Who are today’s heroes in a Ukraine at war? And who will be in the pantheon of tomorrow? Miles Atkinson and Matt Webber share their impressions.
I am shirtless on the banks of the Dnieper. It is June 2015, the merciless sun is thankfully setting, and in the distance I can hear the erratic mechanical sounds of the Kiev Aquapark’s improvised gym. Later, I will lose my glasses in a volleyball game, but for now I am talking to a new friend named Vadim. He is a 19-year-old whom my grandmother would describe as ‘strapping’. His English is not great, my Ukrainian is worse, but I feel obliged to show him I am not some mere tourist. I start to sing the Ukrainian national anthem, a recent acquisition, and Vlad corrects me – “Ukrajina” is in the wrong case, of course.
Don’t worry, he says, “Slava Ukrajini.” This I know. “Heroyam Slava,” I say, smiling.
This phrase is ubiquitous – “Glory to Ukraine” is the opening, the response “Glory to the heroes.” Its origins are murky, but everyone agrees it refers to World War II. Specifically, it commemorates the Ukrainian heroes who died resisting the Nazi invasion. 600,000 of them in Kiev alone – greater than the total casualties sustained by Britain or the USA in the entire war. This is a tad problematic, of course, because many Ukrainian heroes also died fighting for the Nazi invasion, seeing in the Germans (etc.) their chance to overthrow Ukraine’s communist (Russian (etc.)) oppressors. It is this that makes the phrase slightly confusing today. Who, exactly, are the heroes? What, exactly, is Ukraine? Vadim has an answer – the heroes are the martyrs of Maidan, who died to free their country from Russia.
Heroes of earlier ages are exhaustively celebrated in Ukraine. Every town used to have a statue of Lenin, his physique growing more muscular over the years. When Ukraine gained independence, many of those statues were torn down and new ones put in their place. In Lviv, an enormous monument to Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist leader and Nazi collaborator, was erected. In Kiev, a bronze statue of Bulgakov, the dissident author who miraculously escaped Stalin’s execution chambers and labor camps, sits contemplatively outside his old family home.
The new heroes of Maidan have memorials fitted to their novelty. Maidan Square, where the latest revolution began, is today a strange combination of memorial, protest, and charity event. Candles trace an enormous trident – a national symbol – across the square. There is an exhibition of photographs from the war in the east and soldiers ask for money to support their battalions. Playing continuously on repeat is the Ukrainian national anthem. Institutskaya street, where dozens were killed by snipers in February 2014, is lined by semi-permanent shrines to those who fell.
Perhaps, one day, these heroes will also be cast in bronze.
Perhaps our friend Vadim from the beach will too. He did not take part in the Maidan protests, but he is in many ways the archetypal hero. He is from a town called Horlivka, not far from the rebel capital of Donetsk. His town was at the center of a battle last summer, which brought heavy shelling from both sides down on the city. Vadim, his mother, and his neighbors moved down to their cellar for days, then weeks, while the battle raged. Vadim and his friends set up a page on the popular Russian social network Vkontakte, letting each other know where and when shells were landing.
The fighting would let up for a few hours each day, allowing the city a brief respite so that people could emerge from underground to go for supplies. It was on one of these days, when Vadim and his mother went out to buy shoes, that a rebel soldier for the DNR stopped them. Vadim said the soldier was wearing cheap house slippers, which in Ukraine and Russia are typically worn outside only by thuggish young men, called gopniki. The rebel fighter searched Vadim and his mother, and finding nothing, took Vadim’s phone, which had the Ukrainian trident symbol on the background. That was enough to arrest him.
Vadim spent the next week in a makeshift prison camp, made to work all day carrying bags of concrete to build defenses. He was given a bowl of grechka, or buckwheat, a day and the guards would beat his cell-mates. After a few days, the rebels contacted Vadim’s mother and offered to ransom him for 10,000 grivna (about $500, more than double the average monthly wage). He was released, and later that week left Horlivka for Kiev.
In Kiev, Vadim immediately signed up with the Azov Battalion, one of the most controversial but effective volunteer forces in Ukraine. Because he is still in university, he does not have to serve in the national army, and because he is only 19, the battalion will not send him to fight until he receives more training. But he says he feels obliged to help.
“If Kiev were under attack, I would expect people to fight to defend it,” Vadim said. “My home is under attack, so I cannot sit back and do nothing while guys from western Ukraine go do the fighting for me.”
This sentiment is widespread – that young men from western Ukraine are doing all the fighting, and dying, in the east, while the easterners flee the region as refugees. Talking with people in the town of Uzhgorod, in the far west near the border with Hungary, this was oft-repeated.
“A whole lot of our guys have gone out there,” a woman in the botanical gardens tells us. “We are proud of them because they are fighting for our independence, but why should they be the only ones on the front lines?”
Nearly every village we pass on our drive through the rural Carpathian Mountains has a banner with a young soldier’s face, name, and dates hanging on the main square. Along the roads we pass memorials with flowers, Ukrainian flags, and red and black flags of the extreme nationalist Right Sector party. In Kiev, a disproportionate number of the Maidan memorials are to young men from western towns like Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Ternopil.
“I had to leave Crimea because it was too dangerous to stay, people knew my politics,” said Ksenia Gorenko (not her real name), a recruiter for the Azov Battalion and one of the thousands of refugees in Lviv. She lives in a small rented room with her young daughter and spends her days organizing recruitment events and supply drives for the battalion.
“I found out I was on a Russian hit list,” Gorenko said. “One of my friends in Odessa was murdered two months ago doing the same work as me, they shot her in the head and left a note on the body.”
Gorenko said she was afraid to keep working at first, but has gotten used to the constant threats. She even takes a certain pride in it. “If you aren’t on the list, it means you aren’t working hard enough.”
She gives me a pin with the Azov battalion’s symbol on it, a Wolfsangel charge that was also used by German SS divisions during World War II. She notices the look I give it. “This is not a fascist symbol, we are not fascists,” she says.
Since Maidan began, its supporters and opponents have lobbed charges of fascism and neo-nazism at one another. As fighting worsened, the charges were magnified as both sides tried to prove the ideological nastiness of their opponent.
It is no secret some of the men fighting for Azov and other battalions have extremist views. Azov’s founder, Andri Biletsky, has publicly supported an ideology of racial purity and extreme nationalism, though he has reportedly toned down his radical politics to focus on the war. Many of the parties in the Ukrainian parliament like Right Sector and the nationalist Svoboda party have deeply illiberal platforms, with elements unsettlingly reminiscent of German fascism.
In downtown Kiev, soldiers in camouflage approach us with patriotic appeals to support the fighters in the east by donating cash. I give 100 grivna (about $5) to a guy with the Aidar battalion, which I knew little about. Later, we find out that Amnesty International has accused the battalion of abduction, intimidation, and extortion of non-combatants.
The Ukrainians are not alone in their radical views. Interviews with rebel fighters of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics show many of their fighters also have a variety of extreme viewpoints, like Orthodox fundamentalism and Soviet revanchism. The preamble to the DNR constitution makes clear the republic’s alignment to the “Russian world,” and the Orthodox church, using language reminiscent of Milošević’ ‘greater Serbia’ movement that fueled the wars of the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
Both sides are ignoring the rules of war: shelling civilian areas, intimidating locals, and even committing extrajudicial killings. The rebels have made the Donetsk and Luhansk regions into fiefdoms, without law or justice. None of this, however, helps our unease in thinking the ‘side’ we support may have fascist leanings, and may be committing crimes.
The difficult thing in Ukraine today is identifying what the Ukrainian side is. In spite of the radical views in some of the battalions, the government and the people we spoke to espoused moderate views. In the Zakarpatskaya region, several people bragged about the number of nationalities living together peacefully and were adamant that Ukraine accepts all nationalities, including Russians. All around the country, EU flags fly alongside Ukrainian flags, and everyone we spoke to emphasized their liberal orientation.
Back on the beach with our new friend Vadim, we met a gay couple. As we stood in a circle playing volleyball, I heard Vadim talking with them and saw him laugh when they made a joke about their relationship. They got along fine. However, that weekend, Kiev’s gay pride parade was attacked by right wing thugs affiliated with Right Sector. So, which is it? Who and what represents Ukraine?
This is not a new question. Everyone was asking it after the Soviet Union collapsed, and again after the Orange Revolution. It was asked before that too, during World War II when nationalist militias fought for an independent Ukraine, and before that, during the Russian Civil War when Whites, Reds, Ukrainian nationalists, anarchists, Poles and more fought for political and ideological supremacy. Still further back, during Austro-Hungarian rule when Ukrainian nationalism was stoked to counter the Poles, and before that during the Cossack Khmelnitsky rebellion.
Is Ukraine a moderate European state with a liberal footing, or is it a failed country with a government run by oligarchs and fascists? In these heady revolutionary times, just as in past revolutionary times, no one really knows. Instead, there are many groups competing to form the ideology of what is, essentially, a new state – to decide who the heroes of that state are, and its interpretation of the past.
But currently, there is a gap where an ideology should be. A gap that is neatly shown by the plinth on Khreshchatyk Street in Kiev. Here, until December 8th 2013, stood a statue of Lenin. On that date, it was toppled by the Maidan protesters. It currently stands empty. There is no replacement statue, for of whom would the statue be? Poroshenko? Of a Maidan martyr? Of our friend Vadim? Perhaps, even, a restoration of Lenin?
An answer is suggested across the street, at the Pinchuk Art Centre. In June 2015, Emeric Lhuisset’s Maidan Hundred Portraits is showing. On 20 television screens, super-slow motion videos are playing, each a portrait of a protester on Maidan. Vadim is not among them, for this is the first time his story has been told. Nor are thousands of young men who are currently fighting for Ukraine. Yet it is exhibitions like this that will create the new cast of patriots. That will forge the new pantheon of heroes, those who in ten years will be cast in bronze, and in a hundred will proudly look out over the free and proud nation of Ukraine!
That will glorify this new round of tragedy.
Miles Atkinson has lived in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Russia, and Ukraine, and traveled throughout the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. He likes the odd corners of the world, and writes about the things he encounters when the inspiration comes. He speaks Russian and enjoys the outdoors.
Matthew Webber is Arts and Culture Editor at Balkanist. He is a research student, novice journalist and occasional artist currently based in Sarajevo. His PhD research focuses on the relationship between contemporary art and politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and is being conducted at the UCL Institute of Archaeology.
Cover photo: People’s Friendship Arch, Kiev – A monument to the unification of the Russian and Ukrainian people (Credit: Matt Webber).