"HERE you can see where the bodies fell,” said my host, indicating the white outlines sprayed on the ground. “Here,” she pointed to a row of makeshift shrines, with little candles in pots set before low-quality printed photographs, “are their memorials.”

All the barricades had been cleared away, but the physical evidence of the revolution was still there. Every plot of available wall space near the square was covered in graffiti: “To Brussels!” and “Ukraine is Europe” were prominent, written in English for the benefit of an international audience.

The smart young woman showing me around embodied everything the “Revolution of Dignity” stood for: cosmopolitan, European, educated, future-focused. I was to meet a lot of people like this during my several visits to Kyiv (not Kiev anymore, that’s the Russian way) between 2015 and 2018. They were intelligent, well-travelled, multi-lingual, educated to post-graduate level, and committed to democracy, human rights and good governance.

Above all, they were refreshingly patriotic. They loved their country enough, for all its faults and failings, to try and make it a better place.

The buzz around these people, as they met with parliamentarians for well-organised breakfast press conferences or gathered in little rooms to draft expertly researched policy briefs, was hopeful, nervous yet expectant. This was not the first revolution since independence, but this time, this time, surely the old shackles would fall.

Most of these earnest youths did not remember a time before the collapse of the Soviet Union. They grew up in what the political humourist P J O’Rourke once described as the “100% you-betcha! sovereign and independent country of Ukraine”. All they knew was that independence had not yet delivered its promises: the government was unaccountable and corrupt, democracy precarious and factious, service delivery poor, bad roads and poverty still widespread.

The older generations had seen it all before – they remembered the early 1990s, when the country had weathered its first crisis and nearly been brought to its impoverished knees. With impassive resignation, they tried their best to carry on as normal. For most, life is still very hard. Some thought wistfully of the past, when at least the Soviet Union had seemed to offer stability. It is reassuring to retreat into the miasma of distorted memory.

My hotel was near the famous Maidan Square, democracy’s battle ground. A group of people, some in military uniform and others dressed like charity collectors, gathered on the slight rise at one end of the square, raising money for the soldiers at the front. Beside them was a minibus offering tours to gloat in satisfied disgust at the palace dubiously built by the former – ousted – president.

What a double bind for a country to find itself in: a war on the frontier to preserve its fragile independence, and a revolution at home to make that independence worthwhile.

But things were on the move. Business was booming. There were plenty of new and good restaurants. Kyiv was about to become a cool city-break destination. A recent police reform was by all accounts showing some signs of success in rooting out petty corruption.

Ukraine lives in the shadow of a larger neighbour, to which it has been unequally yoked. It has been used economically and militarily to bolster the geostrategic interests of that neighbour, while its own wealth and culture were stripped bare. It is also a country divided between two fundamental outlooks, two ways of being: one open, democratic, European, building for the future; the other closed, authoritarian, orientated to the former dominant power, wishing it could go back to the past. A Scot might feel strangely at home.

Here’s what I came back with. Firstly, be ready. Few predicted the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. The USSR was weak and fragile, but even so the speed with which the house of cards came down took many – not least the leaders and citizens of its newly independent states – by surprise. Independence can come sooner than you think. It pays to prepare. When Ukraine became independent there was no constitutional agreement about the nature of the new state, no consensus about how it should be governed or what its basic principles should be. Many of the convulsions since have arisen from this failure to build a consensus about the fundamentals and then to institutionalise that consensus in a stable and legitimate constitutional order.

Secondly, be European. A close relationship with the European Union opens doors, offers protection and pulls a country in the right direction. The Baltic states were once in the same position as Ukraine, but look at them now: they are far ahead, both in terms of economic development and democratic consolidation.

Thirdly, be independent. For all the difficulties it faces, Ukraine is at least its own country. It has the scope to find solutions. If it were still ruled by Russia, it wouldn’t have a precarious and factious democracy, it would have no democracy at all. Ukraine’s destiny is unsure, but it is in its own hands.

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