By Doniphan Blair
AFTER a ten-hour haul in hard rain, Dirk Grosser driving like an amphibious drag racer, the storm breaks, the sky clears, and we walk the five blocks from our funky hostel onto Ukraine’s main stage, Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square. It is a momentous feeling.
This is where it all began, both the massive, months-long protests in 2013, which stopped the kleptocratic, Russophile president, Viktor Yanukovych, and started what can be called Ukraine’s renaissance, and the escalatory overreaction.
After the killing of over 100 protestors didn’t stop the movement, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Crimea and Ukraine’s eastern provinces and, eight years later, the entire country, which is now Europe’s worst war since World War Two.
Putin had to attack the democracy developing on his doorstep simply because, if Ukrainians and Russians are so alike and integrated, as he keeps saying, Russians will want democracy, too.
Ukraine isn’t releasing casualty figures for security reasons, and the Russian Federation’s are unreliable, but total deaths have probably passed 400,000, according to recent estimates, notably by the renown historian, Yale University professor and Ukraine expert and language speaker, Timothy Snyder.
Ukraine may have suffered as many as 200,000 casualties, around half civilian, some of whom were also victims of torture. Almost a third of all Ukrainians have taken refuge, some four million abroad and eight million internally, with up to four million deported involuntarily into Russia.
On October 10th, Russia began a strategic bombing campaign against infrastructure, which will kill many more civilians during the winter.
As it happens, the Russian tanks barreling down Ukraine’s highway M-07 toward Kyiv on February 24th, 2022, were also trying to get to the Maidan.
It is bigger than I expect, over two football pitches, with 19th century buildings on one side and modern ones on the other. This being Sunday—September 11th, oddly enough—and with the sky still full of dark clouds, the Maidan is empty save a smattering of soldiers on leave, tight-skirted women sipping Ukraine’s ubiquitous strong coffee, and vendors of patriotic, yellow-blue wrist bands with sad eyes. There are no soldiers on guard, as far as I can see, but scattered around like overgrown toy jacks are tank barriers, the so-called “hedgehogs,” or “yizhaky” in Ukrainian, some painted like child toys, others stacked like modern art. They are the only indicator of the war raging 250 miles to the east or south.
“There were many business people on Maidan,” Kirill, a handsome, bearded and genial 34-year-old, who directs and edits television commercials and is writing a romantic comedy, tells Redaction. He loves old Woody Allen movies. I met Kirill a week earlier in Lviv, the quaint, cobblestoned café city in Ukraine’s west which serves as its San Francisco and is somewhat shielded from the war in the east.
Kirill recounted his many days and couple of nights on the Maidan in 2014, to which he commuted from the south-eastern city of Dnipro, now under Russian bombardment.
“I saw head of Ukraine’s Microsoft on Maidan. There were many older people,” he said.
The Ukrainian language doesn’t have articles of grammar, so Ukrainians often omit them in English, including the “the” in their country’s former name, The Ukraine.
“I still translate from Russian to Ukrainian to English,” admitted Kirill, who was raised speaking Russian, as were a third of his compatriots, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, part of Ukraine’s long tradition of being bilingual, trilingual or quadrilingual.
Middle class Ukrainians often speak some or decent English, which they start studying in high school and continue while listening to rock. Kirill is a fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival, to which he was introduced by his father on cassette tape.
“There were even babushkas,” grandmothers in Ukrainian and Russian but also Yiddish, added Alena, Kirill’s girlfriend, who is in her early 20s, paints and is studying web design but could side hustle modeling. There were also priests, doctors, lawyers, teachers and entrepreneurs, although the vast majority were young people, not as many women as men, workers and students (including high schoolers), nationalists and anarchists, skinheads and hipsters.
Ukraine has a large cohort of tattooed-pierced, who wear their story on their skin: men with significant neck or face work, often referencing girlfriends, women with colorful “sleeve” murals and multiple piercings. A 40-something cashier at a small supermarket near where I lived for six weeks in Lviv, who had a ready smile when ringing me up, had a Chinese character on her neck.
“It was like a big family,” I was told by Artur, 22, whom I met on the Maidan six days later. Artur is a graphic designer, skater and fan of all things Californian, including the spiky hairstyle he sports. After two weeks battling baton-wielding police, the Maidan protestors settled into a few months of occupation, punctuated by marches, rallies and more police attacks. “There were big pots of tea cooking everywhere, people playing football, playing music, discussing politics, which I did not understand,” Artur explained, “I was only 14.”
“Then fighting started again. Yanukovych started shooting people. That really shocked us. We weren’t used to Ukrainians killing Ukrainians. That building was set on fire,” he said, pointing at a government office which protestors occupied and turned into a community center.
“They restored it last year. Then Russia invaded Crimea.”
“Before Maidan, there was no Ukraine. After Maidan, there is a real Ukraine,” Artur concluded. “Most Ukrainians had friends on Maidan. Everyone knew we were no longer part of Russia, and we were a real country, a real democracy.”
It was called the Maidan Revolution or Euro-Maidan Revolution, because protestors gathered on the Maidan on November 21st, 2013, the very day Yanukovych cancelled Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union in order to pivot to Russia, and they flew E.U. flags. The call to protest on the Maidan was first made by an Afghan-Ukrainian journalist, Mustafa Masi Nayyem, in a heartfelt Facebook post, which he closed with “Likes do not count.” After the killings, it became known as the Revolution of Dignity or simply the Revolution.
I saw photos of the martyred Maidanites on the fence of the National Art Museum. Called the “Heavenly Hundred,” they were a near even mix of youth and middle aged, working class and intellectual, albeit over 95% men.
Ukraine already had three democracy movements or revolutions, as they like to call them. The Granite Revolution of 1991 helped get out the 90 per cent vote to secede from the Soviet Union.
The less successful Ukraine Without Kuchma tried to oust Leonid Kuchma, the corrupt ex-communist, but he remained president until 2005, when he declined to stand for a third term. The 2004 Orange Revolution started after Yanukovych or his cronies tried to poison his opponent and steal the election but were stopped by Ukraine’s supreme court as well as the protests.
Kirill also participated in the Orange Revolution, when he was 16, which also involved fighting the police and camping on the Maidan in winter, but “It was not same,” he said.
Ukrainians continued to use mostly Russian in school, watch Russian television, and support Russophile candidates, including Yanukovych, whom they elected president in 2010, fair and square, even though he was a convicted criminal and notoriously corrupt—his son, a dentist, was one of the country’s richest men. But Ukrainian politicians were often mired in corruption scandals; Ukrainians are understanding; and Yanukovych reinvented himself by hiring a hot-shot political consultant for a decade. That would be Paul Manafort, eventually Donald Trump’s campaign manager, a Russia security risk and a convicted fraudster.
“We have victim mentality from so much suffering,” Kirill told me, referring to Ukraine’s annihilation by the Germans during World War Two, when six and a half million people died, about a fifth of the population, but also by the Soviets.
“After Maidan, all that changes,” Kirill said, his voice rising slightly. “We understand we can change our life, and our life is in our hands. It is not what some people do to us—we can do what we want!” No wonder Putin was petrified.
As I pondered their incredible achievement on the Maidan, I recalled that many Ukrainians revere Stepan Bandera, a 1940s-era independence fighter and the leader of the more violent wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, who is controversial but widely considered Ukraine’s political founding father.
“Bandera? We love him,” replied Kirill, the first Ukrainian with whom I felt comfortable enough to ask about him, which precipitated an argument. As the son of a Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor, I was painfully aware that some O.U.N. members had mass murdered Jews, Poles and Russians, the kernel of truth in Putin’s “Ukraine is controlled by Nazis” conspiracy theory. In fact, O.U.N. members brazenly slaughtered a few thousand Jews right on the streets of Lviv, some not far from where Kirill and I were sitting, the day the German Army entered the city, June 30th, 1941.
Kirill and I parted even closer friends, however, able to discuss difficult subjects. The genocideers numbered around 12,000, I later learned, from one of Professor Snyder’s Yale lectures uploaded to YouTube, while almost seven million Ukrainians were in the Red Army fighting the Nazis, a ratio of almost 600 to one. Two and half million of them died.
Contradicting another Russian conspiracy theory—that “Ukraine is not a real country and never existed”—they’ve been fighting for independence since the end of World War One, over a century ago, when they declared a state. Unfortunately, World War One morphed into the Russian Civil War, which swamped Ukraine in a ferocious free-for-all between the nationalists, czarists, anarchists, peasants and three foreign armies as well as the communists, who had to invade three times and use extreme violence to prevail.
Given that sanguineous, two-part slaughter and then the Holodomor, the Great Terror and World War Two, 1914 to ‘45 in Ukraine was the bloodiest period in one of the bloodiest regions in history. In a desperate bid to carve out a country, the O.U.N. planned to expel the Soviets by siding with the Nazis, on whom they would eventually turn, while some members murdered Jews, Poles and Russians, in keeping with the eliminationist nationalism then popular across Europe.
As the war’s outcome became obvious, however, much of the O.U.N. had a change of heart. Driven by a rank and file devastated by fascism, totalitarianism and the resulting wars, the leadership whitewashed that history and liberalized their platform, while their guerrillas kept fighting the Soviets into the 1950s. After the Soviet Union ended in 1991, the O.U.N. reemerged, supported right-wing parties, and remained central to Ukrainian culture, including through songs, street names and posters celebrating Bandera. Indeed, their greeting, “Slava Ukraini, heroyam slava,” glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes, is still popular, and the army made it their official salutation in 2018.
Nevertheless, after the fall of the wall, when hard-right parties became popular across Eastern Europe, not much in Ukraine. In fact, only the Svoboda party passed the required five percent vote, and only in 2012, to take seats in the Rada, or parliament, a half mile from the Maidan. Although Svoboda has a Nazi-like insignia and started as an extreme ultranationalist party, it moderated some of its positions by then and won 38 seats, eight percent of the Rada.
“There were not that many on Maidan who were extremists,” Artur told me. “And they were not that extreme, like extremists in U.S. or Germany. I know one.” Ukrainians often have friends across ideological divides, which can be fungible, I learned, and some O.U.N. officials were friends with, married to, or themselves Jews.
There were a few neo-Nazi skinheads on the Maidan, mostly part of the punk movement popular across the ex-Soviet bloc for its ability to express anger. The founders of Right Sector, a hard-right party, met on the Maidan, where they helped lead its defence against the police.
Republican Senator John McCain and Victoria Nuland, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, visited the Maidan and met with Svoboda and Right Sector leaders, with Nuland famously handing out cookies. Although Nuland was supposedly managing American manipulation of the Maidan, the scandal surrounding her leaked phone call was mostly about her saying, “F*** the E.U.,” and wanting to work around the institution so beloved on the Maidan.
Despite the Maidan’s diverse and vocal right-wing, however, they were vastly outnumbered and overshadowed by its liberals, leftists and anarchists, which is a powerful faction in Ukraine, one of the few countries where anarchists have mounted major parties or armies. Indeed, Svoboda lost all of its seats in the fall 2014 elections, despite its high-profile participation on the Maidan.
“There were a lot of poets on Maidan,” interjected Roman, Artur’s friend and fellow skater, who hadn’t said much until then. There were also many hippies, replete with long hair and colorful clothing, a movement dating to the late-‘60s in Ukraine, especially in Lviv.
During the Soviet dark ages, Lviv’s hippies lived underground, sometimes literally. They hid out in Lichakiv, the enormous cemetery for World War One soldiers but also politicians, authors and artists, who were often honored with large tombs and sculptures. I toured Lichakiv with Yarema, a photographer and artist with a gentle manner and shoulder-length hair, who wanted his photo taken next to the tomb of the sculptor Mykhailo Dzyndra, with its impressive abstract piece. Lviv’s most famous son is arguably Leopold Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895), a respected writer on Ukrainian and Jewish life as well as romance and eroticism (his name was borrowed for “masochism,” oddly enough, considering the longsuffering Ukrainians), but he is buried in Germany.
Yarema and I dined at the nearby Jerusalem, one of two Jewish restaurants in Lviv, which was almost a third Jewish until 1942.
Yarema appears younger than his 31 years but has had gallery shows, teaches life drawing, does web development and carpentry, and recently produced a “jam festival” with friends, cooking kettles of fruit over a bonfire at his family’s run-down property outside Lviv, which he’s fixing into a small artists’ retreat.
Lviv’s hippie history was also recounted to me by Bhodan, a 24-year-old artist and illustrator, who has read Jack Kerouac and Carlos Castaneda but also Amnesia.in.ua, a Ukrainian website run by “enthusiastic ethnologists,” and discussed it with his elders, like the director of Lviv’s Artists Guild.
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, people involved in “samizdat,” the Soviet bloc’s clandestine free-expression movement, used tapes to share music, and they held small, illegal performances. Lviv had its first music festival after glasnost in 1989, Chervona Ruta, named for a popular love song and meaning a species of flowers or perhaps “red regret.” It featured punk, pop and communist-era acts and became biennial, while the city became known for festivals. A well-respected jazz festival, originally called Alfa, now Leopolis, has been mounted every June since 2011, although this year’s was postponed “until immediately after victory,” according to its website. There are some great local jazz players, notably pianist Igor Yusupov.
The hippies took over Virmenka Street, in Lviv’s closed-to-cars Old Town, where they still preside in cafes like the homey Facet, which fills the street with tables in summer, or the massive, multi-roomed Dzyga, built into the city’s mediaeval walls and now one of its premier jazz venues and art galleries as well as cafes. Yarema had a show there of photos from his Turkey road trip. Hippies also started going to the Carpathian Mountains, 250 miles south of Lviv, especially a waterfall called Shypit, meaning to whisper, “to camp out, play music and run around naked,” according to Bhodan, who hitchhiked there with his girlfriend a few years ago, for the summer solstice celebration.
“Up to one thousand people… gather and make a big fire and celebrate life, or whatever, using psychedelics, marijuana and music… There are little customs. No matter of the time, if you meet someone, they tell you ‘Good morning.’ Some people wake up in the evening because they were partying all night… You can join any small conversation with people you never met before—you can have heartwarming discussions.”
Considering the Maidan protesters’ dedication to freedom and their months of street fighting, which culminated with police snipers shooting about 100 of their comrades, Yanukovych fleeing to Russia, and the Roda voting unanimously for fresh elections, they were enraged when Russia attacked Crimea on February 20th, 2014. Insignia-less and masked soldiers poured out of the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, which dates to 1772 and was being rented from Ukraine. Evidently, two pro-democracy revolutions in one decade was too much for a Kremlin turning autocratic under Putin. Crimea’s governor chose not to fight, since the state had become almost entirely Russian-speaking after the Muslim Tatars were deported to Siberia in 1944, and it had substantial autonomy from Kyiv.
Sanctions were levied and the ruble collapsed, but President Barack Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and other western leaders accepted the conquest of Crimea as a real politic fait accompli. Citing its Russian-speaking population and Russia’s lingering superpower status, they rationalized it was not worth significant protest or an escalatory arming of Ukraine, especially so soon after the disastrous Iraq War, and that stable relations would encourage Russian democracy.
Across Ukraine, there were also Ukrainian speakers, generally older and male, who opposed the Maidan and its related protests nationwide and supported Russophile politics. Some Russian speakers claimed discrimination by a Ukraino-centric establishment, but it’s hard to distinguish valid complaints from opportunism or corruption by Russian patronage and conspiracy theories. In the eastern states of Donetsk and Luhansk, Russian language speakers and some paid agents started separatist rebellions in April 2014, using small squads of ragtag fighters. But they soon obtained weapons from the Russian army, which quietly invaded four months later, even as Putin categorically denied to Obama’s face any involvement with the “little green men.”
Militant Maidanites ran to the army or the paramilitary outfits organized on the Maidan by older veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War or younger Russian speakers, which belies allegations of widespread oppression. The latter were often soccer hooligans, also called “ultras,” or, to a lesser degree, white nationalists or punk intellectuals. The first commander of the now notorious-famous Azov Battalion, Andriy Biletsky, had a degree in history and decade experience organizing those three groups. The Azov debuted as a lightly-armed militia to oppose the separatists threatening Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city and next to Russia, but came of age in the large city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea, off the Black Sea, hence their name. After Ukrainian Army units in Mariupol proved poorly equipped and commanded, Biletsky led his fighters south and defeated separatists in open battle, in the summer of 2014.
More pacifist Maidanites often supported their friends and relatives who were fighting with supplies, equipment, medical or cyber services, or money. A journalist, Miriam Dragina, started a flea market, Kyiv Market, specifically to donate its profits to the army, which recalls the old joke: What if the library got funding and the army had to do a bake sale? Some simply bought sport rifles and drove to the front. The Azov and other independent brigades were integrated into army command by the end of 2014, but the war is still a very popular, anti-imperialist insurgency, much like the American Revolutionary War or Vietnam-America War, involving people from all walks of life and political persuasions. Almost everyone I met was helping supply a unit with food, automobiles, ammunition and more.
Another testament to Ukrainian democracy is the 2019 election of President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish—as were two of Ukraine’s six other presidents—in a landslide 73% of the vote, due to his anti-corruption stance but also charmed life-follows-art story. Four years earlier, the accomplished comic, actor, writer, dancer and producer had created and starred in a hit television series, a combination sit-com and political satire with surrealist touches, “Servant of the People” (2015-19, available on Netflix). Zelensky plays a bumbling high school history teacher, living at home with his taxi-driving father and professor mother, whose students film him ranting against corruption. After it goes viral, they file the papers for his presidential run, which everyone regards as a joke until—spoiler alert—he wins and takes on the establishment with the help of family and friends.
Also appointing friends as ministers, the real-life President Zelensky, whose political party is called Servant of the People, had a shaky start. Despite successes countering corruption, he was accused of nepotism and favoring the oligarchs backing his large media company, and he made egregious accusations against his predecessor, which earned him low approval ratings. Doing his fictional character one better, however, Zelensky matured into a charismatic commander who refused to flee, rallied his constituents amid catastrophe, staved off defeat, and assumed a starring role in the ancient contest between democracy and fascism.
Also determined to stop Russian expansion are the 20,000 or so foreign fighters, notably the Georgians, whose nearby nation Putin invaded in 2008, due to their Rose Revolution five years earlier, and who have their own brigade, and the much more brutalized Chechens. Indeed, the Chechens endured not one but two vicious wars with Russia (1994-96 and 2000-01), which killed over 100,000 people, fully seven percent of their population. There are also fighters from America, Scandinavia, Britain and other regions, including an increasing number of Russians.
A small cadre of foreign volunteers covers the gaps in citizen care left by governmental and international agencies and Ukrainian self-help networks, often focusing on communities with emergency needs, helping disabled refugees and delivering lost pets, which can be considered therapy animals. Dirk and I met eight of them for beers at an upscale pizzeria, in the park next to Kyiv’s urban velodrome, a lighthearted but dedicated crew of Australians, Canadians, Europeans and one American.
Another democratic indicator is that the ultranationalists haven’t held a Rada seat since 2019, when Biletsky lost his, and Zhan Beleniuk became its first African-Ukrainian representative. A wrestler who took gold at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Beleniuk was number ten on the list for the Servant of the People party, which won 125 seats.
Genocide, as defined by the United Nations, is the attempt to eliminate a culture, language or nation as well as people. Russian intentions are clear, from their officials’ overt references—“Ukraine is not a country”—to military actions: the bombing of civilian infrastructure and cultural institutions, the destruction of monuments, including to the Holodomor, the use of rape as a weapon of war, the deportation of children and young women into Russia to be Russified and estranged from their families, and the sadistic torture of civilians, using amputation and castration.
It’s why the Azov enjoy nationwide adulation, notably the big banners honoring the “Azovstal Defenders” in downtown Kyiv, Lviv and other cities, for their second defense of Mariupol, from March 1st to May 20th, 2022, when they fought the Russians to the death.
“They are like gods!” I was told by Oksana, an effervescent woman of about 22, whom I met in Lviv, after offering to take her selfie in front of the city’s display of destroyed Russian tanks. Oksana studied computer programming but much prefers working as a recruiter for the Georgian Brigade.
The Stalingrad-like siege of Mariupol destroyed or damaged over 90% of the city’s structures and may have killed up to 85,000 civilians, according to recent reports, including almost 600 sheltering in a theater marked “children” in large letters on March 24th. About 3,000 fighters, some foreign, and 1,000 civilians, including children, retreated to the massive, Cold-War-era bomb shelters beneath the city-sized Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, which is owned by a Muslim-Ukrainian oligarch. As gangrene, black mold and starvation set in, under constant bombardment, including by thermobaric bombs, with only a few helicopters flying supplies in and wounded out, 20 feet above the water to evade Russian radar, the mostly Azov fighters endured for 11 weeks.
The siege ended when the surviving defenders received safe passage in exchange for a few high-profile Russian prisoners, although 53 Azov were murdered in a Donetsk P.O.W. camp on July 28th. They were killed by Ukrainian shelling, according to Russian officials.
“How did you grow up so healthy in such an environment?” I asked Kirill, the next time we hung out. “Was your father an optimist?” “Yes,” he said. “He was good man, nice man. He liked rock music and was devout Christian. And he was Jewish.” Kirill only learned that fact after his father died and, just last year, that his mother is as well, a secret they kept iron clad due to Soviet and Ukrainian antisemitism.
Nevertheless, the secret Jewish parent or grandparent story is fairly common in Ukraine. I met many Ukrainians with Jewish heritage, and Kirill once joked, “Half of Lviv is half Jewish.” And Jews date to the eighth century, when the elites of the Khazar Empire converted to Judaism, over a century before the birth of either Ukrainian or Russian culture. Despite the many gruesome pogroms—by the Cossacks in the 17th century, which included extensive rape, the czarists in 1920, and the Nazi genocide of one and a half million Ukrainian Jews—and today’s small number of publicly professing Jews, about half a percent, they remained somewhat integrated and represented throughout the country. Indeed, Ukraine still has Europe’s second largest Jewish population: coming after Poland before World War Two, now following France.
President Zelensky, 45, hails from a modest city in central Ukraine and studied law before going into entertainment. Natan Khazin, a 50-ish rabbi from Odessa, Ukraine’s third largest city and historically Jewish, was on the Maidan and helped its fighters with his experience in the Israel Defense Forces.
Kirill adores his mother, as becomes obvious when he takes her calls with a dulcet “Yes, Mama?” In fact, he moved her to Lviv, and her own apartment, when he and Alena evacuated Kyiv in December 2021, two months before the war. “I was listening to BBC and your president,” he explained. Kirill thinks Zelensky may have to answer for why Ukraine was so unprepared for the invasion: “They were building roads, when they should have been building rockets.”
“But only after the war,” he added.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, filmmaker, and artist living in Oakland, California and New York City.
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