New Kids on the Bloc

November 26, 2004
The New York Times

Kiev, Ukraine

A family friend who has a 17-year-old son told me this last week: "Young people today are so different from what we used to be, or even from what your generation is. They don't have our fear - they don't know it. But they know their rights, and they know how to defend them. They aren't scared to."

With Ukraine now gripped in a political crisis stemming from the disputed results of Sunday's presidential election, I can see what that friend meant.

For example, I have a 20-year-old friend, Tanya. When I was 16 and the Soviet Union collapsed, she was 6. Monday night, Tanya returned to Kiev, where she is a history student in college, from her hometown, Zhytomyr, where she had been observing the election.

On Tuesday morning, she, along with half a million other people, was at Kiev's Independence Square, protesting the declaration by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich that he was the winner. From there, together with thousands of other students, she marched to Shevchenko University, whose leadership had refused to allow its students to join a growing nationwide strike.

They weren't letting anyone out of the university, Tanya told me when I ran into her that evening at a huge rally outside the Ukrainian Parliament building. The students were locked inside, she explained, but they opened all the windows, and the protesters were passing them orange flags - the symbol of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, whom most everyone feels was cheated out of victory. One guy climbed the drainpipe to the second floor to deliver the flags, Tanya said, and the students pulled him in through the window. Soon after, the administration relented, the students were liberated, their classes canceled.

By the time of the rally that night, Tanya had been up and running for 10 hours in the freezing cold dressed only in a thin green coat, an orange scarf around her neck and orange ribbons tied into her braids. She didn't look tired or cold; as we set out in search of a quick cup of coffee, she made us stop by a loudspeaker and listen to Mr. Yushchenko addressing Parliament inside the building.

Then, as we moved again, she and her friend started singing the Ukrainian national anthem. They didn't sound phony; they were singing for themselves, not loudly, and in beautiful voices (both are members of a Ukrainian choir), and it moved me to tears.

An hour later, around 7 p.m., we were at Independence Square again, at another huge rally, listening to Mr. Yushchenko on the loudspeakers again. Tanya, along with everyone else, was shouting "Yushchenko! Yushchenko!" and I, standing next to her, found myself shouting too, with confidence and inspiration I hadn't felt before.

And over and over one hears the chant, "My razom, nas bagato, i nas ne podolaty!" ("We're together, and there are many of us, and we can't be defeated!") Three weeks ago, I would have probably said that this was what students shouted at their rallies, but now everyone does, and so many people mean it.

When opposition party leaders asked the crowd to stay in the square through the night, taking turns in order not to get too cold, Tanya started making plans for the next day. She intended to return at 6 a.m.; she must have been very tired and cold by then, but it still wasn't showing.

The past four days have taught me something valuable: when I'm watching the situation unfold on television, I grow tense, fearful that it's not going to end well. But when I return to the crowd, I feel elated, thanks to people like Tanya, tens of thousands of them, and to everyone else who's out there, people of all ages, hundreds of thousands of them, fearless.

And our international support has heartened us as well. Almost every international observer - including experts from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and from NATO - has accused the ruling party of widespread voting fraud. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the United States "cannot accept this result as legitimate." The only foreign leader who has sided with Mr. Yanukovich has been President Vladimir Putin of Russia, which, needless to say, hasn't done much for the prime minister's credibility.

Which brings up a joke I've heard a few times recently: a Ukrainian man shows up at work, all his clothes rumpled. When his colleagues ask what happened, he replies: "I turn on the TV this morning, and there's Putin praising Yanukovich. I switch to another channel, and there's Putin again, praising Yanukovich. So I switch the channels again, and there's again Putin praising Yanukovich. I turn on the radio, and Putin is there, too, praising Yanukovich. So I figured there was no use turning on the iron."

I'm not sure if it's a remake of an old Soviet joke. It may be. But it fits November 2004 in Ukraine beautifully: there's little use watching TV, what's happening now is available to everyone firsthand, out there in the streets of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities. And if the students have no fear in defending their rights, why should the rest of us?