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Friday, 10 October 2014 00:00

On the Brink: Pray for Ukraine, Strive for Ukraine

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Photo: Christian Diemer
 
Just half a year ago, buildings were burning and over 80 people were shot dead on Kyiv's
Independence Square.

 

As part of an excursion organised by the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes, Christian Diemer travels to Kyiv and meets with various figures from Ukrainian civil society, all now trying to come to terms with a post-Euromaidan world.

A return to Kyiv

Vast, elegant, full of contrasts, an ocean of green and blue with golden domes in between – this is Kyiv, capital of Ukraine, home to nearly three million inhabitants. A futuristic mix of torn-down concrete barracks, crumbling stucco façades, mirroring glass towers, some with opulent pyramid or concave roofs or bridges between each other. Seventeen per cent of Ukraine's GDP is generated here, with city-centre rents no lower than in downtown Munich. Wide as an ocean, the river Dnipro divides the city. Standing on the riverside promenade, with the roar of Porsches and Ladas, Hummers and Kamaz behind, it is hard to believe that beyond the green, tree-covered island to which the metro is heading, there is yet another river branch to cross before one even reaches the other bank.

Kyiv – capital of a state at war. And yet, nothing seems to have changed. Under the metallic blue Hilton tower, Kvas, beer, and pirogy are sold. In front of Universitets’ka metro station there is the usual crowd squeezing into the deepest underground shaft of any metro (over 100 metres). Dolce and Gabbana bags and briefcases are carried past beggars, a few weather-beaten alcoholics are sleeping under the summer sun. A hipster café with red and yellow striped wallpaper, granny lamps, granny gramophones, and roaring Russian music from the 1920s has closed, but only to reopen at a different spot.

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Photo: Christian Diemer
"A different county, a united country" scaffolding in Kyiv, September 2014.

It takes a while to see the army advertisement the streets are plastered with. Spirit and fearlessness. Glory to Ukraine! The placards periodically alternate with ads for learning French at the Institut Français: Je parle français. And you? There are flags everywhere. On Khreshchatyk, the large luxury boulevard leading to the Maydan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square, the Ukrainian flag and coat of arms is even displayed on steel scaffolding: Inaya strana – A different country on one side of the building, Edyna strana – A united country on the other. Next to it: Oriflame, Sweden. The Despicable Me figure walking over Khreshchatyk is blue and yellow anyway.

Kyiv – capital of a second revolution in the space of ten years. On the Maidan, missing paving stones act as a reminder of the dramatic events that took place here just half a year ago. Yet the square has been tidied up, the burnt buildings renovated. Instituts’ka Street, leading uphill past Hotel Ukrayina, is now closed to traffic. From late January onwards, this was the place where most of the Euromaidan victims died; between 60 and 70 on 20 February alone. Pedestrians stop in front of photos and flowers and pay their respects to the victims: Yevhen, 33, Kharkiv, beard, ponytail, youth activist. Volodymyr, 64, Kyiv, cap and moustache, pensioner. Ihor, 22, Ternopil' region, smart  shirt, student. Anatoliy, 53, Khmel'nicki region, suit and tie, village mayor. On the pavement, graffiti with the words Slava Ukrayini – Glory to Ukraine is flanked by a squared sign reminiscent of a swastika, and a smiley with its tongue sticking out.

Hotel Ukrayina, a grand, Socialist classicist block towering above Independence Square, surveys the entire scene gloomily. Somewhere up there, on one of the many roofs or storeys, at one of the windows, the snipers must have been positioned; no one can tell exactly where the deadly shots were fired from or by whom. A commission has been set up to find out and to bring those responsible to court, but the process continues to drag on. Rumour has it that it has actually been going fairly well, but keeps being postponed in order not to discourage or demoralise the members of the National Guard who are meanwhile fighting for Ukraine in the east. Others claim that at the height of the protests, there were already Russian secret service agents liaising with the Yanukovych government to cleanse the Maidan of opposition demonstrators. There is even the theory that what were at the time Ukrainian opposition forces may have been involved in some of the sniper killings, seeing that both pro-government Berkut forces and anti-government protesters were shot.

Fact-finding or counter propoganda?

It is not without symbolic connotations that Hotel Ukrayina now houses the Ukrainian Crisis Media Centre. From the place where the kraken of the old regime clung to its power in the most cowardly and ugly way, a team of committed journalists attempts to counter-steer what they call "Russia’s propaganda machine". More controversial than the immensity of Russia's propaganda efforts is the question of how to respond to them. Just a few days earlier, the Ukrainian government reported the destruction of several Russian tanks that had breached the Ukrainian frontier. Russia in turn denied this, given that as no Russian tanks have ever been on Ukrainian territory, quite logically no Russian tanks could have been destroyed. One side's word stands against another's. Russia's position is very likely to be a blatant lie; evidence of Russia's intervention in eastern Ukraine is becoming more overwhelming every day. In this specific case, however, no one knows – and quite likely ever will know – what truly happened. "We cannot do fact-finding", they say at the Crisis Media Centre. "We just give a voice to the Ukrainian position."

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Photo: Christian Diemer
Hotel Ukrayina, formerly Hotel Moskva, gloomily surveying  Independence Square in Kyiv - August 2014.

Fair enough: while Ukraine did not, until recently, have an institution for foreign PR at all, Russia's external PR is powerfully funded and internationally well-connected. Well enough connected even to widely infiltrate readers' comments on western European online news sites, or to provide TV channels with lists of  "experts" on Ukraine who, when invited to speak, regurgitate the Kremlin's bulletins nearly verbatim. While Ukrainians are rarely seen in West European TV discussions, Russia has widely succeeded in making not only the overwhelming majority of the Russian, but even parts of the western European audience suspect that fascists have taken power in Ukraine to plague the Russian-speaking minority, or even that the USA or NATO staged the Maidan revolution. The two largest German broadcasting companies don’t even have a branch in the capital of largest European country. They report from Moscow. 

Time for Ukraine to launch a counter-propaganda? The line is fine and morally delicate. Sometimes, rather than being able to prove the opposite, may it be that the only possibility is to lie back?

The German reverend and the "revolution of dignity"

Kyiv – capital of hills and slopes. Uphill again, right behind the Bessarabskiy Rynok and the Roshen showroom store, one of the most up-market areas of the city: the protestant church. The Maidan is only a few hundred metres away, but Reverend Haska has been close to it in more than just terms of spatial proximity. "I was walking down Instituts'ka towards the Maidan and saw the Berkut go back, and I remember myself thinking: this is a trap. Then a large man runs towards me, into my arms, crying, talking, he had just taken two of his friends dying from the barricade."

This was on 20 January, and Reverend Haska found himself witnessing the first victims of the revolution. "A revolution of dignity", he calls it. "I have lived long enough in this country to understand why the people took to the streets. It was understandable. And it was fair." And thus long before the first lives were claimed, he decided to open the doors of his church. A stone's throw away from the tent camp on the Maidan, protesters could use the church's toilet, charge their phones, warm up from the icy winter temperatures.

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Photo: Christian Diemer

The wounds are still fresh: flowers and candles on Vulitsa Instituts'ka, where most people were shot during the Euromaidan protests - August 2014.

Reverend Haska is not a man given to self-satisfaction. "I would have never expected my church to become such an important centre for the revolution. We were not able to act, only to react. That is all I did." In the beginning they tried to organise the work to be done through provisional work schedules, but they turned out to be rubbish. "Things worked out nevertheless."

When the violence escalated at the end of January, the church was gradually transformed into a temporary  hospital, although only minor injuries or those already on the road to recovery could be supported. People did not want to go to the public hospital because Berkut forces used to intrude and detain injured demonstrators. "Officially, we did not talk about injured people in my church, but about guests."

"Of course we were afraid that the police forces might storm the church. But from the very beginning we had our doors open for them as well. Our fellows went out to them on the street with tea cans. It would happen – rarely – that the police and the demonstrators would sit at one table here in my church."

What is such a priest's take on the current war in the east? "I will be very clear about that: I consider it right. What happens in the east of Ukraine is not a war that Ukraine wishes for, but a war that is forced upon it. It has to defend itself against terrorists, and, increasingly, against Russian aggression." Reverend Haska would not see this as conflicting with his Christian conviction: "Life has to be safeguarded, and that happens through helmets and a bulletproof vest. Yes, of course, blessed are the meek. But those are the people that shot down MH-17, that killed the Lithuanian General Consul – with such people? Sorry."

After the meeting, Reverend Haska goes down to his church. He prays for peace.

The babies of Euromaidan

Kyiv – capital of the activists. Mykola Rybachuk has founded Chesno (Honestly), a platform monitoring levels of corruption among politicans. At the successful online TV channel Hromadske, journalists fed up with  oligarchic media influence pool their talents and try to shape objective, fair media coverage on the goings-on in their country. Artists comment on the political situation at Pinchuk Art Gallery: decorative wall plates, instructively depicting the methods of torture employed by Berkut forces: door edge against knuckle. 

The Civic Sector of Euromaidan tries to educate people for the transformation the country needs to undergo. Its office is in a backyard university classroom. Heavy oil paintings of former rectors look down augustly from the wall. Narrow, wooden school desks from Soviet times press on a linoleum floor. The air does not seem to have seen a fresh breeze since the days of Lenin.

"We are a bridge between the old political system and the new society that was born on the Maidan", explains Katerina, a tall young woman with white-blond, short hair, accurately slicked back. Nervously glancing around, never looking into the eyes of the person opposite her for longer than a few seconds, she appears both tireless and nervous. Together with Olek, Elena, and some other young activists, they are the remnants of the tens of thousands who stood on the Maidan half a year ago.

And they are determined to carry on: "People did not take to the streets primarily for EU accession. They went to change the system. Our president Yanukovych was a president of the Russian Federation. He is gone. But the old system is still there." Putting their faith in education, the Civic Sector organises panel discussions, meetings of young leaders, concerts, clothes collections. But is the problem really that people do not know about what needs to change? With an average monthly salary of around 200 euro, what is the point in teaching the young teacher, doctor, caseworker not to take a bribe? He or she will have to take it anyway, "they have to go home and feed their family. Of course they state should pay them appropriately instead. But it doesn’t."

Wouldn't it be better to found a party then, a lobby organisation, to promote a draft law to raise the minimal wage? Katerina notably doesn't like the critical question. "You cannot change a system that you are part of." And in order to found a party in Ukraine, a lot of money is needed, money that will make you dependent on your benefactor. If there's one thing for sure, Katerina doesn't want to be dependent. "I don't trust anyone. I don't trust the new president because he is an oligarch just like the old one, he has just given his company away to his mother – hello, to his mother?!" Katerina shrugs in disgust. "I want to vote against everyone, but I can't even do that any more! The option was abolished from the ballot paper."

How do they want to make people trust in democracy if they themselves mistrust it so fundamentally? "OK! I am a bad person that does not care about the country. We have a war and I don't even vote. Look, I have spent half my salary for voluntary activism!" Katerina buries her hands in her face and turns around angrily. "Choose", she snaps, "Do something! Don't be a vegetable! That's all I say!" In this moment she looks like if all the hopes and expectations of the Maidan revolution are on her shoulders, and she, in her backyard university room, is fighting a lonesome battle against everyone: the old forces, the new forces, the Russian forces, the indifferent, the lazy, and even the critical-hypocritical ignorance of the foreigners questioning her.

"People did not take to the streets primarily for EU accession. They went to change the system."

 

"There were a million people on Maidan. They all showed that we can live better. This", Katerina adds quietly, "was the happiest time of my life. And even though they have meanwhile all gone home, well, at least… they are still posting on Facebook…" Kateryna seems to have tears in her eyes, tears of anger, frustration, maybe even nostalgia.  

The men on the oil paintings look down on her severely. The clock at the wall points to ten to nine. The hand doesn't move. It stands still.

Kyiv – capital of an uncertain future. The war and its economic implications make it basically impossible to tackle any sincere reforms. An evening beer on rainy Maidan. Hotel Ukrayina, Khreshchatyk in sight, you can’t get any more downtown than this. The beer costs 13 hrivna. Half a year ago, 1 euro equalled 10 hrivna. Two days ago 16 hrivna. Today 17. The beer costs 70 cents. No tourists around. Kyiv deserted. This is one of the moments in which an abyss opens and reveals a perfectly normal capital, in free fall.

 

From 25  30 August, Christian Diemer participated in an excursion to Kyiv, organised by fellows of the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes (German National Academic Foundation). With more than 12,400 scholars, the Studienstiftung is the largest and oldest of thirteen organisations that provide support for particularly gifted students in Germany. It is politically independent, non-denominational and socially diverse, reflecting the entire spectrum of German society. As well as numerous representatives of international and governmental institutions, the delegation met Reverend Haska from the German Protestant Church, Mykola Rybachuk from Chesno, the Ukrainian Crisis Media Centre, Hromadske.tv, and international relations students from the Taras Shevchenko State University.

Next article in this series: V for Villainy

Back to the Introduction

Independenc...
Independence Square Independence Square
Vulitsa Sym...
Vulitsa Symona Petlyury Vulitsa Symona Petlyury
Vulitsa Ins...
Vulitsa Instituts'ka Vulitsa Instituts'ka
Near Vulits...
Near Vulitsa Kreshchatyk Near Vulitsa Kreshchatyk
An ocean of...
An ocean of green and blue with golden domes in between An ocean of green and blue with golden domes in between
Kyiv, capit...
Kyiv, capital of hills and slopes Kyiv, capital of hills and slopes
Bentleys an...
Bentleys and beggars Bentleys and beggars
"Slava Ukra...
"A differen...
St. Andrew’...
St. Andrew’s Church St. Andrew’s Church
Near Bessar...
Near Bessarabskiy Rynok Near Bessarabskiy Rynok
Andriyivs’k...
Andriyivs’kyy Uzviz Andriyivs’kyy Uzviz
The wounds ...
The wounds are still fresh The wounds are still fresh
Evhen, yout...
Evhen, youth activist from Kharkiv Evhen, youth activist from Kharkiv
Kyiv, capit...
Kyiv, capital of contrasts Kyiv, capital of contrasts
Hotel Ukray...
Hotel Ukrayina Hotel Ukrayina

 

Last modified on Sunday, 25 January 2015 20:01
Christian Diemer

Christian Diemer, 28, is from Rottweil in South Germany. Having studied musicology, arts management, and composition in Weimar, he is now writing from Berlin and obscure spots in East Europe, where he is currently working on his PhD thesis about traditional music in Ukraine. 

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