My trip to a post-revolutionary Ukraine
March 3 (Monday at Maidan)
"'Ukraine' means 'land on the edge,'" or so Lonely Planet declares. It's a convenient definition, given current events, but "the borderland" might be a more accurate translation (though even much that is under dispute). It's interesting how names reflect identities, with some peoples and countries, most famously China, having names like "the middle," reflecting self-centeredness. Both "border" and "middle" would apply to Ukraine, wedged between Orthodox Russia and Catholic Eastern Europe, plus — at times — Islamic Turkish empires. It is no coincidence that a critical episode in fighting Russian expansionism was a conflict in Crimea, and that it is the flashpoint for Russian expansionism once again today.
The Maidan, also known as Independence Square, is the center square of Kyiv, and was thus the epicenter of both the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Euromaidan protests of the past few months. For those who don't recall or want to look it up, in the Orange Revolution, Yanukovych — Russia's man in Kyiv — won an election under shady circumstances, from those of the vote itself to the poisoning of his opponent, which ultimately deformed his face rather than killing him. After protests, the election was rerun and Yanukovych lost.
In the decade since, though, Yanukovych came back while the opposition fractured. It took another Maidan-based "revolution" to get him out for good. This time, the spark wasn't a fixed election but Yanukovych reneging on signing a European Union trade deal in order to get a $15 billion loan from Russia. Though Ukraine's perilous economic state meant there was some sense to this move, many (a) blamed Yanukovych's corruption and graft for this economic state and (b) believed that he took the deal because it would allow the corruption and graft to continue unabated. Thus Euromaidan was born.
The State Department warned Americans against going there. Last month, with snipers shooting to kill, this was for good reason. In March they ascribed the warning to "crimes of opportunity." State Department warning or not, this was the first place Mila took me to on my first morning. Fog was thick and the smell of burning wood — and occasionally burning plastic — was in the air, as protesters chopped firewood to use as fuel to keep warm. Simple food was provided to protesters as sustenance, and tents occupied the square as well as the main street for blocks each way. Anderson Cooper would later call this atmosphere "like something out of WWII," but, though it might have seemed like a war camp, it lacked the inevitability of war, and was in the midst of the tall buildings of downtown Kyiv, which were still used for their day-to-day functions.
We walked around the area, seeing tents, protesters, and most of all memorials — pictures, candles, and flowers everywhere, even on the numbers of a large clock by Instytutska Street, now infamous as the place where government snipers, thought to be part of the now-disbanded Berkut police unit, killed dozens. It was there that I saw the first of the makeshift barricades that kept out cars (and larger vehicles like, say, tanks). They protected the demonstration from all sides, and were made up of all sorts of detritus one could imagine: Bricks from now-partially bare sidewalks, metal gates, wood, tires, and so forth. I had noticed, a mile or two away, that some benches lacked metal slats, and wondered if those were now at Maidan (or even consumed in either the heating or violence-related fires there). Perhaps people picked up these "supplies" on the way to the square from their homes? This protest was not strictly in the Gandhi/MLK mold, so "borrowing" some supplies was not beyond question. Neither were Molotov cocktails — used, they say, only defensively — but that was last month. This month was a combination rally, celebration, and memorial.
Seeing the square in person gave me an appreciation of the magnitude of the fires we all saw videos of during February's conflict. While most of these fires were set to keep snipers from killing people, an earlier fire, most likely set by government forces, had engulfed the huge Trade Unions Building, which housed much of the logistical team for Euromaidan. One of the dead was found in the burnt-out building, which now stands with the memorials as a testament to what happened there. Outside of it is a partly burned billboard banner for Ulysse Nardin luxury watches.
Having gotten most of my news from the radio and Internet, I also missed this novel flag — consisting of Ukraine's coat of arms superimposed on the EU flag. I now have a ski cap emblazed with this combined emblem (which became more practical than my bulky cap when weather started to warm as the month progressed).
Maidan, being central, is near a number of restaurants, including one of Mila's favorites, Zdoroven'ki Buly, which, not being a terribly catchy name, I am just going to refer to as "Z.B." or "the restaurant near Maidan." Mila was helpful in pointing out the vegetarian items, so I had salad and cheese dumplings — "varenyky" to Ukrainians, "pierogi" to Polish-centric Americans. The salad bar had a small bowl each patron could fill with whatever he or she wanted — from seaweed salad to more traditional cabbage, beets, and carrots. I went for both variety and volume. I also grabbed a ring-shaped piece of bread, a bublik, similar to a staple of Istanbul street food, the simit. (Appropriately enough, my last trip overseas had been to Istanbul, which is also a handy reference point for people who don't know where Kyiv is; it's half-way between St. Petersburg and Istanbul.) To drink I had compote, the dried-fruit juice quite common in Ukraine. I also had tiramisu for dessert. It was very good, especially since I didn't have high hopes as a vegetarian in the former Soviet Union. The décor of the cafeteria-style restaurant included cashiers in traditional outfits and sections with world themes — China, ancient Egypt, etc. The latter seems a popular design element; we'd later go to a mall with similar themes.
All told, it was only $7... for both of us. This seemed to be the pattern for the next few meals — though eventually we got up to as much as $10. Ukraine's average income is less than a tenth of America's, so things are priced accordingly. My SIM card — with unlimited calls, texts, and Internet — was only slightly above $6, and I didn't even use half my time by the time I left. The subway was 20 cents, pretty good considering that the three lines have a total length of over 40 miles. Museums never seemed more than $5. Grocery items are about a quarter of the price you might expect. Rent isn't that much either. When I arrived, the native hryvnia currency was at ten to a dollar. But while I as an American divide the prices by ten, for a native Ukrainian — in terms of income — it's about the same as dollars, so that $7 dinner for two is, effectively, like a $70 dinner for two, which suddenly doesn't seem so cheap considering the casual dining experience. Then again, incomes in Kyiv are far higher than those in the countryside; judging from the per-capita gross city product, three is, roughly speaking, a good number to divide by — or multiply by — here.
For me, though, it's cheap. Coffee seems to be an exception to the rule, but I guess cafés always have to charge enough to stay in business, and if Starbucks can charge $4, Kyiv coffee houses can get away with 20 hryvnia. Oddly, it seems like it can be expensive for tourists insisting on the best accommodation; MSN ranks it as one of the ten most expensive cities in the world on this basis. Overall, such a price structure reminds me a bit of Hong Kong, which is also inexpensive for purposes other than hotel stays. Downscale lodging is available, though; on the Kyiv subway I did notice ads for $20 hotel rooms.
Though it may sound surprising, Ukraine has one of the most equitable distributions of income in the world, on par with the countries of Western Europe. Nonetheless, the country also has more than its share of billionaires, likely one fact that fuels the protests, not just because of frustration about graft, but because activists who get a billionaire on their side won't lack for funding. Unfortunately, this also fuels fringe anti-Semitism, since far right leaders seem to assume that all the billionaires are Jewish, or at least partly so:
When asked if all Ukrainian oligarchs are actually Jewish, [Ukrainian Right Sector leader Igor Mazur] shrugs. When asked if Yulia Tymoshenko, one time Ukrainian prime minister and an oil and gas oligarch is Jewish, he says only, "We don't know for sure. We think she has some Jewish blood in her."
He doesn't think he's anti-Semitic — citing the half-Jewishness of his son's godfather, and claims that 1% of his base is Jewish, this in a country where somewhere between 0.1% and 0.5% of the population is Jewish. Fortunately, that base has only about 5,000 people, and none actually in government. Nonetheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin says they're in charge, and, shamefully, some in the West believe him. Aside from the "some of my best friends are Jewish" argument, the group has done other things to try to eschew their anti-Semitic image, such as meeting with Israeli authorities and honoring a Jewish protestor killed in Maidan, but the aforementioned statement and their willingness to use violence to oppose the Kremlin aren't helping them.
On the Maidan and in the restaurant, Mila told me a few things that I hadn't heard from the news. Apparently, folks in Kyiv believe that an ad hoc catapult was the motivating factor for the president to flee. It sounds far-fetched, but I hadn't even heard of the catapult, reported here, and, much later, in a Cracked article that tells the story of the protests from an insider's view. Mila said the person who built the catapult became a folk hero, well known to Kyivans.
Posters abounded, many with recently released political prisoner and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. I saw fewer and fewer of these as the days wore on. Though her unjust imprisonment was a cause célèbre — one of the main motivations behind the protest — her possibly shady business dealings have made her untenable as a leader in the eyes of many protesters and their supporters. Still, by the end of March, Tymoshenko would formally enter the presidential race. Mistrust of politicians is why the protest camp still persisted after Yanukovych's ouster.
Another poster has picture of Putin and a traditional farewell, which Google translates as "Godspeed on." This farewell was chosen due to its second word, which consists of the first four letters of Putin's name; it's a pun.
Mila also said that one of her students supported Russia's actions. No one was quite sure how to respond to such an opinion, so they just left it alone.
So avoiding the Maidan didn't happen. It would be possible but unnatural to do so anyway. Many of the city's attractions are nearby, and all three subways lines pass close by. Even if one were to avoid the square, though, one would still see memorials throughout the city. There is a sense in which, what 9/11 was to New York City, February's massacres were to Kyiv. There are posters all around, serving as memorials of those who, in many cases, we once only known to be missing. There was the shock that something like that could happen in a city like this. There was around-the-clock coverage, with new revelations each day, and uncertainty about what would come next. And there was an up-swelling of patriotism, as cars and children waived blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags and backpacks and coats sported blue-and-yellow ribbons. It's hard not to be inspired by all that, even with the grave realities of what led to it and what might lie ahead.
Now, at first glance, Ukraine's blue-and-yellow flag appears to be the most boring national flag that bothers to be original. (Next-door neighbor Poland also has a two-band flag, but shares the red-and-white design with Monaco and Indonesia. Monaco's flag has been official for longer, though Poland had long used red and white to represent the country.) In fact, the flag symbolizes the clear blue sky over yellow wheat field, and is thus more resonant than most other countries' flags, which have only abstract meanings at best, such as red for courage or white for purity. Add to this the fact that it originated during the Europe-wide (attempted) Revolutions of 1848, and you've got a pretty good nationalist flag.
There is, however, an alternative flag, also waived at the Maidan, which is even more aggressively nationalistic. On it, the blue is replaced with red and the yellow with black. This flag has its roots in the WWII-era Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary that engaged in a series of guerrilla conflicts against Germany, the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, both underground Poland and Communist Poland. In this case, the representation and color scheme are stark, rather than bright, representing "Ukrainian red blood spilled on Ukrainian black earth." The association with a group which fought the communists during WWII aides Moscow's portrayal of Maidan as a fascist movement, sadly, rather than simply a nationalist one. It also doesn't help that the Right Sector uses a modified form of the flag.
Heading back, away from the smells of the burning wood, I was reminded of those two other very European smells: cigarette smoke and, on the subway, body odor. There's a reason declining to use deodorant is viewed as a European thing.start // back / next