My family has hosted many international students over the years for both school-year and summer stays. Two of these students were from Ukraine. One of them came to spend the summer with my family after recently losing both of his parents and deciding to embrace his Jewish heritage by traveling to the US. His name is Roman.
He stayed with my family in the summer of 2011, and I had the wonderful opportunity to visit him over this past winter break. It was an incredible experience. I was able to see some amazing places and explore one of the most eco-conscious cities in the world.
Before I went to Ukraine, I had not paid much attention to political issues besides a few articles about the status of the protests. For those that don’t know, Ukraine has dealt with political strife since World War I, with citizens fighting against a corrupt government that has kept Ukraine under constant and oppressive surveillance.
It was not until 1991 that Ukraine was able to declare independence with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Despite this newfound independence, Ukraine found itself with corrupt politicians creeping into power, most recently with President Viktor Yanukovych.
But I didn’t want to focus my time on this; it seemed inappropriate to visit an old friend and then become politically involved. However, Roman’s girlfriend is a heavy participant in the student side of this movement, and I was thus shown Independence Square, the center of the protester’s demonstrations.
I had been a part of several protests of my own in Chicago including peace rallies, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw in Ukraine.
Each main street that led to the square had a barricade made of scrap wood, steel barrels, barbed wire, and leftover snow from the recent blizzard. Behind these barricades, hundreds of tents had been set-up for different purposes: soup kitchens, and housing for street members, political members, and regular citizens alike.
As I walked around, I noticed a large tree-like object; I realized that this was supposed to be their Christmas tree. But instead of lights and ornaments, it was covered from top-to-bottom with political posters supporting Euromaiden – the name of their protest movement.
Everywhere we walked, there were men, women, teens, elderly couples, and parents with their children in strollers walking the square, listening to a speaker on a stage who was shouting Ukrainian slogans, chanting demands, and giving out soup and bread to anyone in need of food.
Since Nov. 4 of last year, these protests have been going non-stop; thousands of people have stood and pledged themselves as supporters of joining the European Union and removing their president.
Since Euromaiden began, Roman, his sister, and his girlfriend have remained in the tumultuous city and are even renovating their apartment. But what I found most shocking was that everyone – including Roman – truly believed that these peaceful protests were the answer. And what are these people demanding? To remain an independent country and join the EU instead of being acknowledged as part of Russia.
In the last two weeks, Euromaiden reached a climax. On Jan.16, President Viktor Yanukovych signed new laws that ultimately prevented any further protests. In response, opposition leaders held a rally on Jan. 19 that led to gruesome and violent riots.
Many photos of these riots depict protestors with makeshift Molotov cocktails and hand weapons defending themselves against military personnel.
But in addition, one can see priests attempting to pacify the military and turn them away.
Even with the military in their faces, Ukrainian citizens truly believe that non-violence is the better solution. I can only hope that such methods bring success.
Nidenberg is a member of the class of 2016.