O T Jones
It was different on this side of the Dnieper. Central Kyiv’s eclectic mix of modern and Stalinist architecture had given way to the uniform tower-blocks of the post-Soviet suburb. Beneath the towers, kids played on rusting climbing frames and students drank coffee outside a busy kiosk. A man in a dark grey suit loosened his tie and stared into his phone while his wife bought tomatoes from an old woman who had laid out her produce on a blanket on the pavement. My hosts, film critics named Ivan and Kostyantyn, led me to the 16th floor of a nearby block. Opening the steel door of his apartment, Ivan pointed the way to a book-lined room with a large brown table at its centre. We took our seats and sat for a moment in silence, not quite knowing where to begin.
Having studied Soviet literature, I had long been interested in Ukraine. In 2018, I finally had the opportunity to visit the country’s capital, Kyiv, and write a report about Ukrainian culture after the Euromaidan, the revolution that had brought the city to the world’s attention some four years previous. The protests had begun after Ukraine’s then president, Viktor Yanukovych, had refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union in late 2013—a signal to many that Ukrainian politics remained under Russian influence over two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse. As the crowds swelled in Kyiv’s central Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the response of the authorities became increasingly forceful, triggering violent clashes. By the time Yanukovych fled to Russia in February 2014, over 100 people had been killed.
The events in Kyiv soon sparked disruption across the country. The Russian state annexed Crimea, the large peninsula that juts into the Black Sea, prompting international outrage. Meanwhile, in the eastern Donbas region, Russian-backed separatists declared autonomous ‘People’s Republics’ in the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, leading to the outbreak of full-blown war. Just two years before, thousands of English fans had travelled to Donetsk to watch the national football team play Ukraine in UEFA Euro 2012. Now, the multi-million-pound stadium in which they played stood empty and damaged by artillery fire, an eerie symbol of how swiftly, and tragically, life had changed. By the time of my visit to Ukraine, around 10,000 people had been killed in the conflict, including some 3,000 civilians.
In many ways, Kyiv showed few signs of such open wounds. Stylish boutiques occupied the streets that had once been flooded with protestors. I ate in vegan restaurants, visited modern art galleries and chatted to new acquaintances at parties held on the sandy beaches of the Dnieper. But the mask over Kyiv was translucent. I noticed memorials to those killed in the revolution interspersed along the city’s main shopping street, Khreshchatyk. On the metro, I saw advertisements emblazoned with images of soldiers carrying babies and flowers that called on young Ukrainians to join the military effort. Students from Donetsk and other eastern battlegrounds told me about their families, usually displaced or sometimes surviving at home. Such stories brought a lump to my throat: what use was it writing about culture in the painful face of war?
In my meetings, though, I was treated with openness and optimism. People not only discussed their work for hours, but also allowed me an insight into their lives, often introducing me to their friends and relatives. My discussion with Ivan and Kostyantyn was no exception, our conversation about Ukrainian cinema soon turning towards more personal matters. I was struck that, in many ways, the pair represented the diversity of the country in which they lived. Raised in a Russian-speaking family, Kostyantyn had decided to switch to Ukrainian at university ‘on principle’, as an assertion of national autonomy and pride. He spoke in Russian to me, a foreigner, but he occasionally looked at Ivan for support when he forgot a word or an expression. Ivan was quieter and more languid. He understood Ukrainian but preferred to speak in Russian, his mother tongue. As a result, their conversations—and friendship—straddled this linguistic divide, two melodic voices flowing in polyphony.
Listening to them, I thought of the linguistic map of Ukraine that had become something of an international media meme during the Euromaidan. The west of the country, coloured blue, was Ukrainian-speaking; the east, coloured red, was Russian-speaking. The line down the middle was presented as an irrevocable divide of culture, values and geopolitical ties. As Kostyantyn and Ivan showed, the real picture was more nuanced. The majority of the population as a whole identified Ukrainian as their first language, with a smaller proportion asserting Russian as their mother tongue. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding regional extremes, most understood both languages and many used each, often depending on the individual to whom they were talking. This was especially true in Kyiv, located in the centre of the country, where I would sometimes hear a conversation start in Ukrainian and finish in Russian. These linguistic decisions didn’t usually seem political, more often subconscious habits formed over time.
After a few hours, Kostyantyn went to meet a friend, leaving me alone with Ivan. He became laconic, scratching the back of his head as he assessed the condition of his country and his place within it. Ukraine’s problems, he felt, had long roots in the past. For hundreds of years, the country had been a petri-dish for emperors and ideologues. The extreme violence of the 20th century had left a toxic legacy; vicious debates over memory, trauma and complicity laid in its wake. Ivan felt that progress depended on reversing the trends of history, allowing Ukraine to build a stable, independent democracy. But he wouldn’t articulate precisely what that looked like or how it could be achieved.
After all, Kyiv had seen two revolutions prior to the Euromaidan that had heralded new dawns of their own. First, there was the so-called ‘Revolution on Granite’ in 1990, a year before the fall of the Soviet Union. Then, there was the ‘Orange Revolution’ of 2004, which followed a scandal over election rigging. On both occasions, protestors had marched on the Maidan only to return around a decade later. The experience of continually living through history was—is—exhausting. Ivan had learnt to stop predicting the future and to always be ready for change.
I soon saw the wisdom in his approach. Less than a year after my conversation with Ivan, the first Ukrainian president of the post-Maidan era, Petro Poroshenko, would be heavily defeated in an election by the comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelensky. During his five years in power, Poroshenko had introduced controversial cultural reforms, mandating the use of the Ukrainian language in most aspects of secondary education and introducing memory laws that sought to create state-endorsed narratives out of the nation’s complicated past. Meanwhile, frustrations had grown amongst the population over the country’s economic problems, continued corruption and the ongoing war. Ukrainians desired broader, structural change and were willing to take a risk to get it.
Zelensky certainly represented an unknown prospect. He had risen to prominence as the star of the hit TV satire Sluha Narodu (‘Servant of the People’) in which he played the role of a history teacher who had been unexpectedly elected to the Ukrainian presidency after a video of his anti-establishment rant had gone viral. This meta-political education—or lack thereof—was coupled with an unconventional, real-life election strategy: Zelensky was deliberately ambiguous on the campaign trail, avoiding journalists and appealing directly to the electorate via punchy posts on social media. Many onlookers feared that he was the latest incarnation of the populism that had swept across the world in recent years: slogans over substance, celebrity over statesmanship. But in a country where the past had weighed so heavy for so long, his calls for something—anything—new clearly resonated with the population at large. Following his presidential victory, Zelensky’s new political party—also called ‘Servant of the People’—won the first parliamentary majority in the history of modern Ukraine. Another era had ended, brushed aside by the politics of who-knows-what.
When we met, Ivan was yet to know about Zelensky, though he may have reviewed some episodes of ‘Servant of the People’ for a little extra cash. He likely would have refused to speculate on what the comedian’s victory might mean for the future, though. For him, living through history meant focusing on the present. Everything flows, everything changes—but life, after all, goes on.
O T Jones’ research in Ukraine was supported by the Peter Kirk Foundation. The names of his hosts have been changed.
Art by Alexander Haveron-Jones