Interviews with Ukrainian Strikers
Tomasz Kitlinski, a long-time Bad Subjects contributor, has been interviewing Ukrainian students striking in support of fair democratic elections in the Ukraine.
“On election night I went to sleep convinced that Yushchenko won,” says Andriy Bondarenko, a Ukrainian graduate student. “When I woke up and learned that the supposed results say that Yushchenko lost, I felt shame.” Andriy studies in Lublin, Poland. With news of the election fraud, he decided to take the all-night bus journey to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in order to join his brother and thousands of demonstrators in Independence Square.
On the way to Kiev, Andriy was texted by his brother, already in the demonstration: “Will they shoot?”
But Andriy is not afraid: “We are on the road to freedom. I feel that open society is being created. It depends on us.”
“I recently read Alain Badiou who argues that inertia is the worst. We are active at long last.” Asked about the situation of Ukrainian students, Andriy said, “In the beginning of the 1990s there was euphoria. But then the universities in the Ukraine stopped to be places of freedom and creativity. They repeated old knowledge. They became bureaucratic institutions to issue certificates. This must change.” Acknowledging that economy is the greatest challenge in eastern Europe, Andriy commented that Ukrainians must not continue using ‘gangster economics’.
“The political crisis now is an impulse for new thinking in the Ukraine,” Andriy told me. “International support for the Ukrainian opposition matters.” Andriy had watched Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 on an illegal DVD. “A pity it is Bush. But Bush is far. Yanukovich is near and is worse than Bush.”
The Ukraine is split into the largely Russian-speaking and Russian Orthodox eastern Ukraine, and western Ukraine with Ukrainian Church, part of Catholicism. After Stalin’s persecution of the Ukrainian Church, Pope John Paul II, whose mother was Ukrainian, revived it. The eastern is Moscow-leaning, industrial (Donetsk coal mines), Moscow-leaning, and pro-Yanukovych. Miners in the Donetsk region see Yanukovych as a “regular brick” – a regular guy, a good sort.
In the eastern Ukraine, Elena Kabashnaya believed that the ballot was rigged. Elena Kabashnaya is founder and president of a feminist organization Dana in the city of Mykolaiv, a town of sixty thousand. When I telephoned her, she immediately shouted “Yushchenko OK!” Elena told me that the situation of women is dire in the Ukraine. Since 1995 her organization has fought trafficking and violence against women.
“Yushchenko is a democrat,” said Elena. “The situation of women can improve with his presidency. Now it is very, very bad. There are many cases of domestic violence, especially in small villages. In fact, there are more and more of them.”
Natasha Monakhova is a doctoral candidate at the Kiev-Mohyla Academy and has published papers on the post-colonial condition of the Ukraine. I asked, “Do you think that the situation of women will improve?” After a moment of silence, Natasha replied: “No.” Natasha fears the power of the neo-nationalist movement in the Ukraine.
Together with Natasha Nahorna, Natasha Monakhova presented a paper in which she argued, “Today Ukraine is engaged in a complicated process of active nation-making centered on the nineteeenth-century peasant social values. As a result, a number of social groups and strata are excluded from the general national and social discourses, in particular from the political and decision-making spheres. They have found themselves marginalized within a seemingly new society.”
According to Monakhova, the excluded groups are women, national and sexual minorities. As Monakhova stated, “Women are not represented by women in public discourse. When women enter the public sphere, they stop being women. There is also a poverty gap between men and women, and domestic violence is a big problem.”
In our conversation Natasha Monakhova said that the LGBT movement in the Ukraine is almost invisible. There is no physical violence against it, but prejudice and “problems, many problems.” A Ukrainian queer website features a photo of the current Independence Square in Kiev where anti-gay demonstrators screamed under the banners "Gays are the reason for AIDS," "AIDS for faggots is justice," and "Gays! Out of Ukraine!"
The LGBT movement in the Ukraine is very fragile. Under Soviet rule, homosexuality was criminalized. Gays were incarcerated in labor camps; lesbians were incarcerated in mental hospitals. State homophobia diminished after the fall of commmunism, but popular homophobia remains formidable in the Ukraine. Homosexuality is strongly present, although under-read and under-researched, in Ukrainian culture.
In the BBC’s Internet news column of reader voices, Natasha Nahorska wrote that “People are protesting all over the country, and defending the choice they’ve made. It feels great to be part of it. I’m so proud of us that for the first time ever in modern Ukrainian history, awareness of a nation reached such a high level. The atmosphere on the streets in Kiev is fantastic.”
I asked one demonstrator, “Is this democracy in the making or a rise of nationalism?”
DEM: “The Ukraine is in need not only of changes in civil liberties, but also of changes in attitudes towards monorities.”
TK: “Is there an Orange or Pink Revolution in the Ukraine?
DEM: “Both sides, the two Victors Yushchenko and Yanukovych, champion chauvinism. Serbian nationalists advise Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party.”
TK: “Will it be yet another anti-semitic, anti-woman, anti-gay force?”
DEM: “The dangerous prejudices and phobias and hates concentrate the evil of today.”
Andriy Bondarenko is now demonstrating in Kiev’s Independence Square. When I asked him about minority rights, he said that there would be no hope for them in the closed society of Yanukovych. “Yanukovych underlined the role of customs, old folk ways, and majorities. It is sad that now no one cares for minorities in the Ukraine.”
Tomasz Kitlinski is a lecturer in philosophy at Marie Curie University in Lublin, Poland.