Events in Ukraine are changing quickly. After a bloody Thursday that featured some of the worst internecine fighting in recent memory, the past week brought one challenge after another for the fledgling interim government in Kiev. Yanukovych, now a wanted criminal, fled the capital for Russia, continuing to cling to his presidency, as former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was freed after 2 1/2 years in prison. Hundreds of protesters wandered the deposed leader’s gilded dacha outside of Kiev, snapping pictures. Now, Russian armed forces have occupied the Crimean peninsula, setting the stage for a counter-coup, as rallies for Russia took place in Kharkiv and Donetsk. Post-Sochi, Putin appears to be doing whatever he can to distract the world from what has been won on the barricades in Kiev, forcing a choice between freedom and stability.
Still, the interpretive logic surrounding this uprising remains largely unchanged and unchallenged, hewing stubbornly to skewed story lines. Ironically, it is the Russian bloggers and photographers in Kiev who are doing the dangerous work of reportage—and getting it right. Here are the prevailing myths about the Orange Winter, as debunked by the “enemy” through blogs and coverage translated by me:
Urban, rural. Russophone, Ukrainophone. East, west. Old, young. EU, Eurasian (Soviet) Union. Ukraine remains ever the atom—split over and over again into false distinctions. Both factually correct and mostly unhelpful, these distinctions can likewise apply to almost any region on earth where homogeneity is not absolute. A history of military and cultural occupation by outside forces has long kept Ukraine’s many local ideological differences in check. Cynics today suggest that this oppression not only remain in place but continue as a hedge against future divisiveness. Others contemplate divorce. Certainly, it would not be an even split; but breaking Ukraine in two, theoretically, makes it easier to halve or quarter in practice. The current military incursion in Crimea, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is stationed and the Russian Consulate has been aggressively issuing passports to ethnic Russians, serves only to reverse the course of events in Kiev, casting doubt on the efficacy of democracy in practice. Yet no real alternative exists to the modern Ukrainian nation as we know it, nor are Ukrainians talking enthusiastically about partition. So why are we?
Various vested interests have defined the protesters as terrorists, extremists, and illegally armed assemblies. Invoking the rise of the Nazi brownshirts in Germany, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has gone so far as to characterize the uprising as a brown revolution. Maidan may now be a verb, a synonym for defensive assembly—as in, to maidan—but it began humbly enough last November, when student demonstrators were mistreated by authorities. Veterans of the Afghan war came to their aid, contributing to the momentum of a nascent movement without a clear plan that, in the months to come, developed into a full-blown vote of censure against the regime, following an infusion of organized opposition and reinforcements from Western Ukraine, who came after. Painting the protesters as extremists ensures that the road to Kiev continues to pass through Moscow. But the shock troops of November were ordinary Ukrainians. Now even the police are switching sides.
Yanukovych has repeatedly said that his police are unarmed. We now know that’s not true. Sergei Loiko quotes Olga Bogomolets, chief doctor for the Maidan mobile clinic: “’The sniper or snipers worked professionally,’ she said. ‘All [protesters] are wounded in the heart or in the head. All killed by 7.62 mm caliber bullets [from Dragunov sniper rifles]. They shot to kill.’” Aleksei Golubev, a correspondent for Echo Moscow, reports: “I was working near the October Palace last night, talking with protesters. Suddenly, from somewhere above–a gunshot, an activist five paces from me falls face-up, a fountain of blood gushing from his head onto the ground. The man expired almost immediately.” Meanwhile, photographer Ilya Varlamov has captured some of the most informative photographs of the main square from the protesters’ view, and in his commentary, painted a surreal portrait of the blood-soaked city burning outside his window while peasants from the eastern provinces parade on Russian tv, claiming to be “ready to deploy to Kiev to defend ‘their president’ with pitchforks.” “The day after the storming [of the barricades],” Varlamov continues, “thousands of ordinary Kievans came out to the Maidan. Instead of work, they went to the barricades [. . .] Among the casualties are people of different ages, there are political activists, teachers, pensioners, and common office folk.” They were willing to die in order to demonstrate the fundamental difference between their cause and the opposition’s—to show the world that no Ukrainian will voluntarily lay down his life for this or any other Kremlin-backed regime. The latest news says that a call for general mobilization has gone out from Kiev to all of Ukraine. Recalling the last major Soviet invasion of a neighboring state, journalist Viktor Shenderovich writes: “I think it is more shameful today than it was for those who, as adults, experienced news of the invasion of Prague in ‘68. [. . .] We will pay dearly for what happens in the following days.”