Featured picture: A woman visits a memorial dedicated to those who died in clashes with security forces at Maidan Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, in November 2019, marking the sixth anniversary of the beginning of the Maidan protests. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)
By Olga Tokariuk | February 1st, 2022 | The Washington Post
Olga Tokariuk is an independent journalist and researcher based in Kyiv. She is a nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
As Russia and the United States clashed at the United Nations on Monday over Ukraine, all I could feel was anger. That has been the predominant feeling these past few weeks here in Kyiv.
Because of the actions of a madman, it’s as if we Ukrainians have ceased to exist: We cannot worry about raising children, do the work we love, make plans, build our future. Instead, we are forced to pack go-bags, make evacuation plans and spend our weekends studying how to survive in an occupied city — and learning first aid.
We have a lot to lose. Most people don’t stop very often to think about independence and sovereignty, but those things were hard-fought achievements. The Ukrainian nation, with its language and rich culture, has existed for centuries. Millions of lives were lost just in the 20th century as a result of failed attempts to create an independent Ukrainian state.
But since official independence was gained in 1991, a whole generation has come of age. It’s a generation that witnessed two revolutions and a war, and that refused to give up in the toughest times. And it’s precisely this determination, resilience and courage that scare Vladimir Putin the most.
I am a part of this generation, and my personal story is closely interconnected with that of an independent Ukraine. I was born in 1985, six years before the Soviet Union collapsed. The same year, the Ukrainian poet and dissident Vasyl Stus died in a Soviet gulag. He was yet another victim of a Soviet repressive machine, active until the last days of the U.S.S.R.
When I was 6 years old, on Dec. 1, 1991, my parents took me to the polling station on the day of the referendum for Ukraine’s independence. As we walked hand in hand, I was feeling very proud: I knew my parents were going to vote in favor of it. My family was able to transmit the feeling that independence was something precious, worth cherishing and preserving.
My turn to do that came when I was 19. The Orange Revolution began in 2004, when a wave of mass protests exploded following an attempt to rig presidential elections in favor of a pro-Kremlin candidate. On the day of voting, I was working as an election observer in the Luhansk region, bordering Russia. I saw with my own eyes brutal electoral violations and intimidation of supporters of pro-democracy candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who was poisoned during the campaign but miraculously survived. I was kicked out from the polling station using a false pretext before the vote count even began.
The day after the election, thousands flocked to Maidan Square in Kyiv. I joined them as a volunteer, distributing leaflets with the latest news to thousands of protesters camped on the square in freezing temperatures. Those people didn’t just want their candidate to win; they demanded free and fair elections, and they believed in a democratic Ukraine. And they won: After three weeks of peaceful protesters, another round of elections was ordered, which Yushchenko won.
At 28, I witnessed yet another revolution: the Euromaidan, or Revolution of Dignity. It began in late 2013, when pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who came to power in 2010, refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union. People’s outrage with Yanukovych’s corrupt regime — which reversed Ukraine’s course toward the West, concentrated power in his hands and cracked down on democracy, just as his role model in the Kremlin had done — poured into the streets. I was there too, with a smartphone, live-tweeting the Euromaidan for the world to know.
This time, the protests lasted for three winter months and ended in bloodshed. In late February, the regime’s special forces started shooting protesters with live rounds, killing about a hundred people. I cried with tens of thousands Ukrainians at Maidan Square, when the “heavenly hundred,” as those killed became known, were bid the last farewell. That tragic moment marked the end of peace in independent Ukraine.
It soon became clear we were facing a much stronger enemy than Yanukovych: Just a few days after his escape to Russia, Putin launched the war against Ukraine. It began with the annexation of Crimea, which caught Kyiv and its Western partners by surprise. It continued in Donbas, where Russian special forces seized government buildings and instigated an armed insurgency. Russia continues to send soldiers, weapons and money to nurture this conflict, which has already killed more than 14,000 people.
And that’s where we are today: facing a Moscow bent on keeping Ukraine poor and corrupt, undemocratic and divided. But the Ukrainian people have shown more than once they will have the last word on their future.
We might have regarded independence as a gift when we were children, but later in life we realized that it was not just given to us; we had to protect it with our lives. We have been hardened but never broken. We might be angry and frustrated, but never defeated.
I know my generation will prevail again. I know Putin’s plans for Ukraine, whatever shape they take, are doomed to fail. Millions of Ukrainians stand united, once again, ready to resist.