Letter from Kyiv

Letter from Kyiv McGill University

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McGill Reporter
February 10, 2005 - Volume 37 Number 10
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Letter from Kyiv

Guillaume Couture is a U2 physiology student at McGill. This year he is studying in Kyiv through McGill's study away program, and got to see Ukraine's Orange revolution unfolding in front of his eyes.

I remember the evening of October 31, 2004, very well. The first round of presidential elections were coming to a close. Ukrainians had gone to the polls early that day from fear of getting caught up in a violent revolution. No one could blame them. From the balcony of my ninth-floor apartment, I could see my district's main square devoid of the common evening dog-walkers or the familiar drone of the Soviet-era Lada automobiles. To call the tension high would be a gross understatement. Kyiv's* residents were huddled in front of their television sets tuned into Channel 5 — the television station with the most credibility in Ukraine — awaiting the results of the various exit-polls. The clock struck 10. The exit-poll, funded by Viktor Yanukovych's campaign team, placed Yanukovych with a comfortable lead ahead of his main opponent, Viktor Yushchenko. The national and independent exit-polls showed similar numbers, but with Yushchenko in the lead.

The people of Kyiv were not the only ones with shaken nerves that night. The government had deployed tens of thousands of military forces around Kyiv and the whole of Ukraine in the hope of putting down any attempt at a revolution. Water cannons sat above the Central Election Committee building and hundreds of dump trucks lined the streets around major government buildings to slow any attempt to penetrate government offices. People feared the worst when a troop of special operation soldiers were shown on live television filing out of two black vans and awaiting further orders in front of the Channel 5 broadcast studio. If a revolution were to occur, the government would not allow it to go on the air. As the evening went on, tensions remained high. No one dared to make the first move.

Yushchenko's supporters eventually accepted the election results as somewhat of a success. The run-off election would come soon enough. It was during this time, prior to the run-off election, that Yushchenko supporters somehow found the strength and confidence they needed. Prior to the first elections, many, such as myself, feared wearing orange or waving a Yushchenko's flag due to rumours that police were laying false charges in order to conceal the rising public support for Yushchenko. The truth of the matter was that Yushchenko supporters were attempting to break out of an aspect of their society so deeply rooted that it dated back to the time of the Soviet era. To voice an opinion that was clearly against the will of the government could land one in jail — or worse. Many of the older generations had never exercised free speech before. Even so, despite treading on unknown territory, Ukrainians overcame their fears. On November 22, 2004, the day after the run-off election, they found their strength in the unlikely colour orange.

The stage was set for a revolution, literally. Yushchenko's campaign team set up a platform in the heart of downtown Kyiv. Protesters arrived in multitudes from near and far to protest against the falsified election results. I truly believe that in this case, much the same as in others, the comfort came in numbers. It was when a reported 100,000 protestors had filled the streets and blockaded government buildings that the peoples' fears faded. The government had reportedly ordered the army to head downtown and clear away the protesters. Most people were never aware of this because the army never went. Within a few days, the Ukrainian people had broken the silence — one that had plagued them for decades. This is indeed an exciting time for Ukraine. Never had I seen so much hope in peoples' eyes. Even though some of their dreams may be too ambitious for even "Yushchenko The Great" to fulfill, what is most important to take home from all that has transpired here is not who the leader is nor how he promises to improve the quality of life, but the simple fact that, from this day onward, Ukraine has a voice, and it is beautiful.

* Kyiv is the official Ukrainian spelling for the capital city. The better known spelling of Kiev is a Russification.

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