Ukrainians don’t trust the government they fought for

(Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko)
(Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko)
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Though fanfare of this weekend’s commemoration of the Maidan Revolution has worn off, solitary Ukrainians can still be seen pacing silently across Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan Nezhalestnosti.

On Sunday evening, Feb. 22, the four jumbotrons that had been erected in the center of the square were still playing a slideshow of the faces of the “Heavenly Hundred,” some 100 protesters and volunteers killed during the Maidan Revolution this time last year. An old Ukrainian mourning song was looping in the background. The square glimmered from the light of hundreds of candles that bounced off the bright reds and yellows of flowers honoring the dead.

The stage from which President Petro Poroshenko addressed the crowd on Friday evening, Feb. had yet to be taken down. It was the one-year anniversary of the uprising that ousted former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, and threw the country into a state of war. Dubbed “the revolution of dignity” by the event organizers, many in Kiev questioned the utility of such proceedings in the midst of war.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko addresses a crowd in Independence Square on the anniversary of the Euromaidan protests. (Linda Kinstler)
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko addresses a crowd in Independence Square on the anniversary of the Euromaidan protests. (Linda Kinstler)

“Maidan was the beginning of great processes, and they have just castrated it and named it the ‘dignity revolution,’” said Abdullah, a volunteer fighter with the Donbass balation. (He declined to give his full name.) “It was not for dignity that hundreds of people gave their lives, but for true transformations, social revolution and a new way of living. It’s like, ‘fiddle while Rome is burning, feast in times of plague,’” he told me, citing Nero.

Abdullah recently returned to Kiev after being held captive by rebels in eastern Ukraine, and doesn’t plan on going back to the frontline until he sees the government has made progress in enacting promised reforms. “You can imagine how much this 20-meter long stage cost. They could have bought some vehicles for the ATO [anti-terrorist operation] instead. It’s like spitting in our faces,” he said. “We shouldn’t start any military uprisings right now—it’s really dangerous. We should organize, support democratic transformations, and gain strength for further revolutions.”

He was hardly the only one who alluded to a “third Maidan,” and inquired about the cost of the production, which featured elaborate lighting and technical features, including towering light beams (the “rays of dignity,” styled after New York’s 9/11 memorial) and bright red spotlights pointed toward the bloodiest locations of last February’s battle.

“Our idea was to change the notion of Heavenly Hundred from numbers to faces… to create a feeling of community” Sergii Proskurnia, the director of the production, told me. All of the technical equipment, including the stage, was donated by various production companies, and an anonymous donor provided the rest of the funding; no government money went toward the production, nor did the controversial ministry of culture weigh in on the program, according to Proskurnia. “Everyone wants to make it new, not like the communists did it,” he said. The government, however, did not make where the funding for the event came from widely known, leaving the public to wonder how the hypothetical cash might have been put to better use.

The “Hundred Faces” illuminated on jumbotrons overlooking Independence Square. (Linda Kinstler)
The “Hundred Faces” illuminated on jumbotrons overlooking Independence Square. (Linda Kinstler)

On Monday, Feb. 23, the day after the ceremonies concluded, Ukraine’s ministry of information policy clarified only that “light boxes were allocated under [its] auspices.”

Those lines of questioning are contributing to mounting criticism of the current government, which is advancing with reforms slower than the public would prefer. “We shall paint it blue and yellow, and everything will be fine,” is how Valerii Pekar, a local entrepreneur, described that approach. Indeed, the charred remains of the Trade Union building set on fire during last February’s protests have been covered up with a giant blue and yellow banner that reads, “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”

“People are fed up, but that’s what our enemy wants us to do and say,” Yuliya Tychkivska, vice president of the Kiev School of Economics, told me. Despite participating in diplomatic talks with Poroshenko’s administration, Russia’s propaganda machine is continuing its efforts to discredit the new government’s legitimacy. On February, for example, RT posted a video criticizing Poroshenko for laughing during Sunday’s “March of Dignity,” which was modeled after the Unity March in Paris in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings.

It was no accident that when Poroshenko stepped up to address the nation on Feb. 20, his worn face framed by a giant, digitized Ukrainian flag, he prefaced with a line from the patron saint of Ukrainian literature, Taras Shevchenko: “Keep fighting—you are sure to win! God helps you in your fight! For fame and freedom march with you, and truth is on your side!”

It’s a line from “The Caucasus,” Shevchenko’s ode to those who fought against Russian aggression in the mountainous region in 1845, the same poem that was recited from the barricades by 21-year-old Serhiy Nihoyan, one of the first protesters killed exactly one year ago in that very spot.

Shevchenko’s revolutionary poetry was censored during Ukraine’s Soviet era, when students were prohibited from reading his more rebellious works. The weekend’s memorial ceremonies were an attempt to “rebrand” Shevchenko as a newly defiant, invigorated national figure, part of “the creation of a new Ukrainian character,” as Proskurnia described it.

Flowers and candles placed at the foot of a monument to Taras Shevchenko in Kiev. (Linda Kinstler)
Flowers and candles placed at the foot of a monument to Taras Shevchenko in Kiev. (Linda Kinstler)

But Ukraine’s living poets may be a better indicator of the state of the nation. Sergey Zhadan, one of the most popular Ukrainian poets alive today, was beaten up by pro-Russian demonstrators in Kharkiv last spring. It was before Kharkiv’s towering Shevchenko monument that, on Feb. 20, mourners laid flowers and lit candles honoring the four people killed in a “terrorist act” against a peaceful march commemorating the revolution the day before. “It became clear that it’s very easy to lose everything: all of your freedom, your country, stability, everything that you had,” Zhadan told me. “But for a lot of people, little has changed. They live in this post-Soviet discourse, watch Russian television, listen to Russian radio, see the world through Russian eyes. They don’t get why there’s war here, who started it, and why it won’t end.” Zhadan is planning a cultural festival for civilians still living in Slavyansk and Donetsk for later this spring.

Earlier this month, another terrorist attack targeted the home of Boris Khersonsky, another famous Ukrainian poet, in Odessa. “It’s obvious—this war couldn’t be won. We have a very powerful enemy. Not everybody in Ukraine believes Russia is the enemy, even now. If the West supported us immediately, it could be a different story,” Khersonsky told me. “Russian media doesn’t say ‘eastern Ukraine,’ they say ‘southeast.’ So that means Odessa, Kherson, Mariupol.” If the separatists come to his city, Kherksonsky will take his cats and leave.

“We will withstand and preserve the state only if we preserve unity, avoid any internal discord and do not let the fifth column break up our unity!” Poroshenko declared to the assembled crowd that Friday evening. “I am confident that we will manage to do that. We have demonstrated that on the front, and will now prevent the opening of the internal front, over which the special forces of the neighboring state are persistently working by spreading fear, panic, disbelief in our powers and distrust of Ukrainians in one another.” But he was careful to downplay expectations: “If we stop the war, everyone will see the changes of Ukraine in a few years.” The fourth mobilization is underway, and the war is unlikely to abate, despite the false promise of the recent Minsk agreement.

“In war, we can forget about economics, about restoration of buildings, nearly about everything. We are very interested in finishing the war,” Khersonsky explained. “But to finish the war is to recognize that we lost the battle. That is impossible.”