Written in my journal on February 2nd, 2014
In the night Ukraine burned. Kiev was a shifting vision of smoke and tear gas and intermittent flames lapped up what remained of the buses set up as a barricade. The police had lost their footing once, then a second time as flash bombs and Molotov cocktails fueled with petrol rained down from above. ‘Not words, but actions,’ chorused throughout the crowd as surges of protesters ran to and fro the police line hurling rocks that dented the metal shields.
The police turtled like soldiers of old Rome with their shields raised above their heads, a roof that fell apart as cocktails rained down fire that slipped through the cracks. But they reformed quickly to hold the line and didn’t charge back. Tens of thousands of protesters sang and waved flags. If the police took action the peaceful bystanders would rally and they would be swept away in a tide of demanding democracy.
I watched the rally as the clock marched into a new day. Explosions of light and fireworks continued and Ukrainians huddled against the burning buses for warmth against the below freezing temperature. The rallies were in response to the Ukrainian President’s signing of new laws that limit freedom of speech, press, assembly and right to a transparent government. The protesters began to sing their national anthem. It was Martin Luther King Jr Day in America and I had planned to teach a lesson to share the power of his words, to show them what one man could do, but I put it away, it would be illegal to teach now.
The morning after the first rock was thrown I climbed the school-steps slowly. This is a country in turmoil. Over the weekend the very foundation of civil rights was crushed as the President brought forward a dictatorial government and many point the finger at America. I entered the lounge of teachers and everyone greeted me warmly. ‘What do you think of this weather? It has gotten very cold.’
The teacher brushed her hair with a small pack of female teachers gathered in front of a mirror hanging on the wall. There were no bigger concerns in life for them at that moment.
Over the next few days the protests waged on; violence spread to other cities, government hired thugs beat unarmed protesters, opposition leaders spent hours in talks that only postponed the next outburst, protesters stabbed police and went missing, buildings were occupied and bomb threats were called in to all the train stations. I spent days hiding in my apartment, packing, refreshing the news over and over, waiting for the final act of destruction to set evacuation in order.
But it never came. The protests dulled to a murmur and the Peace Corps emails became more infrequent. Our Safety Warden, the person we go to in the event of consolidation, was even granted her vacation request to leave the country. As great as this was for the volunteer leaving it created a potential vacuum of hell for the rest of us.
I watched the news daily, like a kid hoping for a snow day, to see if the protesters were finally crossing the line of peaceful demonstrations; but if the violent beating of demonstrators gained no response from my government then the toppling of a Lenin statue would do less. Even after Ukrainians took up sledgehammers and decimated the symbol of Russian and Ukrainian solidarity there was still only silence.
‘Are you afraid?’ In the back of the room an advanced student looked at me with a sly grin on her face as if this were common place and she were hardened against it. The last revolution in the country she was only a toddler. There is an inherent joy Ukrainians seem to display in suffering.
‘Afraid? Of course not.’
‘And why not?’
‘The American government supports democracy,’ I said in a rehearsed manner, ‘and these protests are a demonstration, a display, of democracy.’
‘And you are not afraid?’
‘Of course not. They want democracy and my country is a symbol of democracy. Those protesters are my friends.’
This brought a smile, a different kind, thin and pressed, and I wondered what these students really thought of me.
Another teacher brushed it off completely. ‘These people that protest are poor or without jobs. Not in our oblast. We don’t protest because we are not troublesome.’
The days leading up to the police take over and dismissal of peaceful protests the media outlets experienced frequent delays and shutdowns. It was the flexing of a muscle by the government until it could build up enough strength to shut them down completely. The following night the police struck.
Ukraine is an old country with a varied past. In the old soviet days it was normal for the leaders to control the press and all the information. It is much harder now because they cannot stop social media. The government is run by old dogs. But it may not matter, the Ukrainian mentality is that things are bad and will always be bad, and as a result may not fight back.
I have spent most of my time here resenting the people for their weaknesses. I’ve allowed days to pass while I thought of going home. Now with this injustice on their right to free press and speech, of their right to peaceful assembly, I am resolved and passionately defensive of the Ukrainian people. I feel an activistic soul rising up in me to protest against the government. I feel connected enough to want action, to fight for their rights; watching them passively accept corruption and control goes against the very fibers of what America was founded on and I feel the inherent claim of these principles.