A return to Kyiv after an eventful year away. Please note: I claim to be no expert. Since central Kyiv has changed a lot in the last month, I’ll also note, all photos were taken in early August 2014.
A lot happens in a year. When I think of the last year in my own life — between teaching, exams, and grant-writing, and wedding planning (and execution) on the other — so much has changed in just a short time. The same, of course, has proven true in world events, and nowhere more so than in Ukraine. The week before we set off for a month of traveling in India, Maki and I spent a week traveling in Kyiv and Eastern Ukraine, eager to see and take stock of what we would find. Now, more than a month later, I still contemplate all that we saw and did.
Last year, I left Kyiv on August 22. The city I left behind had grown ever more familiar in the four weeks I lived there, in a wonderfully appointed apartment just off Independence Square, the “Maidan.” For almost a month, I called central Kyiv home. I returned home from the archives each day past the statues and flags that dotted the horizon, and I took pleasure in the daily absurdities of enormous Sponge-Bobs and Mickey Mice that regularly added to the hustle and bustle of living in tourist-central. As everyone knows, that very square — literally a block and a half from where I once lived — became the epicenter of the protests that began in late 2013. With a mixture of hope and concern, we watched events unfold over the last year, and with heavy hearts, we ponder what the next months will bring. With knowledge of all that had unfolded in the last year, Maki and I returned to Kyiv in early August, eager to see what we might find.
I think the overwhelming sense that I had from our return to Kyiv was the extent to which everything seemed simultaneously completely different yet somehow life continues as usual. This proved true in Kyiv, less so as we headed further east (and definitely much less so as we chatted with fellow passengers on our train back to Moscow at the end of the week, some of whom were fleeing violence and chaos in and around Donetsk). Perhaps the best illustration of this was the Billa grocery store, located in an underground mall below the Maidan itself. Walking from the seeming chaos of the Maidan, which was, as of a month ago, still a tent city of protesters and activists, many of whom had nowhere to go, into the quiet mall was, frankly, shocking. As we entered, the world seemed wholly unchanged and unaffected by the world outside. In the grocery store and mall, it was business as usual — as it apparently they did basically all of the last year — despite all the changes that took place on the street. Even on the street, as you walked further away from the Maidan, many streets had clearly returned to business-as-usual, with countless markers and ribbons serving as solemn reminders of all that had been.
These memorials were really everywhere — perhaps the biggest reminder of the countless tragedies and unnecessary death that had taken place over a long period of time.
At each site of death and violence, candles and flowers commemorated the dead, and photos, letters, and mementos were left in tribute to those who had died.
Of course, there was no shortage of blame.
More often than not, however, signs called for unity and a brighter future.
Maki has always held that Ukrainians excelled at mourning the dead. We found ample proof of this statement. Yet I also think we found plenty of suggestions that Ukrainians also continue to maintain hope against all odds, that they continue to look to the future, hope for the best, and work hard and sacrifice much to get there.
At the same time, I think I’d be lying if I said things didn’t look bleak. On one level, much depends on Ukraine’s ability to be unified, but even from the week we spent traveling, all the rifts in society are painfully evident. I don’t just mean between the East and the West, or between pro-Kyiv and pro-Russia, or between Ukrainian and Russian speakers. Alongside these major differences, it is also apparent that the crisis has been experienced by people in different ways, particularly when you consider just how life for many goes unchanged. A fact that is highly resented in regions where everyday life has been completely altered and changed by the crisis.
But on another level, it is also increasingly obvious that things are quickly spiraling beyond what can be realistically managed by a poor and struggling government. And thus, the fate of Ukraine is being slowly determined not by the Ukrainian state and people, but by the decisions, actions, and inaction of others. In the month since we left, the Maidan has been cleared as the Kyiv government tries to return the city to a normal that may take years to achieve. Meanwhile, we’re left with little to do but wait and see, hoping for the best while preparing, mentally, for the worst.