Page last updated at 11:04 GMT, Wednesday, 10 June 2009 12:04 UK

How 1989 fanned flames in Ukraine

By Olexiy Solohubenko
Europe editor, BBC World Service

File photo of Leonid Kravchuk voting in elections in 1994
Leonid Kravchuk ran for president in 1991 and 1994

As the 1989 revolution swept through the countries of Central Europe, tremors went right across the Soviet Union.

At that time, in the Baltic states as well as in Ukraine, the prospects of independence suddenly looked very real.

In a richly decorated office in central Kiev, Leonid Kravchuk is happy to talk about 1989. Then a senior functionary of the Ukrainian Communist Party, he says it was totally unprepared for grassroots protests.

"We were in a full session of the Central Committee one day," he tells the BBC, "when someone ran up and said, 'There are two women with a placard outside!' My God, we stopped the session and I was sent down to investigate.

Gorbachev decided to let a little bit of genie out of the bottle. But you cannot let out just a little bit
Poet Ivan Drach

"It turned out they wanted money for a rail ticket," he laughs. "And so had decided to attract attention in this manner. I gave them 40 roubles, but the whole Central Committee was spooked by two women with one placard. There was fear because no-one ever stood against the Party."

It was the time of glasnost, of openness in the media which the then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev introduced. Poet Ivan Drach took it very seriously.

He says he knows exactly how many people could fit into the hall at the Writers' Union headquarters in the leafy part of Kiev: 167.

"When we spoke here about the need for change, the hall was always full," Drach says. "And soon we needed bigger halls, but they were also not large enough."

No easy ride

So in smoky rooms, writers like Drach decided the time was right for bigger things - and they founded Rukh, or "Movement" in Ukrainian.

At first Rukh's aims were to support Gorbachev's reforms against the die-hard regional party elites, but very quickly it became clear that the authorities in Moscow were neither controlling the situation nor capable of grasping what they had unleashed.

File photo of Ivan Drach in a crowd in 1991.
Ivan Drach was one of the dissidents who founded Rukh in 1989

"Gorbachev decided to let a little bit of genie out of the bottle," laughs Ivan Drach. "But you cannot let out just a little bit. It is just like toothpaste - once you squeeze it out, you cannot put it back into the tube."

What had started as a loyal grassroots group in time evolved into a political movement demanding full independence. This frightened quite a few people, even those who had opposed the Soviet regime for years.

Semyon Gluzman spent 10 years in gulag camps and exile for exposing the abuses of Soviet psychiatry. In his tiny office at Kiev's main psychiatric hospital with all kinds of awards and accolades displayed on the walls, he says he had genuine fears.

"I will be honest, I thought this country could be more repressive, more anti-Semitic and the party machine here could create its own independent fiefdom and run it the way they wanted. I am glad I was wrong, and Ukraine is more democratic and freer than I thought it would be."

Yet, independence was not an easy ride. The communist authorities wanted to keep power, by force if necessary.

Phone warning

Threats and intimidation were nothing unusual. "I could write a book about them," says Ivan Drach. "And the threats were really nasty. As soon as I spoke sharply about the need to break away from Moscow, my son was badly beaten."

File photo from 1991 of Leonid Kravchuk, Stanislav Shushkevich and Boris Yeltsin applauding after creating the Commonwealth of Independent States
Kravchuk, Shushkevich and Yeltsin discussed the end of the Soviet Union

Even high rank did not provide immunity. Leonid Kravchuk, later elected the first president of independent Ukraine, tells of his and Boris Yeltsin's escape from a hunting lodge in Belarus in December 1991, where they discussed the break up of the Soviet Union with their Belarussian host Stanislav Shushkevich.

"Boris Yeltsin took me to one side," reminisces Kravchuk, "and told me that we should fly home immediately. We got into our cars, boarded our planes and took off, but did not tell the air traffic control of our routes. Simply, Boris Yeltsin got a phone call from Moscow warning him of danger."

Of course people in Ukraine were watching events in countries like Poland closely. Writer Andrei Kurkov travelled there at the time, mostly to the mining areas in Silesia.

We were romantics, we believed we would change the world quickly... of course it was an illusion
Yuri Scherbak

"I envied the Poles," he says over tea at his dacha outside Kiev. "I thought they were 10 years ahead of us. But then things in Ukraine took off really quickly."

Many in Ukraine argued that it was much easier for the Poles: one nation, one language, one religion, its own Pope and fairly recent memories of freedom.

Ukraine was and still is a more diverse if not divided country. Ukrainian and Russian compete for linguistic dominance, eastern and western regions compete for power and there are all sorts of ecclesiastical splits that would take ages to explain.

'Small steps'

Yet, there was one powerful, uniting factor for all Ukrainians: Chernobyl.

File photo from 1999 of two men checking pollution levels in the soil near Chernobyl
Radiation levels around Chernobyl remain high

The degree of lies, secrecy and disregard for people's lives after Chernobyl critically undermined whatever was left of trust in the authorities.

A powerful Green Movement was formed. It could easily bring tens of thousands of people out onto the streets and the authorities could do nothing about it.

Very quickly the Green demands merged with those of Rukh - a better, freer and cleaner Ukraine in every sense of the word.

Yuri Scherbak, a doctor, a writer and later a diplomat was one of the key figures of the Chernobyl movement.

"It was such an amazing time," he tells me in his top floor flat where his desk is adorned with pictures of him with US presidents and other top politicians.

"We were romantics, we believed we would change the world quickly. Of course it was an illusion."

Indeed, it was naïve to believe Ukraine would become a European democracy overnight, but in terms of freedom, according to Semyon Gluzman, it is doing much better than most other ex-Soviet states.

Olexiy Solohubenko standing in front of a huge statue of Lenin in 1991.
The statue of Lenin in central Kiev did not last long

"What we need is small steps", he says. "In fact, I am a specialist in small steps."

There have also been big leaps in Ukraine over the past 20 years: it may still be building its identity as a nation, but it has a functioning state, relatively free media and, even though it is still a poor country, there have been marked improvements in the standard of living.

The global crisis is hitting Ukraine very hard, and an IMF pledge to help with $16bn (£10bn) may not be enough to put its export-based economy back on track.

In 1991, two years after Leonid Kravchuk's Central Committee meeting was disturbed by those two women with a placard, I was standing in what is now Independence Square in central Kiev. Next to me was a huge statue of Lenin - but a Lenin with a difference.

Daubed in red paint, with the word "hangman" written across him, he did not survive long.

A week or so later a crane lifted the Lenin off the pedestal and transported him into oblivion.

Over the years Ukraine has travelled a long way, but looking now at the challenges facing it - in the economy and, crucially, in sorting out its messy politics - I keep feeling that winching away Lenin was actually the easy bit.

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