Unfortunately, their commitment to statehood was not matched by any coherent vision of economic reform, and they followed the usual post-Soviet project of enriching themselves and their comrades. The result, in addition to massive corruption, was gross mismanagement of the economy. Russia's economic performance in the two decades following the collapse of communism was mixed at best; Ukraine's was absolutely dire.
But when it came to democracy, the tables were reversed. Even though the pact between Ukrainian reformers and the Communist Party left the nomenklatura, as the Soviet leadership class was known, essentially intact, it turned out to be remarkably — and mercifully — inept at authoritarian governance. The Ukrainian Communist Party and the KGB, with their formal ties to Moscow severed, were unprepared to act effectively on their own. Instead of closing ranks to rule the country, the power elites broke into competing clans associated with the major cities and regions. The result was a newborn country that was accidentally pluralistic, allowing democracy to spring up through the cracks in the regime's control. Proof of that came in 1994 when Kravchuk lost his reelection campaign. The very fact that he could be voted out of office was an early but important milestone for a fledgling democracy. It is one that Russia, with its more deeply rooted absolutist political system, has yet to reach.
That said, what followed was not exactly encouraging. Kravchuk's successor, Leonid Kuchma, began to turn back the clock, harassing the opposition and the media. After serving the constitutionally maximum two five-year terms, Kuchma was able to rig the 2004 election in favor of his dauphin, Viktor Yanukovych, who was prime minister.
But Kuchma and Yanukovych overestimated their power to manipulate the electorate — and they underestimated civil society. In what became known as the Orange Revolution, Ukrainians camped out in the Maidan — the central square in Kyiv — and demanded a new election. They got it.
Then came a truly tragic irony. Yanukovych's opponent and polar opposite was Viktor Yushchenko, a highly respected economist and former head of the central bank. He was the champion of Ukrainian democracy. Largely for that reason, he was hated and feared by many in Russia, notably in Putin's inner circle. Yushchenko was poisoned on the eve of the ballot. The attempt on his life left him seriously ill and permanently scarred, yet he triumphed in the election. However, Yushchenko then did such a poor job in office that Yanukovych, who had failed to become president by cheating in 2004, ended up being elected fair and square in 2010.
Over the next four years of Yanukovych's rule, the Ukrainian state became more corrupt and abusive of political rights than it had been even in the last years of Kuchma's presidency. Nonetheless, the legacy of the 1991 compromise between the democrats and the apparatchiks lived on through the success of at least two of its main goals: peace and survival. When, two years ago, Ukraine celebrated its twenty-second anniversary as an independent state, the longest period in modern history, it had — for all its troubles — at least avoided violent separatism within its own borders, not to mention a war with Russia.
Then, in November of that year, came the first tremors of the cataclysm.