WORLD AFFAIRS. Nothing quite lifts my spirits about Ukraine’s liberal-democratic prospects like an extended trip to the country. Reading the websites and blogs leaves me feeling pessimistic and bilious. The news is usually bad—Ukraine’s journalists know how to dig up the Yanukovych regime’s seemingly endless supplies of dirt—and the popular response often seems too anemic: a demonstration here, a flag-waving collection of irate citizens there, and little else. As persuaded as I am that the regime is incompetent, weak, brittle, and doomed, it’s sometimes hard to escape the conclusion that, just maybe, it’s my hopes and expectations and theoretical schemes that are incompetent, weak, brittle, and doomed.

And then I visit the country and interact with its people and come away feeling that so boorish and cloddish a regime can’t possibly survive long when facing so smart and resilient a population.

The most amazing thing about the country is that, after close to 25 years of economic mismanagement and political misrule and despite every effort made by the Regionnaires to thwart the people and sabotage their well-being, many Ukrainians not only manage to scrape by, they’re actually doing relatively well. Forget the statistics and take a walk in any Ukrainian city or town. The number of cafes and restaurants, especially in such larger places as Kyiv and Lviv and Odessa, is up to Western standards. And the joints are full, while the prices are anything but dirt cheap. Look at the cars. There are too many to be the sole property of Regionnaire fat cats and oligarchs. Or take a ride on the Hyundai fast train from Kyiv to Kharkiv: the prices are outrageous by Ukrainian standards, but the trains are packed with regular people, and not just shady biznessmeny.

Imagine how well the country would be doing if the Regionnaires took a long hike and the mega-intrusive, mega-incompetent, and mega-bloated Ukrainian state bureaucracy were to go on a crash diet. I wager that Helmut Kohl’s vision of East Germany’s transformation into a “blossoming landscape” might just come true in Ukraine’s vast steppes.

Resilience is the key word here. In that sense Ukrainians are exactly like their neighbors, Poles and Jews. You can knock them down, you can beat them up—but they keep getting on their feet and starting all over again. It’s small wonder that the oppressors eventually lose. Poles have shown what they can do when given a chance in post-communist Poland. Jews have done the same in Israel. Give Ukrainians a chance in their own country, and I have no doubt the brain drain out of the country will reverse itself.

I’ve also concluded that the brain drain from Ukraine is no big deal. So Ukraine has lost a whole bunch of educated people. So what? It’s not as if those who’ve stayed are all dolts and flakes. No less important, ambitious people emigrate all over the world and somehow the world keeps chugging along. Most important, to fixate on the “best and the brightest” is to forget what makes countries thrive. Americans have an obsession with super stars, the super rich, and even superheroes—as if it were they who made countries rich. Not so. In reality, it’s the regular folk—the hardworking regular folk—who make countries prosperous, if the institutional conditions are right and if they are allowed to place their shoulders to the grindstones and reap the benefits of their labor. If the conditions are lousy, as they are in Ukraine, no one prospers, neither the superheroes nor the regular folk.

That’s why I’m bullish on the country. The supposedly best and the brightest have left and are leaving, the Regionnaires are stealing as if there were no tomorrow, and yet, and yet, the regular folk are managing to live, and some of them are managing to live well. With that kind of resilience, the people can’t lose and, with a little luck, this past August 24th may have been one of Viktor Yanukovych’s last official celebrations of Ukraine’s independence.  

Alexander J. Motyl

Ukrayinska Dumka


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