Made in Ukraine

How the Ukrainian anti-government protests are changing the imagery of freedom in Eastern Europe

February 19, 2014 2:58PM ET
Anti-government protesters clash with police in front of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev, Feb. 18, 2014.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

The refrain from "Farewell Letter," a piercing synthesizer-and-saxophone ballad by the Russian rock group Nautilus Pompilius, was an anthem of change for my generation in 1989. “Goodbye America, oh / Where I've never been,” the song goes. “Farewell forever."

My peers and I were the last Soviet tweens and teens raised to the murmur of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) — America's most effective Cold War weapon and mouthpiece for the star-spangled-banner brand of freedom. For us and many in our Eastern-bloc cohort, the United States was the ultimate brand. But high on the winds of renewal, we misheard Nautilus' key message. "Your worn jeans," the lead singer serenaded across the pond, "have become too tight for me."

What we then understood as a call to update our faded denim was really an overture in a requiem for the fading myth of America. And a quarter-century later, as a growing number of post-Soviet states clamp down on democracy, the farewell rings more prescient than ever before.

Growing disillusionment

In insurgent cities all around Ukraine, where President Viktor Yanukovych's handling of the anti-government protests has brought about well-publicized and now violent revolts, the requiem for the Cold War era's brand of freedom is nearing its finale. In 2009, Eastern European luminaries of Vaclav Havel's and Lech Wałęsa's caliber warned in an open letter to President Barack Obama that their compatriots tend to see Europe as "more relevant and important" than the U.S. The Pew Research Center's polls substantiate their apprehensions. In Poland and the Czech Republic, the United States' approval ratings have been steadily declining, from 79 percent and 71 percent in 2002 to 67 percent and 58 percent in 2013, respectively. This is not only on account of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 1990, USAID has provided some $20 billion for Eastern Europe's reconstruction — but the U.S. has often remained mute on key intellectual and ethical issues in the region.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Eastern Europe’s image of freedom relied heavily on denim, rock music and outspoken American youth.

There have been some efforts to bridge this gap: The Obama administration has threatened to impose financial sanctions on Ukraine, and a House resolution in favor of Ukraine's "democratic and European aspirations" passed almost unanimously earlier this month. But these actions may come too late to slow the disillusionment that's tinting Eastern Europeans' image of the U.S. Euromaidan — as the wave of protests in Ukraine is often called — is proof that it is possible to broach the topic of freedom without pasting stars and stripes all over it. This is no small feat in a nation where freedom comes with high symbolic stakes. "Euromaidan" is Ukraine's rallying cry and anthem, a new soundtrack for the barricades. It sounds in headlines and mottoes and in the media, from the factual "Ukraine chooses freedom" (UkrStream.TV) to dramatic "Liberty or death" (KyivPost). 


In the 1980s and '90s, Eastern Europe's image of freedom relied heavily on denim, rock music and outspoken American youth. Today these U.S. imports are being replaced by the less tangible (and admittedly less sexy) idea of the European Union. Brussels is hardly a one-to-one substitute for blue jeans. Besides, Ukrainians have found it difficult to relate to an indecisive avatar in pursuit of "hands-off politics," to quote Germany's Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier.

After the government began using force to crack down on dissenters in early December, Ukraine's neighbors and new EU members like Poland beckoned as another viable model: “lustration,” a name for the decommunization campaigns that took place in Eastern Europe after 1989. This measure has been widely seen as a stepping-stone to democracy — and crucially, a stepping-stone that Ukraine skipped. Briefly, midwinter's Euromaidan crowds joined forces to spell "lustration,” but this inspiration ultimately did not suffice.

Presently, Ukraine may find its most viable freedom myth within its own ranks. Writing in The Huffington Post, Damian Kolodiy speculated that Euromaidan is "a laboratory in finding a structure as to how Ukrainians can most effectively organize themselves. It doesn't necessarily have to be directly modeled after American or European democracies, but perhaps even something new.” Before violence erupted yesterday, the decisive battle for defining this new myth of freedom was being waged, out of all things, on paper.

With social media and news outlets under attack for recycling identical reports and making developments difficult to gauge, pamphlets — flashbacks to tried-and-true Soviet-era samizdat (self-publishing) — are again relevant for disseminating authentic voices. So far, the country's far-right opposition party Svoboda (not coincidentally, Ukrainian for "liberty") has led this retro vanguard. Yet recently, as journalists and activists Mykola Tukolo and Tetyana Movchan tell Kiev's Hromadske radio, alternatives have emerged. With minimal staff, scant private donations and daily circulation of 1,000, Tukolo and Movchan have been publishing and distributing Free Territory (Terytoria Voli), a one-page snapshot of the revolution's many moods. Kiev, it seems, can produce its own Radio Free Europes thay rely on domestic voices and, as Alec Luhn describes in The Nation, don't shy from national(ist) symbols and sentiments.

So with Ukraine’s independent yet dangerously volatile culture of freedom, is it farewell forever to America?

The question is relevant to both sides of the Atlantic. Will Eastern Europeans, Ukrainians in particular, yet come to pine for America's worn blue jeans — a stand-in for so much more than sartorial fancy? Will the U.S., facing a dire and no doubt partially Snowden-induced deficit of international fandom, miss the admiration it used to receive wholesale from Eastern Europe? A quarter-century down the road from 1989, the U.S. may start to realize that its much-touted Cold War victory may well have marked one of its biggest losses — not of a political sphere of influence but of the power to inspire. Because such power is democracy's best friend.

Yuliya Komska is an assistant professor of German studies at Dartmouth College. She writes about transatlantic culture and media during the Cold War. This year she is a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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