Seeing the images on my television screen, I froze in shock and anguish. People running for cover behind piles of rubber tires, a man being struck down by sniper fire. This was Maidan – Independence Square in the centre of Kiev, a place where I had talked to the book vendors, met friends, watched a busker do a routine with his two little monkeys. Those were the paving stones my feet had crossed and re-crossed and now those stones were stained with blood. In that one moment, as I watched the scene unfold from my living room couch, I understood something of how the people who had entrusted their stories to me may have felt as eyewitnesses to the destruction of their homeland under Soviet rule.
As the Maidan revolution in Ukraine turned into an international story, I developed an almost obsessive need to know what was happening there hour by hour. It took a good dose of fatigue and a beautifully reasoned e-mail from a friend in Kiev to make me realize that it would be more useful to finish writing about my 1998 trip to Ukraine than to trade second-hand opinions about events in which I played no part. Weeks had gone by without my adding a single new page to my book.
To take my mind back into the 1990s, the heady time of Ukraine’s newly won independence, I listened again to the interviews I’d done, re-read passages in my favourite reference books and immersed myself in Ukrainian music and contemporary literature. I remembered the impassioned, witty conversations in Lviv’s coffee houses with writers, publishers, students and community leaders. We’d talked about the function of opposition in a democracy, the ethics of responsible journalism, the role of education and religion in building a new civil society. Students, once they found out I was Canadian, wanted to know how we had achieved a peaceful pluralistic society. If I mentioned multiculturalism and inter-faith dialogue they inevitably wanted to know which group was winning. A discussion about Western wages always led to an explanation of income tax, medical insurance, mortgages, the cost of university education and personal accountability – concepts entirely foreign to the Soviet world view and social order. Political pundits at the table said that it would be more than twenty years before the prevailing mindset could change.
Sometimes, I lost the thread of a story because people alternated freely between place names from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Polish Commonwealth, the Russian Empire and the USSR. (In the 18th century, Ukraine was partitioned between three political entities before being annexed by the Soviet Union in the 20th century.)
Eventually the Ukrainians told me their side of history: World War II and the successive advance and retreat of Nazi and Soviet armies across their country, Nazi and Soviet labour camps, an atmosphere of relentless suspicion and fear. The elderly would talk about those who perished in Stalin’s deliberately planned famine of 1932-33. Many regretted that Communist war criminals had never been brought to justice. Writers complained that the only change undertaken by the newly elected deputies was to replace the hammer and sickle on their lapel pins with a trident.
As these tales of loss, death, sorrow and anxiety poured out, my writer’s objectivity often abandoned me, and I silently grieved with the storyteller. All I understood then was that after seventy years of state-enforced silence, there was a great need to speak and to be heard. Now it is the young Ukrainians born and educated after the fall of the USSR who are speaking out. And the world is listening.
Photo of Kiev, top: Anton Molodtsov/Tony Wan Kenobi [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons