A woman wrapped herself in the Ukrainian flag. She is part of a protest against Oligarchs that refuse to give up their positions of power.
On a weekend, Kiev really comes alive. People stroll along the main boulevard that is lined with street venders and musicians, stop for a break in one of the many cafés or move uphill, towards the park with the nicest view. Sounds like any European capital. Except in Kiev, people are probably also planning which protest to fit in after the cake break.
Ever since the revolution, the Euromaidan, that caused a change of government two years ago, Ukraine has developed what could be called a full-grown protest culture. Culture is a key term here: all of the gatherings seem to be well organised, with not one but multiple colourful banners explaining the cause-du-jour. Some of them have such an engaging atmosphere that even foreign visitors want to join in, clueless of the cause and unable to read the banners.
The Maidan square, where it all began over two years ago, seems to be reserved for the most urgent causes, while more niche demonstrations like a public meditation for peace take place in the surrounding streets. But not just Ukraine’s capital adopted the protest culture, it has spread all over the country.
Talking to people, everyone seems to have an idea of where Ukraine should be going. Many try to bring on change through going on the streets, others work on different sites. There is no lack of problems, but there is no lack of people and initiatives that are eager to make a change either. They all work in their own ways, some tackle corruption, some try to bring on reforms, while others work through culture and arts.
For Oksana Levkova, this passion and willingness to fight for her country is not just sunshine and roses. “The government literally tells us that we should just help ourselves. We are used to it unfortunately, it is part of our mentality, because no one in history has ever looked out for us, so we have to do it ourselves.”
Don’t be indifferent
“Heroes are only born in states where authorities are inactive.” Oksana Levkova is part of an organisation called “ne bùd bayduzhym!” – don’t be indifferent. The initiative was founded during Ukraine’s last big revolt before the Maidan protests, the Orange revolution in 2003, by a group of rock bands that all saw the need to promote Ukrainian language.
Oksana regularly meets with the ministers of education and culture to lobby for support. “They are always glad to see me and to have such engaged activists like us – they are glad we are doing their job for them.” Oksana laughs and mimics the minister of culture, Vyacheslav Kyrylenko: „Thanks for your help Oksana, but go away, we can’t help you because all the money is for the war.”
As Oksana explains it, Ukraine was victim to a “lingocide”, the mass murder of a language, through Soviet occupation. Now, she and her colleagues are trying to win back lost grounds. The Ukrainian language is spreading, while it used to be limited to the most western parts of the country, it slowly works its way into the capital Kiev and all the way down south to Odessa, where the annexed Crimea is only a stone’s throw away and Russian is still deeply embedded into society.
This emphasis on Ukrainian identity experienced a strong boost through the Maidan revolution. The whole country is draped into blue and yellow flags, and the Ukrainian emblem, the trident, spangles every item from shirts over jewellery to bullet cases.
Right now, Oksana and her colleagues focus on bringing Ukrainian culture to the, as Oksana puts it, regions that need it most, the annexed Crimea and the embattled Donbass area in the East. Oksana regularly meets with Ukrainian military as well as residents of those regions to hand out books and films to help with education, especially about history. “Culture – music and films – really make people understand and help to challenge stereotypes.”
“Artists are the wings of change”
The organisation “Port Creative Hub” also puts the focus on culture. It is supporting aspiring Ukrainian artists while also creating a platform of exchange for a creative community, through provided workspace, events and exhibitions. It is located in the port of Kiev, where Kateryna Taylor, one of the founders, talks more about the project’s goals.
Healing the Past
Oleksa Stasevych and Halyna Bunio work to challenge stereotypes as well, and while their attempt is also linked to history, it takes a different turn. The married couple are both coordinators of the initiative “Healing the Past”, for which they held over 25 inter-Ukrainian dialogues.
“Attitudes are very different when you look at the South and the North, the East and the West. Our project should help to bring people together, to analyse and to understand what they think about the past”, explains Oleksa. He is from the most eastern region of Donezk, while Halyna is from the country’s western city Lviv.
Halyna adds: “Different people in different parts of Ukraine have lived through very different things, they may not even know about it. This is why we need this dialogue, talking and sharing that experience of history.” She is referring to Ukraine’s troubled identity. While the West was still part of Poland until 1939, the rest of the country already belonged to the Soviet Union. That is just one of the many examples where the country was split up between bigger empires, leaving the Ukrainians as collateral damage.
“I would even say there are more differences than shared and united points of the Ukrainian past”, concludes Oleksa. With so many distinctions in one country, having the opportunity to share and exchange becomes even more important. “That is the opportunity we want to give people, to listen in order to learn and not to convince someone of your truth.”
Halyna nods in agreement. “When you’re not talking to each other, then you’re shouting, and when you can’t even shout, you take up arms and start shooting. So this space to talk and find common ground is very important.”
The people participating in the dialogue events all come from very different ethnical, political, religious and even generational backgrounds. All of them have experienced complicated events of Ukraine’s past, either by themselves or through their family’s history. Some were veterans of the Soviet troops, others part of the Ukrainian Patriotic Army, the two opposing forces in the middle of the 20th century. Others were Crimean tartars that survived deportation, as the ethnic group was heavily discriminated during Soviet times.
“They don’t have to agree, but just try to understand each other. That is how you deal with the past, and how wounds can heal”, explains Oleksa. “Stereotypes are a big part of the life of people here, and they stand in the way of seeing the future, a common future of development here in Ukraine.”
Halyna recalls one story that really stuck with her. A young man whose family members used to be involved in the Ukrainian Patriotic Army met a girl whose grandmother was killed by that same group. “I could see them sitting and talking for a really long time, and I think the results of the conversation were satisfying for both of them. When we said farewells, they were hugging for a long time. I think they found this… maybe not mutual understanding but… reconciliation. Something happened between the two that helped them to accept each others’ background.”
A lot of their dialogues took place in symbolic parts of Ukraine, like a town at the Russian border. The group works with historians, civil activists, teachers, journalists and psychologists to achieve their goal of spreading a dialogue culture.
Since the conflict in the East started, “Healing the Past” has tried to organize dialogues in Donezk and Crimea, but there was too much fear in the cities and people were not willing to open up. Halyna sees this as their biggest task right now. “We need to deal with the current events immediately, before they become part of the history books, because by then it will be much harder to find common ground.”
So with the right approach, change seems to be in reach. Anna Lukinova puts her biggest hopes in the new generation. “The responsible and proactive young people could save the country. We need to spread this spirit among others.”
Anna works with UNDP, the United Nation’s Development Program, to help internally displaced people that had to flee from the conflict in the East. Everyone, from young people to the oldest generation, is helping somehow, Anna says. “I know some old ladies who sew camouflage nets for the military, or make them bags of homemade sweets. It’s not only good for the army, but also for the people helping, it gives them the feeling of being needed.”
For Anna, this high level of dedication came with the Euromaidan. “People started to organise themselves, it was kind of a school of civic activity, and they started to see how big the results could be. Now, it is prospering.”
In the weeks after the revolution, she describes a level of euphoria she has never seen before. People were smiling at each other, speaking to each other, cars would stop just to offer her a lift. “Things like these, that never before would have happened in Kiev”, Anna recalls and smiles.
This is one side, but Anna’s work also showed her another side. “Some people are getting tired because the economic crisis makes it very difficult to volunteer. This can’t last forever, people need resources to live on”, Anna says. You can’t feed a country with the spirit of a revolution.
The spirit of a revolution
But it was that spirit that got Gleb Zhavoronkov involved in politics. He started out as an activist on Maidan, as part of the self-defence squad that tried to protect people from getting beaten up.
After witnessing the revolution first-hand, Gleb wanted to stay involved. He was part of different projects to make his hometown, Odessa, a safer place during the riots that followed the annexation of Crimea. Somehow, he ended up as the head of the local Democratic Alliance party. “I never wanted to be a politician, or anything like that. But the energy of Maidan made me more political, it kind of pushed me in that direction. A lot of people decided to participate.”
Does he feel the spirit of Maidan slowly fading away, like Anna described? “It can work like a narcotic”, Gleb admits, “and sometimes you think it would be easier to just take some money and go away”. But for him, Ukraine has been through too much, too many deaths in Maidan and in the East, to give up now.
It is about understanding what you can and can’t do. “Nothing changes in one moment. It’s not about just replacing one person, putting someone else there and leave it at that. You have to change 100.000 people, prosecution, police, judges, parliament, everywhere. That’s what we’re trying now and it’s the only way.” Ukraine has the instruments for building something good now, Gleb adds, there is press freedom and protection from being imprisoned for activism. “We need to use those instruments to make a change now. A corrupt system fights back, but so do we.”
Fighting corruption as a group effort
The “Civic Lustration Committee” is an organisation that really makes use of those instruments. Behind this not-too-telling name stands an NGO that tries to exclude people from public office who worked under the previous president Viktor Yanukovych, whose reign ended with the Maidan revolution. This process is also known as lustration.
Oleksandra Drik, the head of the NGO’s board, further explains their work. “We started two years ago, the idea was actually formed directly on Maidan square.” The work is not about punishment, but about “purifying the government from former corruption”, as Oleksandra puts it.
To achieve this goal, the organisation managed to draft a lustration law that was passed at the end of 2014. “This was such a success for us, because many of those members of parliament who voted for it were subject to the law themselves. So you can imagine how hard it was to get them to vote for a law that will prevent them from going into office for the next ten years.”
Right now, they work with a coalition of NGO’s all dedicated to fight corruption with modern means. An electronic database is in the making, containing all people that were in any way in charge during the previous government, with over 5500 registered so far. From a previous “top 50 list of the worst”, as Oleksandra calls it, the initiative managed to get 42 people out of office. Quite a quota.
“They are all part of the old system. We need to make sure that we bring new people into it, so they will bring reform with them.” For Oleksandra, this task should not be taken lightly. “Every thing that needs to change depends on us, the people from Ukraine. We all have to be included, we all have to participate in the process. Otherwise, it will not work.”
All these people show that the spirit of Maidan is not dead. Ukraine did not win a battle to loose the war, even though the country is not yet where it should be. But people are aware of that process, and they seem far from giving up. Walking through the streets of Kiev, you can feel hope. This hope, ignited during Maidan, is carried by all the protestors, all the declarations of patriotism in blue and yellow, and all those people working towards a better future for their Ukraine.