Suspecting that neither Ukrainians nor people elsewhere were being given an accurate portrayal of what has been going on in Kyiv, I felt I had no choice but to travel there and offer an honest portrait of Maidan as I saw it.
The physical layout of Maidan is both impressive and inspiring. Piles of sandbags, tyres, household furniture and concrete paving blocks form the barricades that guard the entrances to the square. Inside are countless tents and makeshift shelters which people have occupied for nearly four months now. Graffiti, fliers and stickers, written in Ukrainian, Russian and English, cover any vacant space on walls; dozens of Ukrainian flags flap in the wind… And there’s no way you can miss the flowers. Piles upon piles of flowers, spread all over Maidan, commemorate those who lost their lives there. Scattered among the flowers you can find photographs of Maidan’s lost ‘Heavenly Hundred’, with a constant flow of family members, friends and fellow countrymen quietly mourning nearby.
It is never hard to find a family with small children going for a stroll around the square.
Makeshift kitchens offer food, free of charge, to anyone who wants a hot meal. The large stage that dominates the center of the square provides a round-the-clock platform for citizens, musicians, priests, and politicians to share their messages and perspectives. A little way off from the stage, a leftover Christmas tree, now known to Kyiv residents as ‘the most famous Christmas tree in the world’, is covered in an assortment of flags and banners that have come to symbolize the movement. In the most prominent corner of the square, the charred remains of a large burnt-out building loom over the activity below, a constant reminder of Maidan’s darkest days.
Among all this, there is still a normal flow and rhythm to life on Maidan. You can hop into the McDonalds inside the barricade for a Big Mac or grab a coffee at one of the many cafes still open for business, and it is never hard to find a family with small children going for a stroll around the square. The streets are clean and there are no remnants of the debris or ashes that blanketed the area during the worst days of the demonstrations. Despite the fact that Maidan is the focal point of this movement which has caught the world’s attention, there is a sense of normality and routine on the square.
My expectations overturned
When I was preparing to travel to Kyiv, I expected the overall atmosphere to be very different from that of my three previous visits to the city in less turbulent times. During those visits, I recall hearing almost exclusively Russian being spoken in public. This time around, I naively expected to hear mostly Ukrainian and, being a Russian speaker, I thought I might feel marginalized for my inability to speak Ukrainian.
Those thoughts could not have been further from the truth. From the second I arrived at Kyiv’s airport, I heard only Russian - the woman at passport control and the taxi drivers offering me rides spoke in Russian, and the driver of the (local) bus that took me to the city center made all his announcements in the same language. In fact, for the entire 40-minute bus ride, a Russian radio station was blasting over the speakers. It was three or four hours before I heard a single word of Ukrainian.
Ukraine remains a bilingual country and recent events have not changed that.
On Maidan, it was a mix. When I wanted to enter the occupied city hall building, a guard asked me a question in Ukrainian, but calmly and immediately switched languages when I responded in Russian and he realised I didn’t speak Ukrainian. A few days later, during a large event commemorating the 200th anniversary of the deified Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s birth, which drew tens if not hundreds of thousands to the square and was broadcast live to television audiences throughout the country, some of the many government, religious, and civic leaders who spoke used Ukrainian, but a large number spoke in Russian and many switched back and forth between the two languages so as not to exclude anyone (for which I was very grateful.) Ukraine, as always, remains a bilingual country and recent events have not changed that.
Those Nazis and fascists you’ve been hearing about...
Many reports and claims from individuals claim the government in Kyiv has been ‘taken over by fascists and Nazis’ and that this is why people in Ukraine (and elsewhere) should be afraid and wary of the transfer of power in the capital. Before I left for Ukraine I suspected that these claims were grossly exaggerated and thankfully, but not all that surprisingly, I found that my assumptions were correct.
On my first day in Kyiv I spoke with a very bright university student who had been part of the Maidan demonstrations since the very beginning. In her words, ‘There are no fascists. There are no Nazis. If the people on Maidan are nothing but fascists, then I guess that means that I should come forward as their most dedicated follower.’
I saw a grand total of TWO Right Sector guys.
In fact Maidan has representatives from DOZENS of different organizations, parties, and regions of Ukraine. Most of them proudly display their affiliation on tents or other areas they have staked out for themselves. Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk, Crimea, Lviv, political parties UDAR and Svoboda, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a Christian organisation offering psychological help for those who are grieving - they are all there on Maidan and not a single one appeared to show any supremacy over another.
Now, what about this ‘Right Sector’, the neo-Nazi group that has, according to some, taken over both the Maidan movement and the interim government in Kyiv? Well, I was on the lookout for them the entire three days I stood on Maidan, and saw a grand total of TWO Right Sector guys walking around in their black uniforms and bandanas. Two. Yes, there were a fair number of Right Sector stickers scattered around but there were fliers and stickers and graffiti for dozens of other groups as well. And honestly, how many people does it take to fill up a square with stickers? That’s right. One.
To gain a better perspective about the role Right Sector plays in the wider scheme of things, I asked several people who have been going to Maidan since the beginning specifically about them. As one person described it, the Right Sector tries to make a lot of noise but in reality they only comprise a fraction of one percent of the people presently on Maidan. People from the outside (journalists, uninformed casual observers, etc.) are drawn to the Right Sector because it has a more shocking platform than, say, a group of citizens from rural Ukraine who are simply concerned for the future of their country. In reality, Right Sector is FAR from being the official voice of Maidan and the vast majority of demonstrators on the square would rather have nothing to do with them.
Which established parliamentary system in Europe DOESN’T have a far-right nationalist party in its political mix?
As for ‘extremist parties’, they too have been blown completely out of proportion. Here’s a question to ponder: which established parliamentary system in Europe DOESN’T have a far-right nationalist party in its political mix? In recent weeks, I have asked many friends from different European countries with coalition governments about this, and guess what? Every one of those countries has a nationalist party. It just comes with the political territory. Just because people see a nationalist party involved in the new world of Ukrainian politics doesn’t mean that the government has been overtaken by Nazis and white supremacists. And, for the record, Svoboda [‘Freedom’] - the party in question - has been rebranding itself over the last few years and has toned down much of its rhetoric and shed many of its more extreme members.
Rather than a war zone overtaken by fascists and neo-Nazis, what I saw on Maidan was an open discussion forum where people have freedom to share their ideas and concerns. When someone speaks, others let them speak. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will agree with what is being shouted through a microphone from the stage, but Maidan has created an arena where people need not be afraid to express what they perceive to be the best path for the future of their country. What I heard was not messages of hate, but discussions of peace, tolerance and mutual understanding. In my five years of living in Russia, I never saw anything similar to this because such a public forum would never be tolerated there; this became painfully obvious this month when several websites known for publishing content critical of the Kremlin were shut down. Thank goodness this is not the current state of affairs in Ukraine.
Feelings toward Russians
Contrary to what some believe, my observations overwhelmingly showed that Ukrainians do not hate Russians. They hate the Kremlin’s propaganda. They hate Putin. They hate the fact that Russian troops are currently occupying part of their country. They hate the fact that certain sources in Russia have been claiming that Maidan was planned long ago and sponsored by people in Washington. They hate the fact that there are people who could believe such lies. They hate the fact that their disgraced president, who permitted dozens to be massacred on the streets of Kyiv, is now being safely harbored in Russia. But they do not hate Russians.
They do not hate Russians.
At the Shevchenko event, one speaker spoke (in Russian) about the many wonderful Russian citizens who have risked jail in order to voice their opposition towards their country’s occupation of Crimea. At that point, the entire crowd on Maidan started shouting en masse ‘SPA-SI-BO! SPA-SI-BO! [‘Thank you’ in Russian]’. It was an incredible moment and hardly one suggesting the dominance of nationalist hate-mongers.
In Kyiv, I spoke with many people and not a single one showed any negative feelings towards me when I told them I had spent five years living in Russia or that I would be traveling on to Moscow. I also saw a friend from St. Petersburg who has been living in Kyiv for nine months, and asked her what it was like to be a Russian in Ukraine today. She rolled her eyes at the question: she has not experienced a single instance of negative backlash for being Russian.
I have noticed that some people think the purpose of Maidan was to voice opposition to Russia from the very beginning. This is also untrue. Maidan was a stance against Yanukovych and other corrupt politicians who were using taxpayers’ money as their own personal piggy banks - a platform for showing that the Ukrainian people demanded a voice and the right to decide the future direction of their country. It was also there to show support for innocent students brutally beaten by police for peacefully demonstrating and expressing their love for their country on a cold night in November, and to show that Ukrainians would no longer tolerate the corrupt political system that had come to define their country. And today, Maidan stands as a platform for empowering Ukraine and defending the independence, sovereignty and whatever remains of the territorial integrity of the country.
I saw an empowered people. I saw people making history.
I wish everyone could see and experience what I saw and experienced in my three days on Maidan. I saw people who love their country, and their fellow humans. I saw strangers helping each other, mourning with each other. I saw volunteers working for hours to serve free food to whoever wanted to eat it. I saw people who have hope in a bright future. I saw an empowered people who know that the future of their country lies in their hands. I saw individuals who were able to unite as Ukrainians, regardless of where they come from, what language they speak, or what political party they claim allegiance to. I saw people making history.