New Internationalist

‘We need to be the face of Ukraine’

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AJ Levy
AJ Levy

Ludmila Pekarska came to Britain in 1991 with her husband. She is an academic and worked at the British Museum for 10 years. She is originally from Kiev.

I have been here for a long time but I never felt I was far from home. When the protests began in November, no-one was expecting it. Students came to speak out about the European Union (EU), there was singing and dancing and it was all very peaceful. I don’t think most of the population was thinking about Europe. Some people were sceptical about it.

But when this tragic night happened and students were brutally beaten, people realized we cannot live like that. It was a wake-up call. We were shocked. When I was a student, I took part in protests in the same square, against the Soviet Union, and these were always peaceful. We have never seen this kind of violence.

To watch it on TV, from here, was just terrible. I was weeping. You realize you can do nothing because you are here and they are there, and you can’t help the people who are fighting and getting killed. We appreciate the support from the West, but sometimes people in the media don’t know the real situation. Sometimes the situation has been misrepresented. It’s not about separatists or radicals or the far right.

As for the Crimea, the Kremlin has manufactured this conflict. When they come to another country to defend the Russian-speaking population, they feel like patriots. When Ukrainians would like to speak for Ukrainians and to become a democratic country, they are not patriots, they are nationalists, or they are the ‘far right’. If you speak Russian, that’s fine, you’re a patriot. If we Ukrainians want to keep our own language, we are nationalists. It’s ridiculous. It’s not about protecting the Russian-speaking community. That’s rubbish. People are saying to Putin: ‘We don’t need your defence. Go home.’

This tragedy has just united Ukraine even more than before, and I’m really proud of my people. Everything would be fine now, but for Putin

Ukraine has a great population and we have people who speak Russian, Ukrainian and other languages, Jewish people. But we’ve never had a conflict on the basis of language. So why start it now? Because Putin didn’t expect Ukraine to win this battle. He absolutely didn’t expect it.

And the people have won this battle, but we could never imagine he would move into Crimea. We are shocked, absolutely shocked. How could it happen today, in the 21st century, in a peaceful country?

But still, people are optimistic. It’s been a long time and people want to start a new life now, with a new system. There needs to be lots of changes in every part of government and it takes time. It’s going to be a hard job and we all need to support them and to trust them during this very serious period for our country. Sometimes, you think you should be there, standing next to them. But you realize it’s more about the younger people who are there; it’s about their lives and their future.

Of course you have these feelings, but everyone can do their part to help and we can achieve something great. That doesn’t mean everyone staying there with a Molotov cocktail. It means journalists doing their job properly, for example, recording everything the way it is, not like in the Russian media, which is just brainwashing. But this tragedy has just united Ukraine even more than before, and I’m really proud of my people. Everything would be fine now, but for Putin. His plan didn’t work out so he decided to just take Crimea.

In 6 months, I am sure that Ukraine will be among the democratic countries. And I think Russia will follow Ukraine. Now, the people are not ready to stand up, like in my country. But many of them are very sympathetic – and the future of Russia is also with Europe. The period of Russian empire is gone, it’s past. We have already lived it. It feels like Putin wants to build it again but it’s not going to work.

AJ Levy
AJ Levy

Igor Hordiyevych came to Britain in 1995 when he was 19, to study in Manchester. Now 37, he works for a bank and also for Ukraine Charity. He is originally from Lviv. His wife is Ukrainian, born in Russia, and they have two children born in Britain.

There was almost disbelief [at what is happening] as we have never before had a situation where people were hurt like this. When it started, we felt this was something different. [During the Orange Revolution] in 2004 there was never a single act of violence; here, it started off with violence. That was very sad to see. We have never had this in Ukraine: people dying because of the action of the government.

Progressively, we got more and more worried. And then people started getting killed. As an organization, at some point we realized there was a humanitarian issue there. Ukraine Charity is not a political organization. Our job is to help people. When it escalated, we realized we needed to do something. We launched an appeal to fundraise for the victims of the violence. We have raised over $84,000 since 20 February. On the first day we raised $42,000. In a good year normally we’d raise $30-50,000. It shows you the feeling of the people here.

Some of the perceptions people have – that people have been fighting for the EU or against Russia – this isn’t what the movement was about. It was about the corruption of the existing government and against the suppression of free speech. Here in London you have had people sitting outside Parliament, protesting for maybe 10 years, and no-one does anything. That is democracy.

[President] Yanukovych created this trade-off between Russia and Europe, which was completely artificial. Ukraine is a big country that is capable of deciding its own destiny. He created an auction. It is not unexpected that the people were against this, but it was the size of the protest that was surprising. Things escalated in an unexpected way. As that escalation happens, watching from here you become more and more worried. As we have now realized, with the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia and continued moves to destabilize the situation in Eastern Ukraine, there has been a role that Russia played in all of these events seemingly from the start, which is of course deeply disturbing and upsetting.

It lifts you when you think that the Ukrainian people have the power to rise up and overthrow a terrible regime, and not fight for Europe or against Russia as much as for freedom: freedom from corruption, freedom from oppression

I personally think it’s advantageous for Ukraine to get closer to the EU and ultimately join it. But that is the choice the people of the Ukraine have to make without foreign interference. I think the actions of Russia have pushed that choice even more clearly on to the Ukrainians. What has been unfortunate is that we have had a propaganda war going on, which results in things being published that do not reflect the reality of Ukraine. There are a lot of Russian media writing about Nazis, and these things are not only untrue but unpleasant.

There are far-right organizations in the Ukraine. They exist everywhere: in Britain, in Germany, in the US. In Russia there are a lot of them. But if you look at the reality, in Ukraine the far right received 10 per cent of the vote, or even less, at the last election. For sure, these events attract those sorts of groups but to say the far right is in control of anything is very misleading. The media is very easily malleable. A lot of people speak Russian every day. No one has any problem with that.

The positive thing is that now there really is the chance for the population to change things, to not have to bribe every police officer when you drive in a car or every official when you want to open a business. But it will take time, because the corruption had become invasive, and continued aggressive Russian interference is clearly aimed at prolonged destabilization.

But it lifts you when you think that the Ukrainian people have the power to rise up and overthrow a terrible regime, and not fight for Europe or against Russia as much as for freedom: freedom from corruption, freedom from oppression. Maybe we have had three revolutions. In 1991, which was very quiet; in 2004, which wasn’t quiet but was peaceful. And the one now which wasn’t peaceful unfortunately but maybe, finally, we are becoming an independent state and this was necessary to wake people up.

We would certainly like to see the British government being a little more proactive in upholding international law. It said it would uphold the territorial integrity of Ukraine. If doing that involves a phone call, fine; if it involves a little bit more than that then maybe that’s what’s needed.

While the relationship with Russia is important to Ukraine, the actions of the Russian government today are anything but friendly or helpful. So Ukraine today needs support from its Western friends to fight for its future as a stable European democracy. It’s beyond Ukraine, so it’s up to the international powers, in our case here in London, specifically Britain, to look at it and decide if they want to stand up and uphold international treaties or sell its signature for a few more mansions in Knightsbridge, or a few more lucrative contracts.

AJ Levy
AJ Levy

Halyna Tatara is from Lviv. Now 29, she came to Britain 9 years ago and works for the YMCA.

I went to Kiev to support the Orange Revolution in 2004. We thought the country would change but after a few years we realized things had got worse. The government, the justice system, everything was corrupt. Even the media was censored. Viktor Yanukovych was basically part of a gang of criminals who came to power.

No-one expected so many people to take to the streets. Our mentality is different from the West. Before Maidan [political movement], we never believed in ourselves; we didn’t really believe we could change things. But now it’s like a new nation has been born. People have a human dignity that they never even knew about before. And this has happened because the younger generation, born in an independent Ukraine, thinks differently.

Living here, you realize how a genuinely free Western society works. You don’t need to bribe anyone to get medical care, you don’t need to fear the police. We have experienced civilized life, and we know how it is in the Ukraine. So the longer we have lived here, the more depressed we have got about our own country.

With what is happening in Crimea, you have to make the distinction between the Russian people and the Kremlin. The Kremlin is not Russia. We know what Putin is but we were amazed that he went so far. We never expected an invasion, in the middle of Europe, breaking all international laws. It was a complete shock for us. When I call people at home, when I call my mum, they are all so scared. They’re on the brink of war, and that’s something our generation has never experienced.

We never expected an invasion, in the middle of Europe, breaking all international laws. It was a complete shock for us. When I call people at home, they are all so scared. They’re on the brink of war

I have felt sometimes that I want to be there, especially during the last few months. I’ve wanted to experience, physically, being there. I know a few people who live here who left to go back to Maidan. They couldn’t stop themselves. You feel so guilty while this revolution is going on and you are over here. That feeling has been there and will always be there. Home is where your heart is.

But living here gives us a few advantages. We have access to government and MPs in a way that people back home do not. So we need to be the face of Ukraine as a country and we need to be the best and the prettiest face. We are an important part of the movement. The government here does not have the right to ignore us.

One death is a tragedy. And most of the people who died are young men, with families. But 100 deaths is a statistic. We paid such a high price but we have achieved something. We have to always remember that these people paid the price of their lives so we need to do everything we can to ensure it was for something.

There is no doubt that the end of Maidan was the beginning of the revolution. Ukraine at present is in a critically unstable position and the threat of a Russian invasion is very serious. Annexation of the Crimea and the rapid escalation in Eastern Ukraine is in fact a war. It’s not a civil war, because people in Ukraine are not fighting between each other and never did. It’s a foreign invasion by the Russian Federation, which is provoking and manipulating a decentralized revolt of scared people to serve Russian interests. The next stage of Maidan approaches and may well be the most critical one in our history.

Interviews as told to Gavriel Hollander. Photographs by A J Levy.

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