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Ukraine's Scream

James Carroll

 by the Boston Globe

In Askold Melnyczuk's novel "Ambassador of the Dead," a Ukrainian-American boy is confronted every year with teachers who tell him his ancestral land does not exist. When the boy protests that Ukraine does too exist, one teacher says, "Show the class on the map, Alex." He goes to the wall map in front of the class. "Try as he might, he couldn't find the old country anywhere," Melnyczuk writes.

In a fit of anguish, Alex wished that his old disappearing sickness would return. He had been born with a condition that caused his skin to slowly become transparent, then invisible. "The only way he could stop himself from disappearing entirely was by screaming."

Ukrainians have seen their country wiped from the maps of the world again and again. Now, hundreds of thousands of them have taken to the streets to scream: We will not disappear! A criminal regime attempted to thwart the will of the people by falsifying results of the Nov. 21 presidential election, giving the victory to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych instead of the true winner, opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko. Responding to the refusal of Yushchenko's supporters to "disappear," the Ukrainian Parliament, in a nonbinding resolution, nullified the election last Saturday, and the Supreme Court is debating whether to order new elections. Meanwhile, an orange-bedecked throng faithfully stands in Kiev's Independence Square demanding justice. "Claim your place, son," another Melnyczuk character says (in the novel "What Is Told"). "Claim your place. Don't be shy. The world's not that fragile. It's waiting for you to make your mark. Claim your place. The world is waiting."

The Orange Revolution, so called because of the Yushchenko campaign color, balances now on the knife-edge of history. Will the pro-Yanukovych forces resort to violence? Which way will Ukraine's armed forces go? Will Ukraine descend into civil war? Will Moscow attempt to impose resolution on its terms? Will the advocates of democracy disappear? For answers to these questions, the world, indeed, is waiting.

What the world makes of this drama matters. Some commentators in Europe and America see the conflict as between the "NATO-friendly Yushchenko" and the "pro-Russia Yanukovych," as if the dispute were a rehearsal for a renewed Cold War between West and East. This perception downplays what seems paramount to those crowded into Independence Square, which is conflict between a government corrupted by mafias and those who would reform it. Yanukovych, in a phrase of Oksana Zabuzhko in The Wall Street Journal last week, is "a Ukrainian Al Capone." Supporters of Yushchenko, meanwhile, understand the inevitable importance of the cultural, economic, and political ties between Moscow and Kiev. They understand, also, how interpreting the conflict in terms of the East-versus-West paradigm as opposed to the mafia-versus-law paradigm serves the purposes of the criminals.

To understand how this conflict looks from Moscow, it helps to recall the East-West context as established not by Kiev but by Washington, and here NATO is the key. Because Russia has been invaded from the West dozens of times over the last three centuries, the Kremlin's wary eye is not paranoid, even now. In 1989, US Secretary of State James Baker, in return for Mikhail Gorbachev's acceptance of a reunited Germany in NATO, gave the Soviet leader assurances, in Baker's words, as reported by Michael H. Beschloss and Strobe Talbot in their book "At the Highest Levels," "that NATO's jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position." That promise was broken. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were formally admitted to NATO in 1999, and two weeks later NATO launched its war against Serbia over strenuous Russian objections.

As a result of that war, in 2000, Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin, announced "a new concept of security," which included a first-use threat of nuclear weapons. Since 9/11, the United States has "projected force" into territories of the former Soviet Union, making it a lively question in Moscow whether Washington is a partner or a rival. If Russian nervousness extends to the politics of Ukraine, in other words, it is as much the outcome of wrong-headed policies made in America as of the pro-democracy challenge coming from Kiev.

"You're kind to listen," a Melnyczuk character says. "I come from a place where the earth has been trying to speak for so long, I'm afraid when it finally does, the first thing it will do is scream." In Independence Square the scream is, We will not disappear! The world listens less out of kindness than out of the grave awareness that this contest is starkly between right and wrong, and its outcome matters everywhere.

© 2021 Boston Globe
James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll a former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, including the new novel "The Cloister" (Doubleday). Among other works are:  "Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age." His memoir, "An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us," won the National Book Award. His 2021 book is "The Truth at the Heart of the Lie: How the Catholic Church Lost Its Soul." He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Boston with his wife, the writer Alexandra Marshall.

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