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Eyes on the Revolution: A Personal Account of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Movement

I was fifteen when a revolution in Ukraine sent shockwaves across Europe. When violence broke out, in the winter of 2013-2014, many of my expatriate friends were forcibly evacuated to London or Paris, but I stayed. Though I’m a U.S. citizen, Ukraine is my home––I grew up and lived there for most of my life. I experienced the revolution firsthand. Ten months after the revolution ended, in December 2014, my mother would become the first foreign-born Minister of Finance.

During the revolution, I went to protests, I marched––and, most importantly, I never put down my camera.

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In the fall of 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was set to sign the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement, which would put Ukraine on a path toward merging its economic, judicial, and financial policies with those of the E.U. The agreement—which the majority of Ukrainians supported—had been under negotiation since before Yanukovych was president. But on November 21, 2013—eight days before the scheduled signing in Vilnius, Lithuania—Yanukovych said that he was considering forming stronger trade relations with Russia, instead of pursuing trade relations with the E.U.

That evening, in a Facebook post, Afghani-Ukrainian activist and journalist Mustafa Nayyem called on the Ukrainian people to gather in the center of Kyiv at Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, to demonstrate their support for the E.U. Association Agreement and protest the president’s consideration of closer ties with Russia. At the time, few imagined that the demonstration at Maidan would attract more than a few thousand people. But by the end of the week, crowds of Ukrainians hundreds of thousands of people strong (estimates varied widely, ranging from 200,000 to 2,000,000) had joined the self-named Euromaidan movement in Kyiv.

Closer ties to the E.U. would distance Ukraine from Russia, which has historically attempted to exert control over its neighbor. Many pro-Euromaidan Ukrainians saw the E.U. as more democratic and less corrupt than Ukraine, and hoped that these values would transfer to their country.

On November 29, Yanukovych traveled to Vilnius and met with European leaders, but the day came and went without his signing the E.U. agreement. Instead, Yanukovych ordered Berkut special police units to disperse the protesters camping out on Maidan.

The Berkut units violently attacked the protesters, most of whom were university students, in the middle of the night, beating them with metal batons and dragging them away from the square. This violence was uncharacteristic for Ukraine––neither independence in 1991 nor the Orange Revolution in 2004 involved bloodshed, according to Serhii Plokii of Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute in an interview with National Geographic.

Rather than frightening the protesters into submission, the violence encouraged more Ukrainians to join the Euromaidan cause. This time, protesters weren’t just fighting for the E.U. Association Agreement; they were fighting for their civil rights. The movement retained its original name, though, and Euromaidan came to represent the desire for a Ukraine without corruption or abuse of power.

The violence perpetrated against the university students on the night of November 30 was the spark that ignited a roaring fire. Many Ukrainians had been disenchanted with their corrupt city and national governments, but now they were angry—they had had enough.

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Within a week of the violence, protesters set up tents on Maidan and established a perimeter around their new camp, complete with kitchens, first-aid huts, and a multi-faith chapel. The mood was happy, even euphoric, as hundreds of thousands of people marched for the civil rights of the Ukrainian people. People sang folk songs, hung Ukrainian flags, and danced around campfires in displays of patriotism. We were hopeful about Ukraine’s future, even as barricades built out of park benches and pieces of the dismantled national Christmas tree, called the Yolka, reminded everyone why they stood on Maidan, protesting in below-freezing temperatures.

The diversity of participants in the rallies and marches was astounding. The protesters were as young as high school students, like me at the time, and as old as those who remembered World War II. Politically, some leaned left, others right. They were Jewish, Ukrainian Orthodox, Protestant, Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic, and Muslim; they were ethnically Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Armenian, and Crimean Tatar. They were not all civil society organizers or political activists––they were ordinary people. They might not have spoken one language or shared one history, but they were united in support of a Ukraine for all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or language.

 

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Early in the new year, on January 16, 2014, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to pass a series of anti-protest laws. These laws, later dubbed the Black Thursday Laws, criminalized the public display of national symbols, such as the flag and the crest; limited the right to assemble; and made the “slander” of public officials punishable by a yearlong term of “corrective labor.” They also required mandatory registration of internet media and cell phones.

During the vote, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions locked opposition members of Parliament out of the legislative chamber and voted on each bill with a brief show of hands. Because of the voting method, the majority of Ukrainians were reluctant to give credence to the new laws. They continued to protest, despite the threats of jail terms and arbitrary arrest. Instead of trying to get around the laws, protesters made light of them. They blatantly disobeyed the prohibition against wearing construction helmets and face masks, donning anything they could find to break the law—including masquerade masks, funky hats, and even kitchen pots.

The sense of urgency in the movement grew as it took on a darker and more determined tone. No longer did young women sing folk songs and dance; instead, they milled around wearing red cross symbols, their jaws set, as if waiting for the inevitable confrontation between government forces and protesters. Euromaidan’s self-defense league, a group of protesters who peacefully resisted violent police provocations, began wearing face masks to hide their identities from authorities. A fight was brewing.

On January 19, as I was leaving the ninth Sunday Meeting, a weekly mass protest, a commotion broke out on Hrushevskoho Street, about a block from Maidan. People were running and yelling, telling women and children to “go the other way.”

Later that evening, clashes between riot police and protesters made the news. It was unclear who started the conflict, but the initial pushing and shoving had turned into a violent altercation, with Berkut police units shooting water cannons into the masses. A few days after the initial clashes, people began to show up at hospitals with gunshot wounds.

Four people died in the conflict. One fell off a roof when confronted by Berkut units (some speculate that he may have been pushed), two were shot, and one activist was abducted from the hospital and later found dead.

Suddenly, the danger became much more real to me. Up to this point, it had seemed as if a compromise with the Yanukovych government was still possible.

But now that four people had lost their lives, the protesters would accept nothing short of Yanukovych’s resignation.

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February 18, 2014

Toward the end of the school day, an email notified my classmates and me that all extracurriculars had been canceled and that we had to leave immediately. Everyone around me felt that something was not right. Our school had been shut down only once before, on collective security recommendations from the U.S., French, and British embassies.

I did not know how bad things were until I got home and found out that there would be no school until further notice. Not long after, some friends from the city arrived at my house, about half an hour outside the city limits, and planned to stay until further notice. Every live stream from downtown Kyiv showed the city in flames that evening. The buildings and landscape I knew so well had disappeared behind walls of smoke. Protesters were burning tires to block the sightlines of snipers and armored vehicles.

After four days of fighting, more than one hundred protesters were killed, mostly by sniper bullets to the head, throat, or chest. Whoever had fired the bullets was shooting to kill. Protesters sang the national anthem and armed themselves with wooden shields and Molotov cocktails to fight against security forces’ armored cars and bullets. On television and live streams, the country watched.

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On the morning of February 22, 2014, after 94 days of protest, Ukrainians woke to find that the fight was over. Yanukovych had fled to Russia with his cabinet and many of his political associates. The Ukrainian parliament formally impeached him later that day. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians stormed Yanukovych’s presidential compound, the inside of which had never been seen by the public. They found a small zoo, a golf course, a classic car collection, and artwork that the president had probably stolen from state museums, according to The Washington Post.

Later in the year, Acting Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitsky accused Yanukovych of running a criminal syndicate during his time as president. According to Reuters, Yanukovych and his allies had stolen an estimated 350 million dollars from the state, costing Ukraine 100 billion dollars, more than half of its economic output in 2013.

For many, the end of the revolution brought a sense of relief. It was as if an entire nation had held its breath for 94 days and now was exhaling for the first time. But the dominant feeling was shock. After over a half century of relative peace in Ukraine, there were now, suddenly, over one hundred dead and thousands more wounded.

Most Ukrainians did not lose friends or family in the conflict, but the pain still felt personal and traumatic. All Ukrainians knew it could have been their sons, brothers, husbands, or fathers who were now heralded as members of “Heaven’s Hundred,” the name given to the people killed.

I am sure few Ukrainian citizens will forget watching the funerals. Tens of thousands of us attended the services, which were held on Maidan. In one particularly memorable moment, a widow described her late husband, who was killed in the protests. He had left his hometown for Kyiv days before he became a father. He did not want his daughter to grow up in a country without freedom or civil rights.

What does it mean to experience collective trauma? How can something be so personal and still be shared by millions of people? Even now, at annual memorials, when the folk song played at the funerals comes on, it is hard to find a Ukrainian who does not shed tears. For those who were part of Euromaidan, this song triggers pain from loss we haven’t yet accepted.

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On February 27, 2014, armed men in unmarked military uniforms seized government buildings in Crimea and raised Russian flags. Still reeling in the revolution’s aftermath, Ukrainian citizens watched in horror as Russia annexed Crimea the next month. The war in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine began soon after, when Russian tanks crossed the border. This war is still active today and has claimed the lives of over ten thousand soldiers and civilians. Another one and a half million have been displaced.

The E.U. Association Agreement, which was the impetus for the revolution, was eventually signed in two parts, the first on March 21, 2014 and the second on June 27. The agreement took effect on September 1, 2017.

Before the Euromaidan movement, I led a normal life as a teenager in high school. But over the course of the revolution, I felt that my childhood ended. I had to face the revolution and its aftermath as an adult. To this day, taking part in the revolution, no matter how small a role I might have played, is the most powerful thing I have done.