For almost 20 years (from 1938 to mid 50s), millions of Russians studied the history of their country by reading "Краткий курс истории ВКП(б)" ("An Abbreviated Course of History of the Russian Communist Party"). Conceived and spearheaded by Josef Stalin, the Abbreviated Course made mastering the subject easy: no complicated facts, no sophisticated interpretations. Just conclusions. The results, so to speak.
Keith Gessen's essay in a recent issue of The New Yorker belongs in the same genre. Titled "The Orange and the Blue", this piece is an Abbreviated Course of the Orange Revolution. If you want to know what really happened in Kiev in the fall of 2004, you would have to read something else. But if all you need is a T-shirt ("Been there, done that"), Gessen's masterpiece is for you.
I love the abbreviated fashion Gessen uses to describe the principal characters of the Orange Revolution. Former president Viktor Yushchenko is "once the great hope of a Ukrainian democracy." The newly-elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, is "the failed vote-fixer of 2004." Besides, "[h]e'd twice been imprisoned as a young man." (For some reason, Gessen is so obsessed with Yanukovych's "criminal past" that he returns to the subject later in the article). And here comes Yulia Tymoshenko: "the volatile, charismatic, and beautiful former Yushchenko ally." Gessen doesn't mention that Tymoshenko too had spent time in the pen — and not for "beating up a drunk" as Yanukovych, but having been accused in serious economic crimes. But, hey, this is an Abbreviated Course, isn't it?
According to Gessen, the history of the Orange Revolution started with Yushchenko's "mysterious ailment." Volumes have been written about this event, but all that Gessen wants you to know is that "[t]he doctors determined that he had been poisoned — a specialty…of the Russian secret services." Reminds me of how all "mysterious ailments" in Soviet Russia were blamed by Stalin's Abbreviated Course on "враги народа" ("the enemies of the people").
The next paragraph starts this way: "A runoff between Yanukovych and Yushchenko…" Wait a minute! Which "runoff"? Before a "runoff", there was the first round of the vote, in which 26(!) candidates participated. But, hey, if you're writing an Abbreviated Course, why waterboard your readers with details?
Gessen's description of the events that followed the runoff is abbreviated too. "Well-organized youth movement" and "Maidan Nezalezhnosti" are referred to in passing. However, the fact that both were heavily sponsored by foreign NGOs is not. Nor is the fact that in a blatant violation of the Ukrainian Constitution, the country's Supreme Court ordered a repeated runoff (i.e. the third round of the vote) between Yushchenko and Yanukovych ("another round of voting", as Gessen euphemistically calls it). And that the session of the Supreme Court was televised live to the Maidan so that the terrified Supreme Judges knew that upon leaving the building, they would have to face the furious orange crowd. But, hey, who cares, is it an Abbreviated Course or what?
Gessen isn't stupid not to understand that even the sophisticated readers of The New Yorker aren't particularly interested in what happened 5 years ago in a country most Americans would have trouble locating on a world map. No, his Abbreviated Course has a clear mission: to define the legacy of Yushchenko's Orange Revolution.
Sure, Gessen has no choice but to admit that "Yushchenko's Presidency was, by all accounts, a colossal failure." But is he the only one to be blamed? Of course not. What about these pesky Russians who "started raising energy prices toward European levels" (oh, this despicable Moscow obsession with the rules of the market economy!), "refused to have any contact with Yushchenko" (leaving him apparently with no one in Kiev to talk to), and "presented Ukraine with a huge gas bill, which the Ukrainians…could not pay" (leaving them apparently with no other option but to steal)?
Besides — as this presumably was Russia's fault as well — "Yushchenko…once the 2004 election had been won, turned out not to be very interested in governance, after all." Oops! What then was Yushchenko interested in instead? "Instead, he was interested in history", answers Gessen.
Well, Yushchenko's interest "in history" appears to be quite selective, and Gessen obviously approves of the selection. Gessen: "Yushchenko made the Holodomor the focus of his Presidency." Gessen [about the Holodomor memorial]: "[t]he museum is…the most purely anti-Soviet memorial I have ever seen." Gessen loves other Yushchenko "history projects" as well, especially "the promotion of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (O.U.N.) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (U.P.A.)": Gessen calls O.U.N.-U.P.A. "courageous" and its leaders "brave."
At first glance, a president who's "not very interested in governance" when his country is in the midst of a severe economic crisis is, well, a colossal failure. But this isn't how Gessen wants Yushchenko to be remembered. This is how:
"He had martyred himself and his Presidency for democracy, to show that it could be done."
(What could be done? Sometimes Gessen abbreviates his sentences to the point of becoming incoherent).
Common dictionaries define "martyr" as "a person who is put to death or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle, or cause." Last time I checked, Yushchenko was alive, well and ready to pursue "projects." Did Gessen inadvertently abbreviate Yushchenko's life too?