30 Years of Ukrainian Independence

On August 24, 2021, Ukraine celebrates the 30-year anniversary of its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. This year's Independence Day remains particularly poignant as Ukraine continues to struggle against Russian aggression and the illegal annexation of Crimea.

Five years ago, we asked students in the 2016 Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute class to comment on the 25th anniversary of Ukraine's independence. This year, we've asked HUSI alumni to weigh in on Ukraine's path since claiming independence as a modern, post-Soviet nation state.

Ukraine with 30

Hanna Protasova, HUSI 2018

Thirty years of Ukrainian independence coincided with my adult life as well as with my personal and professional growth. During that time, my country and I were struggling to become more self-confident and mature, and now, looking back at this path, I can say it was a thing worth doing. Moreover, the general pattern of my life reflected some of the main complexities of Ukrainian cultural development of the last decades: as a teen I came to Kyiv’s Ukrainian-speaking cultural milieu from the predominantly Russian-speaking Kharkiv, and I struggled to develop a completely new sense of identity and belonging. During the last twenty years, I’ve been learning how to be Ukrainian in all senses of this word: as a person, as a professional, as a scholar in Ukrainian studies, and as a responsible citizen. 

Now, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence, I can say I’d like Ukraine to be a place where people of any national and ethnic background are respected and treated equally, where young professionals have ample opportunity to use their talents. At this point, I’m moving abroad to continue my education, but I hope I’ll be able to come back and to contribute to the well-being of my state. 

Alise Suprun, HUSI 2017

In the modern world, 30 years of age is when we just start maturing. And so it is with Ukraine.

Growing up, I never thought about what the future may be like. In many ways, the situation in modern Ukraine is significantly worse than one ever could have imagined in the past, but at the same time, changes that took place within the past years inspire and give hope. I really am thrilled to witness how my country is developing and strengthening its independence each and every day, right in front of my eyes. 
Regrettably, I do not recall many memories of the proclamation of Ukraine’s independence as I was merely one year and three months old at that time. But were I of voting age, I would have been first in line among those advocating for independence. Independence means freedom, and freedom is my core value. 

My recollection of the early years of independence is not too bright, as those were mostly years of deficit, extreme poverty, and organized crime. Subsequently, Ukraine has done much during its 30 years of independence to improve people’s lives and establish a free and democratic society. However, my country has not yet succeeded in realizing its potential. There is still a lot to accomplish in the next 30 years. From my side, I am genuinely committed to do everything in my power to restore peace and security in my country, reintegrate the temporarily occupied territories, create equal opportunities, and achieve prosperity for all. Only then Ukraine will mature and become a powerful actor in the international arena. Without independence there is no future. “Glory to Ukraine!” 

Khrystyna Semeryn, HUSI 2021

On the eve of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine's independence, we would like to reflect on our achievements and losses with a sense of some completion. I am younger than my country, in terms of its political sovereignty, so my life goes happily on in independent Ukraine. Fortunately, I did not experience the set of tragedies and challenges of the previous centuries, such as the Soviet occupation, repressions, the Holodomor, and two world wars. Millions of people survived and preserved national identity in such an impossible environment. The credit for independence is certainly due to those who have sacrificed their efforts, health, and, all too often, life for a better future. Thus, my generation’s commitment is to remember that sacrifice and to save and develop our country.

Nowadays, life goes on, and everything changes dramatically. As a citizen, scholar, and journalist, I participate in current transformations. For me, independence is the highest value. Individual freedom and freedom of speech, gender equality, and democratic values are included in our agenda. I believe the shift in thinking precedes economic and political success. Therefore, we have to build a new society on a value basis, with more bridges and fewer walls. Deep respect for each other and the environment, ecological consciousness, personal responsibility, and critical thinking, as well as dedicated work, should become our “national traits.” Although it is hard, and many things go wrong, we keep on working. Thirty years is quite a few and too little, but it is time for us to grow up.

Ladimer S. Nagurney,  HUSI 1971

August 1971 – Two decades before Ukraine's independence, when there was not even a thought that Ukraine would one day become an independent nation, the first Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute ended. At this point in time, studies of Ukrainian topics in History, Political Science, Literature, and Language were a novelty. To the HUSI students of 1971, Ukraine truly appeared to be behind the Iron Curtain. There was limited travel between the UkrSSR and the US, and those few who gained permission to travel were looked upon with suspicion. There was little access to contemporary historical and political literature and pre-WWI literature.

As one whose career path took him on a journey that relegated Ukrainian studies to  the recreational sphere, I watched the evolution toward freedom somewhat skeptically, especially since I still believed in the strong grip on Ukraine by the Soviets. My skepticism began to wane upon attending a conference in Leningrad in 1989 when I had the ability to book my own flights and hotel and not go through Intourist. On a trip to Hungary a year later, I found items in everyday shops that had previously been available only in hard currency stores.

My interest in radio led me to listen to Radio Kyiv. There I noted the evolution of its programming from reiterating Soviet propaganda to actual reporting from various viewpoints. I remember the buildup during the spring and early summer of 1991, knowing that via shortwave radio I would get the news ahead of the US media.

Watching the state building and evolution to the “rule-of-law” in Ukraine has been somewhat painful. The background that I received at HUSI has allowed me to understand why creating a rule-of-law government from scratch has been difficult, I am proud of the progress of the Ukrainian State and look optimistically to the future.

One positive development for Ukrainian studies has been the opening of various archives to historical and political researchers. The access to these materials has led to significant scholarship on 20th century Ukraine and its role, even under Soviet domination.

We all need to be proud. Слава Україні!

Anatole Sykley, HUSI 2016

As a child of Ukrainian immigrants, I sharply recall how the independence of Ukraine as part of the break-up of the old Soviet Union was the day my parents had been hoping for and praying for every Sunday in their diaspora Ukrainian church in Melbourne, Australia.

Yet, when I asked them whether they rejoiced greatly, they admitted that independence was like a light switch that brought the entire room into view, at long last. It was thrilling, but then again, it was much like turning on the light in any dark room may reveal something of a mess that needs to be cleaned up! As people stumble in the dark, they knock things over and trample on each other, don’t they? 

My parents passed away as political issues in independent Ukraine arose, one after the other. But they, like me, hoped that Ukraine would know what needs to be fixed. Independence has brought with it a long, long maintenance project, politically speaking. What do I hope for? At first, I hoped (as my late parents did) that Ukraine would become a democracy similar to the United States or some stable Commonwealth country such as Australia or Canada. Now, as I witness how the manipulation of social media and fake news is sabotaging the democratic process, I now hope for something different. Perhaps Ukraine can build a new, more resilient type of 21st century democracy that can withstand sabotage efforts emanating from the internet and elsewhere. Perhaps Ukraine should not model itself on old-fashioned 20th century democracies which are built on the naïve assumption that all voters are well meaning, and that all news is basically true. A new type of resilient, open, and defensible democratic system is needed. Ukraine can perhaps find this new model, as an example for the world. 

Oleksandr Zavalov, HUSI 2020

Ukraine is a country with high potential and a variety of opportunities. I feel that the active and enthusiastic people in Ukraine can change the post-Soviet system. Celebrating 30 years of Ukrainian Independence is meaningful to me as it is the time to celebrate the achievements of all Ukrainians over these years.

Observing the Euromaidan from thousands of miles away and seeing how Ukraine withstood the geopolitical challenges and chose democracy, it became clear to me that Ukraine is heading on a path of transformation.

As I grew up, I noticed how Ukraine transformed. I went to school in the US and Canada and finished high school in Pennsylvania. Each time I visited Ukraine in the summer, I witnessed how some aspects of Ukraine had sharply changed, which is harder to observe when permanently living in a country.

Most of my observations are from my home city of Kyiv. I observed how quickly Kyiv evolved from a lackluster megapolis into a young and dynamic city. The energy of this city is palpable through the swift movements of young people riding electric scooters, which rush through the sidewalks of city parks and alleys. This year, I noticed fewer people smoking and more people practicing a healthy lifestyle by jogging and riding bikes outside. As a whole, Kyiv became a cleaner, more modern European city.