Revolution in Ukraine, 2014: The View from Lviv

The following essay, with selected photographs, also appeared in the journal Social Text on March 20, 2014.

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Revolution in Ukraine:  The View from Lviv
By Jason Francisco and Eugene Polyakov
Photographs by Jason Francisco

Lviv, 24 February 2014

“You want to come in here and see what we’re doing?  Sorry, we’re too busy,” say two women packing clothes and medicine at the Garrison Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Lviv, one of the largest and most historic in the city.  A young Ukrainian-born priest from New York, Brother Andriy Pradyvus, takes us around instead.  His church has been a central collecting point for donations for the opposition to the government of Viktor Yanokovych since the Euromaidan occupation of Kyiv’s Independence Square began in November 2013.  Hundreds of boxes fill one aisle of the cathedral halfway to the transept, and fill an upper story normally closed to the public.  “This is actually a reduction in the amounts we’ve normally had,” says Pradyvus.  “It’s been too much.  We’ve had to tell people not to keep bringing donations.”  By the looks of things, people are only partly listening.  A collection box beside the church door is full of cash donations.  A woman in her fifties tells us, “I’m a teacher, and we raised this money with the whole class…”

With the rest of the world, the people of Lviv are currently watching to see whether the peace will hold in Kyiv.  What has become known as the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine began as a public protest in the Ukrainian capital on November 21, 2013, and grew into a permanent occupation of Independence Square––termed by participants the "Maidan" or "Open Plaza"––involving continuous demonstrations and civil unrest against the Russian-backed government of Viktor Yanukovych.  Initial protests in Kyiv focused on Yanukovych's abrupt rejection of an agreement that would have led to closer integration between Ukraine and the European Union, in favor of closer ties with Russia––historically considered an oppressor by many Ukrainians, especially in the central and western parts of the country.  In time, the protests widened into a pro-democracy movement against the Yanukovych regime and everything it stood for:  deeply entrenched cronyism, corruption, and self-enrichment of the political class, and abuse of civil and human rights. 

By all accounts, the previous week has been one of the most historic in the modern history of Ukraine––a week that has seen the Yanukovych government kill scores of citizens and injure hundreds, followed by an EU-brokered agreement that did not meet the approval of the street, leading rapidly and unexpectedly to Yanukovich's impeachment and flight from the capital, and the freeing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.  But the truth is that while the dramatic events in Kyiv are the most visible aspect of a socio-political revolution going on in Ukraine, they are supported in a thousand unseen ways by ordinary Ukrainians from around the country.  With its deeply European roots and its multicultural history––a trading center that for centuries was home to Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Germans, Armenians and others––the western city of Lviv has been an unwavering bastion of support for the opposition, and an important driving force behind the events in the capital.

Or to put it differently, the political movement itself has looked considerably different from the events in Lviv than from the images broadcast to the world from Kyiv.  The people of Lviv have embodied what should be recognized as the constructive side of revolutionary change in Ukraine, against the image of the destruction associated with the events in Kyiv.  Without saying that violence has been absent in Lviv––it has not been––violence has been anomalous, widely condemned in the city, and not a part of the city's collective response in the most public and visible gathering points.  Violence has not defined Lviv's response to the crisis in Kyiv.  Instead, that response has so far been defined almost entirely by several forms of non-violent resistance, both organized and spontaneous, on a broad scale.

Besides material, financial and physical support for the Kyiv Maidan––everyone here knows someone who has spent time in the Maidan, if they haven’t gone themselves––Lviv’s response to the events this week has been the following:  peaceful marches, free and open speech from a city-sponsored stage built in the center of the city, public prayer, spontaneous acts of voluntary public service, vigilance and citizen-led initiatives to safeguard law and order.  The photographs here show what we have seen in Lviv from February 19-23, what might be called the positive underbelly of the revolution.

Not far from the Garrison Church on Prosp. Svobody, beside the statue of Taras Shevchenko, is Lviv's "Maidan," where people of all kinds gather for news, information, a sense of solidarity with others.  Some come to listen, some to talk, some to contemplate, some to pray, some to buy a flag, some to receive a bowl of soup, some to pace, some to stand in one place, some to shake their fist, some to weep.  We have seen all of these things.  From the stage, many types of speakers address the crowds.  We have seen overtly political speeches, as well as testimonials, songs, and many prayer vigils by lay people and clergy alike.  The mood of the gatherings in the last days has been anxious and tense, but calm.  The Lviv Maidan has been the center of public events, often attended by tens of thousands of people.  This is to say that in a time of crisis, the local government made no moves to shut down the Maidan.  On the contrary, the city has precisely fostered the open exchange of ideas––quite in keeping with the Timothy Snyder’s useful definition of maidan in his most recent essay in the New York Review of Books:  “... a maidan now means in Ukrainian what the Greek word agora means in English: not just a marketplace where people happen to meet, but a place where they deliberately meet, precisely in order to deliberate, to speak, and to create a political society.”

This is to say that the security situation in Lviv has been starkly different from the situation in Kyiv.  There have been no deaths, no near deaths, and no conflicts between the police and the public.  Not only did the police not stop peaceful public protest in all its varieties, for most of the week just passing there was essentially no uniformed police presence on the streets at all.  Exactly where the police have gone has been a matter of considerable speculation.  According to some opinion, the police have gone into hiding, or decided to remove their uniforms for fear of retribution from the public.  Others maintain that the police have elected to work in plain clothes as an expression of solidarity with the protest movement, or in order not to provoke public disturbance.  On February 20, the head of the local police, Oleksandr Rudyak, stated officially that morale remains strong among the police force, and that they chose to go without uniforms because of the “disgust” that the public has toward the police following the mass killings in Kyiv.  Rudyak further stated the Lviv police were out of contact with the federal Interior Ministry from February 20-22, and that were effectively an autonomous force “guided only by the laws and the constitution.”  

Consider this situation in perspective:  in a time of revolution, without central authority in the country, chaos and anarchy did not occur in Lviv.  Instead, law and order were maintained in and by the conspicuous absence of the police, whose public role was performed by self-organized citizens’ patrol groups, many including plainclothes officers.  As of last night, uniformed police have begun to reappear wearing the bright yellow safety vests of the citizen patrols.

Isolated attacks on police and government buildings did occur on the night of Tuesday February 18, after the first outbreak of violence in Kyiv, but these were not sustained or recurring. One attack took place at the city police headquarters on Akademika Hnatyuka Street, another at the chief prosecutor’s office on Shevchenka Ave., and a third at a complex of military installations on Stryiska Street, on the outskirts of the city.  Just who was responsible for the attacks is unclear, as no group has claimed responsibility––itself a telling statement.  Some speculate that it was organized by local members of one of the rightist ultra-national groups, others that it was government-hired thugs brought in from the outside, still others that it was spontaneous and not organized.  Neither the police headquarters nor the prosecutor’s office were occupied for longer than a few hours, and citizens’ groups formed within hours to coordinate cleanup. Local artists designed and printed a poster that still hangs on the police headquarters (and many other places around town).  Under the stereotypical image of a rightist street thug in a black ski mask, the text reads: “Insurgent, don’t be a barbarian! Don’t destroy your own city!”

On Truskavetska Street, in front of a barracks in which a battalion of soldiers has signed a pledge in January to resist deployment to Kyiv and quarantined themselves, we meet members of a self-organized citizen’s who patrol the barricaded entrances to the compound.  They welcome us with coffee made over a fire burning in an oil drum.  “We’re on duty 24 hours a day to prevent the departure of the soldiers to Kyiv.  Usually they protect us, but now we protect them.”  They belong to no political party, but have organized themselves online.  In January, they tell us, as many as 200 people participated, though many fewer are currently needed.  We manage to speak with the nervous lieutenant of the battalion, who confirms the citizens’ story and the highly unusual role reversal.  “We’re communicating with them regularly,” he tells us, “and they even share their food with us.”  In case of trouble the citizen-guards call not on the soldiers, but on other activists in the city––the Automaidan, the Narodna Samooborona (People’s Safeguard), and even the hard light rightist Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector).

With one of the activists, a retired lieutenant colonel called Oleh, we go to the nearby base of the Lviv contingent of the Berkut, or special assignment units under the central command of the Interior Ministry––responsible for most of the killings in Kyiv.  We find an investigation in progress.  Police detectives together with representatives of NGOs are looking into the circumstances of a fire that took place here on February 20.  According to witnesses, the building was set on fire from the inside and then the militia abandoned it; two members of the Berkut died in the fire.  Though the detective will not confirm it, it appears that it was an incident of mutiny in defiance of the prospect of deployment to Kyiv, involving sabotage of the contingent’s armory.  The Lviv police managed to seize the weapons, which remain on site.

Among the civilians guarding the Berkut base is Stryiska Street is a 15 year old schoolboy, Markiyan.  Since the beginning of December, he has come every evening to help block different military units, and even help patrol the streets with his bicycle––on which he has proudly put a sticker reading “Varta 1” (“Guard 1”).  It is his portable radio that the civilian volunteers rely on for contact with other like groups, and news from the traffic police.  “When the children are coming to the barricades,” says Oleh, “then you know you cannot suppress the country.”

Oleh drives us to another outlying military installment on Stryiska Street.  On the evening of February 18, citizen activists received information that federal soldiers had been ordered by their own commanders to break the citizen blockade and deploy to Kyiv under armored troop carriers.  Later it was learned that the order was issued by a single commander, in conflict with other commanding officers.  Within hours, some ten thousand people gathered to prevent the deployment––enough to fill the large field opposite the main gate.  The soldiers were forced to surrender their cell phones, preventing independent contact with the outside.  Still, many were dropping notes to the crowd from the windows of the barracks, stating that they had pledged to resist deployment to Kyiv.  According to Oleh’s testimony, at a certain point there was a surge by radical extremists within the crowd, who charged the buildings with Molotov cocktails.  Oleh and others attempted to create a human shield preventing their movement, but failed.  Fires began to burn inside the building, which eventually consumed much of the interior.  No soldiers were injured and all weapons were kept under protection and transferred to a police guard.

Standing before the charred facade of the building, Oleh reflects emotionally on the state of things, and specifically the Russian-sponsored propaganda that paints popular resistance in western Ukraine as neo-fascist.  "What happened at this base is a travesty.  The activists in Lviv are not extremists.  We are not fascists, not people out to physically destroy our opponents.  We’re also not serfs, not slaves and not Soviets.  We are patriots, citizens.  You can call us nationalists––and our nation includes Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Armenians, Belarussians and all the people working for a new Ukraine, with the rule of law, and without corruption and lies!  We’re opposed to violence!  Destruction is not what we want!  Our movement is peaceful.”  And after a pause he adds, “We’re like the Jews in the bible, finding our way to the promised land.”

It appears, in short, that quite apart from the turbulence of the situation in Kyiv, the city of Lviv has prepared itself to live out as much as possible its vision for progressive change.  Citizens, police and military units in the city are working together in self-organization and semi-autonomy to coordinate the civil defense in a way that is both effective and popularly acceptable.  It is, of course, easy to imagine a very different scenario, with widespread looting, marauding and the like.  This has simply not been the case in Lviv.

We are concerned that the image of Ukrainian political resistance for the foreign media is focused on violent actions, i.e. the foreign media recognizes shadows of the conflagration in Kyiv, but not that there are several forms of coordinated non-violent resistance going on here very publicly.  Of course we do not know what will happen and whether Lviv will also descend into violence, but we do worry that the mainstream media is inclined to discount the ways that political resistance has more than one face and is not just violent.  Or to put it differently, what is occurring openly in Lviv runs against a simplistic version of events that pits Russian-backed government thugs against insurgent neo-fascists representing the western part of the country.  It also runs counter to the vision of Ukraine as apocalyptic wasteland, which has become a stock image of Independence Square in Kyiv.  The open dialogue, peaceful dissent and cooperative networks in Lviv are not being sustained in the name of cataclysmic oppositional extremism.  On the contrary, we have seen the people of Lviv largely modeling the change they wish to see, backed by very conspicuous police non-intervention.

Back in central Lviv, at the nineteenth century Sapieha Palace, the city’s largest collection point continues its work, room upon room of donations of medicine, food, clothing, shoes and boots, bedding, tents, phones and phone cards, and very importantly, protective equipment for those occupying Independence Square in Kyiv, including helmets, shields, gas masks and armored vests.  “We don’t accept money here,” says Ivan Radkovets, a librarian and leading member of the Maidan committee in Lviv, as a woman unloads a shipment of steel helmets.  “These will be taken to Kyiv tonight,” he says––in one of the many car and busloads that also carry letters, poems, handwritten prayers, handmade socks.  And then, pointing to a pile of home-canned jars of food, Radkovets quips “These here are going bad.  We’re sending them to Yanukovych’s personal residence.”

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Eugene Polyakov, a native of Lviv, is currently a Ph.D student at the Ivan Krypiakevych Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Lviv.