From Ukraine: The heartbreak of victory; the fear of Russia
A month after Viktor Yanukovych was ousted as Ukraine’s president, fear of a possible Russian invasion grips the nation.
Special to The Seattle Times
I have been to Mezhyhirya, the luxurious estate of Ukraine’s ex-president Viktor Yanukovych, twice. The first time was in early January. I rode with a caravan of self-proclaimed “middle-class activists” from the AutoMaidan group who were headed to the front gates of the estate. AutoMaidan had been making weekly trips to protest Mezhyhirya’s very existence, as well as the corruption it represented.
We were stopped by a unit of Berkut officers, members of Ukraine’s now defunct internal Special Forces, on the road leading to the estate. Some activists climbed atop the Berkut’s transport trucks, waved flags, and shouted revolutionary slogans, while others held their faces inches away from the officers’ masks, demanding to know their names and why they were acting against their own people.
We never made it to the gates. I would have to wait nearly two months to successfully trek those last 20 meters.
My second trip came right after Yanukovych’s sudden Feb. 22 departure from Ukraine, when Mezhyhirya was opened to the public. People came in droves to see the palatial residence for themselves.
Tour buses clogged the roads. Shawarma and hot-dog vendors crowded the sidewalks leading up to the gates. I was able to buy a high-quality map of the territory, showing the location of the helipad, the pirate ship, and the flock of emus.
Ebullient Ukranians crossed the grounds on bicycles and picnicked on the golfing green. Victory was made manifest at Mezhyhirya. It was, in some ways, both the physical and metaphorical crown of the EuroMaidan movement.
While it is possible, tempting even, to weave out of these events a happy story of people overcoming oppression, reality is much more complicated. As some frolic joyfully through the Mezhyhirya, others gather inside the barricades of EuroMaidan (which remains to this day) in a collective display of mourning.
Volunteers work to document every bullet hole in the city center. Permanent monuments are being erected to those killed by police forces. One reads “My son. My brother. Forgive me, that I could not protect you from these snipers’ bullets.”
The mountains of flowers that have clogged streets and walkways have not stopped growing.
These wildly divergent emotions — the joy of victory and the sorrow of loss — are reactions to the same trauma. Life in Kiev, once dominated by immediate calls to action, is now colored by a sense of helplessness. The threat of violence moved first to Crimea, but a deeper fear of Russian invasion now hangs over the whole of Ukraine.
Information about what is happening is now heavily filtered and harder to find. People aren’t sure what reports to trust and aren’t sure what to do. This is particularly jarring for a community that has been actively making its own history.
“There are lots of little me’s inside of me,” a friend recently said. “They are all talking about [what happened]. And they all disagree.”
Some have dealt with this sense of helplessness by creating plans for every conceivable contingency. My friend Anya has moved most of her savings out of Ukrainian hryven into U.S. dollars. She traveled by train to her family’s home in western Ukraine to store important documents and belongings, and has a “go bag” ready in case she needs to leave quickly. Her plan, she has told me, assumes that it will take at least six hours for Russian military troops to cross from Crimea into the Kiev region.
When I asked, she said she considers a military invasion of Kiev to be highly unlikely; the idea of being unprepared should such an incident arise, however, caused her to lie awake at night.
Others are focusing their energies on preparations for the widely anticipated military conflict with Russia. Anatoliy, a professional in his 20s whom I met at EuroMaidan many times, recently voiced this sentiment on his Facebook page: “I have my fellow countrymen who are ready to rise to arms. I have my friends who know exactly what we are going to do once (hopefully if) it all starts. We are a peaceful people who have no option of retreat.”
Still more have thrown themselves into politics, becoming “accidental lobbyists” in Ukraine’s national Parliament.
“I will make this damn revolution myself, if I have to!” said Viktoriya, an aggravated young professional, as we exited a copy shop together. She had printed several hundred copies of the résumé of a little-known professor whom she and her brother had identified as a good candidate for Ukraine’s new prime minister. She was going directly to the parliament building to start distributing them.
As she left, I wondered what she would be able to gain from her time and energies. Four days later, the man she was promoting, Pavlo Sheremeta, was appointed the minister of economics.
The global community is not unfamiliar with the mental and emotional traumas of war. We have identified and elaborated the effects of PTSD, and we can respond intelligently to these aftereffects, given the appropriate resources. However, the trauma and distress carried by Ukrainians today are quieter, more nefarious, and less open to simple psychological categorization.
The lives of Ukrainians will carry the hue of these traumas for many years, but there is still a tenacious optimism that people carry with them. There is optimism that Anya’s frantic packing will prove unnecessary. There is optimism that Anatoliy’s energies and dedication will bear fruit in his community rather than being spent on a battlefield. There is optimism that the sheer democratic force of people like Viktoriya will be a harbinger of success for the new Ukrainian nation that has emerged from this complicated struggle.
Jennifer J. Carroll is a University of Washington graduate student working toward a Ph.D. in Sociocultural Anthropology and an M.P.H. in Epidemiology. She is living in Kiev, where she is studying drug-addiction issues in Ukraine.