Five years ago, Ukraine was a country on the brink of losing its hard won independence, due to the treachery of its President. The corrupt political class that controlled the government quickly reversed decades of progressive political reforms in two years time. Bad habits of government officials, learned during seventy years of communism, proved harder to dissolve than the Soviet Union. Weeks of civil protest fell on the deaf ears of the country’s leaders. Each weekend hundreds of thousands of people protested at a time. More than a million people marched through Kyiv to demand a halt to the systematic destruction on their civil liberties , yet the President and the Parliament would not yield.
For three months, perpetual protests were held on Kyiv’s Indepedance Square; a special square in the capital knows as “Maidan”. Political activists from all over the country gathered here to discuss and petition the government for corrective actions. The government did not answer, nor act to address the people’s complaints as it had in the past during similar protests. The President stalled, buying time to conclude a treaty with Russia that would reverse Ukraine’s agreed integration with Europe. The people would not stand for it and refused to go home until their demands were reconsidered by the government.
The President tried several times to evict Maidan of protesters by brute force, only to find more angry citizens had gathered the next day. The harder he hit the people, the more people came to voice their disapproval. Finally, the President’s security forces opened fire on the people causing the first deaths and many serious injuries. The people were livid. The protests swelled.
Throughout January and February 2014, rolling street battles continued as the Maidan committees attempted repeatedly to appeal to their elected leaders. The police met protesters with guns, grenades and truncheons as they marched to protest in front of government buildings. One hundred twenty-five protesters were killed and thousands were injured at the hands of the police between 20 January and 22 February. Afraid of the growing anger across the country at the use of snipers against protesters, the President fled by night to Russia.
Protesters endured three months of freezing weather and violence to maintain their vigil for liberty. The police beat them and shot them while the government sanctioned their murders. Still, they did not falter in their cause of freedom. They would not be intimidated, nor forced to kneel by the command nor the guns of the tyrant.
Last week in Ukraine, I had the privilege to interview six Ukrainian patriots who directly participated in the Maidan revolution of 2014. Each had a unique story of personal fears, doubts and heroism to tell. Whether they we in the cross hairs on Maidan, or volunteering at the medical stations, each had to face their own mortality when they chose to stay. Death was always nearby; the smell of it hung in the air.
Within a few weeks after the protests concluded, Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. In the eastern provinces, along the Russian border, secessionists backed by Russian soldiers rebelled against the new government in Kyiv. More than thirteen thousand people have died in that conflict in the Don-Bas region over the last five years.
I asked each of the protesters I interviewed, if knowing what they now know about the consequences of the President’s overthrow, would they do it again. Certainly the loss of so many lives and the splitting of their country would give reason to pause and reconsider. Of course each of them had already thought deeply about this question. I was naive to think that I had come with an original thought for those who had put their lives on the line for freedom. Although each of them had lost either a friend, a family member or their home as a result of the protests and following conflicts, not one of them said they would change their actions, or support of the revolution and its consequences; good and bad.
I asked a young woman whose father died in the fighting on Maidan, if she would trade the results of the revolution to have her father back. Her answer was unambiguous. “I don’t want to live in peace just for peace. The victory of Maidan was not the President running away. It is in the unification on the people to defend their freedom. My father would certainly do it all over again even if he knew he would die.”
Ukraine is a country in the heat of the refiner’s fire. The generation that has been raised in an indepenent country, with slowly expanding freedom and liberties has listened carefully to the lessons of history. They are aware of the atrocities committed by foreign powers against their grandparents, and are resolved to keep their country free, despite the struggle and sacrifice required.
For those who feel they are at risk of losing their liberties due to the slow erosion of a constitutional order, I say, look to the example of the Ukrainian people. Put the well being of your grandchildren first and raise your voice even it means the sacrifice of today’s comfort and convenience. The backwards slide is reversible and true liberty can be preserved, but not if you and I stay silent!
Wake up! Speak up! Stand up! before its too late.