In theory, EuroMaidan should never have been a success. Yanukovych’s Berkut was too strong. The opposition had substandard leadership and nonuniform goals. With the odds so heavily stacked against the protestors, EuroMaidan was perhaps irrational at first. But the opposition was determined. And in the end, it triumphed in a way that showed the virtues of the Ukrainian people.
Meet the Ukrainians
I vividly remember the first night I visited Ukraine. Then a 23-year-old journalist, I was sent to Lviv to report on Euro 2012. I’d tried to prepare myself for anything but soon realized my efforts were for nought. This came at some point between my waiting for my luggage in a Soviet-era airport terminal that somehow resembled my hometown library and my taxi driver leaving me where Google Maps had listed my apartment, a place that was actually a few hundred meters from my actual residence in one of dozens of degenerate brutalist concrete fortresses.
Adapting to Ukraine was hard. Few shop owners, taxi drivers and public officials spoke any English and the culture shock was massive to me, an American who’d previously rarely ever left his homeland.
The city was not prepared to host a major international football tournament. But I was left with a strong and lasting impression that the people of Lviv were determined to show their country’s best face to western visitors.
The media center was flooded with young, vibrant volunteers eager to help journalists in any way. In every pre-match ceremony a banner was revealed with the words “Open to the World.” After being warned for months by western media that Ukraine was a dangerous place, I left Lviv with an altogether unexpected experience. There I’d forged great friendships and experienced nothing other than warmth and hospitality from the locals. It was almost poetic when, on my way to the airport for my departure, my cab driver surprised me by speaking in English. He said that Ukraine had had a difficult and complicated history, but that the country was trying to break free of its past and step out of Russia’s shadow as an independent, European country.
Two Years On…
Just under two years later and after three months of mass protest, Ukraine is closer than ever to realizing that taxi driver’s dream following the overthrow of autocrat Viktor Yanukovych.
Through Twitter and live streams I’ve closely watched the revolution known as EuroMaidan ever since its beginning in late November. And through it all, the mentality and attitude of the protesters has amazed me again and again.
In theory, EuroMaidan should never have been a success. Yanukovych’s Berkut was too strong. The opposition had substandard leadership and nonuniform goals. The movement began as Ukraine’s coldest months approached. It was expensive to keep the protesters fed and warm, and physically and mentally taxing as they spent countless frigid nights with little or no sleep, waiting for the next police assault. And perhaps most importantly, the protestors had no tangible tools to use to assert themselves: They never stood a chance against Berkut by violent means and lacked the support in Parliament and from abroad to force any political or policy reform.
With the odds so heavily stacked against the protesters, EuroMaidan was perhaps irrational at first. But the opposition was determined. And in the end, it triumphed in a way that showed the virtues of the Ukrainian people.
I watched a live stream the night Yanukovych first tried to disperse the protesters. With hundreds of cell phone cameras pointed in their direction, most Berkut did not dare resort to violence. And to their utmost credit, the protesters did not give them a reason to.
I was amazed by the discipline the opposition showed by, instead of throwing punches, locking arms to form an impenetrable barrier. Berkut leaned into them, they leaned back. Never in my life had I seen such tension kept so handily in check.
Days on Maidan turned to weeks, weeks to months and despite the frigid nights and repeated threats against their safety, I was amazed to see protesters remain on Maidan. Supplies were brought in from all over the country, individuals donating whatever they could afford to keep the movement alive. Few were able to offer much, but the sum of small donations kept Maidan in operation. Collectivism showed its face in many ways at Maidan, from a line of babushki passing bricks to defenders on the barricades to a man in a wheelchair carrying tires to be burned to maintain a smokescreen. It was impressive that no matter how young or old, strong or feeble, everyone who wanted to play a role found a way to help.
When violence finally erupted in January, the willingness of Maidan’s defenders to stand up to fully armed riot police with little more than sticks and wooden shields was as puzzling as it was awe-inspiring.
“Cossacks’ blood,” was the explanation a friend gave me for bravery that made me wonder whether life held little value among those on the barricades. How mistaken I was.
Days of Winter Past
I’d booked flight tickets to visit Ukraine long before the Maidan movement began and arrived the day that Yuriy Verbytsky, Pavlo Mazurenko, Serhiy Nigoyan and Mikhail Zhyznewski became the first to lose their lives for Maidan. It seemed that the whole country was in mourning after I arrived: the faces of the dead were unavoidable. There was a memorial outside the Armenian church in Lviv that, no matter when I passed, always was observed by at least a handful of mourners.
Having lived my entire life in the United States, where hundreds are killed by law enforcement every year, I’d never experienced such agonizing sorrow over “just” a handful of deaths. But as I watched a teary-eyed, elderly man console his despondent wife, I internalized the significance of what these men represented and how inexcusable and utterly tragic it was that they had everything taken from them.
Yet those who risked their lives for the revolution did so without fear. When I finally visited the Maidan camp in person, those I saw were hardened, resolute. The weather combined with soot from the fires had left them with a rugged appearance resembling that of the stone Lenin monument that had been famously been toppled on December 8. It was clear they were in for the long haul, that they would eventually succeed.
Surely enough, they did—and without support from the west. The EU and US only imposed financial sanctions on the Yanukovych regime after the massacre of February 18, and by that point the dominoes had begun to fall. As an American it is disappointing that my country chose not do more to help EuroMaidan, in spite of weeks of documented human rights violations by the Yanukovych regime.
Lives could have been saved had the US and EU acted sooner. As events unfolded, the revolution was a purely Ukrainian event, started and ended by the people.
The Brave and the Ugly
Maidan did not only bring the best, it also brought the worst out of Ukrainians. Yanukovych and his parliamentary supporters were entirely ignorant of protesters’ demands, and it required a mass murder for Rada to finally support the opposition. The hire and allowance of Titushki and even professional snipers to fire on their fellow countrymen was deplorable, as was the compliance of these brutal offenders.
But in the end, it was the brave and righteous who triumphed.
Yanukovych and all his supporters were symbolic of Ukraine’s past and even the status quo until recently. The opposition snatched the present from him, ushering in what may become known as the post-post-Soviet era in Ukraine.
It was very telling that after police abandoned Kyiv, the opposition kept its composure and did not allow itself to be overcome by the power vacuum. I’d expected to see Yanukovych’s estate looted and burned. Instead I saw Instagrammed photos of citizens enjoying a game of golf or ironically singing karaoke in the ousted despot’s living room.
Spring Anxiety, Spring Hope
There still is much work to be done in Ukraine. Yanukovych may be gone, but now there is an impending financial crisis to be dealt with. And the power vacuum left in his wake is dangerous; the people must be wary to avoid a repeat of history and ensure that the next leaders defend their interests. A few months ago, that may not have been expected in an election. But recent events have forever changed Ukraine. Finally there is reason to believe that on May 25 the people will elect a government worthy of those who died, one that will see Ukraine emerge from its post-Soviet state as a strong and independent European nation.