If there is one question that comes to the minds of the Europeans when they read or hear news from Ukraine these days it is: “what to think about the situation in this country?” After the first massive enthusiasm, support of Euromaidan and the condemnation of the Russian annexation of Crimea, opinions drifted apart. We were greatly touched by our discussions in Kyiv and Lviv and would like to share with you what we have learned from the young Ukrainians and which conclusions did we draw from our visit to the country that is on everyone’s lips. We feel this is especially relevant now when opinions are drifting further away than ever, the news keep bombarding us with significant events that change the context of the debate and because we were shocked by some of the arguments of people and media in Ukraine and abroad. As a reaction to the deaths in Odessa, the first contributor on the Debating Europe platform, where our topic about the role of young people during Euromaidan was discussed, stated:
“The Euromaiden thugs are a bunch of Neonazis who burnt alive 42 people last night”.
This standpoint, one that seems to be shared by most of the Russian propaganda channels, appears to be picked up by European politicians at the far left and the far right. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French party Front National, openly supports Moscow’s position and many other right wing parties in Europe (even in the UK) follow her lead. Even more, some American journalists openly support a possible invasion of Ukraine by Russia, one of them stating that: “seventy years ago, Russia defeated fascism in Europe. It is time to deliver that honourable blow again”.
So, wait a minute… is it really the case that Ukraine is involved in a conspiracy of Neonazis, backed-up by the CIA in order to get rid of all Russians and Jews?
Courageous as we were, we dared to visit the country itself in order to ask young people in Lviv about their views on the situation.
One of the first things that strikes you when you enter the city of Lviv by train is its beautiful train station. Upon entering, the long-gone spirit of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire can be sensed in all the little details: the small stones in the road, the pretty houses and the magnificent buildings like the opera theatre. This student city in the West of Ukraine breathes a peaceful atmosphere with old trams slowly passing by and old people selling traditional clothes at the market. Apart from this old heritage of a perished empire the city contains a lot of ambitious young people and great innovations. Some of the highlights of its small-business innovations are its bars that are slowly becoming world-famous. One of them is the “House of Legends”- a 4-floor establishment with a dragon attached to it and great thematic decorations in all its tiny pubs. Another is the place called “Communal” where we had our presentation, a sunny and welcoming cafe that is open 24 hours a day. People could use flexible workspaces, get free drinks and food and even sleep in this place for only one euro an hour.
In this great environment we had a discussion with students from Lviv about the current situation in Ukraine. We considered the new ways of youth participation in Ukraine and the impact of Euromaidan on this phenomenon. Moreover, we asked about their attitude towards the happenings in the country with regards to the separatist movements in the East and the role of Putin in the conflict. It seemed that all of them agreed that the Euromaidan movement has fundamentally changed something in the attitude of the youth in Ukraine. For months it had been a daily fact of life: after university was finished you went to the square in order to join the other protesters. Lviv has a unique position in this respect while it is the place where Euromaidan started and the university professors; clerical leader and even its mayor actively supported the movement. Euromaidan has boosted many youth initiatives and made youngsters more interested in joining organizations that support their social surroundings; it opened up their eyes to the importance of building a strong civil society.
As for political participation, the impact of Euromaidan was different. The events showed the corrupted, greedy and undemocratic nature of Ukrainian politics, which doesn’t make it very attractive for young people to get involved in it. Though their stance had changed from a-political before Maidan to very political after Maidan, none of the participants was considering joining a political party. At the same time, they had a very strong stance on the current political situation in the East. When we asked them what do they think Ukraine should do in case the Eastern part of the country would be in danger of being lost, almost all of them agreed that Ukraine would have to fight for it. Especially as long as the influence of Putin in that part of the country remains so strong and there is no chance for an honest debate about the position of these regions, Ukraine should not accept separation and counter it with military intervention if necessary.
After the discussion, our impression of Lviv was one of a wonderful city with young people that live between hope and fear. How did this beautiful place become the centre of so much anger and hatred from the side of Putin and its supporters? How did it become a place where fascists would be roaming the streets and attacking those who don’t support the Ukrainian state? In order to find out about this we have to dig a bit into the Ukrainian history.
Interestingly, part of the answer to these questions can be found in one of the famous restaurants of the city – Kryjivka. It has become a popular place for tourists from within and outside of Ukraine and has a very peculiar way of serving its guests. It is build like a bunker of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during and after the Second World War and upon entering each guest has to state the password “Heroyam Slava” (“glory to the heroes”) upon the welcoming words “Slava Ukrayini”(“glory to Ukraine). The personnel are all dressed up as members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army carrying guns and looking for Russians amongst the guests. If they suspect a guest to be Russian, they arrest him during the dinner and he gets send to a prison cell in the restaurant (this even happens with Dutch people that pretend to be Russian). In the cell, the guest has to answer a couple of questions like “who is Yanukovych” and “who is Putin”. Although this show seems very entertaining and innocent for the unknowing tourist, it has become a subject of controversy in Ukraine and reflects a deeper historical context. A pro-Russian Ukrainian politician who wanted to enter the restaurant but refused to state “Slava Ukrayini” was denied entrance. This became a scandal in the country and this politician later even stated that anti-Semite propaganda was being spread at Kryjivka.
The historical context of Kryjivka reveals the anti-Russian sentiments in the region and the Russian conviction that Lviv is the root of all evil in Ukraine. This goes back to the artificial famine of the 30’s that was caused by Stalin’s Soviet regime and killed millions of Ukrainians in Eastern Ukraine. Lviv and its surroundings have been a source of resistance against any external power that would deny them their cultural and political independence as Ukrainian people. The leader of the Ukrainian resistance was Stepan Bandera, a nationalist and a freedom fighter. He is hailed as a hero in Lviv, but is a very controversial figure in parts of Ukraine, Russia, Poland and the EU in general. Kryjivka is a symbol of Bandera’s heritage and the Ukrainian resistance against its oppressors.
What do these experiences tell us about the situation in Ukraine? First of all it shows that history is still very present in Western Ukraine and in the conflict in the region. Secondly, it teaches us that we should be weary that the images we see and the reality we experience do not always coincide. Although the sentiments in the region are indeed centred on a controversial figure this does not imply that the people are in any way fascist or xenophobic. Reality can only be sensed when actually being in Lviv and talking to the people. What you see then is that the youngsters are mostly fighting for a better future in which they can fully develop their ambitions. They’re fighting for a free, European Ukraine.