The Anniversary of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution


December 26, 2004. I was there. On that day Ukrainians went back to the election booths and a majority of them again voted for true democratic candidate, Viktor Yushchenko (an earlier “politically managed” election had his opposition – Russian supported – winning a very close, corrupt election). This time the election successfully voted Yushchenko into office.

Viktor Yushchenko

Viktor Yushchenko

This was the culmination of an amazing 17 days (I was only there for 4 of them), through harsh cold and sleet, where millions of Ukrainians staged nationwide nonviolent protests that came to be known as the “Orange Revolution.” The entire world watched this outpouring of the people’s will in a country whose international image had been warped by its Russian-supported corrupt rulers. By the time victory was announced–with Viktor Yushchenko’s electoral triumph–the Orange Revolution had set a major new landmark in the post communist history of Eastern Europe.

Election Night in Kiev

Election Night in Kiev

It was a win for democracy. It was exciting. And it reminded me that:

(1) I think we sometimes take democracy for granted here in the good ole US of A.


(2) Democracy is tough.


(3) Significant change – complete overhaul – is even tougher.


But first let me say.

It was an amazing place to be at that time. The political parties’ supporters were defined by orange and blue respectively. Throughout the city people wore their colors proudly. Streams of cars would drive the streets, horns blaring and colors streaming from their windows and antennas. There was pushing and shoving and yelling and the entire city just crackled with energy. It became even more special to me when that day I stepped into the elevator at my hotel and found myself sharing the space with Kofi Anan (who was pleasantly cordial…and interestingly – we Americans should note – he recognized me as an American even though I said nothing and addressed me in English).

That night into the following morning, Independence Square was filled with people, with music playing and speakers addressing the crowd. Khreschatyk Boulevard, the main street, was closed off and filled with street vendors and food and musicians. I am fairly sure the city did not sleep that night. And I was in the midst basking in their excitement.

bruce in kiev

But as I remember that spectacular experience, back to the three things it reminds me of:


Taking democracy for granted

“Razom nas bahato! Nas ne podolaty!” This was the chant I listened to in the crowd of hundreds of thousands that filled Kiev’s Independence Square on December 26th. “Together, we are many! We cannot be defeated!” Emerging from a sea of orange, the mantra signaled the rise of a powerful civic movement, a skilled political opposition group, and a determined middle class that had come together to stop the ruling elite from falsifying an election and hijacking Ukraine’s presidency. (maybe a precursor to the Obama campaign).

These people fought for democracy. And these people fought against communist memories. The majority of voters had lived under a communist regime at one time or another. They knew exactly what they didn’t want. And maybe that is what we forget having lived within only a democracy…what we don’t want. We have only had democracy and sometimes it is easy to overlook what you have. We shouldn’t.


Democracy is tough.

Democracy is about pluralism (I know that is simplistic but throw me a bone). Inherent in pluralism is being open and listening. Let’s face it…listening is difficult. Even in your own small world in business or life how many good listeners do you know? They are in the minority. People are so busy talking or shouting out their point of views they forget we are a country of “freedom to.” But that is tough. And that underlying belief foundation makes it not only tough for us (who have lived, ate and breathed it for 200+ years) but think about how tough it is for someone in which it is new.

For anyone out there who simply suggests countries are better off with democracy, make sure you think very hard about that. Yes. Democracy is powerful and good in intentions. But it is tough. And it is tougher than simply saying “we are now a democracy.” The Orange Revolution is five years old and they are still struggling to get their arms around the democracy thing. But they won’t quit (and that is the power of democracy).


Significant change – complete overhaul – is even tougher.


Let’s say the Boston Red Sox bought the Yankees and the Yankees ceased to exist and had to become part of the Red Sox nation (or vice versa if that pained you too much). Okay. I don’t mean to diminish the democracy of an entire country but you get the point.


I don’t care if you are a small company, a person trying to change habitual behavior or an entire country…wholesale change is tough. As a guy who has managed business transition I do know I like some of the old incorporated into the lot of the new when transitioning. In this case I am not sure they could…or maybe they tried but I couldn’t see it…or even if it is applicable here. What I do know is that wholesale change is never seamless.

And change, transition, requires people with resilience to ‘stay the course.’ I am pretty sure Victor Yushchenko, the Orange winner and current president, won’t make it past this point. And in a way it is a shame and in a way that is the way change works. People play roles. His was to forge the initial structure to make way for the next person to take it to the next level.


As I conclude this story and thought: I love Kiev. It is one of my favorite cities in the world. I love the Ukrainian people and their culture. But I truly respect Ukraine having experienced the height of the Orange Revolution. It was an amazing experience. I would like to think I am a slightly better person for that experience. I do know for sure that I take our democracy and country a little less for granted because of that experience.


So pull out The Constitution one day. Scan The Bill of Right
. We are a lucky group of people who had some pretty damn smart and resilient people who started this thing we call America. Don’t take it for granted.

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Written by Bruce