Goodbye Lenin? Ukraine has been wondering for 20 years

Vlad the impaled. Efrem Lukatsky/AP

That late summer day, the crowds were joyful. They cheered as the flag they had come to loathe was lowered. In its place, the blue and yellow colours of Ukraine rose above parliament. As the demonstrators sang in celebration, some showed mouths filled with gold teeth, the masterpieces of Soviet dentistry.

It was August 1991. Earlier that month, an attempt by a “State Emergency Committee” to depose the leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, had backfired. Their coup d'etat lasted only three days, and, rather than preserving the Soviet system, as the plotters had hoped, arguably hastened its collapse.

Waiting, uncertainty, and being slightly on edge all the while, is the lot of the journalist covering a developing political crisis. The removal of the flag of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic suggested the country had decided to go forward alone: severing political, and historical, ties with Moscow. In terms of TV journalism (I was then a producer for Reuters Television), the next question was whether the statue of Lenin in central Kiev would share the fate of the Soviet flag. I stayed a day or two in case it was about to be hauled down too.

It would have been a long wait if I’d stuck around. The statue only came down last weekend.

Giving a lecture earlier this year on the reporting of the Russian Revolution of 1917, I showed part of Sergei Eistenstein’s film October. Watching the pulling down of the statue of the tsar again, I thought of the countless pictures of Lenin with a noose around his neck as the Soviet bloc crumbled, and of Saddam Hussein’s statue suffering that fate. I wondered whether Eistenstein’s sequence, predating TV news by decades, had actually invented one of the moments protesters and editors alike now need for a televised revolution. At the weekend, the protesters in Kiev seemed to be addressing that.

A toppled statue does not a revolution make. defenselink

Yet, as Ukraine’s experience has shown, revolutions require more than a changing of symbols. I did not return to Kiev until 2007, when the country was in the midst of another political confrontation. Still, the hotel where I stayed had plenty of international guests, most of whom seemed to be there to do business. The streets were full of shoppers. In other words, it was not that much of a crisis.

This time it seems more serious. Today, as then in 2007, Ukraine’s choice is broadly seen as between closer ties with Russia, or with the European Union.

Two events from 2008 have shaped those choices: Russia’s war with Georgia, and the financial crisis.

Although the former was ostensibly over the status of Georgia’s separatist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, its consequence was to end Georgia’s – and Ukraine’s – hopes of joining NATO. Presumably, this was Russia’s aim all along: to send very forcefully the message that being with NATO – or any western institution – is being against us.

The financial crisis made the future direction of the EU itself uncertain. There is little current appetite for further expansion; Eurosceptics in a number of member states seek to leave.

While the EU struggles with its own internal difficulties, Russia is not trouble-free either. President Putin may retain his power and popularity, but the unprecedented opposition demonstrations of 2011 and 2012 have raised the question as to whether that power and popularity can last indefinitely.

So if Ukraine is entering a decisive phase of its long revolution, the stakes are high. It would not be the object of a diplomatic game between Moscow and Brussels if it was not important. Neither Russia or the EU, though, seems well placed to rescue the country if the crisis leads to chaos.

At the time, the Orange Revolution of 2004 was supposed to have set Ukraine’s future course. Nine years later, that revolution may be over. The one which began with the break up of the Soviet Union, however, is not.

At the end of 2011, the late Eric Hobsbawm gave a BBC interview in which he compared the Arab uprisings of that year to the revolutions that rocked Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. He said:

Two years after 1848, it looked as if it had all failed. In the long run, it hadn’t failed. A good deal of liberal advances had been made. So it was an immediate failure but a longer term partial success – though no longer in the form of a revolution.

Ukraine has not known the bloodshed of Syria, Libya, or Egypt, but its recent history is a reminder that, as Hobsbawm suggested, the outcomes of revolutions are known only in the long run.

Perhaps some of the demonstrators from that day in 1991 were among the crowd that smashed the statue of Lenin at the weekend. If so, they know well what long run means – and how long, in today’s uncertain world, a political crisis can last.