‘We need to be the face of Ukraine’

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‘We need to be the face of Ukraine’

AJ Levy

Ludmila Pekarska came to Britain in 1991 with her husband. She is an academic and worked at the British Museum for 10 years. She is from Kiev, in Ukraine . I have been in Britain for a long time but I never felt I was far from home. When the protests began in November, it was a surprise. Students came to speak out about the European Union (EU), there was singing and dancing and it was all very peaceful. I don’t think most of the population was thinking about Europe. Some people were unsure about it.

But on the terrible night when students were badly beaten, people knew we cannot live like that. It was a shock. When I was a student, I was in protests in the same square, against the Soviet Union, and it was always peaceful. We have never seen this kind of violence before.

I watched it on TV here and it was terrible. I cried. You know you can do nothing because you are here in Britain and they are there in Ukraine. You can’t help the people who are fighting and getting killed. The help from the West is good, but sometimes people in the media don’t know the real situation. Sometimes the situation is not clearly reported. It’s not about people who want to leave Ukraine or with extreme ideas or the political far right.

As for the Crimea, the Kremlin created the problem. When they come to another country to defend the Russian-speaking people, they feel like patriots, people who want to defend their country. When Ukrainians want to speak for Ukrainians and to be a democratic country, they are not patriots, they are nationalists, or they are the ‘far right’. If you speak Russian, that’s fine, you’re a patriot. If we Ukrainians want to have our own language, we are nationalists. It’s mad. It’s not about protecting the Russian-speaking people. That’s wrong. People say to Putin: ‘We don’t need your help. Go home.’

Ukraine has a big population. We have people who speak Russian, Ukrainian, and other languages, Jewish people. But we never had a problem because of languages. So why start it now? Because Putin didn’t think Ukraine would win this battle. He really didn’t think Ukraine would win.

And the people have won this battle, But we never thought he would move into Crimea. We are shocked, very shocked. How is it possible in the 21st century, in a peaceful country?

But people are positive. It’s been a long time and people want to start a new life now, with a new system. We need a lot of changes in all of the government and it takes time. It will be difficult and we all need to help them and to trust them during this very serious time for our country. Sometimes, you think you must be there in Ukraine, standing with them. But you know it’s more about the younger people who are there. It’s about the young peoples’ lives and their future.

Of course you have these feelings, but everyone can help and we can do great things. That doesn’t mean everyone staying there with bombs. It means journalists doing their job right. For example, reporting everything the way it is, not like in the Russian media, which is making people think what they want them to think. But this terrible problem has united Ukraine more than before. And I’m really proud of my people. Everything would be fine now, but not with Putin. His plan didn’t work so he decided to take Crimea.

In 6 months, I am sure that Ukraine will be one of the democratic countries. And I think Russia will follow Ukraine. Now, the people are not ready to protest, like in my country. But many of them understand Ukraine – and the future of Russia is also with Europe. The time of the Russian empire is gone, it’s past. We have lived it. It feels like Putin wants to have it again but it’s not going to work.

AJ Levy Igor Hordiyevych came to Britain in 1995 when he was 19, to study in Manchester. Now he is 37, he works for a bank and also for Ukraine Charity, which finds money to help people there. He is from Lviv, in Ukraine. His wife is Ukrainian, born in Russia, and they have two children born in Britain.

It was very, very difficult to believe the problem in Ukraine. We have never had a situation where people were hurt like this. When it started, we felt it was something different. In the Orange Revolution in 2004 there was never violence. Here, it started with violence. That was very sad. We never had this in Ukraine. People died because of the action of the government.

We were more and more worried. And then people were killed. As a charity we knew there was a humanitarian problem there. Ukraine Charity is not a political organization. We help people. When it was worse, we knew we needed to do something. We asked for money for the victims of the violence. Now we have over $84,000 since 20 February. On the first day we got $42,000. In a good year usually we get $30-50,000. It shows you the feeling of the people here.

Some of the ideas people have – that people have been fighting for the EU or against Russia – this isn’t what the movement was about. It was about the corruption of the government and against stopping free speech. Here in London people sit outside Parliament, protesting for maybe 10 years, and no-one does anything. That is democracy.

President Yanukovych made an agreement between Russia and Europe, which was completely unreal. Ukraine is a big country and can decide what it wants. He created an auction. It is no surprise that the people were against this, but it was the size of the protest that was surprising. Things got worse in a surprising way. As things got worse, watching from here in Britain you become more and more worried. As we now know, Russia was involved in everything from the start - the illegal annexation of Crimea and the moves to make the situation in Eastern Ukraine. It is of course terrible.

I think it’s a good idea for Ukraine to get closer to the EU and join it. But the people of the Ukraine must decide for themselves. I think the actions of Russia have made that very clear. It is been bad that we have seen things in the media about Ukraine which are not true. A lot of Russian media wrote about the Nazis and these things are not true and not pleasant.

There are politically far-right organizations in the Ukraine. They are everywhere - in Britain, in Germany, in the US. In Russia there are a lot of them. But in Ukraine the far right got 10 per cent of the vote, or less, at the last election. Yes, the situation attracts these groups but it is not true to say the far right is in control. A lot of people speak Russian every day. No one has a problem with that.

The positive thing is that now there really is the chance for the people to change things. So that they do not need to give money to every policeman when they drive in a car or every official when they want to open a business. But it will take time because the corruption is very deep. And the Russians are trying to make things worse.

But it feels good you when you think that the Ukrainian people can protest and overthrow a terrible government. And good that they are not fighting more for freedom than for Europe or against Russia. They are fighting for freedom from corruption, freedom from oppression. Maybe we had three revolutions. In 1991, which was very quiet. In 2004, which wasn’t quiet but was peaceful. And the one now which wasn’t peaceful. But maybe now we are becoming an independent state and this was necessary to wake people up.

Yes, we would like the British government to do more for international law. It said it would support the territorial rights of Ukraine. If that means a phone call, fine; if it means a bit more, maybe that’s what’s needed.

The relationship with Russia is important to Ukraine, the actions of the Russian government today are not friendly or helpful. So Ukraine today needs support from its Western friends to fight for its future as a strong European democracy. It’s beyond Ukraine, so it’s up to the international powers. It’s also for us in London, for Britain to look at it and decide if they want to help and support international treaties or just make more money.

AJ Levy Halyna Tatara is from Lviv. Now 29, she came to Britain 9 years ago and works for the YMCA.

I went to Kiev to support the Orange Revolution in 2004. We thought the country would change but after a few years we realized things had got worse. The government, the justice system, everything was corrupt. Even the media was censored. Viktor Yanukovych was part of a group of criminals who came to power.

No-one expected so many people to take to the streets. Our way of thinking is different from the West. Before Maidan [a political movement], we never believed in ourselves; we didn’t really believe we could change things. But now it’s like a new nation has been born. People have a human dignity that they never knew about before. And this has happened because the younger generation, born in an independent Ukraine, thinks differently.

Living here, you realize how a free Western society works. You don’t need to give people money to get medical care, you don’t need to fear the police. We have experienced civilized life, and we know how it is in the Ukraine. So the longer we have lived here, the more depressed we have got about our own country.

With the Crimea, you have to see the difference between the Russian people and the Kremlin. The Kremlin is not Russia. We know what Putin is but we were very surprised that he went so far. We never expected an invasion, in the middle of Europe, breaking all international laws. It was a big shock for us. When I phone people at home, when I phone my mum, they are all so scared. They’re near war, and that’s something our generation has never seen.

I have felt sometimes that I want to be there, especially during the last few months. I’ve wanted to experience, physically, being there. I know a few people who live here who left to go back to Maidan. They couldn’t stop themselves. You feel so guilty while this revolution is going on and you are over here. That feeling has been there and will always be there. Home is where your heart is.

But living here gives us a few advantages. We have government and MPs in a way that people back home do not. So we need to be the face of Ukraine as a country and we need to be the best and the prettiest face. We are an important part of the movement. The government here does not have the right to ignore us.

One death is terrible. And most of the people who died are young men, with families. But 100 deaths is a number. We paid such a high price but we have done something positive. We have to always remember that these people paid the price of their lives so we need to do everything we can to be sure it was for something.

Certainly the end of Maidan was the beginning of the revolution. Ukraine now is in a very serious, uncertain situation and the possibility of a Russian invasion is very serious. Annexation of the Crimea and the sudden problem Eastern Ukraine is in fact a war. It’s not a civil war, because people in Ukraine are not fighting between each other and never did. It’s a foreign invasion by the Russian Federation, which is making a revolt of scared people to serve Russian interests. The next stage of Maidan is coming and may well be the most important one in our history.

Interviews as told to Gavriel Hollander. Photographs by A J Levy.