Ukrainian Flag Day: Reflections of a Protagonist

Ukrainian Flag Day: Reflections of a Protagonist

While the bulk of attention at this time of year is understandably focused on August 24 - Ukrainian Independence Day - a no less symbolic event is celebrated, albeit a little incongruously, on August 23 - the raising of the Ukrainian flag outside of Kyiv City hall on July 24, 1990.  USUF asked Oleksandr Mosiyuk, who was acting head of the Kyiv City Council at the time - and later Director of Research at the USUF's Ukrainian partner organization, the Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy - to offer some thoughts about the meaning or symbolism of that event, how it came about and its consequences, in the context of an unraveling Soviet Union.  These reminiscences are particularly interesting as Ukraine prepares to enter the thirtieth year of independence and given current developments in neighboring Belarus...

Oleksandr MosiukWatching current events in Belarus, I feel excitement because they remind me of what was happening in Ukraine, including in Kyiv, on the eve of independence.  Of course, there are many differences between these two situations.  What's happening there is definitely different, with its own distinctive features, but it reminds me of those significant events thirty years ago.

Before I entered politics I was a scientist. I worked as a junior researcher at the Institute of Physics of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and when the Ukrainian political situation started gaining momentum around 1987-88, I was in the kind of environment - an environment of physicists - that obviously meant I could not stay indifferent as events unfolded.  I am a theoretical physicist and our environment was very interesting, consisting of creative people who never trusted the Soviet authorities because they were very informed.

My colleagues and I had constant and detailed discussions on what was happening in our country, and as soon as the first shoots of liberalization appeared, I immediately launched myself into the processes taking place both inside our institute and beyond.  I participated in the creation of many public organizations such as the "Taras Shevchenko Ukrainian Language Society,” the Memorial Society, the Green World Association, and finally I became one of the co-founders of the People's Movement of Ukraine, or Rukh for short.  At that time this was the only political organization that united all those calling for democratic change and even the independence of Ukraine. I was a member of the Organizing Committee and that is where my path to serious politics began because as soon as I had the opportunity to run I took part in the local election campaign, won in my constituency, and became a member of the Kyiv City Council. But because I already had some political experience gained through my public activity, I turned out to be one of the most experienced members of the Kyiv City Council and was therefore elected as the Deputy Chairman of the Council.

Oleksandr Mosiyuk opens the folklore festival on October Revolution Square (today Independence Square) in summer 1990

Meeting with deputies of the Kyiv City Council. (left) Viktor Khodakovsky and Anatoliy Shybiko (right) Oleksandr Serhiiyenko

We had a large democratic bloc of 110 deputies [out of a total of 300 seats - ed], but the Communist Party formed the majority. But it was unstable and not an overwhelming one. As a result, the key decisions always required negotiations to reaching a political agreement. According to one such agreement, even thought we didn’t have a majority, I was nominated as candidate for Mayor from the democratic faction along with Arnold Nazarchuk, an enterprise director, from the Communists. We were both elected to the leadership of the Council: he as Chairman and myself as deputy chair.

As events moved towards independence, this momentum could not but affect what took place in the Kyiv City Council.  Moreover, the Kyiv City Council was sometimes the initiator and mover of historical events that actually shaped and determined further developments in Ukraine. There was a strong national revival and national self-organization at that time.  Now, when I look at events in Belarus, I can definitely say that what is similar between then and now is the powerful self-organization of people, an awakening, the desire for freedom.  Just think about it: at that time, when there was no Internet, on that day, July 24, 1990, when we raised the national flag of Ukraine, we managed to gather about two hundred thousand people outside the city hall. Never mind the absence of any social platforms - we didn't even have access to the state-dominated electronic and print media. So, to repeat, the real sign of those times, their distinctive feature was the people’s ability to self-organize as an expression of national awakening.

Perhaps it was my destiny that somehow at all the critical or key moments in modern Ukrainian history, I was heading the City Council.  On that July day in 1990 when the flag was raised near the Kyiv City Council, the events were so dramatic that the Chairman was "hospitalized." This, of course, was the official explanation.  In reality he simply disappeared. Then, as the only deputy, I took over the leadership and presided over a series of events which resulted in the raising of the blue-and-yellow flag in Kyiv.  Similarly, I was in charge in November 1990, when we deputies of the Kyiv City Council prevented possible bloodshed in Kyiv.  The issue centered on a military parade.  The military at that time was determined to march along Khreshchatyk [the central avenue running through the heart of Kyiv.  The occasion was the commemoration of the Bolshevik Revolution - ed], while those opposed were prepared literally to lie down and block their path.  There could have been a huge amount of bloodshed.  This could have changed the historical trajectory.  Instead, the episode turned into a great victory for the democratic forces because we managed to move the parade from Khreschatyk  - legally we could not cancel it - to Victory Square which was located some distance from the center.  This reduced the potential of confrontation and bloodshed to virtually zero.  This was also a historically significant moment because we knew about many cases - Tiananmen Square, in particular - when the authorities took radical measures and then in trying to distance themselves from such crimes moved from being radical and became very conservative and reactionary.  Therefore, the fact that the Kyiv City Council prevented confrontation at that time was a pivotal event.

"When they raised the flag I felt that this would be forever"

Another historical turning point was the so-called Moscow putsch in August 1991 that attempted to remove Mikhail Gorbachev from power and Kyiv literally awaited the entry of Soviet tanks. Nobody knew what would happen from one day to the next. We received information that martial law was going to be imposed in Kyiv and that we were all on the list of those to be arrested. Again, the responsibility was extraordinary high. The head of Kyiv was still a Communist and he again fled the city at this critical time. That’s why I took things into my own hands. What the Kyiv city council that I chaired did was to effectively stop the functioning of the Communist Party of the City of Kyiv. The Verkhovna Rada made the final decision but what we did was also very important. In the aftermath of events in Moscow we had to act quickly and decisively to strangle this Hydra – the Communist Party – because a lot depended on whether it continued to exist. That’s why we created a team in my office to halt the operations of the Communist Party on the territory of Kyiv city. This unit placed all of the Communist Party’s assets under civil arrest - including buildings, accounts, and telephone lines – effectively paralyzing its operations in Kyiv. The Kyiv Council did all of this six hours before Leonid Kravchuk convened the Verkhovna Rada, which thus began working with the yellow and blue Ukrainian flag already flying over the building of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine. A key role in raising the flag there was played by my fellow deputies from the Kyiv Council. It’s worth noting that at that time the Verkhovna Rada was dominated by a Communist majority that was very unhappy about what was happening.

We began a process of de-Communization.  Many people didn’t understand what we were doing, didn’t understand that we had to move quickly.  Although we did quite a lot – a number of monuments to Communist idols were demolished – it’s true that we didn’t remove all of them and some remained in place until 2014.  But we achieved a lot.  For example, we renamed central streets.  Had we not done this the parliament would still be located on Kirov Street and not one named in honor of Ukraine’s first president, Mykhailo Hrushevsky.

Among everything that happened then, the most significant symbolic and shining - even dazzling - event was the raising of the Ukrainian flag over Kyiv.  It was seen to symbolize just that: the raising of the Ukrainian flag over the Ukrainian capital.  The flag had been blessed on the territory of the St. Sophia Cathedral complex by prominent people – Archbishop Volodymyr, a man who had spent twenty years in Soviet prison camps because of his convictions, and by Valeriy Shkarubsky, a priest of  the Greek-Catholic Church, a church that had been banned during the Soviet period.   In fact, that moment marked the renaissance and the unity between the Ukrainian churches.    The Church re-entered the public space because thousands of people participated in this event and witnessed and affirmed that we had our own Church with a thousand-year legacy, one that stood in support of Ukrainian independence.

The Blue-and-Yellow flag is raised above Kyiv. July 24, 1990, 7:03 pm

(left to right) Archbishop Volodymyr (Romaniuk) of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, Oleksandr Mosiyuk, Father Valeriy Shkarubsky of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church.

Given how things developed, you can even say that what occurred in July 1990 was the raising of the Ukrainian flag over Ukraine.  And for thirteen months – right up to the August 24, 1991, parliamentary vote on Ukrainian independence – this flag inspired people.   It’s even possible to argue that it was a psychological-informational operation, a kind of marker indicating that the end of the empire was not too far away - the end of the Evil Empire as it was called by President Ronald Reagan.  The events that occurred in Moscow in that fateful August in 1991 were to a large extent provoked by events that were set in motion in Kyiv a year earlier.  Ukraine was the most powerful of the Soviet republics, after Russia, in an economic and security sense.  The Ukrainian Pivdenmash factory, for example, produced key components for Soviet nuclear weapons. Ukraine had a tremendous nuclear capability – the second in the USSR and the third in the world after the US and Russia.  This is why the raising of the Blue-and-Yellow flag in July 1990 was a harbinger of change, signaling the birth of a new country and a radical change in the geopolitical map of Europe.  Because, for the USSR, the loss of Ukraine with its economic and security implications – had grave implications.

The raising of the flag deserves particular attention because it’s possible to speak at great length about this episode.  It was a drama worthy of a Hollywood thriller with a whole series of plots, including fierce opposition by the Communist Party.  We managed to organize properly and involve a large number of people.  The numbers outside the city council were like those we see in Minsk today.  And as well as raising this great number we raised that large Blue-and-Yellow flag that no-one (despite a couple of half-hearted, unofficial attempts) touched for the next thirteen months.

The political situation was fascinating with a powerful momentum towards independence.   Essentially, there were two political forces at that time: the Communist Party which was being forced into daily concessions, and the People’s Rukh that was not a political creation, more a civic movement self-organized by people wanting change and who managed to gain independence for their country, a country we’re again having to defend from the remnants of that empire whose previous incarnation was smashed on the sloping banks of the Dnipro river, here in Kyiv.


Read more about these events in Oleksandr Mosiyuk's book День Прапора (Flag Day), available on Google Books.

Photos: Oleksandr Mosiyuk