One evening in December 2013 Oryna Stetsenko, 19, was in her student apartment in Kiev, Ukraine, studying, but from time to time her attention was focused on the video stream that was flickering on her computer.
At 12 a.m. the figures on the screen called for activism: “Kiev should rise right now.” The reason why the protesters demanded this is because they were in danger at the Maidan square because Berkut police forces had assaulted them. After seeing those pictures, Oryna and her friends decided to go to Maidan and join the protests.
By 2 a.m. the square was overcrowded and people were fighting against former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s attempt to resolve the ongoing protests on Maidan.
Oryna is a sociology student at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. She is eager to become a researcher within that field and she is currently attending an exchange year in Groningen.
But before she came to the Netherlands she was an active part of the protests that triggered major changes in her home country. At first the demonstrations were about the fact that the former Ukrainian president wanted to collaborate with Russia instead of joining the European Union.
Oryna was not really concerned about the refusal of the former president to join the EU in the beginning, but when the police force started to beat students at protests in November 2013 she could not just stand there watching it happen, she said.
“They just started beating really young people, who were just standing there with no violent intentions.” The 19-year-old regarded the happenings as embarrassing for Ukraine as a nation because no one took responsibility for the happenings in the aftermath.
At that point “it was no more about the European Union but about democracy and fair politics,” explained the short-haired girl. The first night when students got beaten up was the start of a chain of events which led to the resignation of the Ukrainian president.
Protesting became an everyday practice for Oryna after the demonstrations escalated in November 2013. She woke up in the morning, went to her classes at the Kiev Academy, and afterwards she went to Maidan to meet some friends in order to peacefully protest. Along with other protesters she was just showing her presence at the Maidan square, waiting for action and a response of the former president. This daily routine continued for weeks.
Simultaneously, people who were considered dangerous for the government were just taken from the streets by authorities, she said. They were taken to the police or hidden places, where they were asked questions. Their relatives did not get any information about their whereabouts or what was happening.
“We were scared,” said the Ukrainian student. Nevertheless, she continued to participate in the happenings at Maidan; she knew that there were a lot of people present who were ready to defend themselves.
Even though it could have been dangerous, “I think that my parents understood how important it was for me to protect democracy and express my position about the deeds of our government,” said Oryna, from Sumy, a city in Eastern Ukraine. Her parents simply asked her to be safe since they could not stop her from participating.
Although the protests started to focus on the question of democracy, the underlying conflict of Russia versus the EU was still noticeable. After deciding to study in a European county in July 2014, Oryna felt the disrespect of her choice by others.
“People who travel a lot to gain academic achievements are considered too European oriented, they should pay more attention to their country and enjoy living in their motherland,” she said, while shaking her head. That is why she did not tell her friends that she was going to the Netherlands until she had already moved.
She views the Ukraine as a whole entity, but several Ukrainians still wish for a divide of the country. This desire is rooted in history; the conflict was present ever since the Soviet Union split, but it was never fully fought out until 2013.
The Ukrainian girl does not see a solution in either position. Joining the EU would have bad economical consequences and Russia arrived at a dead end with their government a while ago, she said.
Additionally, the recent events in her home country are also testing her family cohesion. Russian relatives of her family claimed in several conversations that Ukrainians are responsible for really bad incidents. “It is strange to see how people, who are actually really close to you, say that we are horrible,” she said. For now the families try to avoid the topic of conflict between the two countries.
Despite the negative comments, she is very satisfied that the government changed. “Our current president [Petro Poroshenko] is concerned about the future of our country,” said Oryna, confident that he can manage the nation. Already small changes give Ukrainians hope; just like the fact that the new president can speak English, as he proved at the Atlantic Council conference in September. It is a big improvement which shows that he can deal with international matters, she said.
To find out about these matters, Oryna had to change her news habits. She stopped trusting traditional news sources a while ago. “Independent journalists are much more reliable” she said. They might be subjective, but they are not connected to the government and they are telling the truth. If all fails she talks to her friends to seek information or she checks Facebook for immediate news. “They definitely know better than biased newspapers.”
Oryna is certain that the Ukraine in which she grew up will never be the same. Now younger people are the future of the country, she explained. The youth, who had a hard time competing in politics before now has a chance to apply for jobs in politics and to make a real change.
by Anna-Lena Sachs