law and on true innovation that cannot be manipulated from above by petty officials and their helpers.
“But I believe deep in my heart that change will come. It will come because Ukraine cannot be separated from the world around us and thrust back into an isolation chamber with no opportunity to breathe or move. We cannot go back to the Soviet Union in any real sense of the term. I am not talking about communism itself here. I am talking about a world in which decisions always were made by a small group of people who claim to act on everyone else’s behalf. A small group of people who relied entirely on themselves and nobody else.
“Too many things have changed since that time and the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. And not just at schools like Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, but around the country no matter where you live.
“Yes,” she said, her voice quickening in anticipation. “Yes, I believe Ukraine will change. It is only a matter of time. And then I will go back.”
William Gleason, is Chair of Advanced Polish & Ukrainian Area Studies and Coordinator of Eurasian Area Studies at the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State. Dr. Gleason is a long time Russia and Eastern Europe expert who oversees a key training program for American diplomats preparing to serve in the region. Dr. Gleason served as Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and as director of the Fulbright Program for Ukraine in 1998 – 2000. He lectured at numerous universities including the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He is the author of numerous books and publications on history, culture and interactions on Russia and Ukraine. His article "Ukrainian Higher Education in Transition: Perspective and Policy Implications," was published in the Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization in the Summer of 2001.