There aren’t a lot of revolutions anymore, and certainly none in my neck of the woods. I was old enough to realise the importance of the fall of the Wall. I remember watching every bit of news we could get on the telly, and checking the teletext every morning to see if there was anything new and exciting. I’d grown up with the Cold War and Reagan and Maggie, I remember the end of the Falklands War, and Berlin and Rumania were a long way from home.
I’ve walked many a mile for freedom fighters in other countries – for the Basque, Palestinians, Zapatistas and Kurdistan. I’ve protested for gay rights and freedom of speech and against racism and female oppression. But it’s never been personal.
I fell for Kyiv the first time I was there, and the second time she welcomed me as a second home. Ukraine is a beautiful country and Ukrainians are a marvellous people – their will to sacrifice themselves so others may live is truly remarkable, seen both in the Chernobyl disaster and in Euromaidan.
Maidan Nezalezhnosti is the heart of Kyiv, a pulsating, vibrant and enveloping place where Kyivians gather to protest or rejoice. I have fond memories from the Independence Day celebrations last year, of all the happy people dressed in their finest, wearing and waving the blue and yellow of their flag, of the amazing fireworks display and multimedia show on one of the magnificent buildings.
Then Yanuk decided to trash the talks with the EU, and what started as a small, uninteresting protest – just a handful of students who were sick and tired and wanted to be Europeans – turned ugly when Yanuk set the police on them. On December 1st, Euromaidan in its present form began. Ukrainians came to Maidan to protect the students, to protect each other, to protest the increasingly vicious laws that Yanuk was bringing into force and all the official funds that were siphoned off – by the billions – into the pockets of his family and friends. Their protection was in peace, in numbers and solidarity, not from violence, and that has been the slogan for Euromaidan all along – freedom without violence.
Having followed, breathed, tweeted and cried for Euromaidan from November 22nd to February 22nd, I thought that the end of the revolution would leave me sated. Instead I wanted more – I needed to be there – having feared that I would never again walk those beautiful streets for so long. Unfortunately, my financial status as such is so bad that I had no chance of going there until autumn at the earliest.
That is, until my friend PM’ed me and said: I need to go there and help sweep the roads, will you come with me and be my guide? How could I refuse such a request! Eight days later we were flying high, waiting for the descent to Boryspil. Walking out the gates we were met by Andrej, ever helpful and pleased to see us again. Driving in to Kyiv I was elated with joy – soon I would see my wonderful Maidan again!
Maidan and Khreshchatyk, the parade street that runs through her, are still protected by barricades. There is no trust with the politicians in the interim government and the barricades will stay in place at least until the elections on May 25th. My first glimpse from the car was a blow to the gut. I was grateful I was in the front seat and could hide my silent tears. Watching it on a screen is one thing, but seeing it in person – completely different.
Our flat was a five minute walk from Maidan. Walking through the first, flimsy barricades and onto the square was heart-breaking. The sickening smell of acrid smoke was heavy on the senses. A barricade of tires, woodwork, kiosks and rubble was straight ahead, to our right were several memorials with an abundance of flowers and lights, and to our left the burnt-out remains of the once stately Trade Unions building.
That’s when the pain and horror truly hit me. How can anyone order a building – a temporary hospital as such, with seriously injured people – to be torched in that way? I could hear their anguished screams in my mind, the horrible smell in my nose seemed to be of scorched flesh, and I almost thought I could see smoke billowing out of the windows.
We walked through the barricades and into a war zone, into a bubble, an alternate universe. There are tents everywhere – for rest, for sleep, for meals. Army kitchens are abundant and volunteers keep people fed and warm throughout the day. Food is free for those who need it, and is paid for by donations from near and far. I could see the fires that caused the smoke and realised that the smell was not of burning humans, but of warmth and support and comfort.
Further on, banners with pictures and names of many of those who gave their lives. Flowers and flags blackened by smoke everywhere. And thousands of people, some dressed in army drabs, some in mourning, others dressed as if it were a normal day. For them, it probably was, for us, it was intense. The feeling of safety – within the barricades, within the walls of the bubble – was great. We walked and walked and walked, past millions of flowers and thousands of candles and hundred of photos, toys, bibles, pieces of clothing and shoes. We stood in front of the stage and listened to a priest say some words. There was the Christmas tree with all her banners and flags, there was Berehynia still protecting her hearth, there was the statue of Kyiv’s founding Brothers and Sister with their sooty flags.
There are no words to describe my emotions that evening. I was on a rollercoaster that went from tears to laughter within seconds. The next day was the same – meeting up with Ukrainian friends from Lviv and Kyiv, wandering inside and outside the bubble, the war zone that was beginning to feel like a theme park from Les Mis – except the AK47s are real, the past and present threats to democracy are real, the loss of lives is real. Kids wandering around with fan-tailed pigeons for photo ops were the same as on Independence Day, but these were wearing drab hoodies instead of summer colours. Minnie Mouse was in her finest, but the demolished water cannon was as much of an attraction.
Gradually I felt less guilt, less sorrow, less pain. I became a part of Maidan, as it had become a part of me in the previous four months. I spoke with strangers who weren’t strangers, because there is a connection between all who are there. We watched planks being moved onto Maidan in the morning that during the day became an enormous construction to house a guest book and a place of contemplation. One day we were part of an international flag parade with dozens of flags from nations all over the world. Walking on to Maidan with my Ukrainian flag and my two friends carrying a Norwegian flag each was amazing, the applause was overwhelming.
And the people. Even in the most battle worn of faces, the ones who had stayed since the beginning, there was hope and friendship. Their gratitude for our visiting seemed greater than ours for what they have done. The burly, scary guy with the enormous baseball bat guarding the entrance to Instytutska who wanted us to take his photo. The young English teacher/translator from Eastern Ukraine who was sad that foreigners thought he was a Banderista just because he was a patriot. Some Ukrainians feared that Putin would bomb their city and others thought Crimea would end up as Transnistria.
All good things must end, as did this weekend. We only spent 65 hours in Kyiv this time, but the emotions will always be there. Humbleness, for a people who stayed put even when the bullets were flying, who kept singing and praying and hoping for a better future. Pride, that I have played a part in this revolution. Respect, for all those who sacrificed themselves so that Ukraine may once again be free. Happiness, that I was allowed to be present and feel the warmth and love of Maidan. Sadness, that so much pain and suffering was wreaked on so many people both physically and mentally. And hope – that Ukrainians will get their freedom and democracy.
All I know for certain is that Euromaidan has changed me. To the better, I hope. I look forward to celebrating Independence Day on Maidan this year. I will be waving my Ukrainian flag(s) and singing Держа́вний гі́мн Украї́ни (Ukraine has not yet perished), I have no idea what words I am singing but I can copy the sounds quite well at the moment. And when someone yells Slava Ukraini! I will reply (Pavlovsk as I am) Heroyem slava! as we all do, on Maidan.
Interesting how a country I knew nothing about (two years ago) now has my internationalistic heart in a vice. I didn’t even realise I was a nationalist until recently. Nationalism – love of a nation – is never bad, as long as it is used for good. I wish all the best for Ukraine, and I look forward to visiting her again, and again, and again. I feel blessed to have the spirit of Euromaidan in my heart, body and soul. If my actions and deeds have changed even just one person’s view of the revolution and Ukraine, I have done my job.