WORLD AFFAIRS:  Viktor Yanukovich’s reclusive wife may have finally decided to become Ukraine’s First Lady, quite possibly in the hope of helping her harried husband save his stumbling presidency.

After years of avoiding the limelight, Ludmila Yanukovich alighted the stage of the Donetsk National Opera and Ballet Theatre on November 9. With tear-filled eyes, she greeted two musical ensembles from the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk, a stronghold of anti-Yanukovich sentiment, and introduced a cultural initiative aimed at bridging the country’s East-West divide: “The main thing is to love, trust, and forgive.”

Who can disagree? What makes Madame Yanukovich’s sentiments borderline sensational is that she expressed them in the very city where, almost exactly six years ago, she had denounced the Orange Revolution in terms that even her husband found embarrassing. “It’s simply an orange orgy out there!” she shouted at an anti-Orange rally. Having just returned from Kiev, she claimed to have seen “mountains of orange oranges.” Indeed, “those oranges were spiked! … Just now, as I drove here at five o’clock, it said on the news that a mass poisoning had erupted, requiring hospital treatment. They are taking people to the hospital with meningitis!” (see the video here).

Small wonder that, as husband Viktor spent the next five years burnishing his image with the help of US consultant Paul Manafort, Ludmila was gently nudged into the deep background in Donetsk, where she tended to her two sons. The elder, Oleksandr, is a dentist and has two kids; the younger, Viktor Jr., has followed in dad’s footsteps and gone into politics, serving in the youth wing of the Party of Regions and, since 2006, as a parliamentary deputy. Mom and sons live side by side, in three separate buildings in the city center. By the way, the boys are doing just fine. The Donetsk City Council recently issued permits to Oleksandr to buy a 7,000–square meter lot and to Viktor Jr. to buy a 1,500–square meter lot, for a total of 1,250,000 hryvnia (about $150,000), which one national-democratic newspaper suggested — cattily, no doubt — was a cut-rate price.

When Yanukovich became president in early 2010, one can easily imagine the consternation he and Ludmila must have felt. Denouncing “orange oranges” might have gone over well in the Donbas, but it wouldn’t fly in Orange Kiev. And Ludmila, who’s apparently a devout churchgoer and dedicated mother and grandmother, probably dreaded the thought of living in the spotlight. Although the couple decided she’d stay at home, one thing’s for sure: Viktor’s Kiev digs weren’t the issue. Ukraine’s working-class president lives comfortably, having appropriated — bought, alas, is not quite the right word — a huge estate outside of the city. He’s putting the finishing touches on a palatial “clubhouse,” a single door for which reportedly cost about $28,000 (here’s a glimpse of the clubhouse).

Just after the elections, Ukrainian designer Yuri Varyvoda gave Madame Yanukovich a few fashion tips. “European style would be good for her, with reserved classic outfits and minimum accessories ... Ukrainian outfits and even a hint at ethnic would make her look ridiculous rather than elegant like Katherina Yushchenko” — the very public American-born spouse of former President Viktor Yushchenko, who was usually denounced as a CIA agent by her husband’s enemies. Perhaps a tad too harshly, Varyvoda concluded: “Granted, even the best stylist is unlikely to make her look like Michelle Obama or Carla Bruni … She has to learn to speak properly and carry herself in a certain way. If she has not done any work in this area yet, that’s too bad.”

Madame Yanukovich appears to have taken Varyvoda’s advice to heart. What may have been a trial-run for her November debut took place in Donetsk in May, when she attended the 20th-anniversary celebration of the founding of the “Intellectual” club. The grateful club members made her an honorary member and declared her their Berehynia, a mythological Slavic goddess who protects the home. It just so happens that the club’s president is Vadim Pysarev, the director of the Donetsk Opera and Ballet Theatre and an old friend of the Yanukoviches. Pysarev not only wants his club to incorporate, as he modestly puts it, “the entire intelligentsia of Ukraine,” but he has also founded the East-West project in the hope of bringing eastern and western Ukrainians closer together by means of cultural exchanges. And bringing them together is imperative, as the animosities created by the Yanukovich radicals during Yushchenko’s do-nothing administration have only been intensified by the obtuseness of Yanukovich’s do-everything administration.

That Pysarev should’ve wanted the First Lady’s endorsement of the East-West initiative makes sense, but why did she take to the stage again? Is she planning to join Viktor on his grand estate? Did she have a change of heart since her orange rant of 2004? Or is she bailing out her husband?

After 40-plus years of marriage, Ludmila knows her Viktor (see photos of the couple here). Having tied the knot just after he served two prison terms for hooliganism, she knows when he’s doing well, and when he’s not. And lately, Ukraine’s president has run into some walls, mostly of his own making. His ratings are way down, the Kremlin is making fun of him, Western governments and media are increasingly alarmed by his authoritarianism, economic reform has amounted to zilch, entrepreneurs in both the East and West are up in arms, and the national democrats detest him.

Enter Ludmila. Getting the good wife to embark on a Canossa with western Ukrainians is, given her anti-Orange reputation, almost as good as saying sorry oneself. And when she told her Donetsk audience, “I wish that all of you will pray, believe, hope, endure, and forgive,” who knows? Perhaps she had Viktor in mind.

Alexander J Motyl

Ukrayinska Dumka


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