Ukrainian Glasnost: An Insider's View

Oleg Atbashian, the author of this essay, is a writer from the Ukrainian city of Cherkassy. He came to the United States last October on a private cultural exchange, working with poets and writers in California to translate Russian and Ukrainian poetry. In this essay, he remembers some of the events of 1990 and comments on the changes then taking place in the Ukraine under glasnost.

SOMETIME in the early summer of 1990, as I was passing Taras Shevchenko Theater Square in downtown Cherkassy, my attention was captured by a crowd surrounding a group of people at tables. They were by the monu- ment to Shevchenko, blue and yellow flags curling over their heads. To make it clear what this picture represents, it's worthwhile to mention that the poet Taras Shevchenko, a former serf who rose to become the most prominent figure in Ukrainian culture, has been a national hero for Ukrainians fo r more than a hundred years. The blue and yellow national flag of Ukraine, signifying blue sky and yellow steppe, was banned under the Soviet regime and turned into a symbol of struggle for national independence. The crowd I met was excited, yelling in Russian and Ukrainian. The word most often pronounced was samostiynist - independence.

I came closer, and just as I expected, I saw my friend Oleksa in the middle, winning loud applause from one part of the crowd and hostile hissing from the other half. As we shook hands, he explained: "We are issuing certificates of citizenship for the Ukrainian People's Republic according to the decree issued by Tsentralana Rada [the Central Council] in 1918, the single year of Ukrainian independence. Besides the symbolic significance, these certificates may also be a public-opinion poll that hasn't bee n possible so far under the Communist empire."

I signed the paper, thus becoming citizen No. 341 of the Ukrainian People's Republic.

Three months later, my sister also went there and became citizen No. 3341. So, in our city of 300,000, one in a hundred wants samostiynist. That doesn't mean that 99 out of 100 don't want it. Beside those who keep alive the memory of the Stalinist regime and who are afraid to sign any paper at all, there are many more who still hesitate, not knowing what they really want.

Our legacy is the lack of experience in taking responsibility for making distinct choices. During the long decades of living under socialism we had little if any choice in every aspect of life: consumer goods, food products, entertainment, religion, and, of course, politics. The central government took upon itself the responsibility of making choices, telling people what to do, what to think, and what they want. The whole country was turned into a vast kindergarten where adults were treated like childre n by Communist officials who thought of themselves as teachers.

THE most vivid and ridiculous example of this was the election process - a childish game of choosing one candidate from a slate of one candidate, without even having a choice not to choose. Playing this game, some people scrawled on the margins of their voting papers words like "parasites" and "bloodsuckers." After the ballot boxes were opened, these papers were then handed to a KGB graphological expert to track down the dissenters. And this all happened according to the rules of the same old game we ha ve been playing in our country for over 70 years. The funniest, or the saddest, thing about all this was that these elections held no significance anyway, because the real power was in the hands of the Communist Party which was never elected by anyone.

We hope the old game is now over. We are now facing the trials of authentic life, and the hidden surprise is that many find it difficult to make real choices and take responsibility for them. There was a very low turnout for the latest elections. Some local elections were postponed several times because of lack of votes. Some courts stopped functioning because nobody came to polling places to elect judges.

If only 50 percent of the population participates in elections, it means that the other 50 percent doesn't realize what it means to make a free choice. That doesn't mean the first 50 percent voted with their eyes wide open. As election results show, people sometimes blindly give voice to those whom, in other circumstances, they won't even lend a hand.

Here is a small but characteristic example of the Ukrainian Supreme Council elections: Knowing he would lose the campaign

in the city, the first secretary of Cherkassy Regional Communist Party Committee went to a remote village to run his campaign there. My friends from the Politclub followed him to convince the villagers not to vote for him. The impoverished collective farmers explained to my friends that the local officials threatened them in advance: If they didn't elect this man, who was the only one on the ballot, the village would not receive firewood in winter nor fertilizer in spring.

Of course, Communist bureaucrats are pretty skillful at juggling facts and inventing disinformation. Direct pressure is often used too, though in a much less elaborate manner. Regretfully, there is also confusion on the part of the people who aren't used to making responsible decisions.

Living in a democracy demands certain knowledge, traditions, and culture, and it doesn't immediately come to life by a single declaration. It took the equivalent of a lifetime for the followers of Moses to raise a new generation, used to slavery and oppression, to blossom in the desert. So far, the concept of democracy is very new to us. We are all amateurs trying to find our own way.

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