The Maidan’s Many Offspring: From the Streets of Kyiv to International Conferences

By Doniphan Blair

This is a continuation of our week-long feature on Ukraine to mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion. You can read Part One here and Part Two here.

UKRAINE was much like Russia in the 1990s.

Devastated by “perestroika,” the switch from central planning to a market economy, and plagued by bribery, mafias, assassinations and oligarchs, whose acquisition of immense wealth was inevitable.

Whoever learned the tricks of post-Soviet capitalism first, from using armed gangs to seize industries to leveraging loans, manipulating laws or simply providing a decent product or service, made millions or billions.

As Russia kept turning more authoritarian, corrupt and kleptocratic, however, Ukraine had three successful democratic revolutions, each of which somewhat increased political representation and economic opportunity and decreased corruption but especially the last.

As well as being pro -democracy and -Europe and anti -corruption and -authoritarian, the Maidan Revolution was sophisticated and centrist enough to galvanize a majority of Ukrainians.

Indeed, it stimulated civic responsibility and cultural creativity, from governmental reform and motivated soldiers to music, fashion and art, and it unified Ukraine’s left, right and center. So much so, I took to remarking, “The Maidan is where Ukrainians fell in love with each other,” often to approving nods from Ukrainians.

I met another Maidan offspring extraordinaire at a bookstall in a Kyiv park, after its proprietor waved her over to translate. Clad in a camouflage uniform and cap, Diana, 22, seemed like a scout or soldier, if perhaps an officer, given her poise and long, single braid, in the Ukrainian fashion.

Also from Odessa, a town laurelled for its multiculturalism and intellectuals as well as Jewish heritage, Diana and I were soon discussing current events.

“You get inspired to do something when your neighbor goes…” Diana said, gesturing wildly. “Boom?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “We learned a lot from our revolution.” “You mean Maidan?” “Yes,” she said, “We learned we can do great things. We learned that if a president doesn’t do what we want, we can take him out.”

After I invited Diana and her camo-ed colleagues, Margherita, Maria and Christina, to tea, she explained they were studying to become military lawyers.

“Soon to be a growth industry,” I said, “In light of Russian war crimes,” to which Diana laughed loudly but her friends smiled politely. The Ukrainian Army is around one fifth women, some serving in combat.

“Ukraine is building a digital state,” I was told by Varvara, or Barbara, since the Ukrainian “v” is the western “b.” “It is more advanced than most of Europe—and I’ve been to Europe.” I met Varvara as she photographed food for the website of Cukor Black, a restaurant in Kryva Lypa, one of Lviv’s many courtyards or closed streets full of restaurants, bars and especially coffee shops.

In fact, Lviv’s downtown and Old Town have more coffee shops per capita than any city I’ve ever seen, and a great cappuccino can be had from a kiosk on the streets of Kyiv for under a buck, thanks to the coffee craze that swept the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 1800s.

Middle class Ukrainians can be quite “foodie”, with tastes ranging from sushi and stir fry to pizza and pesto or borscht, pierogi and herring, which is also traditional Jewish food.

“I have many friends who are programmers for German companies,” continued Varvara, whose half-dreadlocked, blonde bob gives her round face an idiosyncratic beauty.

“All good restaurants have this,” she added, tapping my table’s QR code, which brings up the menu on a phone. Most patrons also pay by phone, I noticed.

Another burgeoning Ukrainian business is modelling, I was told by Hanna, whom I also met in Kryva Lypa, at the record and DJ equipment shop Vinyl Club.

Two days before, I saw three fashion shoots in Old Town, when it was bathed in golden afternoon light, before the onslaught of autumn rains. Hanna, who is petit and favours the blond-but-approachable look, recently returned from a shoot in Portugal but has modelled all over Europe. “Ukrainian models are popular,” she said, “Because we work hard.”

Ukraine’s digital success was also extolled by Rodion, a high-cheek-boned, dark-complected, oft-smiling man, who works as a film costume designer and looks like he just did a shoot himself, given the black leather duster and ornamental earrings he was rocking. I met Rodion, his old friend Catherine, a jeweler, and her teenage son, glued to his phone, near one of Kyiv’s many large, low-rent flea markets, where they were looking for vintage jewelry.

“Everything government related, from getting identity documents to filing taxes, is now online,” Rodion said, over a cappuccino.

“It is easy to start a business. Both Catharine and I have our own.” They also detailed how well their socialized medicine works, suggesting Ukraine could become a model for social services as well as free markets and democracy, a socialist-capitalist hybrid achieved on the cheap, given it is still one of Europe’s poorest countries.

“Ukraine has been improving since Zelensky became president,” Catherine said. “I feel like the government cares about me now.”

Out of the blue, however, they began venting bitterly about Russians, even though both are from mostly Russian-speaking families, as were many of the creative people I met. “We speak Russian at home but not on the streets after February 24th,” Rodion explained. “We had to flee eastern Ukraine after Russia’s invasion in 2014—supposedly to save us,” he added, shaking his head and looking grim.

Rodion and Catharine blamed average Russians, not just Putin, an opinion shared by many Ukrainians and dating from 2014, when their Russian friends and relatives, which many Ukrainians have, gloated over social media about Crimea, feelings now compounded by massive war crimes. Adding insult to injury, many of those Russians claim the evidence for those crimes was faked.

“The Russian teachers’ union sent volunteers to brainwash Ukrainian children,” noted Catharine. “Unpaid volunteers?” I asked. “Of course not!” interjected Rodion, “Nothing in Russia is without pay these days!”

At the very moment Catharine, Rodion and I were chatting on September 16th, Putin was at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, meeting with the Chinese and Indian presidents, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi.

They told him—Modi to his face—they weren’t happy with his unnecessary war now threatening their economies and world food supplies, not to mention nuclear holocaust.

A week earlier, Kyiv had hosted its first conference since the war, an attempt to understand the war, in fact: the 17th annual Yalta European Strategy summit, named for the Crimean city where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill strategized the final defeat of Nazi Germany, in February 1945.

A few months before, however, the Soviets had deported to Siberia all the Crimean Tatars, about a quarter million people, half of whom died, a small fraction of whom returned. Ukraine’s democracy gave them full legal rights, but that ended with the Russian reconquest in 2014.

Dirk had organized two mini-conferences in Lviv, the second at the Lviv Art Center, which has classes, a small gallery and a nice café. Also about what artists should do during the war, it was attended by Kirill and nine others, including a Tatar-Ukrainian woman in her early 20s.

Alem accentuates her wide-set eyes with aggressive makeup slashes, works for NGOs, and lives in Lviv, although she was raised in Washington DC and is also American. “People say it’s impossible,” Alem told us, “But my dream is to liberate Crimea.”

Y.E.S. is the brain child of Victor Pinchuk, an oligarch and philanthropist, who is sometimes called the Ukrainian George Soros, because he’s Jewish and supports culture, but rarely in the crazed conspiratorial sense. Indeed, the Pinchuk Art Center, a half a mile from the Maidan, is universally well regarded.

Both Dirk and I found its contemporary collection impressive and its current show, “Russian War Crimes”, a tour de force of artists addressing war, Dirk’s subject. We lingered a long time in the substantial show, including the devastating video in the last room, a hurricane of quick-cut atrocity shots, sometimes using split screens, until we were interrupted by an attendant, who ushered us down to the street due to the air raid.

“Is there a bomb shelter we can go to,” I asked the guard in front. “No need, it was false alert,” he said, laughing. “Insurance makes us evacuate everyone and wait for all clear.” “But what if there was an attack?” “The metro is right there and very, very deep.” Indeed, it was built for nuclear war.

In addition to organizing seminars and shooting a documentary in Ukraine, Dirk planned a performance piece. He enacted it on September 17th, in the middle of the Maidan, on the same spot graced by the dancers, which was dry, since it hadn’t rained for over a day.

As I filmed, Dirk arranged on the ground 20 posters for the “Kunst Krieg” (“Art in War”) conference he arranged a month earlier in Berlin, each poster emblazoned with the word “cancelled,” since that’s what happened, for reasons he didn’t fully explain. Then he began calling German galleries to reschedule the conference.

The two-day Y.E.S conference was titled “Ukraine: Defending All Our Freedom” and featured banners with “I need ammunition, not a ride,” President Zelenskyy’s famous quip, which may have been written by his legendary media team.

Hosted by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Y.E.S attracted to a hardened Kyiv basement some 400 international and Ukrainian notables, including Polish, British and American lawmakers, Google’s ex-CEO Eric Schmidt, who commended Ukraine’s digital prowess, and Professor Snyder, who emphasized the war was colonialist, which Europeans don’t quite get, due to their own recent colonialism.

Also in attendance was another one of our best and best-selling scholars of Ukraine and Russia, the journalist Anne Applebaum, along with General Wesley Clark, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and the Azov commander Serhii Tsisaruk.

After welcoming them, Victor Pinchuk noted we were witnessing the final collapse of the Soviet Union—“Dinosaur can take a long, long time to die and, during this time, he will try to drag us back to his prehistoric past”—before introducing President Zelenskyy.

“Russia is doing everything to break the resistance of Ukraine, the resistance of Europe, and the world,” Zelenskyy said, wearing his standard khakis and military-green T-shirt. “The 90 days ahead will be more crucial than 30 years of Ukraine’s independence. These 90 days will be more crucial than all the years of the existence of the European Union. [This] winter will determine our future.”

 “No negotiations with the Russian Federation regarding the end of the war are possible,” Zelenskyy explained, since “there is no confidence that they will keep their promises.”

In fact, Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas violated the U.N. Charter’s Article 2 on sovereignty and the 1994 Budapest Agreement, which was signed by the U.S. and Great Britain as well as Russia and guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for giving up all of their nuclear weapons. Less well known is the Battle of Ilovaisk in 2014 when the Ukrainians surrendered their weapons for safe passage but the Russians resumed shooting.

While fears of escalation are understandable, appeasement encourages rash action and agreement violation. A few weeks into the war, during negotiations hosted by Turkey, the Ukrainian delegates offered fresh security arrangements: Ukraine would stay non-aligned, Crimea negotiations would be postponed for 15 years, and the 2014 Donbas invasion would be addressed separately.

In response, the Russian delegates called them Nazis and offered to withdraw from Kyiv, where they’d already been repulsed.

“We must fight,” Zelenskyy continued at the Y.E.S. conference, articulating his ascent as Europe’s de facto wartime commander. “Endure the winter. Help those who are weaker. Protect those who need protection. Limit ourselves in what can be limited. And limit Russia in everything that should limit it. The unification of Europe is impossible without Ukraine.”

Most Ukrainians have wanted to join the E.U. for decades, and they even amended their constitution to that end in 2019. “It will be an honor for Europe to welcome our state,” Zelenskyy concluded, “The state that wins!”

Dirk’s performance goes well. Standing in front of his colorful pile of “Kunst Krieg” posters, he calls the galleries, introduces himself politely and leaps into action—“You remember the Maidan Revolution, eight years ago? I am standing on Maidan Square right now!”—before asking if they can host a one-session conference on artists and the Russo-Ukrainian war. After chatting with a baritone gallery owner, Dirk grins at me, shouts something unintelligible, and starts cleaning up. It takes him three trips to haul away the paving stones he used to hold his posters down in the autumn breeze and, eight years ago, the kids of Maidan lobbed at police.

As I pack up the camera tripod, sliding its legs together, it dawns on me: “I take the train to Lviv tomorrow, so this is my last time on the Maidan.”

I look around: Berehynia smiling down from her column, the multi-colored pigeons (black, white and mottled), the smattering of Kyivers going about their day, and the regulars, the yellow-blue wrist-band vendors and two tourist-photo hustlers, one wearing a cartoon horse outfit, the other covered with tattoos and carrying two large, white show pigeons, to whom I nod, since I got some photos earlier.

“What an incredible place, a cool architectural space, a symbolic place,” I muse, until I work myself up and start yelling to myself: “In the middle of a genocidal war, the goddamn Ukrainians are so democratic, they don’t mind anyone coming to their central square and saying whatever they want—including the likes of Dirk, a half-crazed German performance artist!”

During my five or six times on the Maidan, in fact, I don’t recall seeing a single soldier, police officer or even untoward stare.

The next day, Dirk and I bade each other adieu with repressed emotions. Suddenly involved in each other’s lives—we also took meals together and roomed in a deluxe, rococo one-bedroom on Pushkin Street ($24 a night and four blocks from the Maidan!)—we were unable to understand what that might mean in the middle of our generation’s most destructive and divisive war, now slicing through countries, ideologies and friendships as well as mass murdering Ukrainians.

Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons

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