On a foggy, drizzly February morning, Alyona Kutsenko, a 23-year-old English teacher from Kyiv, led a group of fifteen tourists to an embankment at the edge of Mariyinsky Park, an elegant square of linden, maple and chestnut trees that abuts Ukraine’s presidential palace. She gestured toward a nondescript gray building that interrupted the trees’ sweep toward the murky Dnipro River below. “If we could start with a place that really symbolizes corruption in our country, we would not be here but twenty kilometers outside of the city at the Kyiv Sea at Mezhyhirya, the residence of our former president Viktor Yanukovych,” she said. Since that wasn’t feasible, “we can look at one thing he used to avoid traffic jams.” The structure was intended to be a landing strip for the president’s helicopter, she explained, and was built in defiance of laws that designate the area a protected national monument.
Kutsenko was leading the group as part of Anti-Corruption Walks Kyiv, an initiative of a local university that seeks to raise awareness about the fight against corruption, a scourge on post-Soviet Ukraine. Kutsenko and her colleagues are part of a generation of Ukrainians galvanized five years ago by the Euromaidan Revolution, a months-long protest whose violent culmination led to the flight of Yanukovych and the return to power of pro-Europe politicians. Leading the walk was a way to support “a vision of utopia I have for my country,” Kutsenko told me. “If I can change something, speak about some problems, share some ideas and give people some instruments, I think it’s good.”
Support for Euromaidan was split across the country’s old political fault lines, with western and central Ukraine generally backing it and eastern and southern Ukraine opposing it. Even so, the trauma of the protests, in which more than one hundred people died, coupled with a government eager to capitalize on the movement to strengthen its popularity, has instilled Euromaidan in the minds of many Ukrainians as a watershed moment. Earlier this year, I stopped by a stately conference space just off Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the city’s main square and the epicenter of the Euromaidan protests, to hear about Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts. The sector has produced notable successes since Euromaidan, including developing a publicly accessible e-procurement platform called ProZorro, mandating that government officials openly declare their assets, and establishing a High Anti-Corruption Court to take on significant cases of graft. The event was a flurry of business casual and networking and brochures; more than two hundred people packed the room.
I’m half Ukrainian, and have been visiting the country regularly since 2003, the year before the Orange Revolution, the first major uprising in favor of European integration in the country’s independent history. It’s difficult to enumerate all of the ways that Ukraine has changed since that time, when it was still recovering from the financial and psychological shock of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Though Russian remains Kyiv’s lingua franca, increased patriotism has made Ukrainian much more common. Western brands and tastes have infiltrated the capital’s local culture; English lessons have become a matter of course. The Barbie aesthetic cultivated by many Ukrainian women—high heels, short skirts, sequins—has been supplanted by a hipster one of sneakers, piercings and tattoos, while Ukrainian men have added color to their wardrobes, grown out their hair and discarded pointy-toed dress shoes and stiff black leather jackets. Ryan Air and other low-cost airlines now fly out of a handful of Ukrainian cities to European destinations, benefitting Ukrainians who, after years of enduring lengthy and costly paperwork, have been able since 2017 to travel to the Schengen zone without a visa. Perhaps most important, every quarter of public life is now inhabited by young people who either have no memory of the Soviet era or were born after it ended.
I have relatives scattered through western and central Ukraine, and the picture I’ve gotten from them about recent social changes is mixed. I’ve heard how pensions have stayed miserly, how extended family have given up trying to make ends meet and emigrated to Poland and Italy, how young men have scrambled to enroll in higher education to avoid being picked up by the Army and sent to fight in the Donbas, how the price of gas hovers over every household ledger as both a question and a threat. I’ve also observed the gradual improvement in housing, the uptick in travel abroad for pleasure, the increasing use of the internet and social media and the broader hopes and expectations for the youngest Ukrainians. As Ukraine has opened its KGB-era archives to the public, I’ve been able to acquire the Soviet case files on my relatives to help piece together our family’s past.
During a visit last spring, I spent a night with two of my second cousins, who are a few years younger than me. As a kid, I knew them as the somber blonde girls who appeared in photos my grandmother received from the Soviet Union, wearing sweaters of mine that I had outgrown. We understood nothing about each other’s lives. Now, both of them have office jobs in Lviv, are working through their travel bucket list and keep track of concerts, restaurants and artists on Facebook. That night, we stayed up late sharing our favorite YouTube videos: mine, Lady Gaga singing for Mexican orphans; Lida’s, a schlubby American guy with the voice of an angel and Ira’s, five people using a single guitar to play “Somebody That I Used to Know.” For generations of our forebears, who experienced their homeland as a place of oppression, violence and abject poverty, this positive, everyday point of connection would have been no small achievement.
Whether the delicate progress that has been made can be maintained depends on an unstable and highly maligned quantity: Ukrainian politics.
Of all the political billboards that currently blanket Kyiv, the most common reads simply, “Think.” The message is directed critically at the supporters of the unlikely frontrunner for Ukraine’s presidency, a 41-year-old comedian and political novice named Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Zelenskiy has been a familiar face to Ukrainians since 2006, when he and his partner were crowned the winners of the first season of the Ukrainian version of Dancing with the Stars. Since then, he has appeared in a succession of popular films, sitcoms and variety shows. According to one poll, Zelenskiy commands a 47-point lead ahead of the second and final round of elections on April 21, which will determine Ukraine’s chief political figurehead and executive leader for the next five years.
While part of Zelenskiy’s support surely comes from the easy attraction of celebrity, as the billboard implies, it also stems from the public’s exhaustion with Ukraine’s political class. Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent and funder of the billboard critique of Zelenskiy, is his sole opponent in the second round and the current target of public ire.
An old hand in Ukrainian politics, the 53-year-old Poroshenko was the consensus candidate of pro-Europe voters in 2014, when he promised to extend the work of the Euromaidan Revolution and help Ukrainians zhyty po-novomy—live in a new way. According to most of his compatriots, he has failed: in January, more than three quarters of Ukrainians said they thought the country was heading in the wrong direction, a data point that has been relatively steady during Poroshenko’s tenure. They have plenty of supporting evidence. At the top of most people’s minds is the situation in the war-torn east. Despite the 2014 Minsk Protocol and further Minsk agreements the following year, which brokered a ceasefire on paper, the conflict in the separatist Donbas still smolders, and the death toll on both sides is approximately thirteen thousand. Crimea, which Russia seized and annexed almost effortlessly in 2014, remains firmly in Moscow’s control. Pledges aside, no Ukrainian politician has a credible plan for reversing that; the insult still stings.
While the economy has returned to growth since a sharp contraction in 2014 and 2015, Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe. Millions of Ukrainians work abroad in construction, childcare, cleaning and other low-skilled occupations. On the Polish-Ukrainian border, where I have relatives, a common source of income is a daily trip across the border; ferrying a bottle of Ukrainian horilka and two packs of cigarettes into Poland earns you four dollars—not a bad haul in a region where the average monthly salary is about $215.
With luck and privilege, Ukrainians can engineer an existence that is reasonably financially and physically secure. But they still face the perils of living in a society where justice is often a farce. The courts themselves are widely viewed as partial and highly susceptible to bribery. Aggression against those who try to rectify this state of affairs is common. A particularly horrifying attack occurred last July when a prominent anti-corruption activist named Kateryna Handziuk was sprayed with sulfuric acid, leaving thirty percent of her body severely burned. “I know that I look bad,” the 33-year-old said in a searing condemnation she made from her hospital bed, posted online two months later. In the video, her head is shaved, a long red scar runs down her face, and her arms and torso are covered with pus-colored gauze, but she speaks steadily and her brown eyes hold the camera: “I’m sure that I look a lot better than law and justice in Ukraine.” Handziuk succumbed to her injuries six weeks after the video was posted. Her assailants, not surprisingly, remain at large.
Many of these woes are older than Poroshenko’s presidency; some fall outside of the president’s sphere of control. Nevertheless, he has not meaningfully stemmed their tide, and at the same time has made a host of missteps that have further alienated the public. Last winter he took his family on a holiday in the Maldives that is estimated to have cost a half a million dollars. He reneged on his 2014 campaign pledge to sell his shares in Roshen, the largest and most lucrative confectionary company in Ukraine, instead placing them in a blind trust of which he is the ultimate beneficiary. Since he assumed office, the brand has become insultingly ubiquitous. Most metro stops in Kyiv seem to have one of its tony storefronts nearby, pumping cheery American music into the ears of the employees of the much humbler neighboring kiosks that sell the flowers, cell phone accessories, bylochky and other amenities that make life in post-Soviet Ukraine tick.
Such incidents add fuel to the belief that Poroshenko is using his position to benefit himself and his network financially and politically, an impression reinforced in the run-up to the first round of elections. In late February, Ukrainian journalists reported that Poroshenko’s first deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council participated in a $9 million embezzlement scheme involving the sale of smuggled Russian weapons to the Ukrainian state. Around the same time, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court invalidated a key piece of anti-corruption legislation that criminalized the illicit enrichment of government officials. A group of the country’s most prominent anti-corruption NGOs quickly issued a statement decrying the move and urging the Court “not to compromise Ukraine’s future for the sake of the political elite wishing to rob the country and remain unpunished.” The decision remains law.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced his candidacy on December 31st, just as Ukraine’s campaign season officially commenced. These days, he is best known for the sitcom Servant of the People, where he plays a naive but well-meaning history teacher who becomes the president of Ukraine after delivering an anti-government tirade that goes viral. With his campaign, he has similarly eschewed political convention, declining most interviews, refraining from holding political rallies and continuing with his entertainment work, including filming the third season of Servant. Most of the information about his candidacy is made available through videos on his social media accounts, where he registers a slick but informal, if not impish, presence. “Zelenskiy represents a new and global type of populism,” said Ivan Gomza, a professor of political science at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Like Donald Trump, “Zelenskiy instrumentalizes the opposition between the elites, who are corrupted, and the people, who are good. These populists come to power without any organization. Very often, they don’t need a party. And they try to represent the ‘low’ in our culture, speaking in colloquial language, to build connections with people.”
Servant is a predictable hero-solve-all affair, but it is prickly with indictments of the current political system. Part of Zelenskiy’s appeal comes from his show’s ability to reflect back the most absurd and frustrating elements of Ukrainian life—a task that requires you to understand them. As an oligarch long buffered from such realities, Poroshenko lacks both the artistry and credibility to make such a case. In one typical Servant scene, for instance, Zelenskiy’s character surveys with disapproval the luxury foreign sedan his aides have secured for him. He wanted a Ukrainian car. It was on remont, however—being renovated, a ubiquitous state in Ukraine. “Ah yes,” he says without missing a beat, and hops on a bicycle, the vehicle more accessible to most Ukrainians. His persona especially appeals to those under forty; they support him at higher rates. As a Russian speaker from the southeast who leads in polls across every region of the country, he has the potential to unite Ukraine as few politicians before him.
In recent years, Zelenskiy has consistently spoken about his pride and faith in independent Ukraine, and with tours and cash he has supported the Ukrainian army fighting the separatist movement in the Donbas. He comes across as a genuine patriot, though his business ties to Ihor Kolomoyskiy, a Ukrainian oligarch currently living abroad after falling out with Poroshenko, have fueled speculation about his loyalties. Most worrying, however, may be Zelenskiy’s lack of political experience, especially given the complexity of the conflict in the Donbas and Ukraine’s dependence on the International Monetary Fund. “I fear that he may understand politics even less than Donald Trump,” the sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko of Kyiv Polytechnic Institute told a German think tank.
Yet Zelenskiy’s campaign has turned this formlessness into an asset. “We will do this together” is the main hashtag of his campaign. His team has asked his followers on social media to name the five biggest problems in Ukraine to address in his platform, suggest members of his cabinet and field questions to ask Poroshenko during a debate. Zelenskiy has developed these inputs into something of an agenda: he supports EU and NATO membership personally but believes Ukrainians should decide NATO membership via referendum; he favors reforming the Minsk agreements process to bring in the U.S. and the U.K.; he vows to fight corruption; he wants Ukraine to become a hub for start-ups and tech.
These are inoffensive positions to most Ukrainians, especially since Zelenskiy has strategically relegated the most potentially divisive—membership in NATO—to a public vote. With his vague and benign politics, his charismatic public persona is Zelenskiy’s chief distinguishing attribute. That makes him an ideal “fresh face” to capture the votes of people fed up with the same old alternatives. In a poll conducted after the first round of elections, two-thirds of his supporters said that they are voting for Zelenskiy as a “protest against the existing situation in the country” rather than for any of his personal qualities.
The gap between policy and practice has always been large in Ukraine, however, and his campaign has demonstrated his willingness to discard political norms in favor of crowd-pleasing showmanship. In the week after his commanding victory in the first round of elections, he challenged Poroshenko to a debate at Olimpiyskiy Stadium, a seventy-thousand-seat venue in the heart of the capital. In a subsequent video, he invited the Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko, who placed third in the first round of elections, to act as the debate’s moderator. (Never mind that Ukrainian law dictates where and how such debates should be conducted—not at Olimpiyskiy Stadium, for starters). Poroshenko initially agreed to Zelenskiy’s proposal (minus Tymoshenko as moderator), then backtracked and insisted on two debates, one on Sunday at Olimpiyskiy Stadium, the other to be held as Ukrainian law dictated, on Friday, April 19 at a studio of the national public broadcaster. The men quarreled over the phone on air about the details during a subsequent television appearance by Poroshenko. On Sunday, the president appeared on a stage at Olimpiyskiy that contained two lecterns. Zelenskiy never showed up to claim his, so Poroshenko spent an hour taking questions from the press.
This past weekend, I visited my family in western Ukraine. I took the night train from Kyiv, and spent the early hours of the morning staring at the shuddering ceiling of our coupe car, where the temperature hovered around ninety degrees. As the night progressed, the heat in the wagon inexplicably lessened and I drifted off to sleep.
When I arrived in town the next morning, my aunt made breakfast for me and three of her grandchildren, all of whom were born in independent Ukraine. Like most Ukrainians of her generation, my aunt, who is 77, has had a life shaped by politically inflicted trauma. She was born during the war and never knew her father—an ethnic Ukrainian, he was arrested by the Nazis for petty theft and sent to Auschwitz. He died when she was a few months old. At the age of six, she was exiled to Siberia with her mother, who had a brother in the Ukrainian nationalist movement, and spent her formative years there. She returned to Ukraine as an adult in the 1960s. She now gets by on a monthly pension of $110 from her career as an accountant, which is augmented by two dollars for the twenty years of her youth that she spent in exile.
My aunt is voting for Poroshenko in this round of elections. Her grandchildren are all for Zelenskiy. “Everyone is,” one of them said by way of explanation, shrugging his shoulders. “Maybe things will get better.” My aunt disputed this vigorously, the spatula she was using to probe the nalesniki in the pan shaking with emotion. Things had gotten better, she stressed. She could remember having to wait in line for a whole night for a few slices of bread, how badly the country wanted for water, electricity and gas in the years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, how people would go for months without being paid.
To her grandchildren, these stories may as well be from the time of Kyivan Rus. Their eyes are trained not on the past but the future, not on Russia but the whole world. It is the work of every new generation to rearticulate the path forward for a country, even if they can only do so with the partial knowledge of the young. My aunt’s grandson rolled his eyes at his grandmother’s scolding, his sunny disposition momentarily diminished, and returned his attention to his phone. He’ll be in Austria for a construction gig during the election. “What happens will happen,” he said.