Who Stands with the People of Ukraine?

maidan-klitschko2Guest post by William Risch

In a December 25 interview with the magazine Foreign Policy, heavyweight world boxing champion Vitaly Klychko explained the significance of Ukraine’s Euromaidan protest movement to Belgrade-based journalist Harriet Salem:  “Now people in this square [Kyiv’s Maidan] understand that they have power in their hands and the opportunity to change the situation in our country. Our country is very young, and this is a very important step, that every citizen is aware that his future depends just on him.”  Klychko, true to his boxer image, advocated a knock-out blow against President Viktor Yanukovych’s regime:  “We understand that to make real reforms, we must topple the whole system.”

Klychko was not the only one claiming to stand with the people. On December 15, after visits to Kyiv by European Union foreign policy commissioner Catherine Ashton and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, U.S. Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy spoke to the Maidan.  As reported by the Washington Post, Murphy told the crowd, “You are making history.  If you are successful, the United States will stand with you every step of the way.”

I was at that rally.  The senators’ voices, interpreted by former Minister of Foreign Affairs Borys Tarasiuk, were muddled.  While I filmed Murphy and McCain, fellow historians with me ignored the speech.  They discussed with a local resident contested 2012 parliamentary elections being rerun that very day in five districts.

Were these politicians really with the people?  On December 16, I took part in a march on the Central Elections Commission.  About 150-200 people protested the results of the special parliamentary elections, claiming they had been falsified.  Speakers said Klychko was going to speak, but in the end, he didn’t show up.  The night of December 17-18, Klychko spoke to the Maidan’s “Night Watch,” an all-night disco and political rally aimed at keeping police forces from breaking up the Maidan.  He gave a stirring speech about the hard work it takes to realize one’s dreams, and then he left.

The night of December 19-20, I volunteered to watch over the Maidan’s barricades.  Warming up to a makeshift bonfire in freezing temperatures, I spent the whole night talking with other guards about why they were there.  One man, 38 year-old Serhiy from Poltava, said he had lost his small store to bank debts, his wife had left him, and he was unemployed.  As we debated over what Serhiy should do – get a lawyer, find another job, or emigrate to to America – the Maidan’s hourly singing of the Ukrainian national anthem began.  Everyone suddenly stopped arguing.  They tood up and silently watched the musicians performing on the large TV screen.  Across the Maidan’s barricades, others joined us in silently saluting the anthem or singing.  In that moment, no foreign dignitary, no celebrity like Klychko, spoke for people like Serhiy.  If anyone, it was us, the people of the Maidan, who stood with him.