Young Ukrainians were at the forefront of the recent protests in Kiev that brought down a government and led to the unrest still raging in the East of the country. After such a momentous event in their country’s history, what do these young people think now about the future for Ukraine?
It was the night of 21st November 2013, and a group of students and activists had gathered on Kyiv’s Independence Square (or ‘Maidan’ as it is known locally) to protest at then President Yanukovych’s decision to suspend preparations for Ukraine to sign an association agreement with the European Union. They were angry at the perceived influence of Russia on their government’s decision, particularly given Russian President Putin was pushing ahead with his plans for a customs union between former Soviet satellite states (Belarus and Kazakhstan had already joined). Ukraine was seen as key to the success of this fledgling Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) as it had become known, and closer ties between the EU and one of Moscow’s primary economic and political allies was seen by some in the Kremlin as a significant threat to Russian interests in the region.
After 9 days of noisy but peaceful protest, Maidan erupted into violence as protesters escalated their demonstration in response to Yanukovych’s failure to sign the EU agreement at a summit in Vilnius the day before as initially promised. What followed next would change the mood of a nation, who watched in horror with the rest of the world as the Kyiv authorities attempted to crush the rebellion with water cannon, stun grenades and rubber bullets. Significantly, the protesters held their ground through that fateful night – encircling the protest camp with burning barricades of tyres, furniture and debris – and with it brought the world’s attention to their plight. This was no longer a student protest about government policy – revolution was now in the air and the weight of public opinion was firmly in their corner.
Although the subsequent 3 months of demonstrations – culminating in the overthrowing of Yanukovych’s government on 21st February 2014 – encompassed a much wider cross section of the population (including political opposition parties and powerful business interests), the seed of discontent was sown predominantly by younger Ukrainians. Many were students, young professionals and, significantly, largely under 30 years of age. All of them unified by having no significant memory of life under the Soviet regime which collapsed in the early 1990’s, and determined to maintain (and preferably increase) the degree of independence from Moscow that their country has enjoyed in the subsequent two decades
My introduction to Ukraine is in Lviv, a city of 700,000 in the far west of Ukraine, close to the Polish border and a hot bed of Ukrainian nationalism since falling under Soviet control after the Second World War. Given this history, it’s not surprising that the first person I talk to, a young journalist born and educated in the city, is very pro-independence. Like many young people in Lviv, she spent time at the “Maidan” protests in Kyiv (some 9 hours away by train), travelling down at the weekends to join the protest camp and lending her voice to the call for action against her own government. So what was so important about being in the EU I ask, that makes it worth fighting for?
She informs me that many young Ukrainians, particularly in Lviv, look west for their inspiration and see their future as part of Europe rather than in Russia’s sphere of influence. Having seen their close neighbours in Poland (which Lviv was a part of as recently as 1946) enjoy the benefits of European integration since becoming full members in 2004, the politically aware youth of Ukraine seem determined to seize the opportunity to expand their horizons both culturally and economically. But listening to this quietly confident, articulate young woman speak, you sense their is something deeper than European integration driving her rationale.
The conversation turns to life in present day Lviv, which has returned to relative normality after significant activism in the city during the months of “Maidan” (Lviv was just one of numerous cities around Ukraine that staged demonstrations during the early part of 2014). Having recently graduated from the prestigious Ivan Franko University in the city, the journalist explains how corruption is rife in Ukraine’s education system. It is common to “pay for grades” when completing your degree apparently, even if you don’t agree with the principal behind it. This seems to be endemic in Ukrainian life at many level – a fireman I meet later explains he has earned up to five times his salary in bribes – but “things have started to improve” in recent months she tells me. It transpires that the desire to be free from this level of corruption – a remnant of latter day communism – is a far more powerful emotion for this young woman than joining the European Union.
On the subject of the raging insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, there is more reticence, as well as a genuine sympathy for everyday people caught up in the fighting. She understands that many in the East feel threatened by the independence movement, and feel more comfortable under the security blanket of “Mother Russia” (the population of Donetsk in the east for example is made up of over 40% ethnics Russians, compared to under 10% in Lviv). However, as we make our way through the streets around the University, I am shown bags of old clothes donated by the residents of Lviv, which will be distributed to those fleeing the violence in the East and making their way to a safer environment in the West. The feeling of unity with her countrymen is tangible.
Having been inspired by the quiet determination of this young woman, I move on to my next encounter with a group of IT professionals, bound by a love of travel (they are all members of a popular travel club in the city). After an initial hesitancy to discuss such an emotive subject – “so what do you know about our situation?” asks one inquisitively – they slowly echo the theme of freedom from Moscow. There is a more practical air to this conversation, with the desire to be part of Europe being intrinsically linked to their thirst for travel and the opportunities this would create culturally as well as professionally. However, once again the issue of corruption, along with a desire to be free to make their own choices as a nation, is a strong undercurrent to their motivations. They too travelled to Maidan during the protests, again to show their support but also to feel part of the “revolutionary” atmosphere that enveloped their country in the preceding months. You get the feeling that these intelligent, fun loving young Ukrainians enjoyed the opportunity to sample the anarchic side of the protests, without ever doubting their commitment to the underlying message the movement was portraying.
As the evening progresses, we discuss more jovial subjects like football (the World Cup is a constant background to the trip, with most I meet understandably supporting anyone but Russia), and they recount an amusing tale of a group of football fans – supporters of Metallist Kharkiv in Eastern Ukraine – who spontaneously started chanting an anti-Putin song at one of their games. This song, the contents of which are far too vulgar to repeat in this article, has apparently been adopted by large swathes of the population in protest at recent Russian aggression in Crimea (which was annexed by Russia shortly after the change of power in Kyiv).
In order to prove their point, we head through the picturesque cobbled streets of Lviv’s old town, searching for another venue to watch the Algeria versus Russia game (I am encouraged to be Algerian for the night). There, within the stoned clad walls of an atmospheric subterranean bar, we perch around wooden tables in front of a large screen to watch the drama unfold. With large Ukrainian flags draped from the walls, the boisterous crowd leave no one in any doubt where their allegiances lie. During the game, a drummer appears at the back of the bar and whips the crowd into a frenzy by leading a chorus of the aforementioned song, which is enthusiastically sung by EVERYONE present. Algeria are successful in achieving the draw they require to progress – thus eliminating Russia – and the party is in full swing. Making my excuses, I leave Lviv with a sense of what these enthusiastic young Ukrainians are really after, and even in times of fun and frivolity, their message is clear…
After 9 hours on an overnight train – the preferred mode of long distance transport for most in this vast country, and a true Ukrainian experience – I arrive in Kyiv with a heightened sense of curiosity and a slight degree of trepidation. The nation’s capital, a sprawling metropolis of close to 3 million people, was the epicentre of the protests, and feels a lot closer to the current insurgency in the East than laid back Lviv. Geographically it is – 500km further East, although it’s as least as far again before reaching the boundaries of the Donetsk region currently experiencing the worst of the fighting.
Emboldened by the assurances I have received from local contacts about security in the city, I head straight for Independence Square to see for myself the scene of the events that captivated the world just a few months earlier. What I find is truly astonishing.The camp is still there (albeit not to the scale it was at its peak), manned by an assortment of activists in battle fatigues, surrounded by barricades of tyres and makeshift wooden fences on all corners of the square. A stage used to communicate their message during the heights of the protest is not just still standing, but actively in use apparently – with a rally due to take place the following day I am reliably informed. With curious tourists mingling with locals going about their everyday business, just a few hundred yards from one of Kyiv’s main pedestrian shopping precincts (complete with McDonalds), it’s a strange and slightly surreal scene.
It is here that I meet a young lawyer who has agreed to meet with me to discuss his part in the protests. Despite his affable and unassuming manner, it is clear early in our conversation that this young Ukrainian – who studied and lives locally but hails from recently annexed Crimea – has a story to tell. He proceeds to describe how he came to Maidan every night after work during the peak of the protests, often staying all night singing songs, and even making a speech on the aforementioned stage at one point. With grim honesty he also describes the infamous night in mid February that the protest camp came under fire – allegedly from secret police snipers atop the adjacent Hotel Ukraine – and how he helped drag the bodies of those indiscriminately shot, back across the square. It’s a startling revelation, a first brush with death that you sense he is still coming to terms with on some level.
Having been transfixed by this eloquent and humbling young man, I begin to question his thoughts on the current situation. It transpires he is of Crimean Tatar descent – a Turkic ethnic group native to Crimea, who were persecuted by the Soviets – and this background clearly colours his thoughts on the matter. Unsurprisingly he is concerned about further Russian intervention in Ukraine, and with his “homeland” already under Moscow’s control, he is determined to see his country repel any further encroachment on its sovereign territory. Independence has been hard fought for this young Ukrainian and his people, and he for one is willing to fight to keep it. Would it be worth leaving Crimea in Russian hands if it meant an end to the current violence in the east, I ask? After careful deliberation, his answer is unequivocal – “No”.
It is clear that the scars of this conflict are closer to the surface in Kyiv, and after being shown the symbolic New Years Tree – a cylindrical metal tower in the centre of the Square, erected by students at the start of the protests – I retire to reflect on a memorable few hours at “Maidan”. Inspired by the my previous conversation, I am eager to learn more and return the next day to meet with another young Ukrainian – a local journalist also involved in the protests.
I begin by asking her about the “Euromaidan” press centre I have noticed on one corner of the square. She explains that once the protests gained more wide spread support in early December, the movement became much more organised, with professional people volunteering their skills to establish a media centre, primarily to counter the “anti-Maidan propaganda” being broadcast by the authorities. I discover that she was responsible for the movement’s Facebook page – which allowed the protesters to broadcast updates under the banner of anonymity – and it’s clear from her enthusiastic narrative that she was inspired by events at “Maidan”. There is an almost evangelical zeal in this young woman’s voice as she guides me around the streets close to the Square, pointing out in great detail where the running battles with police occurred at the height of the violence. When I ask if she ever felt that the protests were hijacked by political extremists (as has been alleged by Moscow), she concedes they were present towards the end, but were only a minority voice in a much wider movement – a marriage of convenience between a collection of people desperate to enact real change in their country.
As we return to the Square she is eager to discuss the way the press has been used in the months after the overthrow of the government, and how “Russian propaganda” has coloured the view of Russian speaking residents, firstly in Crimea and more recently in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk where the current insurgency continues. It is true that the Russian media has been savagely anti-Kyiv during this period – some of their own journalists even resigned in protest. But as I look around the square, the presence of the red and black emblem of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) – a resistance movement founded during the Second World War, who briefly sided with Nazi Germany to repel the Soviets – casts a disconcerting shadow across the sea of blue and yellow Ukrainian flags fluttering around “Maidan”. This conflict is far more complicated than a popular uprising against a repressive regime I conclude, and history is playing a part as well as being made here.
I have been educated and inspired in equal part by these young Ukrainians, whose passion for change in their country is undeniable. Too much has been sacrificed for them to turn back now, and as I leave the Square for the last time I am reminded of this, as the rally promised yesterday is now in full swing. What is the rally for I ask innocently? “The people want to end the ceasefire in the East” is the reply. There is still war being waged in this country – little more than a few hours drive from where I am standing – and the population seems in no mood for compromise.
The question of what happens next is a complicated one, and something that it would be unfair to answer without an alternate view from those in the East seeking closer ties with Russia – unfortunately the current situation doesn’t lend itself to safe travel in these areas. However, it is apparent as I prepare my departure from this fascinating country that Ukraine will not be the same place it was prior to the events of 2013/14, and the younger generation of Ukrainians wouldn’t have it any other way. Russian influence will be harder to maintain over these independent young people, and although one feels that the issue of corruption may take a generation to resolve, the desire to be free to make their own choices – whether inside or outside of the EU – seems likely to triumph in the long term.
Before leaving Kyiv, I am contacted by the young lawyer – would I like to come along to see his band play this evening? It’s a welcome relief from a fairly intense few days and I gladly accept, keen to experience these people in more convivial surroundings. Joining them at a low key bar on the other side of town, I am introduced to the band – our lawyer friend is the drummer – and proceed to be entertained by this eclectic bunch as they blast out their own take on indie rock. Afterwards, the charismatic singer approaches me, keen to get my opinion on the performance and my experience of Ukraine. When I explain the journalistic motive for visit, we inevitability discuss “Maidan” and his take on what has transpired. His summary is remarkably succinct and insightful – “it’s only real change if we know the solution – and I’m not sure we do yet” he comments. I head to the airport with those words still ringing in the ears, thankful for the opportunity to have met such an amazing, yet grounded group of people. And the name of the band I witnessed the previous night? “Give me the Light!”. Exactly.