I am ashamed to say that every time our main state holiday is approaching, I feel some discomfort – only because I am still reliving those August days of 1991 as if it was yesterday. My memory tells me things that are perhaps not so pleasant to be aware of: Ukraine’s independence was a consequence of geopolitical circumstances and an expression of centrifugal tendencies in the decrepit empire rather than a manifestation of the unified will of the Ukrainian people. There were precursors: astonishing protests, demonstrations by the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR, the Student Revolution on Granite and the Chain of Unity. There was a handful of wholehearted patriots, educated and otherwise, old and young, who wanted independence above all, believing that this was a point after which the bright future would come automatically. There was also memory about several generations of heroes who laid down their lives for a Ukraine’s much-cherished freedom… However, it would be, mildly speaking, an exaggeration to say that the slogan of independence was universal and definitive.
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It was later, closer to December, that the attitude swing took place: even in the traditionally pro-Russian Crimea, 54% voted in favour of the Act of Declaration of Independence at the referendum. Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts gave more than 83% of support votes with a remarkably high turnout, to say nothing about the nearly perfect 97-98% in Western Ukraine. However, think about the arguments that were used by supporters of independence back then: Ukraine is feeding all of the USSR, so when we get rid of Moscow’s patronage, we will immediately begin to live like in America. Using this deceptive discourse, the regional elites in their pursuit of power and money fooled the people, which the latter very soon realized. Of course, the party and economic elites of the time had no intention of drastically reforming the Soviet principles of interaction and, even less so, carrying out any purges, lustrations, etc. They only removed the barriers inherent in the system and designed to constrain their appetites. Quick-moving Komsomol members, modern-time businessmen and regional gangsters soon swelled the ranks of the masters of life. Patriots dissolved amongst them, partly becoming marginalised and partly accepting the rules of the game.
Paradoxically, nearly the majority of patriots – true patriots – today are those who were either indifferent to independence back in 1991, too young to make a conscious choice or not even born yet. It is with great interest that I watch the evolution of many of my friends and acquaintances who did not consider or feel themselves Ukrainian 22 years ago: some switched to Ukrainian, others simply learned the language and yet others remained Russian-speaking as a matter of principle. However, their reactions and everyday conduct suggest they would not be forced back into the empire under any circumstances. They were first discernible in the mass of people in Maidan Nezalezhnosti during the Orange Revolution, and they were in front of the Ukrainian Home after the “language law” was passed. But even if they do not join protest rallies, there can be no doubt about their choice, including at critical moments. Importantly, not all of them are ethnic Ukrainians, but they feel they are also political Ukrainians – this is precisely the foundation of a future nation.
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Why “future”? Because independence is not only “from what” or “from whom” – it is also “for what purpose”. In fact, the state is not a way to feed our own Ministry of Public Health, police, judges and MPs. Since the dawn of our era, the state has been expected to deliver two fundamental things: roads and the Roman law. In other words, infrastructure and equal rules for everyone. Then, social practices led to additional requirements: civil liberties, respect for a person, protection of the weak, facilitation of individual development and private initiate, social mobility, preservation of culture, etc. And, of course, protection against external aggression. In all these senses, our young independent state is either underdeveloped or absent as such. Hence my discomfort. That is to say, true independence still needs to be won, because – here I risk repeating a truism – independence is in people’s heads, not in border checkpoints.
However, I should recognize at least one highly relevant and evident added bonus – being separated from the empire as such and from its modern-time modification. After all, all things are known by comparison, as the saying goes. Independence from the state of former Cheka officers, from patriotic-clerical “uniformness” and “like-mindedness”, from problems with provinces and migrants, from the “oil curse”, from the degradation of social institutes, from wild aggression and expansion, from muscle-flexing and xenophobia – that is a lot!
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What about the formal pretext? The French celebrate Bastille Day (a dubious choice from the historical viewpoint). The Dutch mark the birthday of their monarch. Spaniards chose, for some reason, the day when Columbus landed in the New World, and most countries celebrate the date of formal proclamation of their independence even if it was followed by a long and bloody war. We are no worse.
So, be it as it may, happy Independence Day!