Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, we have a piece by Jay Nordlinger, “A Voice of America.” It focuses on Myroslava Gongadze, the head of the Ukrainian service. This week, Mr. Nordlinger is expanding the piece in his Impromptus. For Part I, go here. The series concludes today.
Myroslava Gongadze went to work for the Voice of America in the summer of 2004. In late November of that year, something big started in her native country: the Orange Revolution. This was Ukraine’s pivotal democracy movement.
Did Myroslava have a role in this movement, or revolution? Yes, in two ways. First, she had helped establish a tradition of protest in Ukraine. She did this by campaigning for justice in her husband’s case. And for Ukrainian democracy in general.
Georgiy Gongadze, remember, was killed in the autumn of 2000. In December of that year, Ukrainians began a mass protest campaign, “Ukraine without Kuchma” — Kuchma being the corrupt and, of course, murderous president, Leonid Kuchma. Other protests were to follow.
Consider this, too: In late 2004, during the Orange Revolution, Myroslava was a trusted voice, broadcasting the news from her VOA studio in Washington. Forgive some treacle, but she was a voice of hope and truth.
In my experience, people who have been lucky enough to live in open societies have a hard time knowing how much the simple truth — ordinary, humdrum, basic truth — means in closed societies. Such things as, “Who did what when?” Never mind interpretation.
‐After the Orange Revolution, some justice in Georgiy’s case became possible. In January 2006, a trial began. Three policemen were charged with Georgiy’s murder. Later, a police general would be charged as well. All four were convicted. But the higher-ups — primarily Kuchma — have avoided justice.
Leonid Kuchma is now in his late seventies and has been out of power since 2005. But he still plays a role for Ukraine in the diplomatic arena.
‐Myroslava Gongadze and I are having lunch at a Washington restaurant, and she casually makes a statement I am completely unprepared for: “I buried my husband last week.” I knew she had been in Ukraine; I did not know why. How is it that her husband was buried more than 15 years after his murder?
Well, the investigation was drawn out, and the body was needed, and they had decapitated Georgiy, so the head was separate, and … “It’s horrible,” says Myroslava, in the understatement of all time. “It’s horrible.”
‐I have a funny question for Myroslava: Has independence been good for Ukraine? She gives me a quizzical look. Then she laughs a little. “That is a logical question from an American. But for me … You have your child, and then you’re asked, ‘Is it good that the child is here?’ I’ve never asked myself this question.”
Yes, I say, but the “child” Ukraine existed before independence — under Soviet domination.
Myroslava understands. She understands better than most could. Independence has been an ordeal as well as an opportunity and a rebirth.
It must have been terrible, I say, to realize that a homegrown government could be just as bad as the Soviets’. It must have been a bitter pill. “It was,” she says. “It still is.”
She continues, “When you realized what was happening, your world just crashed. You were shattered.”
“Before,” I hazard, “you could say, ‘Once we get rid of the Soviets …’”
“We were naïve,” says Myroslava. “Too young.”
‐Today, she hosts two television programs. One is a daily, 15-minute news show, Chas-Time. “Chas” is Ukrainian for “time,” and the name is a play on words. The other program is a weekly, half-hour interview show, Prime Time with Myroslava Gongadze.
Countries all over the world are in sore need of journalistic standards — I mean, the minimum. The VOA introduces standards, including in Ukraine.
The VOA’s audience in that country is at least 7 million a week. (The population is 45 million.) And Myroslava Gongadze is a household name.
‐In 2014, she moderated a series of debates between Ukrainian parliamentary candidates. She’s a bit proud that the country conducted a proper democratic election in the middle of a crisis. What crisis? Well, you know: Putin, the Kremlin, and all.
‐Also in 2014, Myroslava received a Ukrainian civil decoration: the Order of Princess Olga. The lady was the wife of Igor I, Prince of Kiev, in the tenth century. He was murdered by Drevlians. His wife took repeated and terrible revenge on those people. In her Olga award, Myroslava feels a certain symbolism.
‐I imagine that people have asked her to run for office in Ukraine. Myroslava confirms that this is so. Will she ever return? “That’s a hard question,” she says. Her twins are now 18 and bound for college. They are American girls. Their mother is an American citizen. Does she feel American or Ukrainian? That’s another hard question.
“I feel in between, unfortunately. I’m straddling a river, with a foot on each bank. I don’t know where to jump. I feel at home here in America. I love this country. At the same time, I want to be useful to Ukraine. But I don’t know what can be accomplished there.”
Myroslava then says something I have heard from many immigrants, and many foreigners: In America, things are predictable. There is a rule of law. What’s true on Tuesday is true on Thursday. If you work hard, you can get somewhere. If you sign a contract, it will stick. In other countries, however, everything depends on the whim of the government or of other power centers.
“Ukrainian society is very unpredictable,” says Myroslava. “You’re going along nicely, and then you cross some interest, and, poom: You’re done. You’re building a business, and then, poom: It’s gone. Someone has come and taken it away from you.”
(With my lightning acuity, I gather that “poom” is a Ukrainian “all of a sudden.”)
‐By the way, Myroslava stated, at the outset of our interview, that she would speak for herself, not her employer, the Voice of America.
And I ask her a string of questions, such as “What do you think of Putin?” At this, she gives me her quizzical look. And then laughs a little. “He’s a criminal. He’s an international criminal. It’s not even my opinion. It’s a fact.” She then gives a brief history of Putin since 2000 or so.
Moreover, she says that America and the West are deluding themselves — deluding themselves if they think that Putin will ever be a partner for them.
‐“Should Ukraine be in NATO?” I ask. “Absolutely,” Myroslava answers, immediately. “It should be in NATO yesterday.”
‐“Will Ukraine survive as an independent country?” “I cannot even think about its not surviving. I cannot even let myself question that.”
‐I mention to Myroslava that many Americans have soured on democracy, human rights, and all that jazz. Left and right, they don’t want to hear about it. Talk of freedom, democracy, and human rights makes them think of war and quagmire and fool’s errands.
“Democracy cannot be built in a day,” says Myroslava. “It requires time, persistence, and patience. And if you’re promoting democracy, you have a special responsibility to help others achieve it. Otherwise, shut up. Just don’t talk about it.”
‐Toward the end of our lunch, I ask, bluntly, “Does the VOA do any good?” Myroslava looks at me intently and speaks in firm tones.
“The VOA is part of the American government, and I think that even the government doesn’t realize the power of the VOA. Millions and millions of people are listening to the anchors who go to work on Independence Avenue. The knowledge that we bring to the world is enormous. I would like Americans to realize the power that we have in that building — people like me, who have stories, and the trust of the people they speak to on behalf of the United States.”
She continues, “We are doing this job because we believe both in America and in our native countries. We are passionate about building democracies in the countries that we left owing to different reasons, and we care about America very much, because this country gave us a chance for a new life. So we can help unite our native countries and the United States.”
The VOA is “not perfect,” she says. “It’s still the government.” (I love that line.) “It’s bureaucratic, it’s difficult. We don’t have nearly enough support. But the job we do, despite all that, is fantastic.”
I must say, I don’t doubt her. At all.