Students of the revolution: where are you now

A student protester during Euromaidan

A student protester during Euromaidan 

2015/10/12 • Analysis & Opinion

Article by: Olesya Bida, Mariya Vasylyeva, Niklas Zimmermann

It was the brutal police dispersal of the student protest on Kyiv’s Maidan square on 30 November 2013 that sparked nation-wide indignation and million-attendance protests that would three months later result in the ouster of then-president Yanukovych. Follow the the journeys of four students to see how Euromaidan changed their lives, and how they are changing Ukraine today.
The "Student Maidan" - prior to its violent dispersal on November 2013. Photo: Ihor Butenko

The “Student Maidan” – prior to its violent dispersal on November 2013. Photo: Ihor Butenko

The thoughtful 

Andriy on the stage of Rivne's Maidan protests

Andriy on the stage of Rivne’s Maidan

Andriy had dropped out from university two times, being unsatisfied with the Ukrainian education system. However, at the time when protesters in cities all over Ukraine joined the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv, he became the leader of the Student coordinating council in his native city Rivne and fully accomplished his goal to gather all the students and persuade them to join the revolution. After the success of the Euromaidan revolution in February 2014, Andriy traded different jobs, from being a security guard at  the trade center and chocolate factory to an editor in a publishing house. Because of his frustration about the unfinished revolution Andriy cut himself off from the outer world for months. Right now he’s ready to move on and make changes in his community.

Back in December 2013, when massive protest movements were just starting to take off in different cities all over Ukraine in sync  with those in Kyiv, Andriy decided that he would rather become a full-time protester than go to his office. Weeks later, he would become one of the leaders of Rivne’s Students coordinating council and work towards the daunting goal of mobilizing Rivne’s youth to leave their everyday lives to make a revolution. He recalls that students were always in jeopardy: “There were people who dropped out halfway, were not ready to stand till the end because of the danger they faced. Not only was it about bad grades or being expelled from university, it was also about possible imprisonment for 10-15 years.”

Andriy’s main duty on Maidan was to gather students and make their actions and strikes organized and peaceful. Most of students were passive and frustrated: “Young people were not willing to act. Most of them just expected that someone has to make efforts and change something in their country.” However, some were able to take a stand, asking Andriy and other members of Student coordinating council to come to their university and to disrupt their classes so that they would be able to join actions.

Today, Andriy is disappointed in the results of the Revolution. “My expectations weren’t fulfilled. Many of those that controlled the country before are still performing the same duties.” The activist is persuaded that much money is still being stolen, though this process became more difficult to be done since it now can be detected more easily.

The Revolution still exists in me, but it is no longer against Yanukovych, it is against our local ‘Yanukovyches.’

However, he is not discouraged. Having finally enrolled in a university, he wants to get a degree, as well as improve the education system. “It is actually not that difficult to do,” he laughs. “For instance, I never give bribes and I believe that even being a good example for others can be my input to improvement.” He also wants to create socially-useful websites. “They will inform people about public initiatives, new projects and persuade people to participate in them.” There are many initiatives to promote – Rivne’s youth scene has become much more active after the revolution.

The citizen

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Pavlo on Maidan. The barricades are visible in the background

Pavlo was among the student organizers the first protests on Euromaidan in Kyiv. However, this economics student at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy is far from being a revolutionary. In his activities, he consistently follows bourgeois principles: Non-violence, self-responsibility, meritocracy, and civic engagement.

You may get an impression of a dreamy idealist when you see Pawlo with his curly-head drinking tea at the hipster style lounge in the former backyard of Kyiv Mohyla-Academy. Nevertheless, this and his current engagement for the „Samosad“– an ecological picnic area in Kyiv Podil – does not mean that Pawlo wants to teach others about what and how to do.

Everything depends on my own action and responsibility

According to Pavlo, the recent events in Ukraine were about the battle between the “homo sovieticus” who seeks salvation from an omnipotent leader and a new generation who is able to determine its fate by its own action.

Back in November 2013, when news spread that Yanukovych didn’t sign the EU Association Agreement, he was extremely angry because of what he described as a “coup” to move his country towards Russia. With friends from his hometown Kirovohrad, as well as Crimea and Luhansk he went to Kyiv’s central square on the very first night of the protests. The next day Pavlo called upon students from his Academy to take action. “You will get into trouble,” he received a threatening phone call by the ministry of education. However, the students of Mohyla academy were not afraid and formed a strike committee and connected with strike committees of other universities.

In the first days of protest, students were the dominant group. There was even a “shouting challenge” between the students of different universities at Maidan. But student impact was decreased not only by the exam period: the students were also split up between two camps – a minority of those that wanted to violently overthrow the government, and a majority that expressed their discontent by non-violent and creative action, to which Pavlo belonged. As he says, they did not follow any radical visions and just wanted to live in a “normal European country” under the rule of law.

After Maidan, Pavlo did not come back to everyday life as many colleagues did. First he was involved in monitoring hitmen who were terrorizing people on Kyiv streets even after the Yanukovych government fell. Later, he joined the Patriot Defense initiative group which provides first aid kits and instructions to Ukrainian soldiers. After that, he began to get involved in building up local communities – a good example is Samosad, an urban garden project in downtown Kyiv. Pavlo firmly believes that the future of Ukraine lies in small communities in which active people change their immediate surroundings for the better. This is in good accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, which is fundamental to the functioning of the EU – that social problems should be dealt with not by the central state but at the most immediate level.

Apart from activities for the society in general, Pawlo is also involved in university politics. He helped to re-establish a student council at Mohyla academy. Howeмer, most of the students “don’t care” about it, as Pavlo says. Only 10% participated in its election. “You were working and shouting on Maidan but now you have a real opportunity to change things,” he expresses his disappointment about the return into pre-Maidan passivity. When it comes to Pavlo’s general idea about the education system in Ukraine there is a remarkable difference to student activists in Western Europe who want to provide scholarships for everybody studying at the university. In Ukraine, where (albeit modest) scholarships are abundant, Pavlo wants to drastically cut the amount of students who receive them. He denies that he wants to exclude children from lower class families but “we should stop spending money for not very smart people.” Also, the number of universities in Ukraine, currently 500, should be reduced. In return, Pawlo wants to increase salaries of teachers who should have more time to conduct research.

The fighter

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Roman with his brother-in-arms in Donbas

Roman does not remember last 6 months of his life, because he spent them in the hospital. Despite the fact that Roman was an active participant of Maidan in Rivne and Kyiv, he can’t remember when he joined it. In fact, it doesn’t matter for Roman, because those events are not as important as his actions in the anti-terrorist operation in Donbas (ATO).

Back to the events in November 2013: some days after Maidan in Kyivб people in Rivne also began to gather on the central square. The local government was trying to prevent it, but activists put the first tent up there, starting the local revolution. Students were but a meager minority among them.  Roman, who was a student of a local college, says that their administration was forcing students to go to the camp of the pro-government protesters, Antimaidan. Firstly Roman was going around all universities and calling students to join the national movement. Some days later he went to Kyiv as a supporter of the Svoboda political party. “It was more emotional than a conscious choice for me,” Roman says.

In February 2014, during the most intense events of the protests in Kyiv, Roman decided to join a more radical political party and nationalistic organization,Right Sector, whose participants were ready for drastic actions. Together with them, he was throwing Molotov cocktails on vul. Hrushevskoho.

The period after Euromaidan’s victory in February 2014, when Russian soldiers started a masked occupation of Crimea, and an Russian-instigated insurgency arose in Ukraine’s Eastern regions, was the most difficult for Roman. He understood that he couldn’t stay at home anymore and passively watch the takeover of his own country. The military commissariat rejected Roman’s request to join the army four times. They didn’t want to register an 18-year-old old student. Roman found a way out: he went to the ATO as a volunteer soldier from Right Sector, without pay or benefits from the government.

He recalls that his first serious battle experience came when their driver accidentally delivered them into terrorist-occupied territory of Donbas, where they found themselves under mortar attack. Soon, he found himself in the frontline village of Pisky, next to the Donetsk airport, the epicenter of daily fierce battles between Ukrainian forces and Russia’s hybrid army. It was at that airport that Roman got injured: “I took off my helmet for several seconds and then a mine exploded near me.” Roman spent the next 6 months in hospitals. Doctors didn’t expect to save him. Volunteers, the Right Sector members, and his parents collected money for his treatment. Now Roman is continuing it in Rivne. He doesn’t receive money from government, as the Right Sector unit refuses to be subordinated under central army command, consequently not receiving money from government.

Roman wants to come back to the East, but it’s impossible for him now. However, he doesn’t give up and now he is a trainer for volunteers, who will soon go to the East of Ukraine in order to defend their homeland. Right now it’s the only way that he can serve his country.

The emigrant

Marina protesting at Kyiv's Maidan square

Marina protesting at Kyiv’s Maidan square

Marina studied economics at the Ukrainian State University of Finance and International Trade in Kyiv. With her colleagues she went on Maidan to demonstrate. However, like many fellow students who joined the protests, she did not become active in social and political activities after Maidan. She wants to become a good professional. Therefore, she will leave to Slovak capital Bratislava for her Master.

“Ukrainian people woke up” is the first thing that comes into Marina’s mind when she thinks back to the events on Maidan. The revolution brought a new sense of togetherness among Ukrainian people, who nowadays are more kind to each other, says Marina. She came to Kyiv’s Maidan three times. Three colleagues from university and one teacher joined her – even though the University officially prohibited participation. They were neither shouting nor initiating actions. Marina and her companions went on Maidan to get their own impression of the protests.

Marina says that nothing changed after the Maidan events at her university. There were neither staff changes nor new approaches in teaching methods or student participation. However, Marina also admits that before and after Maidan she never seeked for active participation in social and political activities. “I think I’m not the person who can change something,” Marina says.

However, she is not satisfied with the economic situation and the educational system in Ukraine – otherwise there would be no reason for her to leave the country and to begin her Master in economics in Bratislava. “I think the education in European countries is of a higher quality,” she says. She wants to get the best possible education for her long-term goal to work as an economist in European countries. To prepare she spent the second half of 2014 as an exchange student in the Polish city Wroclaw. Marina likes her country but she does not consider herself patriotic enough to wait until things change to the point that she could fulfill her goals also in in Ukraine.

From a hierarchical culture towards horizontal collaboration

Mychailo Wynnyckyj

“Students were of primary importance during the first phase of Maidan,” Mychailo Wynnickyj, a professor  at the Kyiv-Mohyla academy, says. It was the brutal attack of the police on the camp of students on 30 November 2013 that sparked the first wide protests of more than a million people. When events on Maidan turned violent, students took on more supportive roles. Student impact was limited by lack of organisation and almost non-existent student self-government in Ukraine. Furthermore, the students in Ukraine have less experience in self-entrepreneurial initiatives than students in Western Europe and Northern America do. “There is no such culture that in Ukraine yet but it seems to be starting right now,” says Wynnickyj, noting that nowadays students do seem to be more socially engaged than in pre-Maidan times.  “However, this is something that needs time. It is not going to happen overnight,” says Wynnyckyj.

According to him, Ukraine is currently in a process of changing from a hierarchical culture towards more horizontal collaboration. Students change their mentality much quicker than adults do, and already today university administrations are resistant to that kind of change.

This article is based on research that was conducted within the framework of the Summer School “Historicity and Post-Revolution – a Journalistic Retrospective in the Maidan Movement throughout the Country”, organised by the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and the Lectureship Program of the Robert-Bosch-Foundation in Kyiv. For more information about the project please visit this homepage and blog.

Edited by: Alya Shandra

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