Five years ago, I stood in Kyiv’s Maidan Nazalezhnosti among the massive crowd that was celebrating the election of Viktor Yushchenko.  I was a reporter for a mid-size New Jersey newspaper, and I had come to Ukraine to cover the work of Ukrainian-American election monitors.  The assignment was a dream come true considering that the job usually required me to cover city council and board of education meetings.  I was almost completely ignorant about Ukraine until a month and a half before I arrived in Kyiv, but by the night after the election I knew I was witnessing something historic.

I vividly remember two conversations I had that night.  The first was with a native of Kyiv named Evgheny Kravchenko.  For the week that I had been in Ukraine I had spoken almost exclusively to the Ukrainian-American monitors.  My editors were clear that my job was to cover the local (to New Jersey) story.  If they wanted Ukrainian reaction, they told me, they could pull something from the AP.  But as I stood in the Maidan, I knew I would never forgive myself if I experienced this event without speaking to the people whom it was affecting most directly.  I saw Kravchenko, who appeared to be in his mid-70s, and asked to speak with him through an interpreter.  First, I learned that he was only 63.  (I’ve since learned that many Ukrainians of his generation look much older than they are, presumably from the hardships of growing up in Soviet Ukraine.)  I asked Kravchenko what the Orange Revolution and the election had meant to him.  Before he could answer, he started to cry.  He composed himself and said, “I never thought that in my lifetime, at my age, that I would see such democracy.  I consider myself very lucky.  I was voting not for myself, but for my grandchildren, so that they can be free people like everyone else in the West.”  As my interpreter, a Ukrainian-American named Petro, was translating Kravchenko’s words, he started to cry.  By the time I had finished scribbling in my notebook, I was crying, too.

The second memorable conversation took place a short while later.  I asked Petro, then a passionate Yushchenko supporter, what he was thinking.  I had gotten to know Petro over the past week, and I expected him to talk about his parents, who were deported from Ukraine to Germany by the Nazis as forced laborers during WWII, or perhaps mention his daughters, whom he raised in New Jersey to speak fluent Ukrainian and to know their heritage.  But Petro surprised me.  He told me he was worried.  So many people had invested so much belief in Yushchenko, Petro said, that the new president was bound to disappoint his supporters.  I remember being impressed that Petro could put aside his euphoric feelings and view the election so dispassionately.

I don’t think Petro expected Yushchenko to disappoint his supporters as spectacularly as he has.  Nor would Petro argue that Yushchenko’s failures can be blamed on unreasonable expectations.  Over the past five years, I have spoken about Ukrainian politics a great deal with Petro and the many other Ukrainian-Americans who have become dear friends.  Though I do my best to retain journalistic objectivity years after quitting the newspaper business, it was hard not to share the pain of their disappointment.

Something encourages me, though.  Petro and many others whom I met five years ago are in Ukraine right now serving as election monitors.  There is no candidate for whom they are rooting, unlike five years ago when they backed Yushchenko.  They are there to do what they can to ensure the election is open and fair.  There’s cause for hope, I believe, in the fact that Ukrainians and the Ukrainian Diaspora are participating in an election that doesn’t have the historical pull that the Orange Revolution had.  It was easy to get swept up in the last election.  This one, though, requires a tough stomach.

I will be following the election news tomorrow.  I am not sure what outcome I hope to see.  I would like to believe that no matter what the results of the election are, Ukraine is irrevocably on a path to a better future.  But I realize how naive that is.  I wish I could speak to Evgheny Kravchenko again.  I’d ask him what he thought of the last five years and what kind of Ukraine he believes his grandchildren will inherit.

UPDATE: I learned after posting this that Petro had to cancel his trip to Ukraine at the last minute due to a family emergency.  However, many other members of New Jersey’s Ukrainian American community have been able to make the trip.

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