Kiev, Ukraine - Viktor Yushchenko steps off the stage after his 3:30 am victory speech December 27 at Independence Square and streams by me with his phalanx of black-toqued security men. Wearing a standard-issue black toque myself, I've fallen in with them hoping no one will notice. Next thing I know, I'm right behind Yushchenko when he wheels around to talk to somone, and suddenly we're practically eye to eye.
I snap a picture. And freeze in my tracks.
Holy shit! What have they done to his face? Even though I've seen the photos, I'm stunned by it up close. That's dioxin? I can see why everyone feels for the guy. He looks like a monster.
But thankfully, and ironically, it's the real monsters who are on the run in the Ukraine today.
While the tsunami has unleashed a torrent of tragedy and Iraq has become a senseless murder furnace, Ukrainians are experiencing an unexpected flowering of hope and joy.
But it could have turned out very differently. Yushchenko's face is just one testament to the viciousness of the folks who ran the country. In fact, it may be their mirror image. When he was poisoned, few had to wonder which forces were likely behind it.
I couldn't help feeling a weird connection to his altered visage. The same stuff that turned his skin into a moonscape has already devastated the Great Lakes' greatest inhabitant, the lake trout. The terrible fact is, if you lived on a diet of fish from Lake Ontario, you might end up looking a bit like the Ukrainian head of state.
Why, you may have wondered, wasn't there more fuss about the face? The laws of Western superficiality tell us we have a low political tolerance for face trouble. Yet Yushchenko's gargoyled physiognomy had been on TV for several days before people started pointing out that something was wrong. His vast following seemed committed to the delicate art of not noticing.
Even as his face was negatively morphing following that fateful serving of soup, Yushchenko put off seeing a doctor and told the press he didn't want his appearance to overshadow real election concerns.
More important than the facial optics was the population's fury over the poisoning of their country. One Ukrainian told me that "the corruption was so extreme, the voter fraud so in-your-face, the robbing of the country so dire that you felt ashamed not to do something."
And that's probably why the Orange Revolution happened the way it did - in a sudden purging mass movement. Why wasn't there violence? Why didn't the Dioxin Soup Nazis turn the army and the riot police on their opponents? Because one day, the powers that be woke up and their world was upside down. The army, the police, the media and probably their own chauffeurs had gone orange.
On election night, it was stunning to see the crowd's reaction to their chosen pol. They wanted him to know they loved him. He cried. They cried. To me, someone who couldn't understand the language, that thousands-strong sea of celebrants seemed to be saying, "We can see you."
And Yushchenko, his face bubbling with toxin, cysts and scars, was truly beautiful.