EUROPE means different things to different Ukrainians. One vision is on display at Mezhyhirya, the gaudy palace complex erected by Viktor Yanukovych, the ex-president, on the outskirts of Kiev. Just as he plundered the country he ruled for four years, here Mr Yanukovych ransacked the history of European design, housing himself in an oversized Finnish-style chalet surrounded by faux-Roman statues and stuffed with fake French antiques.

A rather different idea of Europe was expressed by the men and women who occupied Kiev’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan. Waving European Union flags, they gathered on the streets in November 2013 after Mr Yanukovych, under pressure from Russia, spurned an association agreement with the EU. Yet “Euromaidan” appeared to be losing steam until Mr Yanukovych set his goons loose. One year ago, after security forces killed dozens of protesters, he was forced from office and fled.

For its authors in the European Commission, the agreement that Mr Yanukovych rejected (and that his successor, Petro Poroshenko, signed last June) was a technocratic exercise little different from deals made with other nearby countries. For Vladimir Putin, it was a geopolitical move to suck Ukraine away from Russia’s orbit and towards the Euro-Atlantic institutions he hates. That is why the Russian president forced Mr Yanukovych’s hand. Europe was ill-prepared for what followed, from the Maidan protests to Russia’s annexation of Crimea to Mr Putin’s war on the country’s south-eastern edge.

Yet for many of the protesters the EU accord had a third meaning: as a symbol of law-based governance and an alternative to the sleaze of the Yanukovych era. The point, says one, was not to choose between Europe and Russia but to aspire to a better Ukraine. Volodymyr Yermolenko, a philosopher who took part in the Maidan, distinguishes between a bureaucratic “Europe of rules”, which he says extends to the German-Polish border, and a romantic “Europe of faith”, an ideal which flourishes further east, including in Ukraine. For the country’s reformers the challenge is to move towards the rules without losing the faith. That has curious results: Ukraine may be the only country in Europe where one meets polo-necked intellectuals who speak with passion about the EU’s food-safety standards or its visa regime.

After the Orange revolution in 2004 pro-reform Ukrainians rested hopes with Viktor Yushchenko, who became president, and Yulia Tymoshenko, the prime minister; they had protested together but fell out disastrously in office. Today, by contrast, the revolutionary energy has been channelled into a flourishing civil society as well as parliament, where up to 50 of the 450 MPs are Maidan veterans (many more, alas, belong to the old guard). Thanks to Mr Putin, some of Ukraine’s old cleavages have weakened: in November a poll found that, for the first time, most Ukrainians back NATO membership.

The reformers have ambition and zeal, if not always focus. Early successes include cutting red tape and cleaning up public procurement. Mr Poroshenko wants Ukraine to be ready for an EU entry bid by 2020. His young team has made a list of 62 reforms to get there; the chosen yardsticks of progress include the number of medals won at the 2020 Olympics and the state of the domestic film industry. The officials admit the difficulty of reforming a deeply corrupt state where oligarchs hold great sway. But their gusto can obscure two harsh truths: Ukraine faces a security crisis and an economic crisis, and neither will end soon.

Money for nothing

Some Europeans, like George Soros, a financier, believe Ukraine is in such trouble that the EU must flood it with no-strings cash. Plenty in Kiev differ: like Italian or Spanish reformers in decades past, they see the EU and IMF as allies in their battle against reactionary forces at home. Aid, they say, must be on strict terms; otherwise it will reach the wrong hands and the state will stay rotten. That, so far, has been the approach of the West: Ukraine’s leaders have been surprised by the tough reception they find in Brussels.

What most disappoints some in Kiev is a lack of resolve on the security front. The EU, they observe, is consumed with internal struggles: its most serious sanctions on Russia will expire this summer without the unanimous support of all 28 members, and Mr Putin is adept at exploiting cracks. The increasingly hawkish approach of Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, is admired in Kiev, though some lament her refusal to arm Ukrainian soldiers.

Millions have been touched by war in Ukraine; millions more by the country’s economic woes, particularly its plunging currency (see article). The revolution that crystallised hopes may yet dash them, as life looks set to worsen: pension cuts, an end to gas subsidies and a slashing of the public payroll are conditions of IMF aid. The best outcome for the east is that it cools into a “frozen conflict” that will cause instability for years. Some people fear a “third Maidan”, perhaps led by the well-armed volunteer battalions that operate independently of the army. Others, though, see war as an opportunity for deeper domestic reform.

With the latest ceasefire barely holding, the EU must keep sanctions going and prepare tougher ones against Russia. It can help in other ways, too, by granting Ukrainians visa-free travel at a summit in May, for example. Some communication measures due to be unveiled in March could, if well-judged, blunt Russia’s propaganda. The EU’s technocrats must support efforts to reform the judiciary, squash corruption and clean up state-owned enterprises like Naftogaz, the gas giant.

Yet the devilishly difficult work of building a state must ultimately be carried out by Ukrainians themselves. Success would vindicate those who died on the Maidan, and surprise sceptics in Brussels. It would also send a message to Moscow.