By Isaac Webb, VICE News, Feb 21, 2015
One year ago, Dasha Oratovska and Sasha Zakhovaieva fled from Kyiv’s Independence Square as riot police launched an assault on anti-government protesters, firing flares and rubber bullets into the crowd. Sasha lost consciousness and was dragged by a friend to a makeshift hospital in the nearby Trade Unions building. The building soon caught fire, forcing doctors and wounded protesters to evacuate. As the Euromaidan Revolution reached its bloody crescendo, Dasha found Sasha sitting, dazed, on St. Sophia Square, a short distance from Independence Square.
Six months later, Dasha left Ukraine, likely permanently. Sasha remains in Kyiv but has begun formulating contingency plans should the violence in the country’s east creep west.
They are not alone. Ukrainians are fleeing the country in record numbers: since February 2014, 600,000 Ukrainians have sought asylum or other forms of legal stay in neighboring countries, and thousands more have moved to the U.S. and the European Union. Others have fled illegally: Poland reported a 100 percent increase in the number of detentions of illegal Ukrainian immigrants last year.
But the emigrants are not only asylum seekers. They are the Western-leaning intelligentsia, the professional classes with relatives abroad, and the students of the Maidan who first organized protests against former President Viktor Yanukovych’s kleptocratic and violent government in November 2013.
Since the overthrow of Yanukovych last year, a Russian-backed secessionist movement has claimed the lives of 5,400 people and injured 13,000. The recent ceasefire has done little to quell the violence. Inflation is skyrocketing, hitting 25 percent in December. The hryvnia, Ukraine’s national currency, has lost two-thirds of its value against the dollar over the past year. This devaluation has crushed Ukrainians’ purchasing power, particularly for western goods, and severely limited their mobility: the average monthly Ukrainian salary was $384 in January 2014. By December 2014, it was down to just $261.
There is little reason to stay; the brain drain from Ukraine is accelerating.
Compassionate, diminutive, and curly-haired, Dasha got her undergraduate degree at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Ukraine’s most prestigious university. Trained as a social worker, she was an active volunteer while living in Ukraine, working regularly with drug addicts and patients at a psychiatric hospital in Kyiv before leaving for the Netherlands last summer. Dasha says she and other recent émigrés are conflicted about whether or not to return. “Many will not go back,” she predicts. Spending months protesting for an unfulfilled vision was taxing: “I can’t say that I want to return home soon. As I was standing on the Maidan last winter, I realized how difficult it would be for me to stay in Kyiv.”
Certain youthful exigencies also beckoned her abroad. The prospect of a Western European lifestyle and education were alluring, and, before moving—in fact, while in the barricades—she fell in love with a Dutchman. “Here in Utrecht,” she says, “I feel as though I can develop more as a person than in Kyiv.” Still, she cannot ignore the tragedy of the ongoing conflict. Her cousin is training to serve with the army in eastern Ukraine, and another relative runs support to and from the warzone.
Like Dasha, for Ivan Demianets, the war in eastern Ukraine is inescapable, despite the ten time zones that separate him from it. Three months after Yanukovych’s fall from power, Ivan moved to the US to pursue a PhD in Chemistry at the University of Southern California. He was active on the Maidan, working with diaspora populations to fundraise for chai, soup, and bread, which became lifeblood of the revolution. After violence erupted last winter, he and his best friend Andrii Dvoiak started organizing hospitals in churches surrounding the Maidan to treat injured protesters, and arranged for 300 badly wounded demonstrators to receive treatment abroad. While at USC, he has been coordinating with Andrii and others to fundraise for the war effort, and worrying about his relatives who remain in the conflict zone.
Leaving was difficult. He left behind his family, girlfriend, and an NGO that he helped build. Still, moving to the U.S. was logical, and perhaps inevitable. Ukraine’s educational system is in shambles. Plagued by uneven teaching and corruption, students often pay for grades, rendering degrees meaningless. Given the opportunity to get a doctorate from a prestigious Western university, immigration was a kind of imperative. If after the revolution, it seemed like a good idea to get an education abroad and return after a few years, Ivan is now deeply ambivalent about going back to Ukraine. In the present crisis, Ivan now sees two paths for Ukrainians: “You either fight or you leave.”
Emily Channell-Justice, a graduate researcher at City University of New York, is writing her dissertation on the youth of the Maidan. She says the fallout from the revolution was a reality check for many young Ukrainians. “The Maidan allowed a lot of people to see an idealistic version of change,” Channell-Justice told VICE. “But they also saw what implementation of that change would actually mean. They understood that implementation was going to prevent actual radical change, because it’s too hard to implement things that would actually make things different in Ukraine.”
Change, Olga acknowledges, will take time. Olga, who studies at École Normale Supérieure in Paris, defies the Ukrainian female aesthetic, wearing her hair short and dressing more like someone from Bushwick than Kyiv. A new political system, she says, “isn’t going to come out of thin air,” though many of her countrymen inside and outside of the government seem loathe to accept this. “Many in Ukraine either don’t understand this or don’t want to,” she bemoans. Perhaps for this reason, Olga says that she knows “a great number of people who have left and don’t plan to return.”
Some of the “Maidantsy,” as the protesters were known, have taken up the mantra of reform, if not the mantra of implementation. Activist Hanna Hopko and journalist Mustafa Nayyem are now prominent parliamentarians campaigning for change. But despite receiving praise and awards from Washington and Brussels, the reforms they have championed have stalled. Ukraine is arguably more corrupt today than it was under Yanukovych. As one former racketeer told me, “At least in the old days, you knew who the boss was.” Corruption has become decentralized, and, as a consequence, more difficult to track down.
In many ways, revolution was the easy part. The failure of reform in Ukraine over the past two and a half decades has proven that revolutionary fervor does not bring honest government or prosperity. The Maidan, like the 2004 Orange Revolution before it, was fueled by emotionality, not always rationality. If Ukraine is to reform, it will come not from a change in leadership, but from a change in the attitudes of the everyman: the babushka shuffling paper in a bloated bureaucracy, the traffic cop extracting bribes along the road from Kyiv to Cherkassy, and the university rector rubber-stamping diplomas.
Sasha, who narrowly escaped injury on the Maidan last February, is a part of that effort. Speaking flawless English, and committed to Ukraine’s European future, she is the archetypal student of the Maidan. She now works with the Ministry of Health to improve the country’s “universal” health care system. (In truth, the government has only $149 per capita per year to spend on health care, so coverage is far from universal and corruption is rampant.)
Despite her involvement in reform, Sasha has abandoned activism. The past year has been so discombobulating that she doesn’t know what she or Ukraine stands for anymore. “During the Maidan, everything was clear. We fought for our civil rights, the ability to be considered human, and for the right to vote.” Now, Sasha says, everything is much more opaque. She will support volunteers and the families of those fighting in the east, but refuses to “blindly support any party” or movement.
A similar confusion pervades the population. Like Sasha, most students of the Maidan who remain in Ukraine are deeply disillusioned. They have little faith in the new and fragile government. A recent poll shows that President Petro Poroshenko’s popularity has fallen below 50 percent for the first time since winning the election in May. As the economy and reform efforts falter, analysts are now questioning how long the government can survive. With 2004 and 2014 in its wake, the paradigm of regime change in Ukraine has become revolution. But if radical change again comes to Kyiv, students likely won’t be leading the crusade.
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