Watching the dramatic events in Ukraine unfold, I have harbored the hope that one or two of the thousands of people protesting in Kiev's Independence Square might have been encouraged to act on their dreams of liberty by words I spoke during a week in the city in September 2012.
I was in Ukraine as a guest of the U.S. State Department. Like hundreds of artists, authors, actors and journalists the United States has sent abroad over many decades, my job was simply to talk about the why and how of my job. I had jumped at the chance to go someplace I had never been and figured whatever message I had to deliver would come to me once I got there.
The staff at the U.S. Embassy set up a fairly exhausting series of engagements for me. Two or three times each day, I would speak to journalists, librarians, the general public and many students of various ages. A gallery display of my cartoons was also mounted alongside an exhibit detailing the history of political cartooning in the United States.
I asked the diplomats just how diplomatic I needed to be. I didn’t want to make trouble for them. They said not to worry about it, to simply say whatever I needed to say to describe my peculiar profession. So I showed cartoons, drew caricatures and talked about what a privilege it is to freely and boldly express my opinions through political satire with no fear that the government or any powerful interest will shut me up.
At many of the gatherings, I was peppered with questions about freedom of expression, about constitutional guarantees, about censorship, political power and political corruption. These were some of the liveliest exchanges I’ve had in any public forum. Students, in particular, were eager to hear about how I picked on presidents and generals and judges and wealthy titans of high finance and still stayed out of jail. And they were eager to tell me how they hoped to emulate the unfettered lives enjoyed by people in the European Union, Canada and the United States.
I think I inspired a few folks. I know for sure they inspired me. These were people hungry for the liberties and opportunities I have enjoyed every day of my life as an American citizen. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they had enjoyed a season of freedom, but that season was turning cold. The government of President Viktor Yanukovich was edging Ukraine back into the orbit of Moscow, the Ukrainian economy was being pirated by rich oligarchs and pilfered by crooked politicians and, day by day, independent voices in the media and the political realm were being squeezed out.
By the end of my week in Kiev, I was starting to sound like an evangelist for civil rights and the rule of law. I had drawn a cartoon blasting Yanukovich’s subversion of the free press that ran in the U.S. and quickly went viral in Ukraine. I wasn’t worried about getting into trouble myself -- I was about to head home -- but I was worried about the future of the Ukrainian people, especially the young people, that I had met.
Now I’m a little less worried. With their bravery and blood, they have seized control of their future. Yanukovich is on the run, Vladimir Putin is seething in the Kremlin and Kiev’s Independence Square is once again filled with music instead of fire and bullets.
The journey to a more permanent and complete democracy in Ukraine is still long. Apart from the forces outside the country that will seek to roll back this victory, there are daunting internal challenges. Half of the country longs to grow close to Europe, the other half leans toward Russia. Far too many of the politicians in charge of remaking the government have spent their careers robbing it. Among those who took to the streets to bring down Yanukovich were nationalist militants who may aptly be called fascists.
Nevertheless, in a place where I saw the voice of liberty being muzzled, a people yearning to be free have spoken loud and clear. In this crazy world, that is no small triumph.