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Eleven wise men

Twenty years ago, the West tried to build civil society in post-Soviet Ukraine. Now 11 Ukrainian intellectuals have taken the matter into their own hands, through the “1st Decemberinitiative (Pershoho Hrudnya). Launched in December 2011, its name is a reference to Ukraine's 1991 referendum on independence. 

Its members are giants, if faded ones. One, Ivan Dzyuba, broke Soviet taboos in his essay "Internationalism or Russification?", written in the mid-1960s. Another, the Geneva-based economist Bohdan Hawrylyshyn, was one of the few people to predict the collapse of the USSR. A third, Cardinal Lyubomyr Huzar, is a former archbishop of the patriotic Ukrainian Catholic church (although the initiative was endorsed by three Orthodox churches).

Several members are former dissidents who served sentences in Soviet labour camps, an asset in a region where moral currency is often measured in years spent imprisoned by the Communist regime.

The initiative's first round-table event, held in Kiev last Thursday, gathered 70 members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia to discuss relations between state and society. Their banner, "A Free Person in a Free Country", is a reaction to a society they see as basking in consumerist indifference; or, as Yevgen Sverstyuk , a philosopher, put it, “like a varenyk [dumpling] in butter”. You can see a video of the event here.

In pushing for a stronger, more responsible society, and one that is closer to Europe, these grandees turn to abstract themes: human dignity and responsible citizenship. They hope to drum up interest through a series of local round-table meetings. The initiative aims to include all Ukrainians, regardless of political affiliation.  

The response has been quiet but broadly positive. Taras Voznyak, editor of the cultural journal Ï, said, “I have understood why there are 11 of them. They are apostles”. Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovich, has expressed an ambiguous interest in the initiative.

The group's members say they hope to connect with younger Ukrainians, despite theiraverage age being well over 70. But even their most enthusiastic backers wonder what practical steps these philosopher-kings can take to improve life in Ukraine. Or why it has taken them 20 years to get into gear.

One answer to that may be the chillier atmosphere that has descended in Ukraine since Mr Yanukovich took power in 2010, and the eroding hopes of the generation of Orange revolutionaries that grabbed the world's attention in 2004.

Ukraine's media have begun speculating about parliamentary elections due in October. If the message of the 1st December group begins to resonate before then, it could become a significant political player. But some think its influence will be better expressed through a gradual renaissance of civil society, and as an influence for future generations of Ukrainians. Food for thought, as Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter this weekend.



Apr 12th 2012