Those who thought that the Ukrainians’ capacity for protest was sapped from the Orange Revolution were caught off-guard by the recent wave of protests in Kiev. Some see the occupation of central Kiev by oppositional forces as yet another flare up in an ongoing struggle between the ethnically Ukrainian West and the habitually Soviet Russian-speaking East. But the historical and cultural divides between East and West are only part of the story. For a growing number of young Ukrainians – whether Russian or Ukrainian-speaking – the protests represent a larger struggle against the corrupt ruling elites, whom they see as standing in the way of progress for the entire country.
It only takes a few moments outside in Kiev to realize that Ukraine isn’t Russia. While it is more common to hear people speaking Russian than Ukrainian in the country’s capital, the atmosphere is decidedly different. Despite the prevalence of Russian, there is a colorful variety of dialects spoken on the streets of Kiev with people mixing Russian and Ukrainian words together as they please. For someone coming from Russia, Kiev has always been refreshing. Most things are cheaper, the traffic jams – less horrendous and there tends to be more humor than aggression in people’s day to day interactions. In fact, for a while Kiev became the go-to-place for Russian dissidents and opponents of the Putin regime looking for a place that was culturally familiar yet politically much freer than at home.
When I first visited Ukraine in 2012 – exactly two years before the current wave of protests erupted – the Orange Revolution was already a thing of the past and the consensus was that Ukrainians had been lulled into a state that can only be described as “post-revolutionary fatigue”. To my own disappointment at the time, the iconic Maidan square was filled with men in Santa Claus suits taking smoking breaks from their duties as Father Frost impersonators. People seemed more preoccupied with their holiday shopping than with the party in power.
And yet, just a few hundred meters from Kiev’s City Hall, on the city’s main thoroughfare a small city of tents had been set up along the sidewalk. The protest encampment – just a stone’s throw away from the President’s Administration building and Kiev’s City Hall – featured anti-government posters, televisions looping documentaries about the imprisonment of political opponents by Yanukovych and effigies of the president hanging from a noose. Huddled around cups of tea, these protesters-in-residence handed out flyers on anything from Yanukovych’s ties to the criminal world to the illegal incarceration of Timoshenko. There was even a stand selling shirts and mugs bearing the phrase “Spasibo Zhitelyam Donbassa” or “Thanks to the people of Donbass” – a sarcastic swipe at Yanukovych’s main electorate: the Russian-speaking population of the industrial Donetsk region. Despite the proximity of government buildings, police stood idly by without any interference – something quite simply unimaginable in Russia where even the smallest protest is instantly squalled before it even begins.
During the 2012 New Year’s celebrations on Maidan Square, the stage was filled with the usual line-up of Russian-Ukrainian pop stars along with a few Ukrainian football players promoting the upcoming Euro 2012 tournament. But just as the concert was beginning, a bright green projection with the words “Free Tymoshenko” appeared just above the stage to the dismay of the event’s organizers and the cheers and clapping of the crowd. Except for the crowds enthusiastic support, the reaction from city officials was surprisingly apathetic. Unlike in Russia, the police did not find it necessary to track down the individuals responsible for the projection and no efforts were made to cover up the bright neon green letters beaming to the crowd.
On New Year’s day, sitting in a lively student bar in Kiev’s city center, I met with Masha, a young woman from Sebastopol, who had recently relocated to Kiev to pursue her film studies. As we sat in the smoke-filled bar, I was surprised to see her talking to her group of friends in Russian and addressing the hipster-looking waitress in Ukrainian, switching between the two languages with ease. Hailing from Sevastopol – home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet and arguably the least Ukrainian city in the country – Masha harbored little if any resentment towards ethnic Ukrainians. Having arrived in Kiev not speaking a single word of Ukrainian, Masha had in the span of a few years become fluent enough to work as a sound engineer for a film company that dubs Disney cartoons into Ukrainian. For her, speaking Ukrainian is what any language really should be – a means of communication. “I speak Ukrainian at work, Russian with most of my friends – it’s really not a big deal. But people back home in Sevastopol, especially my mother’s generation…they have a hard time understanding” she told me highlighting an important generational rift.. Hearing this from someone coming from Sevastopol, the city of Russian naval glory and a center of Russian nationalism, is a testament to a qualitative generational shift within Ukrainian society.Despite the lingering antagonisms between the Western and Eastern regions of the country, for a growing number of young educated Ukrainians the linguistic divide is becoming a non-issue.
As with any popular protest, the people camping out and demonstrating in Kiev right now have taken to the streets for varying reasons. Ukrainian nationalists, people fed up with the government’s endemic corruption, people hopeful for a brighter future aligned with the EU, supporters of imprisoned Yuliya Tymoshenko – all of them have assembled in unprecedented numbers to voice their discontent and frustration with the current regime. Many see these protests as yet another chapter in the continuing partisan war between two culturally different parts of the country, a narrative the Yanukovych administration as well as the Russian government is only too willing to perpetuate. Yet the reality on the ground shows that conflicts are more generational than cultural, with young people from different parts of the country joining in the process.
Young, educated Ukrainians – including native Russian speakers – have more things in common than outside observers give them credit for. Looking at their Russian-speaking peers in dictatorial Belarus and an increasingly repressive Russia, young Russian-speaking Ukrainians are joining together with traditionally pro-European compatriots from Western Ukraine in setting their prospects on a European future. Their choice is less about economics and more about living in a modern democratic state, free of the burden of the so-called Soviet mentality. In the words of a Kiev cab driver back in 2012, Ukrainians are “sick and tired of seeing the same tired and bored Soviet-looking bureaucrats on TV, mumbling through their speeches, stealing as much as they please – and now we have a dimwit for President!”. Similar sentiments are pushing young Ukrainians of all stripes to accomplish what their parents failed to do – liberate Ukrainians from their own past.