Business, Finance & Economics

In Ukraine, middle class hopes built up by Orange Revolution, fade with time

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Olena Koshil (Photo: Julia Barton)

Editor's Note: This is one part of a series of stories from PRI's The World examining global issues of class. For more stories on this topic, visit TheWorld.org.

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Olena Koshil has been running non-stop for 20 years. Like her country.

At only 32, she manages a TV production company in Kiev. She speaks several languages and has been working in national TV since she was a teenager. In 2004, like many other urban professionals, she became involved in the political upheavals known as the Orange Revolution.

In November of that year, on Kiev’s Independence Square, Koshil felt her life change for good. She was among thousands who crowded into the square to protest the results of the presidential election.

“At one moment everybody understood that it’s the moment you can decide, and you have to take part,” Koshil recalled. “And it was a very new feeling for me, for example, and I think for many people.”

That night, Koshil and her husband, Denis Samygin, made up flyers and drove to the outer reaches of Kiev to paste them on bus shelters.

“Don’t go to work, just go to Maidan, because tomorrow, it’s our last chance,” Koshil wrote on the flyers.

Koshil and the other protesters believed the vote had been rigged in favor of a candidate from the industrialized Eastern part of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych. The campaign had been incredibly bitter, and opposition candidate Victor Yuschenko had even been poisoned.

After two weeks of protests, the Ukrainian government allowed new elections to take place and that time, Yuschenko won.

Koshil was thrilled — and for about a year, she says, the country seemed transformed. But slowly, she watched the energy of the Orange Revolution fade. Three years ago, when new elections came around, Ukrainians elected the candidate who’d been defeated in the Orange Revolution, Victor Yanukovych.

The new government has put some Orange Revolution leaders in jail. That’s upset the European Union, and upset the middle class Ukrainians, who want more links with Western Europe. At this point, Koshil is both frustrated and defiant.

“I don’t think that we lost. Because you never lost your experience, you never lose your experience. If you lived the experience, you have that, and this is yours,” she said.

But meanwhile, Koshil has a lot to think about in her own life. She has two children. And a few years ago, she and Samygin got a mortgage to buy an apartment in a 100-year-old building in central Kiev. They renovated it to take out all of the Soviet-era touches. The closet-sized bathroom became a closet. And the old kitchen is now the bathroom.

“It’s very great to have bath-ROOM,” Koshil laughed. “Because ‘bathroom’—you have to have to have a room. To have a bathroom with a window, and so big, it’s extraordinary.”

Koshil says she and her circle of friends define “middle class” as having enough money to own an apartment and a car, and to travel abroad. She and her family live comfortably, but for Samygin, this sense of comfort pretty much ends at their front door.

“What’s lacking for the middle class is any kind of social protection, as far as health care is concerned, or the legal system,” Samygin said.

What’s more, he says government bureaucracy makes it hard to run a business. He should know—he’s co-owner of a public relations firm. He says things are getting more corrupt again under the Yanukovych regime.

“More people are talking about how it’s pointless to live here,” Samygin said, “and it would be better to leave.”

But he and Koshil have no plans to go. They care too deeply about Ukraine. After their children were born, Samygin even switched from his native Russian to speaking Ukrainian all the time. Samygin says this means his wife will usually get the upper hand when they argue, since she’s a native Ukrainian speaker.

Koshil grew up in a provincial city southeast of Kiev. Her mother was a pediatrician, and her father an engineer. They were solidly middle class. Except this was the Soviet Union, so the middle class didn’t really exist. Koshil remembers going to Soviet military parades with her family.

“From somewhere my father brought these balloons and I [thought] it was a miracle, these balloons. I liked it very much,” Koshil recalled.

Balloons felt like a miracle because her parents didn’t have much. In 1991, when Ukraine became a new country, they suddenly had even less.

“My parents were not paid on their work. It was very difficult. There was no money, like there’s no money at all,” she said.

Still, Koshil's parents insisted that she to go to a good school in Kiev. Koshil paid her rent in the city by bringing food from the countryside on a two-hour train ride. It eventually paid off: Koshil got into university in Kiev and started working as a journalist. Within ten years, she went from hauling plucked chickens on the train to being a national TV editor.

Koshil needed determination and energy to succeed in the face of historic change. But now things have started to slow down — and Koshil's not sure she likes that. She describes her current state, half-humorously, as a kind of stagnation, an “existential crisis.”

“Because everything has happened already,” Koshil said.

Exciting as her life has been, Koshil doesn’t want her children to feel the same pressures she did. Her daughter Sonja, who’s six, has a mobile phone, and 3-year-old Marco knows how to navigate a laptop computer. After Sonja asked for a dog for three years, Koshil got her one.

“She has to experience that dreams—if you want something, dreams come true. Just to experience this in her life,” Koshil says.

And in the children’s bedroom, the floor is covered in balloons.