Where you're born on the calendar of history makes all the difference in the world. We watch the protests of the young and restless unfold in Kiev's Independence Square and our sympathy goes to them in their quest to be linked in partnership with the West. They want economic integration with the West, but they yearn to free their hearts, their creativity and their ambition, too. Some call it freedom for the soul.
These are men and women born in that part of Eastern Europe once labeled the "Bloodlands," where, between the years of Stalin and Hitler, more than 14 million men, women and children were murdered. The timing of the births of the protesting youth was fortunate. When the Berlin wall came down and the evil empire crumbled, they were suddenly free.
When Ukraine became independent, it was not the end of history, as some glibly suggested, but the beginning of a new historical measure. Young people in particular wanted to enjoy the free and easy life in the West. They knew that Ukraine, the largest of the 14 republics freed from the yoke of the Soviet Union, would not achieve true independence and movement toward the West easily. But they had their dreams.
Fifty Ukrainian women delivered a big pumpkin, tied with the blue ribbons of the European Union, to the Russian ambassador in Kiev -- a pointed invocation of the custom of a Ukrainian woman giving a pumpkin to a suitor when she declines his offer of marriage. But it was not to be. Pumpkin or not, Ukraine submitted to something of a shotgun wedding when Vladimir Putin offered Ukraine $20 billion in wedding presents -- loans and cheaper natural gas -- to reject the West. "Ukraine's trade with Russia makes it impossible for us to act in any other way," says Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. "There is no alternative to this." Ukraine can expect a cold honeymoon.
The young Ukrainians with their dreams are afraid now that President Putin will pull them back even harder into the Soviet orbit, back into an empire that, if not quite evil, nevertheless imposes cruel limits on their lives and restrictions in their ability to speak and associate freely. Their fears are real. They've watched Russia narrow its sights since Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed an inclusive approach toward former European rivals.
Vladimir Putin is no Mikhail Gorbachev. His pale, intense blue eyes suggest the cold conscience of a faithful agent of the old KGB. He has sent punk music protestors to prison, frightened non-governmental organizations and imposed speech limits on the Internet. The young Ukrainians have watched nearby Poland grow prosperous with freedom, and they want some of that.