: 08-12-2004
Dr. Gary Bergthold: The Orange Revolution
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We live in a prison run by gangsters. They feed us on bread and water. Ukrainian friends gave me this bleak assessment during one of my five visits to Kyiv (the preferred spelling), Donetsk and Lviv in recent years. Ukrainians, used to harsh Soviet rule for forty years and Soviet-like leadership in the ten years of Ukrainian independence, rarely speak so candidly to foreign visitors. They must have sensed my strong identification with their country and their plight.

I am the descendent of Swiss-German Mennonites who settled in a tiny village near Lviv in the 18th century and farmed the fertile land for nearly a hundred years before immigrating to the United States. My childhood memories are of my Grandmothers steaming bowls of Borscht and Vareneki, and of Arbuz (watermelon), a Ukrainian word that my family used. I have paid several visits to my ancestral village of Rosenberg and walked in the house built by my Grandfather Daniel Bergthold ten generations back. I have been made an honorary headman of Rosenberg, a post first held by Daniel, and I treasure a huge wooden mace given to me by the village that signifies the return of a native son.

The first city I visited in Ukraine was Donetsk, a grim industrial and mining city where Russian is the language of choice and Russian is the ethnicity of the population. During Soviet times, industry was highly centralized and most heavy industry was placed in the loyal and Russified East. The West is mainly agricultural. Lviv, a beautiful city filled with magnificent churches and an ornate opera house built during Austrian rule, is in the far West of the country and has always maintained a fierce Ukrainian nationalism. In my classes I was fascinated by the ethnic diversity of the faces, reflecting the long history of invasions and foreign settlements. My students preferred to speak Ukrainian, a language that had been banned during the hated Soviet occupation. They were proud of their independence from the Soviet Union, their second taste of freedom for hundreds of years. The first moment of independence occurred briefly when the old Russian Monarchy was dissolved but independence collapsed in chaos and civil war when competing factions could not find unity.

My students were painfully aware that their freedom was not total. They were still under the domination of a Russia-leaning government, repressive laws limiting freedom of the press, and an economy controlled by robber barons. In a country where my doctor friends earned salaries of forty dollars a month, shiny black BMWs and Mercedes flashed by on the streets carrying oligarchs to fancy nightclubs.

On November 21 a runoff election for President was held between Viktor Yanukovych of Donetsk and Viktor Yuschenko, the Western-oriented opposition candidate. Almost before the polls closed, the Electoral Commission appointed by former President Kuchma and by President Putin of Russia declared Mr. Yanukovych the winner. International observers of the election reported widespread fraud. Within hours, orange-clad supporters of Yuschenko streamed to the central square of Kyiv, waving Ukrainian flags and orange banners proclaiming that the election was stolen. Orange is the color of the opposition party and their movement is being called the Orange Revolution. The continuous three-week demonstration that has spread throughout the country has been peaceful and at times resembles a Woodstock rock concert. Thousands of young people have been living in ice-encrusted plastic tents that have become igloos in the zero-degree cold. But danger and threat lurks behind the colorful façade.

I have been moved to tears at the courage and commitment of my fellow Ukrainians as they fight for freedoms they have never known. I have wondered whether we in the United States would defend our freedoms with such passion. I have remembered standing in that square on a warm and sunny day marveling at the skill of young dancers and singers who performed there on weekends. Today they are still dancing and singing revolutionary songs and hoping that their winter of discontent will be followed by a Spring thaw.

I have been in almost daily contact with my good friend Andrew who was my guide and translator on my pilgrimages to Rosenberg and who is a brilliant pediatrician, web-site designer and musician. Ukrainians must multi-task in order to survive. Andrew has ridden a roller coaster of emotion as the Orange Revolution celebrates victories such as the nullification of the tainted election and the promise of new elections the day after Christmas, followed daily with news of political setbacks and threats of civil war. Events will continue to change daily. By the time this is published a new runoff election will have been held. Ukraine will be truly free of its oppressive past or be thrown into chaos and possible civil war. I pray that the Orange Revolution will continue to be peaceful and that our friends will build a new Ukraine in the land that gave a fresh start to our ancestors over three hundred years ago.

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