Press Clippings

13 April 2005Beating the Blues, Keeping the Orange Faith — Mariya Rasner, Alfa Fellowship Program, Moscow  Times

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We look forward to hearing from you.Email the Opinion Page EditorRecently, I went to see a Ukrainian rock band play at a Moscow club. A friend, Paul, came along with me, and he was still on an “orange” high after our December trip to Ukraine as election observers. Back then, it was like a breath of fresh air after stifling Moscow, where we both work. And then, at the concert, we were ready to breathe again.

The band — Vopli Vidoplyasova, known simply as VV — had its story, too. During the election, the “blue” camp of former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych had claimed that VV was on its side. That, however, came as news to the lead singer, who was an official representative of the “orange” opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. To dispel the rumors, VV sang on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central Independence Square in Kiev, and toured the country’s blue eastern regions.

In short, by going to the concert, we were hoping for some orange vibes to stir up the cold Moscow air.

And we almost got them, too: Somebody in the audience passed a note to the band asking for its big hit, the Yushchenko anthem, “Together We Are Many, We Will Not Be Beaten.” The lead singer, an extravagant blond with wild onstage antics, turned out to be a principled fellow, however. “You don’t know what it’s about,” he told the Russian audience with a half-smile, and went on to another song.

Strangely enough, I was relieved.

It’s not that I don’t like the Yushchenko anthem, which is backed by a techno beat that is both simple and powerful. Only at that moment, I realized that I like it too much. And I am selfish. I refuse to share the Orange Revolution outside its immediate “circle of friends.” Forty-eight million Ukrainians is enough, and even they don’t quite know what to do with it. As Vladimir Vysotsky, a Russian visionary and popular performer, wrote back in the Soviet days: “They gave me freedom yesterday, what will I do with it?” Keep it to yourself, I wanted to say to them, and guard it with care. It’s too precious. And fragile. Besides, you have already shared it with a bunch of crazies like Paul and myself.

Back in December, after watching the distorted images of the first two election rounds on Russian state-controlled television, we decided we had to see things for ourselves. So we jumped on a train from Moscow and then raced through Kiev to a training session that an international organization was holding for future election observers.

Within moments of arriving at the training site, the chaotic Mohila University, we found ourselves surrounded by more than 500 Ukrainian-Canadians desperately trying to figure out Ukrainian election legislation. Before the training session, they had been sure they knew Ukrainian, that their language had been preserved in a distant land through generations of emigre family history.

The next day we headed to Sevastopol, a blue stronghold in Crimea that is home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet — and pro-Russian sentiments along with it. The city boasts a heroic historic past when it held off the Germans for 250 days during World War II. Now, however, it’s poor and, with little indoor heating even during the winter, terribly cold. Blue, in other words. But still proud.

We were a colorful observation group, though, and not afraid of anything. Well, all of us except Paul, who took the warnings the Canadians gave us at the training a bit too close to heart and refused to eat the food served on the plane — he said he liked his face the way it was, referring to Yushchenko’s disfigured visage due to dioxin poisoning during a meal back in September. Yes, we had been taught not to trust anything or anybody, and certainly not to eat the food.

Still, I ate it and was fine, although I did feel terribly sorry for the man who was later elected the new Ukrainian president. Everybody else, but Paul, ate, too.

And I have to say, these were some very strange characters on their way to “observe” Sevastopol. Among them were a KLM pilot from Luxembourg who spent half of his time in Odessa chasing after nubile Ukrainian blondes as well as after local real estate; a German agro-economist who has milked cows across Russia and Ukraine; and an American political science professor who had married and divorced three Russian women with some heavy financial losses. And then there was our group leader, a rugged Texan who had developed oil fields in Kerch only to have some mean-looking Ukrainians tell him it was their turn to extract the riches. Instead of getting in their way, he decided to invest in the revolution.

For the next two days, the blue people of Sevastopol — a city that was officially closed to foreigners until 1996 — tried very hard to understand who we were, who paid for us to come and whom we represented. None of our responses made any sense. Especially puzzling to locals was the statement, “American, from Moscow.” Politically speaking, that was a contradiction in terms. But it made for a good, and for the most part friendly, conversation.

Even emigre Ukrainians, having been told that folks in the east would not communicate in any language other than Russian, found that wasn’t completely true — the two languages blended without a problem once principles, whatever they were worth, gave way to curiosity.

Ironically, it was Paul, the only one in the group with no ties to Ukraine, who got into trouble. He went berserk when the janitor at his polling station ran off with the official Yushchenko and Yanukovych campaign posters even though the law said they had to be displayed prominently at the poll entrances. The janitor, apparently, felt that the Yushchenko poster in particular threatened his very existence.

Overall, though, we did not cause too many problems in Sevastopol, and it voted, as expected, overwhelmingly for Yanukovych. Which, for some reason, sent shock waves through the Ukrainian-Canadian crowd. Perhaps they had been told at the training session that their very presence would turn things Yushchenko’s way even in the east. In the end, they were disappointed because whoever had said that had been terribly wrong. Sevastopol has always been Russian-influenced, poor, cold and proud, even if it has become a bit more humble now that it has realized that the majority of the country feels a bit warmer under an orange sun.

Coming back to Kiev, sleep deprived and sick with a terrible blue cold, we were finally free to enjoy our belated moment on the Maidan, and I, personally, wasn’t too apprehensive about breaking a champagne bottle or two right there as the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31, 2004. Around me, tens of thousands of men and women of Ukraine were singing, “Together we are many, we will not be defeated.” There was another slogan they had learned by then, too: “East and West, together.” Of course, that was a poor consolation to the folks down in Sevastopol, I thought, but still, it was something.

That was there and then. Moscow was far away. And, in so many ways, it still is.

Mariya Rasner is a Ukrainian-born journalist from Fairfax, Virginia, working for Ekho Moskvy radio. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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