Kremlin spin on the Orange Revolution

On the fifth anniversary of the Orange Revolution, with presidential elections in Ukraine imminent, Andreas Umland looks back on how the Kremlin has spun the events of 2004, and how that version has played back in Ukraine
Andreas Umland
20 November 2009

On November 21 2009 Ukrainian democrats celebrated the fifth anniversary of the start of the demonstrations in Kyiv.  These led to larger political developments that came to reshape our understanding of post-Soviet politics. During the last five years, the 2004 events in Ukraine known as the Orange Revolution have become important reference points in the international study of democratic transition and consolidation. The Orange Revolution is certainly the major event in the study of current Ukrainian history.[i] Whatever happens to Ukraine in the future,[ii] it seems destined to become a “critical case” in comparative research into post-communist politics.[iii]

Such an interpretation does not accord with the view of the 2004 events held by a surprisingly large number of powerful politicians, influential “political technologists” and even some political scientists in Moscow[iv] where oranzhevyi (orange) has become a swear-word used to label all sorts of supposedly “anti-Russian,” “pro-American” actors and activities in- and outside Russia.[v] The currently dominant Russian interpretation of the Orange Revolution and similar events elsewhere is, for instance, documented by Vladimir Frolov’s relatively moderate (in Russian terms) comment “Democracy by Remote Control” (2005) in Russia in Global Affairs, the Moscow partner journal of Foreign Affairs.[vi]   The article subscribes to the conspiracy theory in so far as it portrays the various activities of millions of Ukrainians, as well as of hundreds of civic and political Ukrainian organizations in late 2004, as masterminded by the United States government and its various puppets in Ukraine’s civil society, mass media, political parties and the state apparatus.[vii]

If one holds this view of the Orange Revolution, then an interdisciplinary, multi-author, multi-method and public study of this event – as attempted in various recent publication projects[viii] – is ridiculous. The Orange Revolution would instead need to be investigated by able, no-nonsense security service officers (to whom Frolov apparently once belonged[ix]).  The “hidden forces” behind these events would be disclosed by them, rather than by the naïve and/or (under-)paid book worms who, consciously or not, are in the service of the well-known puppeteers in the White House and/or Wall Street. Clearly, as one hears from disturbingly many well-educated Russians today, the Orange Revolution was yet another exercise of what Washington would like – but thanks to Putin’s firm leadership is unable – to do with Russia. The list also includes the bombing of Serbia, the occupation of Iraq and the coup in Georgia.

One might add that during the Orange Revolution Frolov apparently worked for Gleb Pavlovskii’s so-called Foundation for Effective Politics.  This is a Moscow political technology firm which was involved in the various activities of the outgoing Kuchma administration, and in Yanukovych’s campaign for the presidential elections.[x] The Russian actors with a personal stake in the outcome of the 2004 confrontation underestimated the weight of democratic inclinations, the strength of pluralistic traditions, and the tenacity of civic actors in Ukrainian society.[xi] In the aftermath they tried to present the Orange Revolution as an event mainly initiated and crucially manipulated by the West.  This is hardly surprising and could be interpreted as a way of rationalising their own professional failure. The paranoid conspiracy theorising that still dominates Russian public discourse on the Orange Revolution (as well as many other events) might thus not only be related to the authorities’ overblown fear of a democratic revolution in Russia. It might also be the result of the Moscow political technologists’ need to explain to their godfathers in the Kremlin why, for instance, the Foundation for Effective Politics was ineffective in Ukraine, and failed to prevent Yushchenko’s presidency – the Moscow spin-doctors’ obvious mission in Kyiv. Frolov’s idea of “democracy by remote control” serves as a convenient deflection from the view that the heavy-handed approach of Pavlovskii and Co. helped the Orange Revolution to succeed.  This in turn strengthened those political dynamics that, especially in comparison to concurrent Russian trends,[xii] changed the nature of Ukrainian domestic politics and foreign affairs.

The conspiracy explanation of the Orange Revolution is also useful in deflecting attention from the fact that Russian-Ukrainian relations were (and are being) damaged by the repercussions of the behaviour of Moscow’s political technologists in Kyiv and the one-sided reporting of Russian television, widely watched in Ukraine, during and after the Orange Revolution. The arrogant attitude of many journalists and commentators of Russia’s government-controlled TV channels to Ukrainian politics and policies (admitted even by the former Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin) might correspond to the demands of the Russian elite and public.

However, when watched in Ukraine by the subjects of such reporting, it tends to make Ukrainians, especially educated Ukrainians, less sympathetic towards Russia, increasingly sceptical about the future of Russian-Ukrainian relations and more interested in such institutions as the WTO, EU or NATO than they would otherwise be. Here too, the alleged machinations of the West and its “fifth column” in Kyiv serve as an excuse for the growing estrangement between the Russian and Ukrainian elites and peoples – an unfortunate development that is more related to Moscow’s continuing play with Russian anti-Ukrainian stereotypes than to any activities of Western governmental and non-governmental organisations in Kyiv.[xiii]


[i]             Valentin Yakushik, “Politicheskie i tsivilizatsionnye aspekty ukrainiskoi revoliutsii 2004-2005 gg.,” Politicheskaia ekspertiza, no. 2 (2006): 289-298, http://politex.info/content/view/196/40/.

[ii]             Valentin Yakushik, “Prognoz razvitiia politicheskoi situatsii v Ukraine,” Evraziiskii dom, n. D., http://www.eurasianhome.org/xml/t/expert.xml?lang=ru&nic=expert&pid=22; Ingmar Bredies, “‘Staatszerfall’ in der Ukraine? Ursachen und Konsequenzen der gegenwärtigen Krise,” Ukraine-Analysen, 22 (2007): 2-3, http://www.ukraine-analysen.de/pdf/2007/UkraineAnalysen22.pdf; Andreas Umland, “Im Zickzack gen Europa: Zur Rolle der jüngsten Wahlen für die Nationalstaatsbildung und Demokratisierung der Ukraine,” Ukraine-Analysen, 29 (2007): 6-7, http://www.ukraine-analysen.de/pdf/2007/UkraineAnalysen29.pdf.

[iii]             Harry Eckstein, “Case Study and Theory in Political Science,” in: Fred I. Greenstein and Nelson W. Polsby, eds., Handbook of Political Science (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley 1975).

[iv]             Obviously, the following critique does not apply to Russia’s considerable community of serious political scientists who mostly have a balanced approach to recent Ukrainian history and critical view of current Russian affairs. See, for instance, Vladimir Ya. Gel’man, “Iz ognia da v polymia? Dinamika postsovetskikh rezhimov v sravnitel’noi perspektive,” Politicheskie issledovaniia, no. 2 (2007): 81-108; Igor’ Kliamkin and Tat’iana Kutkovets, “Kremlevskaia shkola politologii: Dekonstruktsiia kremlevskogo diskursa,” Kontinent, no. 131 (2007): 145-175.

[v]             I – probably like other Western commentators of recent post-Soviet affairs – have been repeatedly identified as an oranzhevyi by Russian “patriotic” or Ukrainian pro-Russian commentators. E.g. Ivan Burtsev, “Politicheskii antifashistkii ekstaz?” Obratnaia storona, 23 July 2007,http://stolin1969.narod.ru/230707.html.   While I would not describe myself this way, I am prepared to bear this badge. However, one of my few publications on Ukrainian high politics was not exactly an advertisement for Viktor Yushchenko’s “Orange” team, but rather portrayed the political managers of Nasha Ukraina in 2005-2007 as a bunch of losers. See Andreas Umland, “Yushchenko’s Big Gamble,” The Moscow Times, 10 April 2007, p. 10, http://sptimesrussia.com/index.php?action_id=2&story_id=21310. The article became the subject of an attack by the notorious webcampaigner La Russophobe who reported that, in it, I had “spewed forth a disgusting torrent of anti-Yuschenko propaganda” – a characterization that would seem to tarnish my reputation as an oranzhevyi. See N.N., “Annals of Russophile Gibberish,” La Russophobe, 11 April 2007, http://larussophobe.wordpress.com/2007/04/11/annals-of-russophile-gibberish/.

[vi]             Vladimir Frolov, “Democracy by Remote Control,” Russia in Global Affairs, no. 4 (2005), http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/numbers/13/976.html.

[vii]             See, for instance, the monograph by a Doctor of Science in Chemistry who has, like a whole number of similar publicists, made himself a name, in Russia in recent years, by publishing pamphlets devoted to uncovering the West’s “true” intentions on the territory of the former USSR: Sergei Kara-Murza, Revoliutsii na eksport (Moskva: Algoritm 2005). Or, see the collected volume edited by a Russian politician who had, for a period of time, been declared persona non grata by the Ukrainian government: Konstantin F. Zatulin, ed., Na fone “oranzhevoi revoliutsii.” Ukraina mezhdu Vostokom i Zapadom: vchera, segodnia, zavtra (Moskva: Institut stran SNG 2005). See also Mikhail Pogrebinsky, ed., Oranzhevaia revoliutsiia: Versii, khronika, dokumenty (Kiev: Optima 2005).

[viii]             E.g.: Paul D’Anieri and Taras Kuzio, eds., Aspects of the Orange Revolution I: Democratization and Elections in Post-Soviet Ukraine. Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society 63 (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag 2007); Bohdan Harasymiw in collaboration with Oleh S. Ilnytzkyj, eds., Aspects of the Orange Revolution II: Information and Manipulation Strategies in the 2004 Ukrainian Presidential Elections. Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society 64 (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag 2007); Ingmar Bredies, Andreas Umland and Valentin Yakushik, eds., Aspects of the Orange Revolution III: The Context and Dynamics of the 2004 Ukrainian Presidential Elections. Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society 65 (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag 2007); Ingmar Bredies, Andreas Umland and Valentin Yakushik, eds., Aspects of the Orange Revolution IV: Foreign Assistance and Civic Action in the 2004 Ukrainian Presidential Elections. Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society 66 (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag 2007); Ingmar Bredies, Andreas Umland and Valentin Yakushik, eds., Aspects of the Orange Revolution IV: Institutional Observation Reports on the 2004 Ukrainian Presidential Elections. Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society 67 (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag 2007); Taras Kuzio, ed., Aspects of the Orange Revolution VI: Post-Communist Democratic Revolutions in Comparative Perspective. Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society 68 (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag 2007).

[ix]             As indicated in the official biographical note on Frolov at his company’s website: http://www.leffgroup.ru/about/experts1.

[x]             Taras Kuzio, “Russian Policy toward Ukraine during the Elections,” Demokratizatsiya, 13, 4 (2005): 491-517.

[xi]             Andreas Umland and Ingmar Bredies, “‘Raspil’ Kievskoi Rusi,” The New Times (Moscow), no. 52 (2008): 38, http://newtimes.ru/magazine/issue_52/article_16.htm; idem, "Democratic Ukraine, autocratic Russia: Why?" Kyiv Post, 18 August 2009, http://www.kyivpost.com/opinion/47102.

[xii]             For an interesting facet of this difference – youth activism in both countries – see Viktoriya Topalova, “In Search of Heroes: Cultural Politics and Political Mobilization of Youths in Contemporary Russia and Ukraine,” Demokratizatsiya, vol. 14, no. 1 (2006): 23-41, and Taras Kuzio, “Ukraine is not Russia: Comparing Youth Political Activism,” SAIS Review, vol. 26, no. 2 (2006): 67-83;.

[xiii]             For a German language survey of the various Western democracy promotion programs in Ukraine, see my paper, “Westliche Förderprogramme in der Ukraine: Einblicke in die europäisch-nordamerikanische Unterstützung ukrainischer Reformbestrebungen seit 1991,“ Forschungsstelle Osteuropa Bremen: Arbeitspapiere und Materialien, no. 63 (2004), http://se2.isn.ch/serviceengine/FileContent?serviceID=10&fileid=D092944E-F352-DC1A-CF4E-3CEFBC401E94&lng=de.


Andreas Umland (b. 1967) is a research assistant at the Central and Eastern European Studies Centre of the Catholic University of Eichstätt. He started up and edits the ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart & Hannover book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society as well as the electronic newsletter The Russian Nationalism Bulletin

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