In The Ukrainian Night, historian Marci Shore examines the extraordinary events on the Maidan, Kiev’s central square, during the Winter of 2013 – 14. While the world watched the uprising as an episode in geopolitics, thousands of individual Ukrainians chose to participate in a revolution that transformed them and their nation. Grounded in the stories of activists and soldiers, parents and children, Shore’s book blends a narrative of suspenseful choices with a historian’s reflections on what revolution is and what it means. The extract below ‘It Was My Choice’ examines why individual revolutionaries were drawn to the Maidan that Winter.
‘It was my choice’
Ivan Vakarchuk the physicist was ‘a typical good father.’ Slava, in turn, was a good son. ‘We had classic paternalism,’ Slava described, ‘here is my father, he’s always right, he’s wise . . . he’s like a good king.’ It was understood that his children should not oppose him, and Slava had no great desire to rebel.
‘My father was always an unquestioned authority for me, like a hero,’ he said.
And like his father, Slava enrolled at Lviv University and completed his doctorate in physics. Then in 1998, just at the moment when his father hoped his oldest son would go to the United States to further his scientific career, Slava instead moved to Kiev to write songs.
The decision to abandon physics and move to the capital was ‘the boldest and most serious step in my life,’ Slava told me, ‘because music, not physics; because Kiev, not Lviv; because my desire, not my father’s desire.’ His father, Slava knew, disagreed with his decision—but did not try to stop him. It was the moment in Slava’s life that made all the difference; and for Slava, his father’s granting him that freedom to choose his own life had a philosophical meaning still more important than Slava’s fantastic success as a musician. Slava had made a decision to go to Kiev; his father had made a decision to respect his son’s freedom. ‘The value of personal freedom is a not a fundamental law of physics,’ Slava told students in London, ‘it’s a choice.’
‘Choice’ was a word I heard often. There were moments when Markiyan was certain the revolution had been lost. Yet he kept going back. Once someone asked why he was standing there freezing on the Maidan if he believed all was about to be lost? His only answer was that it was his choice.
Taras Dobko was a philosopher. For him the Maidan was a rare experience of authenticity in the deepest existentialist sense: making decisions and taking responsibility. This authenticity was born of Grenzerfahrungen, of ‘border experiences,’ and came at a high price. On Christmas Eve Volodymyr Sklokin, a young historian, attended services with his wife in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. As they were walking out of the church they saw their friend Vasyl Riabok, one of the coordinators of the Kharkiv Maidan. Vasyl Riabok was pale and nervous; he did not say ‘Merry Christmas.’ Instead he told them that Dmytro Pylypets, a fellow activist in Kharkiv, had been attacked; he had been beaten severely and stabbed several times. It was unclear whether he would survive.
‘I think that it was in those hours,’ Volodymyr Sklokin recalled afterwards, that I experienced what at one time or another every participant in a revolution experiences. My reason said that resistance made no sense, that it would make more sense to await a better moment to change the regime. I asked myself what we could possibly do against a regime that controlled the militia and was willing to behave criminally. And what could we do in Kharkiv, where the opposition was supported by only about 30–40 percent of the population? My reason said: better not to do anything, better not to yield to those provocations. And then I asked myself how I would look in the eyes of Vasyl Riabok if I did not come to the meeting that day. How would we look to one another if we all gave up? And at that moment the most important argument became my realization that if I gave up then, I would no longer be myself, but someone else.
As the situation grew more and more dangerous, Ola Hnatiuk’s husband would send anxious text messages from Warsaw. ‘Are you going?’ he would ask her. And she had to decide: would she go back to the Maidan, or not? She went.
Ola could have gone home to Warsaw. Instead she stayed in Kiev. She was there on 16 January when Yanukovych, with an illegal show-of-hands vote in the parliament, forced the passage of ‘dictatorship laws’ revoking parliamentarian immunity and the rights of free speech and assembly. For Taras Dobko it was on 16 January that the line was crossed: the complete absence of law meant that everyone was vulnerable, that no one had any protection from the government at all.
‘I describe it by this Yiddish word chutzpah,’ he said to me, ‘the way the laws were passed and how they were presented, that was really shameless.’ Afterwards, he said, there was ‘a desperate feeling among people . . . how can we live in such a country?’
‘Everyone understands,’ Ola wrote to me, ‘that this is an unequal battle . . . but if they go out on the streets, it’s because they don’t want to live in degradation.’ By virtue of the 16 January laws, everyone who had taken part in the Maidan was a criminal and could be arrested. Yet as he had on 30 November, now, too, Yanukovych miscalculated. After 16 January everyone understood that no one would be safe as long as Yanukovych remained in power. He had raised the stakes: now it was all or nothing.
‘Nobody taught us how to make revolutions,’ Iryna Iaremko, the Lviv real estate agent, said to me. She and her fellow volunteers understood only that they needed to organize people and take them to Kiev. For one hundred hryvnias, about twelve dollars, they guaranteed round-trip transportation. Many women wanted to go as well, but they had a rule: they would take only men. Lviv’s mayor was on their side; even so, it was conspiratorial work, involving an intricate division of labor. ‘Everyone knew his job,’ she repeated. They brought food, clothes, shoes, and other supplies to Kiev. They invented code words for the military equipment they smuggled to the Maidan, describing bulletproof vests as ‘maechkiy,’ undershirts. In the other direction they smuggled the wounded back to Lviv. They had to rotate roles frequently among themselves, especially the role of the person receiving the men who were about to board the buses.
Those in Lviv who could not go themselves came to donate money. Students donated the pocket money they would have used for beer and cigarettes; elderly men and women donated money from their tiny pensions. Iryna and her colleagues asked the donors to write their names, the year of their birth, and the amount of money in a notebook. These were schoolchildren’s notebooks, small and square, sometimes with graph paper instead of ruled lines; their soft covers often contained a white rectangle for the pupil’s name amidst sundry tacky images. One cover pictured blue jeans framing a photograph of a cowboy from a Western, another pictured coffee beans in the shape of a heart. An eighty-eight-year-old man came with two thousand dollars.
‘I won’t take that,’ Iryna told him.
‘I know what I’m doing,’ he insisted.
(This story she told in Ukrainian, and I understood her, although I had been asking her questions in Polish, and until then she had been answering me in Russian. My Bulgarian friend Ivan Krastev, when I told him about my conversation with Iryna Iaremko, considered this symbolic: in order to understand deeply multilingual Ukraine you should be ready to ask questions in one language and listen to the answers in another.)
Jurko Prochasko was in Kraków, in Poland, on 17 January when he learned from the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza what had just happened. He understood at once what it meant. And he began to feel sick: he realized that they were being forced to radicalize, that a ‘non-radical conversation is simply not possible with Yanukovych.’ The Ukrainian president had at his disposal not only the police, the military, and the special riot troops named Berkut, but also titushki, thugs-for-hire recruited among criminals and hooligans. Yanukovych’s response to peaceful protests was increasingly ruthless: by this time Berkut was using tear gas, rubber bullets, ash-bang grenades, and water cannons in subfreezing temperatures. Activists were dis- appearing. Some returned, some did not. Those who returned were often maimed and disfigured, missing, for instance, part of an ear.
From Kraków Jurko went on to Vienna, and it was there that he learned of the first deaths in battle on Hrushevskyi Street: the Armenian Serhiy Nigoyan and the Belarusian Mikhail Zhiznevskii. This was the moment, Slava Vakarchuk believed, that changed people in his country: these first deaths instigated ‘the main tectonic shift . . . towards something more responsible and less paternalistic.’ For Jurko it felt unbearable to be in Vienna then: in Ukraine people were dying, and he was in Vienna. He wanted only one thing: to go home. He returned to Lviv just at the moment when the body of Yuri Verbitsky was found in the woods. On the Maidan fragments from a police stun grenade
had blown into Verbitsky’s eye. Another activist brought him to the hospital, and from the hospital both men were kidnapped, taken to a forest, and brutalized. Yuri Verbitsky’s body, battered and frozen, was found the following day. Professor Verbitsky had never been a radical. He was a fifty-year-old geologist who researched tectonic movements of the earth.
Jurko began to prepare for a longer stay in Kiev. Everyone understood that in Lviv there was nothing to be done. The whole city, even the mayor, was on the side of the revolution, in Lviv ‘everything had already been won.’ There was a consensus: women and children should stay, but men should go to Kiev. It was not long after the Christian holiday of Epiphany, and Jurko’s family was invited by his son’s godmother’s family for lunch. Their hosts had invited as well the godparents of their own children, who arrived in tears. This second godmother had once been Yuri Verbitsky’s wife. They had divorced years earlier; she had remarried, he had not. The adults sent the children to play in another room; even so, Jurko’s older son, at eleven years old, was too old not to understand. Yuri Verbitsky’s funeral had taken place in Lviv just three days earlier.
‘And when we come home,’ Jurko told me,
my older son, the one who painted the banner that first evening, comes to me with tears in his eyes and says, ‘Daddy, you have to promise me that you’ll never again go to Kiev to the revolution. Tell me: yes or no.’ … and I’m convinced that I have to do this, that I have to go, and who if not me and everyone together. But on the other hand a child is crying and looking into your eyes and waiting for an answer and saying, ‘Tell me that you will never, ever go there again.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I promise you, I won’t go there anymore.’
‘It was my choice,’ Jurko told me. He knew people whose families pleaded with them not to go, but still they went. But he made this choice. It was not easy for him to accept afterwards.
Okay, so all the more did I go every day to the revolution here, to the small Maidan, but I knew this was trivial. Yes, it was important, I stood there in the freezing cold for hours and hours, but it was not the same thing as being in Kiev, where everything was radicalizing. . . . the whole time I felt guilty that I was here and not there. And the tension, I just lived in those thoughts and emotions, checking the news every three minutes . . . and in the awareness that you shouldn’t be here, because you’re a young, healthy man, and other young, healthy men are there.
Jurko knew it was not in his character to throw himself on the barricades, to shoot, to die as a hero. Yet even so, he knew that there was an enormous difference between being in Lviv and being in Kiev.
Marci Shore is associate professor of history at Yale University and the award-winning author of Caviar and Ashes and The Taste of Ashes. She has spent much of her adult life in Central and Eastern Europe.
You can purchase The Ukrainian Night here.