Thursday, September 27, 2018

Kyiv and Ukraine's Revolution of Dignity

With pockets lined and truncheons bare,
The Berkut sought to seize the Square.
But quickly sparks of protest flew
And flames of revolution grew.

September 10, 2013

My dearest Katyusha,

This is the first chance I've had to write to you, though there is not much news to tell. I'm staying with Uncle Fyodor and Aunt Katya on the far side of the Dnieper until I can find a job and start saving some money. From the balcony this morning I could look across the river and see to my left the morning light glinting off the Mother Motherland statue's sword and to my right the golden reflection of the domes of Pecherska Lavra. Growing up, I was always more afraid of the mummified priests in glass caskets lining the narrow tunnels beneath the lavra and the soulless eyes of painted icons than I was of the imposing Soviet murals or the collection of artillery from the Great Patriotic War. Now that I am older, I can discern a harmonious thread linking the two, one the product of our moral architecture, and the other a testament to the sacrifices our families made fighting the immoral blight of fascism.

November 28, 2013

Sorry I haven't written for so long, but the days have been passing by so fast and I've had very little time to myself. I found a job as a barista at a downtown café near Maidan Nezalezhnosty and have been saving a little money. I have to work on weekends, but at least it's a happening part of the city. The fountains are all still there in the main square, as when we were kids, but the rest you would hardly recognize. With all the new glass domes and statues they've added, you can squint your eyes and almost feel like you're walking around in Rome on a nice day. This past week there have been on-and-off protests at Maidan. A lot of people our age are angry that President Yanukovych reneged on his promise to bring us closer to the EU and instead jammed us even more firmly under Russian's thumb. Nothing has changed, nothing ever changes and I don't see what shouting and hoisting signs is going to do to make any difference.

December 4, 2013

I don't know if the news of what's been happening here in Kyiv has yet reached the village, but the casual protests at Maidan took a dark turn when the government sent the Berkut in five nights ago to violently disperse a bunch of unarmed students. Outrage over the brutality of the special police force began to spread as soon as word of the assault hit the news the next day. I brought Uncle Fyodor's camera with me to work on Sunday, and after work I stuck around and joined the other defiant protesters at Maidan. There must have been over 100,000 people there! Everyone was up in arms at the idea that we live in some sort of dictatorship where the police can just beat up kids and get away with it. Many were shouting for President Yanukovych's resignation, and it wasn't long before that idea began to evolve into a call to action. Clogged with chanting protesters, Khreschatyk Street, the main artery of the city, was barricaded as scores of young men descending on it with steel bars and sheets torn right off the unfinished New Year's tree on the square. I heard elsewhere in the city there had been riots, but the atmosphere in the very center of the city was more like that of a giant drunken dance party. I don't expect anything will come of all this, but I guess it's a good way for people to work off some of the frustration we're all feeling. The corrupt politicians always win in the end; it's just a matter of waiting for the protesters' resolve to waver and their rebellious dispositions to give way to resigned complacency.

December 12, 2013

I just wanted to write and let you know that I'm safe since you've surly heard by now about the continuing protests in Kyiv. No one expected the protests to gather the kind of momentum they have. What started out with a few students has evolved into a full-blown revolution, and for the first time I'm thinking that we really could enact some change in our country. Most of the people I know didn't even vote in the last election, rigged as always; however, those same people are now battling below-freezing temperatures in the hopes of a better life for themselves and their children.

Over half a million people converged on Maidan last Sunday. The city shut down the metro and tried to lock down the city center, but it did little to stem the tide of people. Maidan has become a bubble of protests and partying, a sprawling tent city protected by a thin barricade of rubble, spare wood and plundered metal parts. The glass domes of the square reverberate with the nonstop chanting of slogans like "thugs, be gone!" and the air hums and shimmers when ten thousand voices rise in unison to the crescendo of the national anthem. It was to this sound of Ukrainian independence that the statue of Lenin in the center was torn down. I wasn't there to see it, but it must have been immensely satisfying to watch his head smack the pavement and explode into dust.

The Berkut have become the most visible symbol of the criminals running our country, abusing their positions and lining their pockets with every dime they can snatch. Late Monday night, after the weekend crowds had dispersed, the special police moved in in force to clear out the few protesters that had stayed behind and braved the freezing temperatures to protect the growing tent city. The black-helmeted Berkut brought bulldozers and chainsaws to overwhelm our unarmed protesters, but news traveled fast and thousands of reinforcements rushed downtown to support the movement. Taxis were offering free rides to those caught on the wrong side of the river like myself, but Uncle Fyodor thought this was important enough to drive the whole family over.

We stayed the night. When the Berkut smashed one of our tents, we erected two more. When they tore down our barricades, we built them back up twice as high. When they tried to intimidate us, we sang. When the cold stung, we huddled around trash can fires. As the sun rose on another day and saw that our movement had endured, buses of Berkut in full riot gear made for City Hall, which protesters had made into unofficial Revolution HQ. Armed only with fire hoses and fireworks, they held down the fort until the rest of Maidan arrived en masse. Seeing the Berkut retreat with their tails between their legs at the sight of thousands of irate protesters was a small, yet satisfying victory. Nothing is more powerful than the people when they are united behind a common goal. On that day, we reminded the government that they serve us and not the other way around. I don't know if joining Europe would make our lives better, but I know that Russia is the way we came and in that direction lies only corruption and abuse. The winds are shifting now, and people are beginning to realize that it is possible to live in a country with rule of law and democratic values. We just have to fight for it.

Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!

December 26, 2013

The past two weeks have done nothing to stem the growth of our city within a city here at Maidan. Protesters have arrived from all around the country, and there are always a few hundred people to man the barricades no matter the hour. During the day, you can take classes in some of the tents, while others hold mountains of donated clothing and supplies. There's even a clinic and a library of donated books. I volunteered one night to defend stashes of valuable medical equipment donated by the Polish government at St. Michael's Church; another day I put half of my paycheck toward purchasing much-needed medicine for the tent city's defenders.

Protest "leaders," as well as Western politicians, are always giving speeches on the permanent stage erected in the center of the square. They look for ways to benefit from the unrest, but this has always been and will continue to be a people's revolution. The people are the lifeblood of Maidan, and volunteers are its backbone. We may not all agree on the kind of country we want to live in, but no one denies that progress of any sort is impossible so long as Yanukovych and Putin hold the reigns of our future.

January 22, 2014

It's been four days since President Yanukovych's criminal Party of Regions pushed through the so-called "dictatorship laws" without so much as an earnest vote. The laws were supposed to crush the right to assemble and peacefully protest by exchanging lengthy prison sentences for constructing tents, blockading public buildings or even wearing helmets. In response, hundreds of thousands of people surged on Maidan last weekend, many of them wearing helmets or masks in defiance of the laws.

The next night, things took a more heated turn as Right Sector protesters and Berkut faced off on Hrushevskoho Street beneath the fluorescent glare of a shattered electronic billboard. While the majority of protesters see occupation and peaceful resistance as the weapons of the movement, Right Sector represents the small, yet influential extremist element of any revolution that seeks radical change by radical means. They are arguably the best organized of the protests groups and the only ones willing to go toe to toe with the special police. They were equipped with sports helmets, hand-made shields and bricks torn from the very road they stood on. The police had full riot gear, stun grenades (with and without sleeves of nails and other shrapnel) and shotguns. War drums filled the uncomfortable silences between explosions as Molotov cocktails and grenades sailed past each other over the bulwark of burning trucks and through the curtain of thick, inky smoke. From the opposite side of the barrier, a water cannon rained down on fires and protesters alike with salvos of jagged icicles flash-frozen in the biting air.

Three protesters died in the most terrifying escalation of events yet. There are reports of protesters being kidnapped and dumped in the forests outside of the city, where they are found days later naked and black with bruises. Then there are the "titushky," criminals and mercenaries in the pockets of the Party of Regions who assault protesters and provoke violent fights with the Berkut. It's gotten so bad that organized bands of Right Sector protesters are now patrolling the streets in order to protect innocent people from the police and their accomplices, instead of the other way around.

I honestly don't see how things can get better from here without tearing the country apart. Some fear the government will declare martial law soon. The army has thus far refused to defend the corrupt Yanukovych regime, but that could change at any time.

God help us.

February 27, 2014

I guess we've won. Prime Minister Azarov and President Yanukovych have both fled to exile in Russia. The day after he abdicated power, Yanukovych was removed from office by an act of Parliament. The black-helmeted Berkut have been disbanded, as well. And yet, it all comes at such a high price. Over a hundred people died for the revolution, most of them executed indiscriminately by SBU snipers on Instytutska Street last Wednesday, the day Yanukovych lost all semblance of legitimacy and waged open warfare on his own people. At night, desperate protesters at Maidan burned tires to create walls of smoke and obscure themselves from snipers while priests read prayers from the central stage and the neighboring Trade Unions Building burned down. Thousands risked their lives to hold the square and keep the movement alive to the bitter end. The following morning, a gray sky illuminated a wreck of charred ruins and heavy hearts, but amidst the grief there is hope. Everywhere you look now there are flowers and gifts and icons dedicated to the "Heavenly Hundred," those who paid the ultimate price. Now it is the duty of the survivors to make sure that their deaths mean something. We will rebuild, and I dare to dream that we have a real chance to establish a new Ukraine, one where intimidation and corruption aren't a part of daily life, where democracy can thrive and human rights are respected and where dictators and oligarchs are no longer welcome.

After Yanukovych fled the country, people began visiting his mansion outside of the city. Word soon spread of the opulence of his sprawling property, which included a private zoo, a fleet of cars and an 18-hole golf course. In a country where so many struggle to afford a simple loaf of bread, the president had kept a 2kg solid-gold loaf of bread on his desk as a paper weight.

Corruption is a cancer, but we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking that excising Yanukovych and his cronies will rid us of the problem. If we want to live in a country where paying bribes is no longer an everyday occurrence, then the change has to start with us. If the Euromaidan Revolution has taught me anything, it's that we are strong, everyone one of us, and when we act together with a common goal, nothing can stop us.



November 2013-February 2014

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