These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Go To the Square – The Situation in Ukraine

Posted on December 10, 2013 by Jeremy Borovitz

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Jeremy BorovitzThis is going to be very long, but here are my thoughts on Ukraine:

I was sitting at my mother’s desk, obsessively scanning my news feed and hitting refresh on the Kyiv Post’s homepage, when I realized I had to go to Ukraine to see it for myself.

I lived in Ukraine for nearly three and a half years, the last year in Kyiv, and so I took much of what was happening on a personal level. It was not just young, idealistic Ukrainians or nationalists or hired thugs who were out there on the square; it was people I knew, my colleagues, ex-girlfriends, and very dear friends. I wanted to be there with them.

Two of my friends picked me up from the airport. Both young, western-looking, and educated, even they had divergent views on the protests. One, like me, was obsessed and idealistic. She was checking her phone every minute for updates, yearning to be on the Maidan, the Independence Square, with the rest of her friends.

The other was more skeptical. In fact, he only decided to come out, like most Ukrainians I know, AFTER the police had already attacked the protestors on November 30. He wasn’t particularly political, and didn’t see a clear answer in sight. But he was outraged at the violence, and peacefully came to the square to express his discontent.

My friends immediately took me to Maidan, and those first few hours were beautiful. The makeshift tent village that had sprung up in the heart of my former city was a site to see. There were tents for food and warm clothes, fires in trash bins heating all passers by. There were tents for people from different towns throughout the country, and tents for those who simply wished to be there with their countrymen. There was an order in the chaos, a makeshift society slip-slapped together for the sake of something.

The city hall, which protestors took over about ten days ago, was also a site to see. Sleeping bags strewn about the grounds where meetings used to take place, people lining up to be fed sandwiches of cheese and meat, gawkers like me passing by and snapping pics. One man, hearing me talk in English, approached me. The government stole my business from me. I am here because I have nothing left. Can you tell someone, he pleaded with me. Can you help me?

I spent quite a few hours there with about 10,000 others, taking in the sites, speaking with strangers, trying to understand what this all was trying to accomplish. I didn’t know, but there was a beauty in it. These are people who feel they have no other recourse. Their last elections were less than transparent, and their leadership has overall lost the trust of its citizenry. Maybe, I thought, this is the means for change. Looking back, It was the high point of my idealism.

On Friday night Shabbat started early, so my friends hosted me for the duration of the Sabbath. Since I, their silly observant friend, couldn’t drive anywhere, they invited a few of our mutual acquaintances over to enjoy the Sabbath meal. A mixture of Americans, Europeans, and Ukrainians, we discussed the revolution and its implications. The consensus? We don’t know what it is. But it must be something.

I went back after Shabbat was over, and I was a bit disappointed. The crowds had thinned, and those who remained seemed increasingly militant. There were slogans that were being shouted which made me somewhat uncomfortable, including “Glory to Ukraine, glory to its heroes,” which was the rallying cry for UPA, the Ukrainian nationalist militia which operated during World War II and was responsible for the deaths of many Jews during the Holocaust.

I asked one of my Jewish friends how she felt about these slogans. She didn’t respond, she told me. But the protest is not about the slogan. It is about being present, being active, doing something, anything, for change. It didn’t matter that she didn’t agree about most things with some of the people on the square. What mattered is that they both loved their country, and they both wanted to improve it.

To be honest, I don’t know if I share her hopes. The nearly million people who showed up the next day to protest certainly lifted my hopes, but the destruction of the Lenin statue later that night sent it crashing back down. The police are closing in on the protestors, and no political solution seems to be in sight.

This began as a protest about wanted to be more European. Thats still a part of it. It evolved into a chance for the opposition parties to take down the government. This, too, is still holding true. But I think for most of the people on the square, its about doing SOMETHING, anything. Because in a country so riddled with holes and corruption, the feeling of helplessness can become too much to bear.

Why is Health Care free, but you have to bribe a doctor to see you? Why do Universities have little to no tuition, but a “gift” is expected by administrators and teachers every semester? Why are the roads filled with gaping craters and why does half the country live on 300 dollars a month? Why, in Ukraine, do no problems ever seem to get fixed?

The truth is, no one has an answer. Certainly not the leadership of the opposition parties, who are likely not free from any dirty politickying of their own. But when the President is becoming one of the richest men in the country and he imprisons his political opponents, something’s gotta give. Will it? I don’t know.

The majority of the people who showed up on Sunday are peaceful, and simply want a better life and a better country. But this can only happen without dangerous slogans and intimidating symbols. It can be done only be shear will alone, the will of the people to stand out and hope.

Hope. Thats the buzzword. Can hope win out? In a country that gets very dark in the winter, can they allow their lights to burn bright? Can they believe even when faith seems impossible? Can the desire to build a better future conquer too much focus on the past?

Many are characterizing this as a battle between Europe and Russia, between West and East. In the West they are yearning for Europe, they say, speaking the Ukrainian language, militant and nationalistic. In the East they are Soviets, Russian Speakers who want to be lost in Putins wide embrace. Maybe that is a part of it. But if this comes down to a date about language or history of geography, the people will lose.

This is a fight for the future. Of what it means to be a part of a global community. This is about standing in the freezing cold with a million strangers, and not knowing exactly why. But no one is forcing them to be there. They go because there is no clear answer. They go because they must do something.

Na Maidan. To the square. That is the rallying cry, the slogan, the symbol. My Ukrainian friends, do not let the violence distract or deter you. Stand, and be peaceful, and believe. My international friends, do not let the images you are seeing and reading confuse you. These are, overwhelmingly, good people unsure of their intentions and steadfast in their desires.

Nelson Mandela died this week. For a man who spent much of his youth in active rebellion, his years in prison taught him the value of justice over revenge, of reconciliation over anger, of love over hate. For Ukraine to succeed going forward, it needs to take a page out of his book. The protestors cannot be concerned simply with punishment and retribution, but with creation, and tomorrow.

Idit na Maidan. Go to the square, and stand for something, for anything. But be prepared for the hard work that building a modern world will require.