Night 9/Day 9: The Carnival is over; violence begins: state-sponsored boxers and riot police.

The cameras of the world’s media are trained on Kyiv, where the violence of riot police against peaceful protesters has been documented. Last night (4 a.m. on 30 November, local time) the Euromaidan in Kyiv was cleared from Independence Square. This afternoon in Kyiv, a large-scale demonstration has sprung up spontaneously on St Michael’s Square after some of those injured fled up the hill and sought sanctuary in the Church and its monastery. Some riot police then blockaded those people inside the monastery.

The tent city occupation in Ivano-Frankivsk voluntarily disbanded on Friday afternoon. However, this does not mean that  the city’s activists escaped violence. Maksym Kitsyuk (Максим Кицюк, @kyts_me), the leader of Ivano-Frankivsk’s student protests, was last night attacked on his way home by three unknown assailants. They held back his friend while Kitsyuk was attacked and stabbed with a broken bottle. His leg is now in plaster and has been given numerous stitches. It could, of course, be a coincidence this attack – but that seems hardly likely. Instead, the authorities have most likely sought revenge, while also sending out a signal to other organisers that they ought to fear for their safety. A press conference was held today, well-attended by local and national media, condemning the attack. (I also happened to be teaching in the building where the conference took place).

Already on the first day of public gatherings in the city on 22 November, an ominous sign hung over the square where Ivano-Frankivsk’s population has gathered. A huge screen stands on the square outside the post office, issuing a constant stream of overly loud adverts. (One speaker questioned the legality of the planning permission for this screen and another on the Market Square outside the town hall. Certainly the are an eyesore). On that first day, one of the adverts running in the cycle was for a national boxing championship to be held in Ivano-Frankivsk. It’s main sponsor was… the ruling Party of Regions. Throughout Ukraine there is a network of sports clubs, into which the ruling Party has invested a lot of sponsorship. It seems that the deal rests on the fact that, when required, the ruling party can call on these sponsored boxers and others (sportsmeny, as they are known here) to act as a something akin to a street-fighting paramilitary.

The question of what to do next for local activists and students, meanwhile, remains. There are constantly a few dozen people gathered on the city’s square, debating and discussing, or displaying national symbols and colours. Given that it is the weekend, the number of students in the city declines greatly. Again, the mean in identical flat caps are more visible although they are now talking to students and younger people, something that was not evident a week ago. 

While implicit before the events of the last week, the pro-European sentiments and hopes of many people in this city are now very much in evidence. However, it seems that the current authorities are determined to crush them with violence, leaving perhaps only these traces – see the pictures below – of a “Europeanisation” of the city.

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Bike rack: Ivano-Frankivsk is a European city. Sponsored by an Austro-Ukrainian bank.

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Throughout the city there are rubbish bins promoting segregation waste and recycling, with “EU Project” forged into the bins themselves.

 

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Day 8: The end of the local tent city occupation, the start of intensified protests in Kyiv

The occupation of Ivano-Frankivsk’s square has been ended by agreement of the organisers, who will be taking their fight to Kyiv, joining the main protests there which are demanding the resignation of the government following the failure to sign the EU Association Agreement.

Meetings will, however, continue here for as long as the protests continue in Kyiv. However, it is unlikely that the daily student strikes will continue, at least with the same level of mass participation as was witnessed this week.

How the students here will react now is unclear, since the civil disobedience of the student warning strikes has proven ineffective in securing the signing of the Association Agreement. However, these strikes have been effective in raising student awareness of their potential power albeit, somewhat paradoxically, in relation to the state authorities.

There is little willingness, for now, to challenge the power of local authority figures within institutions such as universities who, in fact, exert real power over students’ lives.

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Is this a symbol of the dying embers of students’ European hopes, or the sign of a still-smouldering urge to change and rebellion?

 

Days 6 and 7: more (radical) protests, a street university and pessimism inside “Precarpathia’s finest classical, European university”

The sixth day of protests here saw more open-air democracy, with the city’s student councils meeting outside the Regional Administration Office (aka The White House). The head of the regional administration subsequently offered to meet with student representatives who rejected his offer. The fear was that the meeting would be exploited and misrepresented in local television. While the students call for revolution, or at least bringing down the current government, the head of the local administration – from the ruling Party of Regions – is calling solely for a peaceful Europeanisation, so the kind that would presumably keep him and his party in power.

Alongside the protests outside the local White House, the foundations of a Free University have been laid, with  local writer Taras Prochasko giving the inaugural lecture to thousands of students and others gathered from midday on Wednesday. He was followed by a university lecturer, whose stance in appearing publicly and on stage in these protests in quite exceptional.The current events are certainly a “studentskyj maydan“, or student protest, with little connection to the mass of lecturers. Certainly a number of lecturers are joining their students on the streets, but a general concern among lecturers seems to be over how to account for the missed classes and what sanctions or punishments might follow. Being discussed are compulsory Saturday lectures or counting the non-attendance as an unjustified absence, which ultimately affects students’ grades for the semester.  Despite the Ministry of Education suggesting that students could even lose their grants – and thus have to pay tuition fees of around €1000 annually as a consequence – it seems that for the mass of students are abandoning the university after the first session of the day, and thus striking. A degree of fear, thanks to the mass nature of the protests, has thus been overcome.

However, in conversation with one group of students today – with the topic of the protests largely replacing what was planned for today’s seminar – there seems to be little willingness to engage in future in protest directly against the university authorities. The students outlined, without prompting, aspects of large-scale corruption, bribery or “a lack of objectivity” in grading (favours, payments and obedience count for more than ability in some cases), but the consensus in that group was that since they would graduate in a couple of years, there was little sense in ruining their own degree by entering into conflict with the university authorities. What may have influenced these students, now over two years into their degrees, to act would have been knowledge of how degrees are structured in other European countries. Their university proclaims itself “Найкращий класичний університет Прикарпаття європейського зразка” – “Precarpathia’s best classical university of a European type” – although the students had not yet taken the initiative to discover what this European type is. A few basic sums today found that in order to get their Bachelor degree, the students have some three-four times more contact time than students around Europe. Here they have around 32 hours per week in the humanities, with semesters lasting 16-18 weeks, rather than the 12 weeks in Europe, and the degree still lasts four years, something that is being phased out in most countries. Many of their courses have nothing to do with their major subject, with these additional hours bringing little benefit, since testing is based on rote learning, while lectures and seminars largely restrict discussion and are instead based on transmitting information or “facts” as they are termed by the students. 

It seems that the willingness to take to the streets now is inspired in part by a sense of patriotic duty and an awareness that the future would probably be brighter if Ukraine were to have connections to Europe, although largely the participation is inspired by the sense of safety offered by the mass nature of the protests. Although the protests are calling for bringing down the government, the enemy is abstract and unlikely to directly affect the students’ everyday lives or indeed, what many are most concerned about, their immediate grades.

Cynically, it could be added that alongside these noble motives, a chance to skip class is welcomed. Even if students are absent from classes  – as the empty classrooms and corridors witness today show – it does not seem that they are now necessarily on the streets, marching or joining rallies. Today’s midday protest was much less well attended, although it appears that a large number of local students – after singing the national anthem, a patriotic song and jumping to the chant “khto ne skache, toj Moskal” (If you’re not jumping your a Muscovite) – went to “liberate” a college whose authorities are refusing to sanction protests. In a sense, then, the protests and students’ demands are becoming more radical within the organised core of the local marches and rallies.

However, there is also an increase in general participation in rallies, which have now become a permanent sight in the city, rather than as was the case earlier on in the uprising, that evidence of protests was visible only at the designated times of midday and 6 p.m. All day and all around the city, generally younger people are visible with painted faces or national flags wrapped around their shoulders, suggesting a state of both popular patriotism and popular pro-European attitudes (a quite alien concept for someone coming from Briton), as well as readiness to join any protests at any moment.

So, for now, a sense of radicalism pertains among the local protest leaders, while a carnivalesque atmosphere seems prevalent among the mass of participants. Perhaps enjoying the chance to break the rigid norms of university life, so escaping classes at a time when it is not necessarily officially sanctioned, they can do so within a movement which offers a safe framework for expressing frustrations caused by being in the university system here. Any kind of direct protest against the university leadership, which might actually change more-or-less immediately the students’ reality (such as providing toilet paper or turning on the heating when it is unbearably cold), still remains largely unthinkable.

Our Home is in Europe not in Asia

Our Home is in Europe not in Asia

This adapted map, hanging on the door of a city-centre bookshop, highlights the Europe-Asia, so Europe-Russia dichotomy that enables a mobilising framing of the geopolitical battle over Ukraine.
While certainly shocking and orientalising to some, it is also notable that this binary continues to be applied in some scholarship. A particularly vivid example of this is Ewa M. Thompson’s ‘Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism’ (2000).

Simplifying Ukraine, BBC style

Simplifying Ukraine, BBC style

The situation in Ukraine is reduced to a simple eastern Ukraine/western Ukraine binary of pro-Russian/pro-European by simply visiting Donetsk and Lviv.
Of course, the photo above – of a poster attached to a city-centre bookshop, stating ‘Our home is Europe, not Asia’ – suggests that popular consciousness can relate to a simple East/West (Asia=Russia, Europe=Ukraine) dichotomy, and this is useful in mobilising people. 
However, the situation in Ukraine cannot be divided simply between its eastern and western parts, assuming that geographical location correlates with a particular outlook. The danger is that the east of the country is assumed to be automatically anti-European, whereas the reality is more complex. Indeed, Steve Rosenberg avoids the question of Kyiv’s position in relation to East and West, employing a large degree instead of geographical determinism.

Reports like this, with the Western media being treated as a source of authority, can only harm the prospect of Ukrainians around this vast country finally coming to think of each other in terms other than stereotypes and archetypes of Western “Banderivtsi”, or fascist bandits, and Eastern “Moskali”, or Muscovites.

Practicalities of Square Occupation (Maydan)

Just a quick note to mention that this uprising and civic occupation is an indication not only of the workings of a form of underground or usually invisible civil society, one which proved capable of organising quickly and uniting various factions around the city, but also indicative of the functioning of a civic solidarity.

Local cafes and businesses are offering up their food, hot water and even premises for free to participants of the square occupation (Euromaidan), while even students who come for the mass protests at midday are given free sandwiches and tea, thus making up for them missing their long break at 11:25. Numerous people have also brought wood for burning in the fires heating the city-centre occupation camp, while sound systems etc. have been provided, too. Equally, there are online donations for ordinary people to assist the nationwide occupations.

At the same time, the state apparatus is applied to block certain actions which reveal the functioning of the civic solidarity, but largely only where there are attempts to join the protests in Kyiv. Bus companies, for example, and even individual drivers, from here and in Lviv have been threatened with having their licences removed if they transport protesters to the capital.

Day 5: More protests, more people, more confusion, more hope

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Police, hearing the national anthem at the start of today’s midday gathering, salute throughout.

After yesterday’s largely organised protests, which drew students out of the university at a particular time, the lack of central organisation today caused some confusion among students, as well as staff. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Rector has not issued an official statement on the position of the university. Generally he is seen to have given approval for the students’ actions, and a brief interview with an obscure local tv station suggests the same. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9baZzCDvY0 (Obscure because two of the nine views of this video have been from my household, while the station is not on all cable platforms). However, besides the impracticality of the rector insisting students will need to make up for missed classes as the end of the semester approaches, in practice each departmental dean continues to issue individual instructions.

Some Deans are highly supportive and have effectively allowed students to attend protests with no further consequences. Others, meanwhile, forbid participation or insist that all absentees must be reported by group monitors. (Here, each group has a student – known as starosta, who is responsible for communication between the authorities and groupmates.) However, in the more restrictive departments, students are openly rebelling and failing to attend classes. Across the city meanwhile, pressure from two universities ensured that the Medical University finally relented and has allowed students to join the protests. However, individual lectures continue to exert pressure on their students, threatening sanctions for missing classes. Meanwhile, one university in the city – a branch of a Ternopil HE institution – continues to forbid participation.

Today, I had three seminars to teach, none of which went ahead as the students were participating in the protests. A worrying phenomenon, however, is that numerous students have interpreted the fact that either a lecturer or the dean has permitted their participation in the protests not as permission to make a decision for themselves but as an order to attend. Indeed, my own emails to students have been interpreted as stating “we must go”, whereas the message has always been, “think about whether and why you want to attend”. I have always been available to teach classes where students have been absent, but there has never been a group so far that has split, with part protesting and part staying for lectures. A group mentality prevails (not solidarity), regardless of the individual will (or lack of consciousness) of particular students. Some students did make individual choices, namely to disappear from both the university and protests, instead taking the day off. The significance of such actions cannot yet be established.

Today’s midday protest meanwhile took the form of an extraordinary meeting of the city council, held in the open air on the main square hosting the camp/protest in the city. I think this has to be the most popularly-supported local council meeting held. 67/114 councillors were present, meaning the meeting had full powers and authority. Just 1/13 Party of Regions councillor attended, drawing aggressive/pantomime boos from the crowd. The crowd today was the largest of any protest in the city, with the crowd also invited to vote on motions. Unsurprisingly, all were passed unanimously. It was a mightily impressive sight, this council meeting, as democracy was directly put into action in front of the people, rather than behind the suspect, closed doors typically associated with political dealings here. 

The university authorities, however, remain behind closed doors and refuse to speak openly on the situation, with the usual means of top-down communication disrupted by autonomous actions by deans. The university here does not have a centralised email system, meaning that any communications are passed through arcane levels of hierarchy, with rumour often replacing the actual message as these Chinese whispers wind their way through bureaucracy. Or the message gets lost as it is generally noted from oral communication by each level of the hierarchy, rather than fixed in a document.

It seems, however, that a critical mass of students has been reached who no longer fear sanctions for being absent from classes. The square is thus fuller with each meeting as the old men in flat caps are replaced by young men and women with painted faces and a carnival atmosphere. Whether this atmosphere will remain once the Vilnius Summit is over is another question and only time will tell if the students, and Ukrainian society, have the will, the warmth and means for another occupation of urban spaces – and particularly central Kyiv – lasting weeks and eventually forcing an election. For now, the typical pessimism of students – who felt that they could not even get the university to turn the heating on in a near-freezing early October by means of protest – has subsided, giving way to a carnivalesque optimism. Even if Ukraine, as a state, fails to sign the Association Agreement this week – or at all – hopefully these protests will shape the students’ – and thus this country’s young generation’s – attitudes, showing them that meek passivity, relying on decisions taken by others or orders from above can give way to what here is imagined as a more “European” mode of action.

The Orange Revolution seems to be an inspiration, rather than an example of failed revolution. Rather than the current protests being the farcical repetition of the tragic dashing of hopes with the Orange Revolution, the events of 2004/05 are seen more as a dress rehearsal for the push for a European Ukraine.

 

Day 5: the situation in Kyiv

In grand political terms, thus in relation to the site where the TV cameras’ focus lies – Kyiv, this evening saw a significant turn, as the two “Euromaydan” sites, or the two large demonstrations, were united. The spontaneous, civil occupation of Independence Square – familiar from the Orange Revolution – was united with the European Square occupation, organised by the three main opposition parties. There was no real tension between the two camps, with the three opposition leaders having shared a stage with the figurehead of the civil camp Mustafa Nayyem. However, this unification on Independence Square signals a unified opposition of politicians and society. What has been agreed in Kyiv is that no party-political symbols should be displayed at the new unified camp. In Ivano-Frankivsk, this is not something that has had to be actively enforced or even announced. While party-political figures speak alongside, it is solely national and EU symbols that are evident on the streets.

The purpose of this blog is to focus on the uprising from the perspective of a lecturer. This post is just for background.