By Uliana Poltavets, MSc in Public Administration (Leiden University)
Project Coordinator, Ukrainian School of Political Studies (Kyiv, Ukraine)
I was born in the USSR. It says so in my birth certificate which I had to change faced with European bureaucracy – apparently, I was from a non-existent country. When I was applying for master’s in Leiden University, to my surprise, I did not find ‘Ukraine” under the “Country of origin” field in the application form; instead I was offered to choose “USSR”. I wrote an angry e-mail to the admission’s office because I felt offended: I was from the independent state of Ukraine and wanted everyone to know that. But only now I realize that I was probably wrong. To me it might have seemed like I was from a free country. But to an outsider, who had a taste of real freedom, it was all Soviet Union.
When Ukrainian journalist, Mustafa Nayem, wrote a short post on his Facebook in the end of November inviting people to take on the streets to protest against the suspension of Ukraine’s association with the EU, I doubt he could have foreseen what was about to happen. Indeed, the role of social networks and the Internet in this revolution was underestimated not only by people but most importantly by the regime. Two days later half a million people waved European flags in the centre of Kyiv. The civil society went at great lengths trying to divide people’s demands from the agenda of different political parties. Yet, spending my casual Sunday on one of the main squares with a small banner with 12 stars on it, I felt inspired and driven, of course, but still disoriented. I realized it was no 2004, at least not yet or not anymore: people were ready but there was no consensus on what it was that we were ready for. Was it ‘freedom for Yulia’? Was it to impeach the president? Or was this a campaign for presidential elections ’15? There seemed to be just one reasonable question: where do Ukrainians really fit in this picture?
Towards the end of the week the protests died down, however, on November, 30, we woke up with a heavy heart. The images of injured students beaten by the police with particular cruelty shocked us. It became clear that Ukrainians did not fit in the picture at all – we were casualties in a master plan to steal what was left of Ukraine in our President’s sick imagination. The protests of the 1st of December will go down in my memory as my first acquaintance with tear gas and the first time I was really scared. Half a million people peacefully marched the streets of Kyiv towards Maidan, and just 200 m away the special police forces “Berkut” beat the tar out of protesters. I believe this was the day that the protest jokingly named “Euromaidan” by the press left the Association Agreement behind and became all about basic human rights and freedoms.
Since then, Maidan was a shelter to people who put their values first, people from different backgrounds, regions and with different education. Every day I went to Maidan in the morning, during lunch, and then again after work. I gave away all my salaries, brought food and meds to those protesters who lived at Maidan 24/7, and lost sleep when Maidan was attacked by the “Berkut” police and thugs hired by the regime to maraud and burn the cars. But after a month and a half of protests no progress was made. Instead, the regime responded with a set of the so called dictatorship laws that copied some of Russian legislation and forbade, for example, driving in a row of more than 5 cars (targeting one of the most active movements within Maidan – Automaidan who drove to politicians’ houses to protest). I myself as a manager of the Council of Europe funded project became a ‘foreign agent’ according to the new law.
On January, 19, my friends and I went to the protest yet again. The crowd was uneasy and restless. Several hours later we found ourselves amidst fire, sound grenades and tear gas. I watched the police bus burn several meters away from me and saw my cultured and intelligent friends with Western education filling with anger and aggression. They said something about this being a historical moment and how they needed to be a part of it. Instead, I only saw that violence always begets more violence. I remembered why we turned to the streets in the first place – to embrace the ‘europeanness’ in us, to internalize the values we thought we wanted. And I could not believe that this was the path we chose.
In the coming days, I worked at the first-aid post in the now burned Trade Unions building. Having no experience as a paramedic, I volunteered to sort through the meds people donated and form the first-aid kits for paramedics who went to the frontline. Every 5 minutes people were brought in with severe injuries. Three people were dead; many were kidnapped and tortured by the police. What I saw those days, what we all saw, will haunt us for the rest of our lives. Could I ever imagine in my worst nightmare that I would someday hear grenades exploding every minute, the whole night, when we were frantically reading the news and watching live stream while the bravest men fought for us?
Admittedly, at first there were no accidental people in the frontline. They were prepared for the escalation of the conflict and knew exactly what they were doing and that ordinary people would follow. They were right. However, what many outsiders fail to understand is that Maidan is a versatile body with so many organizations and movements that nobody was able to count them. Everyone came to Maidan for their own reasons, chasing their own goals, consequently, the methods and strategies vary among the protesters. The infamous “Praviy sector”, a far-right organization that was the driving force of the violent protests, does not have a wide support among Ukrainians, their actions are generally judged, and many suspect them of being Russian agents. That is why any accusation of radicalization of the revolution is far from the truth.
But during those bloody days and nights in the end of February, there were no organizations at Maidan. No guards of Maidan who had so defiantly worn military uniform before. Just several hundred people who stayed there despite their fears and many others who were there by chance. My friend Sergey Kemskiy was one of the latter. He was a pacifist by nature and did not have any weapons. He was shot in his neck by a sniper and died immediately.
After Yanukovych’s regime fell, we finally felt like we could start over. There was no trust for the opposition leaders who repeatedly discredited themselves as passive, irresponsible and populist. It was clear we had to build the country from scratch – judiciary, police, everything that was rotten with corruption, and nobody knew how to do it. In this situation of complete distrust and chaos people became the justice. Putin used it as a window of opportunity. The condescending tone of Russian attitudes towards Ukrainians that we tolerated for many decades finally blew up in our faces. ‘Fascists’, ‘nazi’, ‘thugs’ – those were the words they used not only in their media but in conversations with us. I never understood the hatred of Balkan nations towards each other; now I do. Under the false pretense of ‘protecting the Russian population of Ukraine from fascists’ Russian army invaded Crimea with the whole world watching. We thought we were daydreaming – can this really happen in the 21st century in the centre of Europe?
A month later now, we find ourselves in an unreal reality. I see people in Sevastopol celebrating, crying of happiness, and claiming this was the dream of their lives – to be a part of Russia. Russians have never been infringed in Ukraine; Ukraine is known to be a shelter for minorities of the ex-Soviet Union, e.g. Crimean Tatars evicted from their land by Stalin and returned by Ukraine. But it is important to understand why many Crimeans want to be a part of Russia. They see Russia as a continuation of the Soviet legacy; for them it means poor but stable life, without the necessity to think of such complicated things as freedom, human rights, transparency and rule of law. They want to be told how to live. This is a mindset of many fellow Russians I know, while Ukraine cannot promise stability; it can only promise opportunities. In contrast, here in Ukraine most of us can literally feel the freedom we want, with every fiber of our souls, with every breath we take. And this is what unites us with Europe. Or better, this is what unites Europe with us.
I do not know where my limit is; I am tired of putting my life on hold for the last four months. I am scared to live in a reality where I have to become a member of the Red Cross and keep an ‘emergency’ bag in case of bombing. But I know very well the price people paid so that I could live my life in a free, independent and prosperous country, Ukraine. And neither I, nor others will let them down. Even if it means we have to sacrifice everything.
Antoaneta Dimitrova: The above text needs no explanation. It is a personal view and not our usual academic commentary, but I found it important to post it here as a way to give a voice to one of the Ukrainian citizens whom we can easily forget while games of geopolitics are being played. The only thing I would like to add is that Ulyana Poltavetz is an alumna of the Master’s programme of Public Administration of Leiden University and I had the pleasure to be her teacher and supervisor.