March 26, 2017
Young Ukrainian leaders battle Russian pressure, endemic corruption and a moribund economy in pursuit of a new, independent identity.
For most of its history, Ukraine has been treated as a stateless borderland of scattered peoples wedged between competing civilizations— principally Poland and Russia. But over the past quarter-century, that perception has been replaced by a new orientation, a new identity that is Western in design and democratic in substance.
The students at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, where I taught in the 1990s and returned in 2015 to conduct a seminar on modern Europe, certainly believe that a historic change is underway in their country, one that will not be reversed. And they have been instrumental in making it a reality. Both students and faculty at Mohyla, the best university in Ukraine, played a key organizing role in the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euromaidan movement of 2013-2014.
Now they are united in their determination to Europeanize their education and Ukraine’s future. None of these students lived under Soviet power. Twenty-five years have passed since Moscow ruled Ukraine. Almost two generations of students and young people, in general, have reached maturity since 1991, when the USSR imploded. Many now hold leadership positions in business and government. As one student put it when the seminar began: “We are not hesitant. Our parents often hesitated and sometimes, even, our older brothers and sisters. We know that freedom must be earned and can disappear. It has to be fought for, sometimes. It is always fragile.”
The co-manager of the Sherborne Guest House, a boutique hotel where I lodge during my annual trips to Kyiv, would agree. As she mused one afternoon while I was checking in: “Until 2014, 90 percent of our guests came from Russia—90 percent! But since the summer of 2014, zero guests from Russia. Not one Russian guest over the past 18 months. Not a single person. But our rooms are still full—full of Ukrainians and visitors from elsewhere.”
William Gleason is a Board Member at the Kyiv Mohyla Foundation of America.
He spent five years teaching in Ukraine (1995-2000), including three as a Senior Fulbright Lecturer at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and two as the founding director of the Fulbright Program for Ukraine. As coordinator for Eurasian studies at the Foreign Service Institute until recently, he returned to the capital every year since 2000, and last year led a weeklong seminar there on the nature of modern history at the invitation of The Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He is now an independent scholar/writer on Ukraine.