The cobblestone street in Kiev was lined with cheery buildings glowing lemon, rose and powder blue in the moody light of afternoon sun showers.
It was my second day in Ukraine, and this new housing development was a far cry from the gritty post-Soviet stereotypes I held of the country.
“They look nice, but they’re half empty,” explained my translator, Arthur Bondar, who went on to describe how the baroque apartments and row houses were owned by oligarchs who had commandeered the land in order to develop, and speculate on, valuable real estate near the city center.
I was in Ukraine in the fall of 2012 reporting on political movements in the region, and those confectionlike buildings, with their closely shorn grass and empty windows, were my first insight into the everyday corruption that enraged many of the people I met there.
The protests that began in Ukraine in November were originally framed as a conflict over whether or not the country should join the European Union, but it’s really a desire to end that corruption that has fueled these last three months, say Ukrainian Americans here in The Pacific Northwest.
“I mean have you seen the pictures from his palace?” asks Yulia Shadyrya, a math teacher and member of the Ukrainian Association of Washington State. She’s referring to photos of recently ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s estate, which boasted — among other things — a golf course, a zoo and a gilded just-about-everything.
Shadyrya is one of five members of the association gathered in a Brier living room over a Ukrainian-style spread of salmon lox, sliced lamb and instant coffee to discuss what they are calling a “revolution.”
They each have their own reasons for landing here (an academic job, a husband from Seattle, a desire for adventure), but all have stories of the corruption back home that, in part, drove them away.
“If you had anything, like a coffee shop or a mall or a construction company, they would just take it from you,” said Olha Krupa, a finance professor at Seattle University, describing how entrepreneurs in Ukraine could be forced to sell at a loss, or even simply hand over their businesses, to political elites. “It sounds so bad it’s hard to believe.”
Stories of jailed friends, lost jobs and government intimidation are common in this group, but there’s more than shared history that brings them together. Three months of monitoring Twitter, watching grainy YouTube videos of protesters gunned down by snipers and sleeping with phones by their pillows have created a deep sense of solidarity.
“It’s brought us all closer together,” said Oksana Bilobran, an immigration attorney who estimates that Washington state’s Ukrainian community is somewhere around 100,000. The association says it has raised $17,000 from that community to send back to support protesters in their home country.
There was tentative excitement the night of the association’s gathering. President Yanukovych had fled to an undisclosed location, citizens wandered his empty palace outside of Kiev in awe, and back in Brier, pride and possibility filled the room.
“People are finally actually creating something here,” said Shadyrya, her voice thickening with emotion, “something of our own.”
But things move quickly in a revolution, and the view from Kiev already looked less certain when I got on the phone with my former translator the next evening. Toppled Lenin statues were being dismantled in the capital’s streets, and rumblings from Ukraine’s ethnically Russian regions hinted at rising tensions — and a lack of consensus across the country.
“Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow, the future of this revolution — or even if it is a revolution,” said Bondar over Skype.
People were definitely fed up with corruption, he said. But he went on to explain that many of his friends and family in Central Ukraine — far from the action in the capital — remain skeptical of the protesters and their motives.
“We can’t just change politicians,” said Bondar, who used to pepper our after-work beers with complaints of jobs and grades for sale, of families that went into debt to buy their sons out of compulsory military service. “We should throw out the whole system.”