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April 6, 2014 | by  | in Homepage News |
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Euromaidan

In November 2011, I stood on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, a square in the heart of Ukraine’s capital Kiev, and accidentally took part in a riot.

I had got off the metro at the wrong station and found myself surrounded by defensive lines of balaclava-wearing Berkut riot police and enmeshed by the banner-bearing, slogan-crying people of Kiev. In the distance, strident music played at a political rally, while party faithful waved flags and a voice boomed out rhetoric. But every time the voice spoke, he would be drowned out by the indignant roar of the riot. Unsure what I was witnessing, I asked a cigarette-chewing photojournalist what was going on; he grimaced the words: “Hopefully a revolution.”

Two years later, and his wish may have been granted. After months of unrest, bitter street-fighting, and bloodshed, the Ukrainian uprising known as ‘Euromaidan’ has been what some could call successful. An ostensibly pro-Russian and corruption-ridden parliament has been dissolved, a ‘democratising’ and pro-Europeanisation government has replaced it, Vladimir Putin has got so upset he’s annexed Crimea, and the West stands behind their new freedom-loving friends in Kiev. The international media have been a storm of opposites concerning Euromaidan: Western media have lauded the revolution as a victory of democracy over autocracy, while Russian media have denounced the coup as the triumph of nationalistic neo-Nazis and an American plot. The real outcome of the violent past few weeks is yet to be discerned, but no politicians of either side seem inclined to be shaking hands any time soon.

But it hasn’t been politicians fighting in Kiev, nor was it Western agents of democracy instigating dissent against pro-Russian bastions of Communism. At street level, below all the slogans and bluster, it was normal Ukrainian people, mostly young workers and students, fighting to be free from fear and want.

Prior to visiting Ukraine in 2011, I bought some warm clothes in an attempt to look like a local. However, my research regarding ‘Eastern European clothing’ didn’t go beyond Cold War movies, so it was in fur-lined greatcoat and shapka-ushanka hat that I graced Kiev’s streets. Pedestrians bowed their heads and made way for me as I passed – why this quaint deference towards visitors? After asking my co-workers, I discovered it was because only police wore greatcoats and ushankas these days. You never got in the way of a policeman, lest they extort money from you on invented charges, or worse. It was with a resigned smile that my friends admitted they were afraid of the police, but what could you expect?

The bureaucracy was corrupt all the way up to the president, Viktor Yanukovich, an ex-Soviet oligarch who had his main opposition jailed the year previously on charges possibly as bogus as the ones police used in the streets. When I saw the riot in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, I ran back to my friends and excitedly recounted the banner-waving, the roaring protestors and lines of policemen. My excitement was rebuked with the tired statement: “A riot? They happen all the time.”

Few liked the leadership, but no one was inclined to make a difference. They were too afraid with too much to lose – but that has now changed. What started as a protest demanding increased integration with Europe in November 2013 transformed into a demand for Yanukovich to step down, to end the corrupt Soviet-era autocracy, and bring about ‘freedom’.

I asked my friend Olga why they would risk so much for something as nebulous as ‘freedom’. She replied: “We have no other choice. We are fighting against corrupt criminals and now killers of the Ukrainian nation.” The young people of Ukraine – those who had never grown up under the yoke of the USSR – increasingly saw the freedoms of neighbouring European nations and asked: why not here? Western Europeans are not afraid of their police, they do not accept bribe-paying as daily fare – why not here? When this young demographic came of age, the revolution began. They fought for ‘democracy’ not because Western powers told them to but because they knew it must be better than what they had.

Few things are more surreal than when friends you knew as secretaries and IT guys become revolutionaries. When people you worked with, flirted with over vodka and cigars, are braving nightsticks and bullets. Olga told me: “They are killing unarmed people in the centre of a European capital. Is that possible to imagine?” It still isn’t for me. I received updates from my ‘comrades’ online and found myself supporting the war in Kiev through supporting my friends. Some of them got injured. Luckily, no one I knew died. Yanukovich has now fled, a host of strange bedfellows have formed a new government, and no one’s sure how successful this attempted ‘democracy’ will be.

Despite what Russian and Western media have been saying, behind all the talk of neo-Nazis, nationalists and American plots, I know that this revolution has been a victory for the Ukrainian people. People like Olga, who didn’t fight with ulterior motives, who didn’t fight for foreign governments: this has been their victory. They finally stopped being afraid and fought for freedom.

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