Imagine an absolutely ordinary life in a country whose people have endured deep crises for many generations. These crises happen so often that the people have somehow learned to live with them. Crisis or not, life is for living.
Imagine a beautiful country with mountains, forests, fields, a warm sea, a mild climate, and particularly fertile land that you can plant a stick in and it will blossom. At least that’s what your grandmother said.
It is very easy to be proud of your country if you are a Ukrainian. It is easy to be proud while at the same time feeling the pain of those who have been persecuted and insulted for generations. Constant changes in borders, annexations, occupations, all of these have been shifting the people from one regime to another, from one language to another. Millions of Ukrainians suffered from a famine artificially induced by Soviet rule.
During World War II there was an unbearably ambiguous moment when you had to choose between two disasters, and some had to choose between two monsters. Then there was the Chernobyl catastrophe a couple of miles away from the Ukrainian capital, the lies of the powerful, whose priorities were anything but the protection of the people. Then came the economic collapse of 1990s, which pushed many people below the poverty line while enriching a handful of others. Then there was the lost opportunity of the Orange Revolution, whose leaders turned out to be no better than their predecessors.
If you are a Ukrainian you carry all this history and, above all, you are proud that you have survived. Sometimes, it’s a cruel pride accompanied by a hunt for those responsible for all the misery in this country. The ultra-nationalists in Ukraine are obsessed with digging in the past looking for the responsible parties; they are hostile to their Russian neighbor, as they are not expecting anything but disaster to come from it. It’s worth noting that the neighbor is doing its best to confirm all the allegations of its own hostility. This kind of nationalism couldn’t care less about the challenges of modern society, globalization, and immigration; these people are just sick of their country’s past.
For Ukrainians who grew up in the eastern regions of the country, Soviet history is their history, and they are not ready to give it up despite all of the hurtful memories, like the Stalin repressions that were especially cruel in Eastern Ukraine. For them, Russia is a neighbor and a cousin that doesn’t really have such a fearsome face. The choice is difficult to make.
However, whether you live in the East or West, if you are a Ukrainian you don’t trust the politicians. Elections, authorities, political tensions and splits, none of this concerns you. It didn’t concern your parents or your grandparents, either.
It’s similar in France, you would say. Not really. In France we complain about the diseases of the political system, at the same time assuming that theoretically there exists a working political system somewhere. For a Ukrainian (and for a Russian in the same way), politics cannot serve society. The best politician is the one who cause the least trouble and does not interfere in the lives of the people too much.
This is because you, I would like to remind you, have to live your own life, do your work, build your house, take care of your family, and also have your moments of joy. Most of all, you want to be left alone, to be able to live your life and hope that the insanity of the next politicians won’t turn your world upside down.
You have travelled extensively throughout Europe. Even if you haven’t travelled, you definitely have a TV that tells you there is a different life out there. You see how in detective movies policemen help ordinary people and, unwillingly, you compare them to the police demanding bribes on every mile of road.
Your child is watching a TV show where a student can say, “Yes, I’ve done it! I’ve got my diploma,” while you count the money in the envelopes you’re preparing for the deans. Your old mother does not receive the medical help she needs simply because you don’t have the money. You have to pay everyone to open your own business.
You are given hints that this is not something you want to write about if you are a journalist. You know the exact price list for the bribes if you work as an MP. You see how cities are filled with Lexus, Porsches, and BMWs, and you also see the people in them. The general atmosphere is becoming stifling and everyday life unbearable because it’s being bound by the ropes of corruption and cynicism.
One day the last drop falls. It’s no coincidence that it is the day when the president refuses to sign the EU association deal. Of course, this signature would not have changed anything in your life, but this refusal means that nobody will do anything to help your life become more like the lives of Europeans. That day, everyone who understood it went out to Maidan. The next day, everyone who had had enough but who had lacked a spark.
Workers and intellectuals, liberals and ultra-nationalists, entrepreneurs and politicians have united and are coexisting on Maidan. They are held together by a very simple idea: we live in a beautiful country, we love it, we are its citizens, and our demands must be met because those in power have crossed the line and must resign.
Resign? How? Who will replace them? With which project? Maidan does not have the answers; these answers cannot be given, as faith in politicians is nonexistent. Maidan lets some people represent themselves but they do so without much enthusiasm, so some leave and delegate their representation to others.
Imagine that you are a Ukrainian and you have been living in a tent city in the center of Kyiv for several weeks. You sleep in a tent and take shifts at the barricades. You share meals with your neighbor, you listen to the protests all nights long, you sing, you stand guard, you answer journalists’ questions. You are ever more confident in the fact that you represent the Ukrainian nation and ever more confident in your main objective: those in power must resign. The people whom you represent, the time that you have spent here, everything ensures you that your protest must be heard.
However, the only answer is radio silence.
The strangest and least talked about aspect of the Ukrainian protests is the unbelievable silence of those in power, who have been pretending for over two months that nothing is happening in Kyiv, and if there is something happening, it is beneath notice. Yanukovych is impressed by neither the strength of the people’s will nor the severity of the social trouble the protesters have been decrying.
Maidan has been waiting patiently for a long time. The government has been waiting a long time for the protesters to get tired and go home, because it’s winter and everyone wants to go back home and back to work.
Instead of going home, the people were overtaken by anger and impatience. During the last weeks, it has been clear that Maidan was militarizing. First, some groups marched in columns, then they divided into sotnias, then the women’s sotnia was organized, and then uniforms and basic equipment appeared. The commander of the tent city gradually became a commander of an armed force, trying to hold back the wave of violence and channel the energy into training. Officially, the army of Maidan is a defensive army, and it has stayed a defensive army as long as it could.
If you are a young Ukrainian who has been sleeping in a tent for over two months, then you want to do something the government will notice and thus make them understand that you have something to say. So you grab some makeshift weapon and go.
Armed criminals infiltrated by neo-nationalists? Oh, come on. People of all stripes are bound to vent their anger after months of self-control, including ultra-nationalists. Afterwards, Small Ukrainians come, a bit older and a bit less trained, but ready to support the fight in any way they can. No protests have been violently dispersed in Ukraine since Soviet times. Maidan has changed stupor into rage.
If you are an ordinary Ukrainian you would love to go back to your normal life. But how is it possible?
Anna Colin Lebedev is a doctor of political sociology, co-founder of French-Belarussian Center for European Studies (Minsk), CERCEC (Rearch center for studies of Russia, Caucasus and Central Europe) researcher, author of books on the movements of ‘soldiers’ mothers’: “Le cœur politique des mères” (published by EHESS) and “Les petits soldats: le combat des mères russes” (with Valentina Melnikova, published by Bayard)
Originally posted in French at http://blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/anna-colin-lebedev/190214/imaginez-vous-ukrainien
Translated by Oksana Poliakova
Edited by Robin Rohrback