By Sarah D. Phillips
In past months, events in Ukraine have dominated international headlines. A small demonstration in Kyiv’s Independence Square in late November 2013 protesting former President Viktor Yanukovych’s backsliding on EU accession negotiations for Ukraine grew into a country-wide movement that managed to oust Yanukovych and his unbelievably corrupt administration from power in February 2014. This movement came to be known as the “Square,” or Maidan, and the Maidan protests spread to many regions of Ukraine. An interim government was formed, and Ukraine started looking forward to the post-Yanukovych era.
The euphoria was cut short when, coasting on the success of the winter Olympics in Sochi, and taking advantage of the unstable situation in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin began (and still is) using military force and unlawful political machinations to try to scoop up the Crimea, and potentially other portions of Ukraine. The people of Ukraine, many of whom had hoped to get down to the business of building a new society and crafting a new government from the bottom up based on the principles of democracy, equality, human rights, and inclusion, are now faced with the unsettling prospect of territorial division of their country, and the terrifying prospect of war.
As a cultural anthropologist, I am curious about the perspectives of everyday citizens on these events. What do “regular people” in Ukraine want the world to know about the Maidan movement, Crimea, and everyday life in Ukraine today? To find out, I launched an informal project on Facebook and invited respondents to post a short answer completing this sentence: “I WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW….” The query was shared widely by colleagues and contributions were received from people from all over Ukraine, from Russia, and from Ukrainians living abroad. I make no claims to a representative sample, but only wish to highlight some common threads that emerged from the forum. Participants’ contributions showed the following trends:
- There is much critical concern about the “media wars” shaping public opinion about the Maidan movement and the crisis in Crimea, especially the biased perspective of the Russian press.
- “Who are the Ukrainians?” is a question being actively negotiated.
- Russia’s interference in Ukraine is rejected by many who are striving towards a democratic state based on rule of law and respect for human rights.
- International support for Ukrainian sovereignty and for the people of Ukraine is important and appreciated.
- Although tensions exist, many people in Ukraine are feeling united as never before.
To elaborate on these points, I will draw on posts from respondents, who are students, social activists, professors, entrepreneurs, journalists, and others.
A law student born in Kyiv, educated in the US, and currently living and working in Moscow wrote, “I want people to know that they must assess critically what they are being told by different media sources and be aware of the fact that various media channels (western, Russian, European, etc.) might be carefully choosing the standpoint from which they portray the events. This standpoint depends on the political agenda of a given source. That’s why people must be critical and vigilant in how they receive their news.”
Respondents provided vivid examples of this media bias, and they especially actively deconstructed Putin’s narrative disseminated in the Russian press that the Crimean intervention is necessary to “protect Russian nationals and ethnic Russians in Ukraine from violent extremists” (e.g. supposedly anti-Russian, anti-Semitic “fascists”). As an advertising specialist from Ivano-Frankivs’k wrote, “In Ukraine, there has not been, and there is no, threat to ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people, as they [the Russian press] have been claiming in the last days.” Similarly, a professor from Kyiv wrote: “There is absolutely no ground for military intervention of Russia into Ukraine. It is based exclusively on lies about the massive oppression of the Russian and Russian speaking population. Putin vainly expects the world to believe in his lie about the nationalist threat in Ukraine. It might to some extent work in Russia, which does not have independent media, but it will not work outside it.” Another respondent from Kyiv was less confident that Western media portrayals of the situation are even-handed: “I want people to know how hard it is to imagine the true scale of brainwashing launched by Putin’s propaganda machine. I always knew that most of the Russian media were being manipulated, but now, after the Crimean conflict, I notice with horror, how far the shameless ugly lies have leaked into the Western media as well.”
Throughout the past few months, Ukrainians have shown themselves to be savvy consumers of news. Facebook and other social media sites are major sources of news on the unfolding crisis; in this interactive format, news is critically assessed, sources investigated, and points of view actively debated. This fact-checking is being formalized, as noted by the advertising specialist from Ivano-Frankivs’k who wrote: “Russia is waging a fierce information war to justify its actions. Ukrainian journalists have created a website where the lies are exposed.”
Who are Ukrainians?
Forum participants displayed a nuanced understanding of Ukrainian national identity, and commented on the ways in which people living in Ukraine daily negotiate forms of difference (especially in language preference and ethnic identity) while striving for unity. Respondents actively rejected the characterization in the Russian press of Ukrainians as “fascist extremists.” A student from Kharkiv explained, “I want people to know that Ukraine is a tolerant country where 2-3 languages and many Christian denominations co-exist in a very peaceful way. Unlike a popular stereotype, it is wrong to draw parallels between the situation in Ukraine and violence that took place in the Balkans or in Syria, simply because even despite ethnic or linguistic divide, there are virtually no conflicts that stem out of it in Ukraine. I want people to know that extremist tendencies have never been a Ukrainian phenomenon, and similar ideas do not have much support among locals.”
Forum participants emphasized especially that language preference is not equivalent to ethnic or political affiliation. As clarified by a professor from Kyiv: “Speaking Russian does not mean being Russian and sharing the values of the current Russian government.” A researcher from Kharkiv argued against Putin’s narrative of “protecting Russians and Russian-speakers abroad” by explaining that, “In Eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians are more likely to be oppressed than Russian-speaking people. Speaking Russian does not at all mean that you are against Ukraine, democracy, the Maidan, etc.”
Linguistic anthropologist J. Dickinson from the University of Vermont elaborated: “I want people to know that equating ‘Russian-speaking’ with ‘pro-Russia’ and ‘Ukrainian-speaking’ with ‘nationalist’ implies that language use lines up with political ideology and this is REALLY not true in Ukraine. A majority of Ukrainian citizens are bilingual, or even multilingual. People who are dominant ‘Russian-speaking’ or ‘Ukrainian-speaking’ usually understand the other language, and they often encounter and even use it in their everyday life.”
While demonstrating this nuanced understanding of identity as rooted in history and language, respondents’ posts showed a desire to look forward to the future, rather than dwelling on the past. An activist from Kherson wrote: “Conflict between the western and eastern part [of Ukraine] was caused by historical and cultural differences but it will never divide our country because people understand that living in the past will never bring us to the future. Informational wars and provocations do much more harm to us. We don’t support any radical actions; we want to live in peace!”
The desire for peaceful co-existence with Russia resonated throughout the forum, as in this post by a professor in Kyiv: “We do not hate Russians! Neither Ukrainian, nor Russian people do not want to fight and kill each other, because they think of themselves as brothers and sisters and sometimes it is so in its literal sense.” Forum participants also emphasized inter-ethnic cooperation in Ukraine during the Maidan and now, in the face of Russian incursions into Crimea (for instance, when a group of Crimean Tatar women organized to help Ukrainian soldiers defend a military base).
Ukraine has the right to deal with its own problems and build a new civil society
Respondents rejected Putin’s interference in Ukraine’s affairs. Wrote a student from Kyiv: “I would like people to know that Ukraine as a country should have a chance to resolve its own issues and move to its own future without being split apart by different geopolitical interests.” A disability rights activist in Svitlovods’k echoed this position: “We do not need Russia’s help to maintain order in the country.” Another activist from Kherson agreed: “We don’t need anyone to interfere in our internal life; we need to make our own mistakes, learn our own lessons and build a new society.”
There was a general fear among respondents that the Crimean crisis—and potentially further separatist escalation in the country’s east—could derail the vital work of reforming and rebuilding a democratic, fair and inclusive Ukrainian state and society. In a plea for Putin to withdraw from the Crimea, an entrepreneur from Kyiv wrote: “We are happy to have freed ourselves from the criminal [Yanukovych] in power. We were long afraid to raise our heads. Things are not stable yet but at least we are able to breathe easier. Things are just beginning for us.” A student from Kharkiv contributed: “I want people to know that all we want now is to live in peace (as we have lived all those years of Independence) and carry on building a European state based on the rule of law and human rights principles, without any pressure and blackmailing from Russia.”
Respondents were hopeful that, building on the momentum of Maidan, Ukrainians could—in the absence of Russian interference—forge an inclusive, democratic civil society and reform the state according to democratic principles. As a student from Kyiv offered, “Most people I know, work, and share my life with consider what happens in Ukraine as a transformation of the nation. It is more about changing yourself and sticking to the values than just changing political leaders; it is more about how to be self-organized and making sure that you are doing your best [rather] than demanding something from politicians.” This notion that the Maidan can serve as a roadmap for societal reforms (and not just political reforms) is evidenced also in a list of “10 New Rules of the New Ukraine” that have circulated in social media:
- Don’t give or take bribes
- Don’t steal
- Respect others
- Help others
- Don’t litter
- Take responsibility
- Don’t be afraid
- Don’t wait [for someone else to do it]
- Expand your social circle
International support is valued
While rejecting Russia’s meddling, respondents emphasized that international attention to the events, and support received from abroad, are valued. A scholar from L’viv wrote, “Ukraine is a young democracy, and we need guidance from countries with established democratic traditions.” A health activist from Odesa concurred: “It really helps that we are getting support and understanding from people in countries all over the world, including the USA. This support prevents us from getting discouraged and helps us keep hoping that Russia will rethink its relationship to Ukraine.” Social media and other forms of Internet communication facilitate this support.
Another theme running throughout the forum was the toll that living in a constant state of stress during the last several months has had for people in Ukraine emotionally and psychologically. As a student from Vinnytsia wrote, “We are afraid because the Russian army is in Crimea and any moment a war can be started.” Many respondents said they have family and friends in Russia and the political tensions have worn on these relationships.
Although tensions exist, many people in Ukraine are feeling united as never before
Of course, some people in Ukraine would like to be part of Russia. However, as explained by a Kyiv professor, “The majority of people from Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea do not want to be a part of Russia (there are many opinion polls which confirm it).” Several forum participants proposed that the events of the Maidan—when tens of thousands came out to protest the corrupt administration and its use of deadly force against demonstrators—had brought Ukrainians together as never before. A health activist in Odesa wrote, “We are inspired by the unity of the Ukrainian people, which has become especially evident in these difficult times. Meetings and protests of supporters of one united Ukraine are much, much bigger than those by ‘Anti-Maidan’ protesters. Ukrainians are ready to voluntarily defend their country.”
At the same time, some residents of eastern Ukraine fear that existing divisions have in fact been exacerbated over the past few months, and that Maidan has highlighted and stoked disagreements and animosity that will make reconciliation difficult. Some respondents living in the east who supported the ideals of Maidan—ending corruption, building strong civil society and ensuring human rights—felt ignored and abandoned by the Kyiv-based movement. Kharkiv, for example, was left to the mercy of pro-Russian leaders like mayorHennadiy Kernes and regional state administration head Mykhailo Dobkin, both of whom fled to Russia in late February, 2014. Many Kharkovites feel misrepresented in media coverage that has emphasized the supposedly strong “pro-Russia” mood of the city.
Despite some concerns about the active role played by Ukraine’s far right in the Maidan (i.e. the umbrella political organization and paramilitary group “Right Sector”), the general sense among respondents was that Maidan revealed the potential of citizens of Ukraine from all walks of life to effect social and political change from the bottom up. Forum participants, including the entrepreneur from Kyiv, actually credited former president Yanukovych and president Putin for uniting Ukrainians: “Everyone in Ukraine who was proud of Putin, [have] suddenly together all at once lost [all] their faith in him. Thank you to Putin and Yanukovych for helping us Ukrainians unite ourselves.”
Forum participants were unanimous in their calls for a civil, democratic and inclusive Ukraine. Many everyday people in Ukraine want the freedom to make their own new beginnings and “begin to raise their heads” with support from the international community, and without interference from Putin.
Sarah D. Phillips is Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University. She is author of Women’s Social Activism in the New Ukraine: Development and the Politics of Differentiation (2008), and Disability and Mobile Citizenship in Postsocialist Ukraine (2011).