When Ukrainian autocrat Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia after a popular uprising in 2014, thousands of citizens poured into Mezhyhirya, his 340-acre estate on the outskirts of Kyiv.
Ordinary people, eager to see the lifestyle Yanukovych’s thievery had financed, found an opulent palace filled with chandeliers, exquisite inlaid wood and gilt. It had a private movie theater, bowling alley, golf course, dog kennel and ostrich farm. A tunnel connected the main house to a spa with an oxygen chamber and rooms devoted to different styles of massage. There was a sauna where journalists and activists dried out documents that members of the fallen regime had thrown into a lake before they departed.
Astonishingly, there was little looting. Instead, Mezhyhirya was preserved as a sort of memorial to the corruption Ukrainians have endured. Its grounds are a park where families stroll; on a visit there last week, I saw a newly married couple posing for pictures. For about $20, a veteran of the revolution will take visitors on a tour of the main house, carefully pointing out every luxurious detail financed with public money.
Mezhyhirya is a reminder of how far the country has come in the 5 1/2 years since what Ukrainians call the Revolution of Dignity. Certainly, Ukraine has manifold problems, but today it’s a remarkably vibrant, multiethnic democracy in a region full of aggressive nationalism and authoritarian backsliding. That makes it all the more contemptible that Donald Trump has leveraged U.S. support for Ukraine to try to make its new president open investigations that would help Trump politically. Ukraine is a country struggling to transcend its history of corruption, and Trump has tried to make it behave more corruptly.
“This is the big country in Eastern Europe which is trying to fight with the old demons of the past, and is partly successful,” said Nataliya Gumenyuk, the head of Hromadske, a nonprofit television channel and multimedia news organization. “Today it’s probably a better democracy than Hungary and Poland in terms of political representation, political freedoms.”
Ukraine once had a history of murderous anti-Semitism; today its new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is a Jew. As Yaroslav Trofimov pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, “One of Mr. Zelenskiy’s first decisions was to scrap the Independence Day tank parade on Kyiv’s main avenue, instead showcasing the country’s young musicians — and a different vision of national pride.”
The new Parliament is full of young reformers, including Ukraine’s first black MP, Zhan Beleniuk. Before Paul Manafort was Trump’s campaign chairman, he helped Yanukovych rise to power by stoking ethnic division. Ukraine’s new generation of leaders — the ones Trump has referred to as “terrible people” — have moved in the opposite direction.
“Ukraine, disregarding what Mr. Trump says, it’s a success case for Eastern Europe,” said Gumenyuk. “If Ukraine succeeds, everybody is watching in the region — Moldovans, Belarussians, the Caucasus, Central Asia. If this country slides back to old times, or goes in the Russian direction, the region is lost.”
There was once a bipartisan conviction in Congress that such an outcome would be calamitous. But Trump obviously has no problem with Russia expanding its influence. He has no interest in seeing liberal democracy thrive in Eastern Europe or anywhere else. For liberal Ukrainians, earnestly trying to live up to Western ideals that the world’s most powerful Western country is in the process of abandoning, this new geopolitical situation has been deeply alarming.
“It’s extremely important that our integrity, our image, our hard work that we’ve been carrying out over these years, our fight for freedom, our fight for democracy, is continuously supported by our partners,” said Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ukraine’s former vice prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, told me. “And this is the major challenge right now.”
It almost doesn’t matter, said Gumenyuk, that after freezing military aid to Ukraine, Trump eventually unfroze it. The aid was militarily necessary, but it was also seen as symbolic, “to show Russia that the U.S. is on our side,” she said. “And now it is clear that Trump is not on the Ukrainians’ side.” The shock of this is something Western-oriented Ukrainians are only beginning to grapple with.
Those who dream of a more open society have no other power to turn to. President Emmanuel Macron of France wants to reach out to Russia to forestall the influence of China. The U.K. is roiled by Brexit. Ukrainian liberals I met with last week kept using the same phrase — they spoke of being “left alone” with Russia.
“It’s important to understand that it’s not about Ukraine, it’s about whether democracy and the rule of law are spreading farther to the east,” said Volodymyr Yermolenko, a philosopher who hosts a program about world politics for Hromadske, or whether the “new authoritarianism” will keep moving westward. Under Trump, America has joined the axis of autocrats. Unlike the last time authoritarianism was on the march across Europe, for democrats in vulnerable countries, it’s hard to see where the allies are.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.