Revolution of Dignity memorial, Kyiv, Ukraine

Memorial site for the Revolution of Dignity, KyivFrom late November 2013 to late February 2014, Ukrainians took to the streets in a massive popular uprising that started off being called EuroMaidan and ended up being called the Revolution of Dignity. At first, the protests consisted mostly of students, who were against then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden decision to withdraw from the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement. Security forces loyal to Yanukovych attacked the peaceful protestors in the central square of Kyiv, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, on the night of 30 November 2013. This prompted the first of several demonstrations that had over a million people standing, singing, and chanting against Yanukovych, and occupying the square for the sake of a free Ukraine. The protest movement evolved into a wider protest against the corruption of the Yanukovych regime and the oligarchs, and for a “normal life” for Ukrainians and future generations.

Yanukovych regime forces began killing Maidan protesters on 22 January 2014, starting by beating them to death and ending with snipers shooting them to death, especially on 20 February 2014. By the time Yanukovych fled from his Versailles-like palace at Mezhyhirya in Kyiv on the night of 21 February 2014, his Berkut riot police plus Russian snipers sent by Putin had killed nearly 130 people. Those killed during the Revolution of Dignity were immediately called the Heavenly Hundred (Небесна Сотня) and are revered as heroes of Ukraine.

Three years later, the wounds are still fresh. A small chapel has been built, up the hill from Maidan Nezalezhnosti on Institutskaya Street. This is where many of the Heavenly Hundred were shot on 20 February 2014. Alongside the established memorials there are numerous informal, spontaneous memorials to the people who were murdered. Relatives, friends, comrades from Maidan days, and many Ukrainians come to this terrible spot, to remember the patriotism and bravery of people who — just like them — only wanted to live a normal life.

Volunteer battalions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces

Ukrainian Armed Forces, poster at Maidan NezalezhnostiThis poster is on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv, produced by the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory. It is one of a series of panels entitled “Soldiers: History of the Ukrainian Army.” This one is Volunteer battalion soldier, 2014-2016. Ukrainian patriots – some who had already spent months on Maidan confronting the corrupt Yanukovych regime – joined the volunteer battalions which formed immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 2014. The “sotnyas” of Maidan became the vanguard of Ukraine’s defence of Europe from Russian aggression.

Translation of poster text: The victory of the Revolution of Dignity at the end of February, 2014 put an end to the hope of Russian Federation leaders to hold Ukraine in the sphere of its geopolitical influence with the help of pro-Russian leadership in power. That’s why they took efforts to overthrow or weaken the position of the new Ukrainian power by destabilizing the situation in some parts of Ukraine. In Crimea, the rise of the pro-Russian separatist forces was strengthened with direct military intervention by the neighbouring state. This process ended in occupation and annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula by Russia. In other parts of Ukraine, except Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the attempts to seize power by pro-Russian forces have failed.

In April 2014, a sabotage armed group arrived from the territory of the Russian Federation and took control of state institutions in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk region. Soon after, militants took control of some more territories in eastern Ukraine. In response to that, the acting President of Ukraine Olexandr Turchynov signed an order to launch the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) in eastern Ukraine.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine were very weakened due to lack of financing and positive reforms for many years, and turned out to be unable to quickly and effectively defend the state. At the initial state of the conflict, volunteer battalions were the first to stop the aggression. The core of those battalions were the former activists of the Revolution of Dignity and other patriots who reacted immediately to the aggression and hybrid war started by the leadership of Russia against Ukraine.

At the start of the conflict, the volunteer battalions did not belong to any state department or have any system of control. Some of them were formed as battalions of territorial defence (BoTD) of the Ministry of Defence, others were controlled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs as special militia battalions or units of the National Guard. There were also some volunteer units which were not subordinated to any law enforcement departments, changed departmental affiliation, or were grouped into formations with a different departmental affiliation. At the beginning of 2015, the majority of the volunteer battalions were formed into mechanized infantry battalions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. In the course of their development some volunteer battalions were formed into regiments.

During 2014-2015 over 30 volunteer battalions were formed. The most well-known among them are “Donbas”, “Azov”, “Aidar”, “Dnipro-1”, Ukrainian Volunteer Corps “Right Sector”, “Crimea”. A lot of foreigners have been defending Ukraine as fighters in those battalions: Chechens, Georgians, Belarusians, Russians, etc.. At the start, the volunteer battalions were equipped with small arms and didn’t have uniforms. Only months after fighting on the frontlines did the battalions get heavy weapons and equipment.

The volunteer battalions played a crucial role in the first months of the ATO. Volunteers suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Ilovaisk in August 2014. They took part in all major battles in the first half of 2014, defended Donetsk Airport in 2014-2015, and they fought in the Battle of Debaltseve in the winter of 2015.

Ukrainian Insurgent Army

Ukrainian Insurgent Army, poster at Maidan NezalezhnostiThis poster is on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv, produced by the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory. It is one of a series of panels entitled “Soldiers: History of the Ukrainian Army.” This one is Ukrainian Insurgent Army soldier, 1940-1950s. My mother’s first cousin, Teofil Adamovych, served in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and fought the Soviet Russian occupiers of Ukraine until his arrest in 1955.

Translation of poster text: During World War II, most Ukrainians had to fight under the wrong banners and in the interests of others. Only the 100,000 fighters who were in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA) were fighting for an independent Ukraine. Insurgent armed units were formed in 1942 to defend the local population from the occupation Nazi regime and to oppose Soviet partisans. At the end of that year they united into the Ukrainian Insurgent Army . The symbolic date of its creation was October 14, 1942.

The UIA was structured as a regular army. The flexible structure allowed for the effective distribution of human and financial resources, adapting to variable military realities, and to achieving success in military operations.

The sphere of UIA activities was divided into general military districts: UIA-“North”, UIA-“South” and UIA-“West”. Each of them had a regional leader and headquarters, and was divided into territorial military parts.

The main tactical unit of the UIA was “sotnyas”(companies). It comprised three “chotys” (platoons) which were formed by three squads. A squad had 10-12 fighters armed with one mortar, 2-3 automated machine guns and rifles.

The UIA had a functional system of command position designations (squad leader, platoon leader, company commander, kurin’ commander [a kurin’ is approximately a battalion], brigade commander or tactical sector commander, regional commander, Supreme Commander of the UIA).

One of the main problems the UIA high command had to face was a shortage of senior officer staff. Some training schools were opened secretly.

The armament level and military-political situation determined the means of UIA military activities: avoidance of general battles and partisan tactics, raids and sabotage actions. UIA activities were aimed at resolving a few tasks; supply themselves with all the necessary equipment to continue fighting and protect the locals from occupants.

Cultural Renaissance of Kyiv

Michael, Mariyinsky Palace, and Verkhovna Rada in KyivKyiv is booming. A youth-driven cultural renaissance is taking hold after the EuroMaidan democratic revolution of 2013-14. Murals on the sides of apartment buildings, street art, music, online content of every description — you name it, and it’s happening in Ukraine. I came across this installation, called The Director, in Mariyinsky Park. Behind me is Mariyinsky Palace, undergoing substantial renovations. Behind that is the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, where a renaissance of another kind is going on: the rebirth of the nation through anti-corruption reform, lustration, decommunization, and waging war against invaders from Russia in southern and south-eastern Ukraine.

Michael and statue of Mikhail BulgakovAndriyivsky Uzviz is the steep, winding, cobblestoned road between Podil, the lower town, and the upper town of Kyiv. I have been up and down this street many times, from 1992 to now. It has changed from a grim, Soviet, boarded-up thoroughfare to what it was always meant to be: a touristy, artistic, Bohemian mecca. In the context of the twenty-teens we’re living in now, that means it’s teeming with hipsters. This is me hamming it up with a statue of Mikhail Bulgakov, a famous Kyiv writer and the author of The Master and Margarita.

Volodymyr Kravchuk, first Kyivan officer killed in the defence of Donbas

Memorial to first Ukrainian officer killed in the ATOIn this building lived Volodymyr Serhiyovich Kravchuk, the first Kyivan officer who was killed during the ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation], 19 June 2014

This simple memorial is on the side of a simple apartment building in the Troyeshchyna district of Kyiv. A bed of flowers has been planted beneath. There is a quiet but fierce patriotism reflected here. Officer Kravchuk was only the first of many Kyivans who have died defending their homeland from Russian invaders in the east of Ukraine. The war rages to this day, and more memorials like this have appeared and will appear in the cities, towns and villages throughout this indomitable country.

Art-Factory Platform in Kyiv

Art-Factory PlatformArt-Factory Platform is a creative space in an abandoned factory in the Darnytsya district of Kyiv. It houses IT workers, sports events, a food festival, and artists, and is a part of the creative renaissance in Ukraine that has picked up tremendously since the EuroMaidan revolution of 2013-14.

Art-Factory Platform, "Separation"The most evocative piece among the installations in the exhibition space was “Separation,” created as a collaboration of 12 artists. The theme was clearly the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, and what has happened there since Russia invaded in 2014. The coal on the floor shows one of the major industries of Donbas. Coal runs through the installation, but it separates the two sides of the space; coal runs through Donbas, but free Ukraine is separated from the coal in its occupied territories.

Art-Factory Platform, "Separation" detailThe personal toll of separation is hinted at in this detail. Trenches run from Stanytsya Luhanska in the north-east to Shyrokyne in the south-west, like trenches ran from the English Channel to Switzerland during the First World War. Just under 2 million people are internally displaced by the Russo-Ukrainian War — they’re refugees in their own country — and the people who are left are the old and the poor. Elderly parents are separated from working-age children and grandchildren. Without words, “Separation” evoked some of the awfulness, some of the injustice, some of the inhumanity, of what is happening to Ukrainians because of Russia’s invasion.

Good Friday in Kyiv

Pysanky in Sofiyska SquareA pysanka (plural: pysanky) is a Ukrainian painted Easter egg. It is a traditional and beautiful folk art, and we have several of them — most of them the wooden kind — in my family. Today I was on the square of St. Sofia Cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine, where there is a wonderful display of giant modern art pysanky, on the occasion of Orthodox Easter, which will be on Sunday, May 1. The eggs on display were by trained artists, amateurs, and children, and were diverse, colourful, and a big hit with the crowds of Kyivans who came to see them.

Veterano PizzaVeterano Pizza is a restaurant near the Bessarabian Market that was started by veterans of the Russo-Ukrainian War that has been raging for two years. As occupational therapy for recovery and as a source of employment for vets, a pizza parlour is a great idea. I’m standing here in front of a wall of army unit badges, and of course there’s the Canadian flag — with messages of support to the troops, the “Ukrops,” who are defending Europe from Russian invaders. As well as good pizza, I was really digging the rockin’ rhythm & blues music they play at Veterano Pizza.

Chicago, sister city of Kyiv

I have flown in to and out of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport often: 71 times, since I started keeping careful track, 11 years ago. But I have not been able to say I have visited the City of Chicago, as until now I have not left the terminals to do that. This week and last I finally had the chance, working in the Central Loop of the “Second City.”

Ukrainian flag at Chicago's O'Hare airportThe first thing I discovered, while leaving the airport itself, is that one of Chicago’s sister cities is Kyiv. Here’s the flag of Ukraine, in the concourse of the transit station at O’Hare. It’s appropriate that Chicago and Kyiv were twinned in 1991, the year that Ukraine became independent. Next past the Ukrainian flag is the Lithuanian flag, as Vilnius is also a sister city.

Chicago Board of Trade BuildingHere’s a more conventional tourist photo: the Chicago Board of Trade Building. It’s right around the block from where I’m working and where I’m staying. This Art Deco building was constructed in 1930, and is today a U.S. National Historic Landmark. When I first saw it, I thought of the movie “The Untouchables.” The Board of Trade Building and the Lasalle Street “canyon” in front of it have not changed since the days of gangster Al Capone and G-Man Eliot Ness.