Invisible Battalion: The Stories of Our Women at War

Invisible Battalion screening in OttawaWar veterans, filmmakers, and audience members sing the Ukrainian national anthem, The Glory and the Freedom of Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished, at the Ottawa screening of Invisible Battalion on 30 April 2018.

I wrote the following article for Radio Lemberg, originally published on 1 May 2018:

Invisible Battalion: The Stories of Our Women at War

Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 01.05.2018

“Every woman has the right to defend her country. I think it is our duty to fight and to get victory. That’s all.”

A right and a duty … with those words, Yulia Matvienko summed up what it is to be be a woman and a patriot in Ukraine being invaded by Russia. She is a sniper with the 92nd Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, and is one of six subjects of the documentary film, Invisible Battalion: The Stories of Our Women at War.

The documentary Invisible Battalion was shown in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, on Monday evening, April 30. A screening of the Ukrainian Canadian Film Festival, it was held across the street from Parliament Hill. James Bezan, Member of Parliament for Selkirk-Interlake, hosted the event. Many Members of Parliament who are friends of Ukraine were in attendance, as were members of the diplomatic community in Ottawa, military members from the Canadian and Ukrainian armed forces, and a sizeable turnout from the Ukrainian-Canadian community in the National Capital Region. Ottawa came out to see this film to hear the truth about Russia’s war against Ukraine and the role of women in that war.

Invisible Battalion started as a Department of Sociology research project at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, directed by Maria Berlinska. A sociological study was being conducted into the role of women in the Ukrainian armed forces, including discrimination against women in combat trades, post-traumatic stress disorder, and treatment of women veterans. Six stories stood out and became the subjects of Invisible Battalion. In her remarks introducing the film, Maria Berlinska said: “An invisible battalion has to become visible.” These are stories of Ukrainian women at war.

It is well known that in 2014, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian army was decrepit and corrupt. Most of its senior officers were not psychologically prepared to face up to Russia as an enemy that must be defeated in battle. What is less well known is that the Ukrainian army discriminated between women and men when it came to combat trades, and did not have a gender-neutral equal opportunity system like the Canadian army does. This is why Ukrainian women who wanted to serve their country in combat to stop the Russian invaders joined the volunteer battalions. Even then, they were not officially registered as combatants.

Andriana Susak told the audience in Ottawa: “I am a woman, I am a Ukrainian, and I am an assault trooper. Officially, I am a seamstress.” The absurdity of this bureaucratic lie is heightened during her segment in the film, when she gives commentary to a video of her unit, the Aydar Battalion, taking enemy fire at Metalist after liberating the town of Schastia from Russian invaders. Andriana Susak pointed out where she appeared in the video, and noted the call-signs of her comrades as they were wounded or killed all around her. “I lost 100 friends in three months … and that’s just me,” she said.

In the film and in the remarks to the audience, the veterans expressed a common theme: the year 2014 marked a turning point. There was the life they had before 2014 (which some of them can barely remember), and then came the Revolution of Dignity and the war of national salvation against Russia. Women stepped forward, in a way that sharply challenged the paternalistic and Soviet mind-set of the Ukrainian army as it was before Russia invaded Crimea and Donbas. Women had to be twice as good as men, the women veterans said, because they had two battles to fight. Andriana Susak put it like this: “We have two fronts: in the east of Ukraine, and in civil life.” Ukrainian women will fight, as equals to men, because they must: “We will fight … because we have children, and children must have a future,” she said.

In the question and answer session, the audience asked the panel of filmmakers and war veterans what Canada can do and what the Ukrainian diaspora can do to help Ukraine at war and to help women in combat. Yulia Matvienko, the sniper, gave a very telling answer. She responded: “Ukrainian-Canadians apologize for not being in Ukraine. But you are closer to us than some people, who may be traitors, living in Ukraine.” She said it is uncomfortable for her to be among traitors in her own country – to be among the people who invited the enemy in. Another of the protagonists in the documentary, Julia Payevska, a medic, spoke about how Ukraine doesn’t seem to be a country at war when one steps away from the front. Speaking to the camera, she said she didn’t expect every Ukrainian to fight. “But if people would just think about the war and remember it more often, that would be great,” Julia Paevska said.

Invisible Battalion was a sensation in Ottawa, and received a long standing ovation. By telling six stories about Ukrainian women at war, the documentary convincingly established what the producers were saying in their introductions. Co-director and renowned writer Iryna Tsilyk said at the screening that “Russia is a very dangerous enemy, especially in the information war.” Russia will be defeated in that war not by better propaganda, but by telling the truth effectively. Invisible Battalion does that.

This is the fifth year of Russia’s war against Ukraine. To date in Putin’s War, 21,363 Ukrainian women have served as combatants in Donbas. Changes to the law mean that 63 combat trades are now open to women. But this is not enough. The urgency of war must push the Ukrainian army to full gender-neutral equal opportunity. The full participation of women in combat is not an abstract question of equality of the sexes: it is a matter of life-and-death for Ukraine in a war of national salvation against Russia. The two women veterans present at the screening of Invisible Battalion in Ottawa agreed that the highest ranks of the Ukrainian armed forces must be open to women. But they both said that it is far more important that fighting officers, with experience in combat against enemy Russia, rise in the ranks to take the top positions, and usurp the places that are wrongly held by the Soviet-trained and Russia-compromised officer corps.

”Ukraine, as Russia’s neighbour, cannot afford being weak,” said Invisible Battalion project director Maria Berlinska. The film the project spawned illustrated her observation to an audience of Canadians: “We have a common enemy, the Russian Federation.” But that common enemy, Russia, will in the end be defeated primarily by Ukraine – with whatever help it can get from friendly countries. “We ask that the whole civilized world come together to help Ukraine, by sanctions and by effective support to the Ukrainian army.”

Russia at war with Ukraine is the common enemy of the whole civilized world. Invisible Battalion is a powerful statement for all of us to do what we can and fight. Speaking about the Russian enemy, Yulia Matvienko says in the film: “You know another reason I hate them? I can’t even cry properly.” Another sniper, Olena Bilozerska, leaves her mother and father to go to war, as countless soldiers have done before her. It is an emotional parting. But at the front there is no time for tears. As she cleans her weapon, shellfire heard in the distance, she says: “In wartime, one just needs a rifle. Faultless. Beautiful.”

Invisible Battalion poster

Road to Independence 1918-2018 Шлях до Незалежності

Road to Independence concertUkrainian-Canadian choirs sang in Ottawa to commemorate 100 years of Ukrainian independence. A “Road to Independence 1918-2018 Шлях до Незалежності” concert was held in Dominion-Chalmers Church on April 22. The performers were the Vesnivka Choir, a Toronto-based Ukrainian women’s choir; the Canadian Bandurist Capella, a Toronto-based Ukrainian male choir accompanied by the unique harp-like sound of the sixty-five string bandura; and the Toronto Ukrainian Male Chamber Choir. “Road to Independence 1918-2018” was a presentation of Ottawa Chamberfest in partnership with the Capital Ukrainian Festival and Dominion-Chalmers United Church.

The photo shows the Canadian Bandurist Capella performing “Hetmany” (music by Mykola Lysenko; lyrics by Ukraine’s national poet Taras Shevchenko). The soloist is Pavlo Fondera. The concert featured 17 songs, ranging from traditional songs of hundreds of years ago to insurgent songs of the Ukrainian National Republic from a century ago. Instantly recognizable was “Shchedryk” by Mykola Leontovych, a song which was translated into English by Peter Wilhousky to become the immensely popular “Carol of the Bells.”

The Ukrainian National Republic was proclaimed on 22 January 1918, but did not exist past 1920 and the invasion-occupation by the Bolshevik Russians (which would persist for the subsequent 71 years). Much of Ukrainian music has a haunting, greatness-denied quality about it. It’s Romantic, in the Byronesque sense of the word. The depth of history is felt in every note and in every musical phrasing. The three choirs, made up of Canadians from the Ukrainian diaspora, did a magnificent job through their music of conveying that felt and shared history to an appreciative audience.

Lessons from the 1990s and Challenges for Canada-Ukraine Free Trade

Michael MacKay and Michael Kostiuk, UCPBA OttawaThe Ukrainian-Canadian Professional and Business Association, Ottawa branch, held a Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement Forum in Ottawa on June 10. Speakers at the forum were Michael MacKay (me) and Michael Kostiuk, pictured, as well as Ron Sorobey.

Here are notes from my presentation:

Canadians and Ukrainians can learn from the successes and failures of the first initiatives to advance civil society in Ukraine, after the resumption of Ukraine’s independence in 1991. Partners in Progress and the Canada-Ukraine Partners Project were Government of Canada initiatives which got started in 1992 and wound down in 1996. They placed Canadian volunteers with Ukrainian partners for projects in support of civil society. I was one of these volunteers, and my project partner was the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (UKMA). The goal of my project was to help UKMA achieve its foundational purpose: to become a self-governing academic institution and a peer to Western universities. Hundreds of Canadian volunteers fanned out across Ukraine, supported with small grants, in what was a period of excited enthusiasm for Ukraine free of the Soviet yoke.

The successes of Partners in Progress and the Canada-Ukraine Partners Project came from direct person-to-person interactions. Canadians extended their connections to Ukraine beyond what they had been, which were strictly family ties. Cultural ties were strengthened in the civil society space that lies between the family and the state. Ukrainians saw real civil society activism, and home-grown initiatives took off. Volunteerism broke free of its Soviet slave labour past. From the Canadians came an impetus for successes in Ukraine like professional associations, environmental groups, election monitoring organizations, and others.

The failure of these initiatives on the Canadian side was that they did not change Canada’s institutional, bureaucratic approach to foreign aid and emphasis on “development.” Canada did not come to treat Ukraine as a peer, and still does not. What the Canadian volunteers and their Ukrainian partners were doing did not stop what was really happening in Ukraine, which was a shift from statist authoritarianism to a hyper-inflationary kleptocracy. The power that civil society exerts on government and business remained something that existed in Canada, but not in Ukraine. Privatization was dishonest, the wealth of the nation was destroyed, and Russian imperialism kept its dead hand on the lives of Ukrainians.

Civil society is the foundation of the rule of law and the enforcement of contracts. It is essential to doing business in a fair market. The rise of the oligarchs in the 1990s in Ukraine and the re-theft of property that ensued, meant that honest business was impossible. Free trade was a dead issue in the 1990s and 2000s. It took the “Maidans” of 2004 and of 2013-14 for civil society in Ukraine to exert some power, and to make a free trade agreement between Canada and Ukraine possible.

The decommunization law which should have been passed in 1992 was passed in 2015, and is a great leap forward. This law is as essential to post-Soviet Ukraine as denazification laws were to post-Nazi Germany.

The challenge that lies ahead is that the Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement is only a traditional deal eliminating tariffs on most goods and services. It needs to be “deep and comprehensive” like the combination of the EU-Ukraine DCFTA plus the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement to really make a difference to Canadians and Ukrainians.

Canada does not have visa-free reciprocity with Ukraine but the EU does; until Canadians meet Ukrainians in Canada as true peers there will be no trade boom coming from the Canada-Ukraine FTA. Ukrainians can travel without visas to all the countries in the EU Schengen Zone and to EFTA countries, but not to Canada. The Government of Canada disgraces itself and embarrasses Canadians by keeping up senseless and cruel barriers to Ukrainians.

Lustration in Ukraine has not reached the judiciary. Until corrupt judges are rooted out, there can be no confidence in the enforcement of contracts. Starting with Partners in Progress and the Canada-Ukraine Partners Project, Canada has had mentorship programs with Ukrainian judges. These need to become less polite, advisory, and “Canadian” and much more intimately tied to lustration and to the drive to eliminate corruption. Canada has been helping Ukraine transition from Soviet-style militia to Western-style police for law enforcement, but without honest judges in place all this effort will be for nought.

The IMF has pushed for an end to the moratorium on land sales. Honest enjoyment of property rights rests on clear and unambiguous title to land. You can only sell land if you truly own it. Theft of land in the Soviet period (collectivization) and theft of land in the oligarch period (1992 to EuroMaidan) means that land ownership is mostly illegitimate in Ukraine. Ukraine needs to extend decommunization to land ownership, and implement restoration and restitution to the original owners and to their heirs. The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have done this successfully. The laws of the Soviet Union, forced on Ukraine, are illegitimate on their face, and that applies to laws about land ownership, possession and use. After EuroMaidan, Ukraine is understanding itself as a country having recovered independence, from the 1918-1921 Republic, and not as having gained newly-found independence in 1991. The Soviet/Russian period was an interregnum. Land ownership and the enjoyment of property rights will only be on a firm foundation when it is tied to decommunization.

Canada has been fortunate to inherit political structures from Great Britain with a minimum of political violence. Ukraine has suffered appalling political violence from Russia. Ukrainians have to reach back further for examples of successful civil society, independence, and honest trade: to Kyivan Rus’, to the viche direct democratic assemblies, to the Ukrainian People’s Republic, to the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Canada has had time to mature into an advanced democracy, not having suffered invasion since the Fenian Raids and the Battle of Ridgeway in 1866. Ukraine has been re-invaded by Russia starting in 2014. Ukrainians have the burden of defeating foreign invaders from Muscovy at the same time they’re establishing free trade with peer democracies like Canada.

There is formal free trade between Canada and Ukraine: the removal of tariffs and regulatory barriers. But peerage as nations and as peoples demands much, much more. We need to start by understanding that in this relationship Canada is the “Old Country” and Ukraine is the “Young Turk.”

For us Canadians, we have to keep supporting civil society and the rule of law in Ukraine, and we have to help liberate the occupied territories in Crimea and Donbas. It is incumbent on every Western nation, led in the vanguard by Ukraine, to defeat Russia. Only then will we have real free trade.Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement

Fighting under a foreign flag :: My cousin, Vasyl Taras

Vasyl Taras on 20 April 1957The Soviet Union invaded Poland on 17 September 1939. My uncle and aunts and cousins on my mother’s side were living in Lwów voivodeship in what was then eastern Poland. The Red Army seized the territory, and Stalin annexed it to the USSR. My grandfather, Michael Taras, had emigrated to Canada in 1928, and he lost contact with his one brother and four sisters the moment Stalin’s army invaded. I found out what happened to them 75 years later.

The story of my great-uncle Vasyl Taras in World War II is remarkable. He had a wife and four young children when the war began in 1939. His two oldest boys, Volodymyr and Olexandr, were both killed in World War II. I have not learned any more information about them than that. It is unbearably sad to think about how very young these boys had to have been when they died. Vasyl Taras was conscripted into the Red Army in 1940, and he was 34 years old when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

In 1941, Vasyl Taras was caught in one of the great encirclements where the Germans captured many soldiers of the Red Army. He was sent to a German concentration camp. Vasyl escaped from the camp, but when he made it back to the Soviet lines he was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, and sent to prison by them. His crime, in the eyes of the Russians, was that he had been captured and that he was Ukrainian. Then, with the German advance, the NKVD prison where Vasyl was held was overrun, and he was free again. But when the Germans found out he was an escaped prisoner from one of their concentration camps, they sent him back again, but this time to a camp with a stricter regime.

Nevertheless, Vasyl broke out of this camp, and escaped from the Germans a second time. He joined a group of Soviet partisans in the woods. When the Red Army started to push the Germans out of Galicia, the guerrilla group that Vasyl was with joined up with the regular troops. The NKVD was still distrustful of Vasyl, because he had been in a German concentration camp and was Ukrainian. He was sent to a special military unit that was given no weapons, and was made to assault the German positions unarmed, but with armed NKVD officers ready to shoot him if he did not move forward. During this attack, Vasyl Taras was lucky to have been wounded, not killed, and then sent to hospital. At the end of the war he was in Königsburg, East Prussia, which is today Kaliningrad, Russia.

After the war, Vasyl Taras returned to Staryi Yarychiv, his home village. Between 1939 and 1945, the foreign flags of Poland, the USSR, Nazi Germany, and once more the USSR had flown at Staryi Yarychiv. As a veteran, Vasyl Taras was made the chairman of the agricultural committee, out of which the collective farms in Yarychiv were formed. These collective farms were made up of land that was stolen from my family by the Soviets. Vasyl died in 1969 at the age of 62.

My great-uncle, Vasyl Taras, was made to fight under a foreign flag: the hammer and sickle flag of the Russian invaders and occupiers of Ukraine. He was awarded many medals, as Stalin developed the “Great Patriotic War” selective memory cult about the war, which Russia re-wrote as happening from 1941 to 1945. Free, independent, and democratic Ukraine is today coming to terms with the real war, which is a war that lasted from 1939, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, to the mid-1950s, when the last units of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army were defeated by the foreign invaders and occupiers from Muscovy.

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.

Odesa is Ukraine

"Zrada," Museum of Modern Art of OdesaA common misperception is that Odesa is a city of the Russian Empire: “founded by Catherine the Great” and all that. Odesans speak Russian, and this is confused with the country that today calls itself the Russian Federation. But this confusion is deliberate and malicious. In fact, Odesa is a Ukrainian city, a European city, and a multicultural city, and this has only been obscured by a couple of centuries of foreign occupation. “Treason” or “betrayal” is an apt term for the perversion of history and culture and language that was carried out by the Russian Empire and by Soviet Russia against Odesa. In Ukrainian the word is ЗРАДА, zrada. I’m sitting in front of a mural at the Museum of Modern Art of Odesa, and that is the word that is repeated along its border.

Odesa census 1851In the middle of the 19th century, Odesa was overwhelmingly Ukrainian. This census of 1851 shows that 69% of the residents of Odesa were Ukrainians (derogatively called “Little Russians” under foreign occupation by Muscovy). Russians were only the fifth most numerous ethnic group, after Ukrainians, Moldovans, Jews, and Germans. After 1991 independence but even more after the 2013-14 “EuroMaidan” events which became known as the Revolution of Dignity, Odesa is Ukraine. It is Ukrainian once more, and Ukrainian as always.

Odesa at peace and at war

Art installation on Prymors'kyi Boulevard, Odesa - "Peace"Odesa is not an ancient city like some cities in Ukraine, but nevertheless war has come to this Black Sea port many times. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, Odesa was briefly the scene of a “hybrid war” attack by Russia, which was defeated by Ukrainian patriots. Unfortunately, these attacks succeeded in Crimea and Luhansk and Donetsk, and the foreign invaders from Muscovy have not yet been pushed out of those regions of Ukraine. Odesa has the feel of a Home Front city — the war seems far away, and has no noticeable effect on day-to-day life. Street entertainers play music on Primorsky Boulevard near the famous Primorsky Stairs or Richelieu steps. A photo exhibit shows scenes of Odesa at peace.

Art installation on Prymors'kyi Boulevard, Odesa - "War"On the panels facing in the opposite direction, the photo exhibit shows scenes of Odesa at war. The men photographed are volunteers who serve on the front line in Luhansk and Donetsk regions, in the trenches against the Russian invaders. A war is raging 600 km to the east, but the only sign of that in Odesa is this art installation and the soldiers in uniform you see often in the streets.

Third anniversary vigil for the Heavenly Hundred

Vigil for the Heaven's HundredThree years ago, the Maidan protests that became known as the Revolution of Dignity reached their conclusion in Ukraine. On February 20, 2014, snipers from Viktor Yanukovych’s security services (trained by Russian special forces) shot many Ukrainians who were exercising their rights of free assembly and free speech. By the time Yanukovych fled Kyiv, 130 people, mostly civilian protesters, had been killed. They became known as the Heavenly Hundred.

There have been several protests and memorials in Ottawa about these events. Yesterday, we gathered on Parliament Hill for a vigil to commemorate the third anniversary of the Heavenly Hundred and also the thousands of people who have been killed since in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Crimea and Luhansk and Donetsk. Sadly, the Heavenly Hundred have been joined by over 10,000 killed and around 1.8 million made homeless in Putin’s war. The organizer spoke in measured but angry terms about Yanukovych’s crimes and Russia’s aggression. Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada spoke about people he knew who died on Maidan. He held the picture of a man who when he died had no identification; they called a friend on his phone and that’s how they found out who he was. We all held pictures of some of the men and women who were killed on Maidan. A priest delivered a prayer of remembrance. The mood was one of remorse, but also determination that they shall not have died in vain. Maidan may have started as a student protest in favour of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, but it evolved into much, much more. When it became the Revolution of Dignity and won, millions of Ukrainians had become activists for a normal life and a good life in their homeland.