Viewpoint: Ukraine's Spirit of Liberty Endures

Monday, 17 Mar 2014 02:42 PM

By Mark Nuckols

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KIEV, UKRAINE -- The Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, is a place by turns festive, somber, and inspiring. It is here where three months of peaceful demonstrations broke out, after Viktor Yanukovych’s government rejected a long-expected EU trade and association agreement in deference to his political sponsor, Vladimir Putin.

After an orgy of brutal violence by Yanukovych’s thugs-in-uniform, fierce street fighting erupted. When his goons lost their will to fight, Yanukovych fled to Russia.

Since then, Ukraine’s citizens have turned Maidan into a folk festival of democracy in action, and the guarantor of this people’s revolution. It’s important for the world to know that the spirit of liberty that began in Maidan continues to thrive.

In the heart of Maidan are 46 citizen battalions, called "sotni" or "hundreds" that occupy the central district of Kiev. They are well-disciplined, but friendly and cheerful. They are organized by and large by place of origin, and they have come from all parts of the country, east and west.

These citizen militias have just two clear and simple demands: fair elections and a cleansing of the widespread corruption in the government.

Their members are enthusiastically supported by the broader population. Kiev’s womenfolk have set up soup kitchens cheerfully distributing borscht, hot tea and apple cider "to warm up our comrades."

Talk with townspeople strolling the Maidan and adjacent Kreshchatik Avenue, and you’ll hear them express overwhelming support for their "self-defense army" and its struggle for Ukraine’s political regeneration.

The sotni sleep in tents erected all over the Maidan and warm themselves standing around wood-burning stoves, whose smoke fragrantly wafts over the square. Paving stones and tires are stockpiled in tidy piles by the barricades they’ve erected, but the atmosphere is orderly and peaceful. Drinking alcohol is strictly prohibited.

There are few overt signs of nationalism, but everywhere are expressions of patriotism and pride in Ukraine’s history.

A sculptor carves a wooden statue of Taras Shevchenko, the beloved national poet, while a children’s choir sings national folk songs.

From a raised platform, ordinary citizens give heartfelt speeches, honoring the dead, appealing to their countrymen in occupied Crimea, demanding true political reforms so that the sacrifices of life not be in vain. They do so without rancor or hatred, but rather with hope and determination.

Contrary to Kremlin propaganda, there are no public displays of swastikas or other fascist symbols. The sotni are mostly older, men in their 30s and 40s, with families and jobs they’ve left behind to take up their self-imposed duty.

There is a smaller, more hardcore militia called "Right Sector." Right Sector members bore the brunt of the street fighting to overthrow the prior regime, and they see themselves as the vanguard of the revolution.

They are mostly younger guys in their 20s, and naturally enough they carry themselves with a bit more obvious swagger. But I saw little evidence to suggest that they have any neo-Nazi tendencies.

I also made a side trip to visit Yanukovych’s palatial estate just outside Kiev. It explains everything wrong with Ukraine.

Most Ukrainians get by on monthly salaries of $200, and their former president spent perhaps a billion dollars of state funds on his own personal Versailles, complete with a menagerie of exotic animals. And then he had the brazen audacity to transfer this government-funded extravaganza into his personal ownership.

There have been literally almost a million flowers and thousands of candles laid in honor of the "heaven's hundred" who perished in the fighting on Maidan to throw out the Yanukovych regime.

Most of them were felled by deadly accurate sniper fire, and many more people are still missing. It is a sacred place.

I ask one woman why she is weeping as she places flowers on a makeshift memorial, and she tells me, "These people died for others, they died for our freedom. And now we are hoping for support from America, your country always supports democracy."

Ukraine faces tremendous challenges. The prior regime looted the country’s treasury, and post-Soviet corruption is endemic. And part of the country is under Russian military occupation.

But on Maidan, I was convinced that Ukraine’s people fervently want a better future and are determined to accomplish the necessary changes.

We have an obligation to support this people's revolution, and our support would be repaid with gratitude and a faithful ally.

Mark Nuckols is a professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, based in Moscow.

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