(Photographs by Bernd Debusmann Jr.)
By Bernd Debusmann Jr.
Landing in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev — or, as they prefer, Kyiv — I wasn’t really sure what to expect.
Would it be the grim and gray capital of a country still struggling to shake off its Soviet past? Would it be the tense and depressed heart of a country at war with itself?
Much to my surprise, it was none of these things.
In Kyiv, I found a vibrant, beautiful and modern city that has opened its arms to the West and is working hard to shed foreigners’ perceptions that have been shaped in large part by Western TV coverage of fighting in the country’s embattled East.
To better understand Ukraine’s recent history and how people are living with it, I decided to head to Kyiv’s beating heart — Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square. What I found there, in my opinion, was Ukraine in a nutshell.
The square, which is intersected by Khreschchatyk Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, was buzzing with activity as very sociable young people headed out to bars and restaurants to have a good time in the shadow of somber-looking Soviet-era government buildings, some still are emblazoned with the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union.
The revolution was a bloody affair. The people of Ukraine paid dearly.
Maidan — like its equivalent in Cairo, Tahrir Square — is also Ground Zero for tumultuous politics.
In 2014, it was here that hundreds of thousands of people, many of them very young, gathered for the “Euromaidan Revolution,” which led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych after his government suspended Ukraine’s preparations for closer integration with the rest of Europe.
While ultimately successful, the revolution was a bloody affair for which the people of Ukraine paid dearly.
On a street near the square, one can see a memorial with photographs of the “Heavenly Hundred” protesters who were killed (although the actual toll is far higher), mostly by pro-government snipers and hired thugs. In a lamp post near the memorial, I noticed a hole that had cut through both sides of the metal.
“A sniper, shooting from up there,” explained my tour guide, gesturing to the nearby National Bank of Ukraine. “I hope nobody was standing here.”
Looking at the faces on the photos, I could see that they were ordinary people, many of them young, who had become tired of corrupt politicians who did not have the country’s best interests at heart.
I found it hard not to sympathize with Ukraine’s young people. This is a well-educated generation that was born after the Soviet Union collapsed. They’ve known nothing but democracy (albeit a very flawed one) and are desperately looking West for support. That support has been largely absent — and they know it. But they haven’t let it get them down.
“Ukrainians are tough. Things will get better.”
The young Ukrainians I met were well educated, worldly and politically active, with a keen understanding of geopolitics and Ukrainian history. Many of them hold multiple jobs as they work to finance their education and find a way to get by in a tough Ukrainian economy.
My tour guide is holding down three jobs while attending university, and demonstrated a keen knowledge of Ukrainian and Eastern European politics.
“We do what we have to here,” she said. “There is no other way. Things happen, but we still must work hard and have fun.”
Ukrainians I met were reluctant to discuss the ongoing war in the country’s Eastern Donbass region, where the government and Russian-backed separatists are locked in a bloody stalemate that has killed more than 10,000 people in three and a half years.
“I’ve seen much fewer tours come to Kyiv. They are scared,” one tour guide told me. “They see video of the fighting and don’t want to come. But they shouldn’t be. Everyone is welcome here. It’s a great city.”
But probing a bit, I realized the war in Ukraine is much more serious than it may appear to a casual, faraway observer. Outside several government buildings, I saw photographs and memorials of soldiers, also very young, who were killed fighting in the east. Local media is full of reports of fighting and the steady trickle of casualties.
More than 3,500 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the fighting — considerably more than the number of Americans who have died in nearly 16 years of war in Afghanistan. The Ukraine figures do not take into account heavy casualties suffered by civilians and separatists.
Several young Ukrainians reluctantly described to me their own experiences of what the war has been like. One young woman spoke of a close friend of hers who was killed near the rebel-held eastern city of Luhansk, where she is from.
“From my parent’s house you can hear the artillery and the rockets,” she told me. “When the mortars start, it’s a bit scary.”
Despite the war and Ukraine’s myriad problems, its young people live their lives with a sense that things will get better.
“Ukrainians are tough. We’ve been through a lot in our history, and it has made us hard,” a young tour guide told me. “Things will get better. We hope more people come and see what Ukraine is really all about.”
Bernd Debusmann Jr. is chief reporter for the Khaleej Times newspaper in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Previously he worked as a producer on the Reuters Latin American TV desk in Washington, as a Reuters text reporter in New York and later in his native Mexico, first for Reuters TV and then as a freelance journalist.