The Brown Revolution leader most known, recognized, and respected by the West is former heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko. Unlike his allies Yatsenyuk and Tyahnybok, Klitschko's past makes him an unlikely participant in the neo-nazi led overthrow of legitimate rule in Ukraine.
Vitali "Dr. Ironfist" Klitschko was born to an exclusively Russian-speaking family in Soviet Central Asia where his father served as an air force officer. His father later served at the site of Chernobyl's nuclear disaster and eventually succumbed to cancer as a result. In a German-made documentary authorized and promoted by the Klitschko Brothers (Vitali's younger sibling Wladimir [note the Germanized spelling] is the second longest reigning world heavyweight champion ever), the siblings talk to their parents and each other only in Russian. In fact, Klitschko came to Ukraine at the age of fourteen in 1985 and learned to proficiently speak Ukrainian only in his thirties.
According to Klitschko himself, his late father Vladimir was a hardcore communist. So hardcore, that when the young Vitali, then a kickboxing champion, visited Florida during the last years of the Soviet Union, his father doubted his stories about American abundance and fired back with Soviet propaganda. One had to be very devoted to communist dogma to believe those kind of things during glasnost and perestroika.
Vitali Klitschko's life entered the shadows between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of his professional boxing career in 1996. Officially, in those years, he was boxing as an amateur and attending university. However, his longtime friend, the wealthy German expatriate Falk Nebiger described the Klitschko brothers dressed in tracksuits, driving in a fashionably colored Lada. The dark gray color of the car (known as "wet asphalt") and the tracksuit were instantly recognizable status symbols of post-Soviet thugs and racketeers.
For the last several years, Ukrainian media has reported that Klitschko was an associate of notorious Kiev crime bosses Andrey Borovik and Viktor Rybalko who were gunned down in 2000 and 2005 respectively. Reportedly, Borovik even introduced Klitschko to the infamous boxing promoter Don King. In the documentary, Klitschko coyly mentioned that he was offered a position as a mob enforcer, but turned it down.
In 1996, Vitali Klitschko became a professional boxer and moved first to Germany and then to California. Like many wealthy, successful East Europeans who became rich in the West, he adopted an unrealistic, idealized view of his native land. Thinking that his millions and worldwide popularity translate into an understanding of Ukrainian politics, Klitschko tried to become mayor of Kiev. When that did not work out, he entered national politics using his "UDAR"—an abbreviation for "Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform" translated as "Strike" or "Punch". While outwardly his party espouses "liberal democratic" values in the tradition of Germany's CDU, he forged an alliance with the neo-nazis of Oleh Tyahnybok and was literally, the most visible leader of the anti-Yanukovych radicals.
As a professional boxer, Vitali Klitschko was very impressive. He stood out not only for his skill and courage on the ring (he was only defeated twice, never by knockout), but for the high class and respectability he projected. Here was a clean cut, respectful young man, who called his parents after every bout, respected women, and did not abuse substances. Klitschko was an athlete that young people look up to: one who would never spit at his opponents like Dereck Chisora or chew off their ears like Mike Tyson.
Sadly, by throwing his lot in with the neo-nazi thugs of the Brown Revolution, Klitschko showed who he truly was—an inveterate opportunist. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the fastest way to become rich and famous was to join the criminals, he did. When the West rallied behind Yushchenko in 2004, the Russian-speaking Soviet boy became an eager backer of the Orange Revolution. When he saw that the same West backed the neo-nazi dominated rebels, he became one of them too. For all his courage on the ring, by throwing his lot in with Tyahnybok and Co., Vitali Klitschko showed himself to be an unprincipled opportunist and a typical politician in the worst sense of the word.
Eugene Girin is a New York-based attorney and commentator.