The strength shown by the Ukrainian people today is a continuation of the work started by past leaders like Yushchenko, who began tearing the country free from the oppressive grip of its tyrannical neighbour, David Kirichenko writes.
In late February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a turning point in the fight for Ukrainian national identity.
As the country came under attack, the Ukrainian people became united in their resistance and determination to push back against Russia’s aggression.
At the same time, Ukrainians also began to reflect more actively on the long history of Moscow's malign acts against their country.
While much of the credit for this shift in the national consciousness is rightfully given to the brave resistance of the Ukrainian people, it is important to recognise the role played by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in laying the foundations for a renewed sense of national identity and unmasking Vladimir Putin's paranoia that will eventually lead to his downfall.
The Orange Revolution, the turning point in Ukrainian-Russian relations
In the 2004 presidential race, Yushchenko declared his candidacy, much to the dismay of then-President Leonid Kuchma.
The Ukrainian Constitution prohibited Kuchma from running for a third consecutive term, but he still desired a successor loyal to him and his interests.
As a result, Kuchma endorsed Viktor Yanukovych, the PM at the time and former regional administrator in Donetsk, as he saw him as a dependable ally who would follow in his footsteps.
Although Yushchenko briefly served as prime minister under Kutchma, the former central banker was a reformist, and Kuchma had no intention of allowing him to become president in 2004 as opposed to a more easily pliable Yanukovych.
As the Orange Revolution began to unfold in 2004 — sparked by reports of election rigging in Yanukovych's favour by both domestic and international monitors — it became increasingly clear that the once close relationship between Ukraine and Russia was on shaky ground.
Before the controversial presidential election, many believed that Ukraine would remain closely aligned with Russia.
However, the widespread two-month-long protests that followed the election, sparked by voter fraud and manipulation allegations, signalled a major shift in Ukrainian politics and attitudes toward Russia.
The Orange Revolution marked a turning point in the relationship between the two countries, as Ukrainians stood up to demand their voices be heard and their democracy respected.
The origin of the 'fascist Ukraine' trope lies in the anti-Yushchenko propaganda
In a bold move, Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled to Kyiv in 2004 to personally endorse and support Yanukovych in the presidential election.
However, the tide turned with the explosive events of the Orange Revolution, which resulted in a seismic shift towards Europe.
It also led to the runoff results getting annulled, allowing a re-run in which Yushchenko won by a 6% margin.
In the aftermath of the revolution, Russia adopted a fiercely nationalistic stance at home and a more confrontational approach on the international stage.
Yushchenko was a passionate advocate for Ukraine’s integration into Europe and a fierce opponent of Moscow’s influence.
His push for strengthening the Ukrainian identity even drew the ire of the opposition party, and he was among the first political leaders to be labelled a “Nazi” due to promoting the native language and culture of the country.
In the 2004 presidential campaign, Yanukovych and his supporters stooped to new lows by spreading lies and disinformation about Yushchenko, including accusing him of being a Nazi.
They even went as far as to plaster billboards of Yushchenko in a Nazi uniform across Donetsk, calling for the “purity of the nation”.
This desperate tactic was meant to denigrate Yushchenko and the Ukrainian language and culture he fought to protect, revealing Yanukovych’s blatant willingness to resort to any means necessary to try and attain power.
The "Ukrainian Nazis" narrative was further entrenched in Russia by nationalist propagandists spreading conspiracy theories about how the Orange Revolution was led by the Ukrainian far-right and the Ukrainian-American diaspora and orchestrated by the CIA.
The smear campaign popularised the term “fascist Ukraine”. Eventually, Putin used the Nazi narrative to justify his decision to invade the country in 2022.
A thorn in Moscow's side
When Yushchenko took office in early 2005, expectations for his presidency were sky-high.
Yet, the Kremlin could hardly stand to watch a pro-Western president who had faced off and won against Russia’s preferred nominee take Ukraine down a more progressive path.
Shortly before the election, he was poisoned by what was proven to have been dioxin and nearly died. To this day, he blames Moscow for the attempt on his life.
The poisoning nearly killed him and left him severely disfigured as his face was permanently pockmarked by chloracne, earning him the nickname “man of sorrows” among ordinary Ukrainians.
When people saw Yushchenko speak, they saw a man harmed by a corrupt regime everyone hated, which made popular support for him grow even stronger.
And as the leader of the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko found himself at the forefront of the most pivotal moment in Ukraine’s history since its independence in 1991.
The Ukrainian people were faced with a crucial decision: to embrace self-governed democracy or succumb to the increasingly authoritarian rule of Russia.
The Orange Revolution served as a defining moment for Ukraine, a chance to determine its destiny and chart a course toward a brighter future.
Under Yushchenko’s presidency, Ukraine’s fledgling democracy began to thrive, with greater freedom of the press and higher standards for fair elections.
The Ukrainian people, eager to embrace their European identity, saw their national self closely tied to the ideals of democracy.
Yushchenko was instrumental in guiding Ukraine towards its European roots and away from Russian influence, fostering a stronger and more vibrant democracy.
Breaking free from the oppressive past
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Ukrainians struggled to reclaim their national identity, which had been brutally suppressed by tragedies like the Holodomor, a famine in the 1930s orchestrated by Joseph Stalin to crush Ukraine’s desire for independence.
Forced to conform to a Soviet identity, Ukrainians were left with a legacy that continued to shape their politics even after achieving independence in 1991.
The struggle to reclaim their identity and break free from the oppressive past has been a defining feature of Ukraine’s modern state.
For centuries, Ukrainian was viewed as a lesser language under the Russian and Soviet empires, often seen as the language of peasants, and many Ukrainians avoided speaking it.
With Yushchenko’s presidency, people began to embrace and celebrate their Ukrainian heritage, and the language became more widely used and respected.
Yushchenko believed strongly in preserving and promoting Ukraine’s national identity, and his efforts contributed significantly to the growth of Ukrainian national consciousness.
One of Yushchenko’s most extraordinary acts was his efforts to help the Ukrainian people collectively face old traumas. He made the Holodomor a national issue.
Yushchenko played a crucial role in bringing attention to this tragic event and advocating for its recognition as a genocide.
Through his efforts, the Ukrainian people could come to terms with their painful history and remember the lessons of the past to build a stronger and more united future.
With Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, many countries worldwide are learning about Holodomor for the first time, while countries like Germany have also recognised it as a genocide of the Ukrainian people.
Yet it was Yushchenko who relentlessly tried to educate his people and the world about Russia’s efforts to destroy the Ukrainian nation during his time as president.
Moscow strikes back through Yanukovych
When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Yushchenko rushed to Tbilisi to show support for Georgia and to warn the world that Ukraine was also in danger.
Recognising the threat to his country, Yushchenko fervently pushed for Ukraine to join NATO.
In a chilling statement at the 2008 NATO summit, Putin ominously told his US counterpart George W Bush, “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.”
Former US President Bill Clinton stated that he knew back in 2011 that Putin would attack Ukraine at some point because Putin stated that he was not bound by the Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing the country’s territorial integrity.
Under Yanukovych — the pro-Kremlin candidate who won the 2010 presidential election in Ukraine — efforts to rejuvenate the country’s identity and address its historical trauma came to a forceful standstill.
In a move highly symbolic of what was to come, Yanukovych’s first act in office was to delete the link about the Holodomor on the president’s official website.
Plagued by accusations of corruption, a life of excess, and close ties to Moscow, Yanukovych's last act was to respond to the massive Euromaidan protests in late 2013 — sparked by Russia's economic blackmail designed to prevent Ukraine from signing the EU Association Agreement — by implementing the draconian Anti-Protest Laws.
This allowed his special police forces, the Berkut, to go on a campaign of violence and torture against the protesters. More than 100 of those gathering were killed, some by police snipers, while up to 300 are still considered to be missing.
In the end, as his attempts to quell the discontent failed, Yanukovych fled from Ukraine — to Russia.
At the same time, Putin showed the sincerity of his convictions by responding to the Euromaidan demonstrations by invading Crimea and supporting the para-states in the Donbas.
Still, the war came home
Fast forward to present-day Russia. On 24 June, a mutiny unfolded in Russia as the notorious mercenary force, the Wagner Group, rebelled against state authorities.
They swiftly took control of Rostov-on-Don, a critical city for Russia's invasion, and embarked on a daring march towards Moscow.
This surprising act of betrayal posed a significant threat not only to the Russian state but also to Putin's own power.
Remarkably, the roots of this event can be traced back to Ukraine, where the disagreement originated as part of Wagner’s dispute with the Ministry of Defence on how to kill Ukrainians more effectively.
Since the Orange Revolution, Putin has been haunted by the prospect of Ukraine slipping out of Russia's tyrannical grasp.
He has also feared that successful pro-democracy movements in Ukraine would serve as a catalyst for similar uprisings in Moscow, ultimately leading to his downfall.
Paradoxically, Putin's own actions, driven by the desire to control Ukraine, have inadvertently sparked an insurrectionary movement that now poses a direct threat to his rule.
Ukraine's brighter, more democratic future fuels Putin's anxieties
This ironic twist made Putin's anxieties come to life.
It all began with Yushchenko and the Orange Revolution, and it will ultimately be what brings Putin down in the end.
Through Yushchenko’s presidency, Ukraine made significant strides toward consolidating its national identity and reclaiming its history and traditions.
By acknowledging and remembering past horrors such as the Holodomor, Ukraine could confront its past trauma and use it to pave the way for a brighter, more democratic future.
The strength shown by the Ukrainian people today is a continuation of the work started by past leaders like Yushchenko, who began tearing the country free from the oppressive grip of its tyrannical neighbour back when very few saw Putin and the Kremlin for who they actually were.
David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and an editor at Euromaidan Press.
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