Coming of Age: Ukraine’s Maidan Student Generation Assesses Next Moves

Modern history has shown that student movements are often in the vanguard of radical social change, and Ukraine is no exception. One year ago on Maidan square, Kiev’s young generation played a pivotal role in protests which eventually managed to topple the unpopular government of Viktor Yanukovych. Since then, Ukraine has gone through political not to mention economic convulsions and now finds itself at war with Russian separatists in the east. Given such heightened tensions, can Ukraine’s younger generation manage to put forward a radical vision of societal transformation?

Such questions were very much on my mind when I recently traveled to Kiev and interviewed some of the original student participants of Maidan. Mention student activism in the United States or Europe, and many conjure up pictures of firebrand leftists intent on disrupting business as usual. In Ukraine, however, that is not always the case. Rector of Kyiv Mohyla academy Serhiy Kvit has remarked that “European students are better at communicating with other protest groups, their actions are much more radical, and their protest actions engage many more participants. The victories of Ukrainian students are due to the fragility of the government rather than the strength of a well-organized movement.”

The nature of student protest on the Maidan during the first few weeks may lend support to such views. Indeed, at this early stage student protesters tended to be liberal and merely pro-European Union. Foremost in the minds of many was the Ukrainian educational system: would local universities keep pace with modern and efficient standards if Yanukovych failed to sign a so-called association agreement with the European Union? Could universities hope to attract top talent and professors from foreign institutions if the president continued his pro-Kremlin tilt away from Europe? And lastly, would Ukrainian students have the ability to travel and work abroad?

Ironic Position of Student Left

On the surface at least, it would seem as if few students would disagree with such positions. On the other hand, the student left was placed in a slight quandary since the association agreement with Europe might have led to greater austerity cuts under western-style institutions like the International Monetary Fund. Vadym Gud, a veteran of Direct Action student labor union who had earlier pursued the activist path as an anarchist, was immersed in such controversies at the time.

Within the group, Gud remarks, “we had a huge debate about getting involved in the protests.” Most leftists, he says, didn’t like the idea of signing a trade pact with the European Union. Gud, who moved toward socialism by the time of the Maidan protests, took a more pro-EU line. Perhaps, he reasoned, Ukrainian activists could help to move the EU to the political left in the event that Kiev signed an association agreement with the west.

As it turned out, Gud was not alone. Denis Pilash, another activist affiliated with Direct Action, noted many of the ironies confronting the student left. “I was skeptical about the Maidan protests from the very outset,” he says. During his own political evolution, Pilash had focused more on social questions like poverty, inequality and police brutality rather than foreign policy issues such as Yanukovych’s tilt toward Russia and away from the EU. At the time, Pilash declares, “some Greek left colleagues wrote me and said, ‘you’re crazy, you want to be in the European Union even as we are burning the EU flag?'”

Eyewitness to New Left

It wasn’t the first time Gud found himself in the midst of the fray. Some ten years earlier, he had been involved in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and shortly after he and others decided to found Direct Action. At the time, he says, the outfit was “the only true activist student union in Ukraine as most of our students unions were Soviet-era bureaucratic holdovers and full of guys who simply wanted to go into politics so as to build up their resumes.”

Other activists followed similar political trajectories. Before he moved to Kiev in 2005, Pilash was a self-professed student “nerd” who took a keen interest in socialism and anarchist thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin. Though Pilash’s family was extremely poor, his relatives hailed from the old Soviet intelligentsia and the young man had access to a wide variety of books. Later, Pilash got in touch with anarcho-syndicalist students who had helped found Direct Action. At a certain point, he says, the group “was the most prominent and important leftist and progressive group in Ukraine,” capable of mobilizing thousands of people.

Run-up to Maidan

Though the world first became aware of students during unrest at Maidan square, activists played a key role in Ukrainian politics even before the dramatic events. Indeed, Pilash says, Direct Action organized large protests of between 10 and 20,000 people against Viktor Yanukovych, who sought to increase student and library fees so as to “commercialize the educational system.”

Such crass moves prompted Yegor Stadny to become more involved in political activism. As a student at Kyiv Mohyla academy, he observed that the quality of higher education was deteriorating. How could it be, he mused, that public universities were allowed to charge fees under such circumstances? To be sure, Stadny tells me in a local Kiev cafe, the advocates of public education held a strong position in society. However, he adds, supporters of the free market were getting stronger.

Two years before Maidan, Direct Action and others launched a campaign against the enactment of a new draft law on higher education. “We protested the deterioration in education,” says Gud, who adds that the Minister of Education sought to curtail university autonomy and centralize the system under tight government control. In an upset victory, however, the students managed to halt the legislation and the authorities were obliged to pass a more progressive educational law.

Progressive Agenda on Maidan

Although certainly impressive, the student left confronted myriad hurdles. Indeed, Gud says, prior to Maidan the left had “failed to create a lasting and viable organizational structure,” which meant the movement found itself at a distinct disadvantage once protests erupted. As a matter of fact, Direct Action had actually been shrinking prior to demonstrations and so anarchists sought to salvage much of the group in an effort to respond rapidly to unfolding events.

According to Gud, however, many of the activists who had participated in earlier struggles against the higher education law were no longer on campus, and though organizers tried to recruit younger students, such efforts proved disappointing. As a result, leftist student participation at Maidan wasn’t nearly as high as it could have been. Nevertheless, Gud says that by late autumn, 2013 there were about 2-3,000 people assembled on Maidan square.

At this early phase, before things became violent, the crowd consisted mostly of activists and NGO (non-governmental organizations) people. Though the political opposition sought to get rid of the Yanukovych government, pro-EU students didn’t want to get mixed up with such elements. “I remember a mood of joy on the Maidan and most of the faces were students and the young,” Gud remarks. “They weren’t getting paid to be there; they just voted with their feet to be part of Europe.”

Natalia Neshevets, another young activist with Direct Action, tells me that leftist students were few in number; “maybe in the hundreds.” Despite low turnout, she and her colleagues sought to inject progressive values into incipient protests. “My friends and I did not agree with the EU association agreement,” she remarks. “We tried to talk with people about our own vision for Europe. Will the future just be about the free market, or will it be based on free transportation, free education and human rights?” Neshevets adds, “We not only wanted to change faces in power but the inherent power structure itself. We hoped to get away from leaders and promote more genuine, democratic participation.” In line with such thinking, Neshevets and fellow activists formed democratic decision-making assemblies on the Maidan.

Students and Radicalization

Such serene and tranquil scenes were rudely interrupted on November 30, 2013 when riot police attacked student protesters and removed them from the square. The developments quickly led to political radicalization and sparked protests against police brutality. Students began to shift away from their previous emphasis on the EU and started to call for improved educational policies and an end to police crackdowns. Before November, Gud says, “no one contemplated the overthrow of the government,” but afterwards “everything changed and it started to be about the removal of the government at the very least.” Yegor Stadny, who was at Maidan in early December, adds that at this point “We started to think about systemic change. Students realized that merely shaking up top figureheads wouldn’t result in wider societal change.”

In quick order, activists launched student strikes in Kiev and demanded the release of those students who had earlier been imprisoned. Hardly in the mood to compromise, the Yanukovych regime passed a set of draconian laws in January which granted impunity to police officers who used force against protesters. Amidst worsening violence on the square, Gud set up an information team and a Facebook page dedicated to “revolutionary struggle” which quickly attracted a whopping 300,000 followers. Gud also conducted live online reports from the front lines, where protesters hurled Molotov cocktails and government snipers responded in turn with live ammunition.

Once shooting started, the remnants of Direct Action played a vital role in protecting local activists. According to Gud, there were a lot of casualties and pro-government forces began to literally kidnap people from hospital. Responding to the crisis, students created watchdog groups to guard and protect patients. Gud himself had injured friends at hospital, one of whom almost lost an eye after being shot. Stadny meanwhile also participated in a watchdog group, squirreling people away from hospitals when police showed up so as to secure safe passage and treatment. “It was like some kind of spy game,” he says, “because we had to change injured protesters into new clothes as we moved people from the hospital to other locations.”

Student Impact

Having been radicalized by their experience, students refused to demobilize once Yanukovych fled the country and the regime started to crumble. Indeed, in February, 2014 following the violence students occupied the Ministry of Education and demanded not only improved higher education standards but also a new minister willing to push innovative policies. “Some Direct Action members took part in the occupation of the Ministry of Education,” says Neshevets. “We went in there and locked all the doors.”

Eventually Serhiy Kvit, the rector of Kyiv Mohyla academy, was appointed minister in the new government with the approval of students. Kvit immediately committed to a “road map” of educational reform including increased accountability and transparency within the Ministry of Education. “Now, the Ministry of Education has all its finances up on the web site so you can check that,” Neshevets announces proudly. In addition, universities were to be awarded more autonomy and professors subject to assessment standards.

Despite these wins, some remain skeptical. Emily Channell-Justice, who is pursuing research on Ukraine through the Graduate Center, City University of New York, writes that most students recognize Kvit has limited authority within the bureaucracy and may not be able to implement all popular demands. Indeed, Channell-Justice remarks, “anarchists and radical leftists insisted on non-hierarchical structures and organized the occupation of the Ministry of Education, but they remain skeptical to declare that the appointment of a new Minister of Education constitutes a victory.”

Disillusionment and War

Whatever the case, it’s undeniable students played an essential role in spearheading the protest movement on Maidan. Nevertheless, looked at objectively it’s difficult to say the young generation succeeded in fundamentally altering the underlying fabric of society. Speaking with Neshevets in a local Kiev cafe, the young activist touches on such questions. When asked whether students held more far-reaching goals outside of limited education reform, she answers “Yes, of course.” Despite such shortcomings, Neshevets adds that smaller victories on the educational front may constitute a necessary first step toward affecting change in the wider culture.

For his part, Stadny remains somewhat disappointed and frustrated by the course of events. “I don’t think students aimed to bring the current government into power,” he remarks. Every political party, he adds, has recruited veteran protesters from Maidan, including right-wing paramilitaries. “For me this is like…really?” he says. In an ironic chuckle, Stadny asks rhetorically, “We fought on Maidan just to allow these right-wing people to form their own political parties and achieve representation?”

Walk around the Maidan today, and one would be forgiven for thinking the square was ever home to massive civil unrest. To the contrary, most people seem intent on merely shopping at neighborhood chain stores within the vicinity. In this sense, students might not be so different psychologically from the post-Soviet masses. “Young people build their notions about society around consumerist ideas,” Stadny says. “This is really sad — there is no more idealism.”

Around Maidan, consumerism is rampant.
A young woman walks through Maidan square on the way to yoga class.
A young woman walks through Maidan square on the way to yoga class.

As if students didn’t face enough constraints already, the war against Russian separatists has also derailed or postponed wider notions of social justice. Pilash says one of his student friends underwent an “existential crisis” and felt as if he had to rush to the front lines. When he returned from combat, “he told all kinds of stories about post-traumatic stress disorder, people going crazy, rape, and crimes on both sides.” Yet another environmentalist colleague witnessed the killing of a friend during government protests on the Maidan. The man “then went on a kind of anti-Russian crusade” and enlisted in a volunteer battalion. Pilash says he’s now a prisoner of war and “we have no idea when he will be freed.”

Next Generation

It’s not all such a dark and violent picture, however. Rather than rush to war, some other veterans of struggle on the Maidan have been using their skills to push for a progressive agenda. Stadny says the struggle on Maidan has encouraged more and more people to get involved with local NGOs. Stadny, who is now a higher education policy analyst at Kiev’s Center for Society Research, says working for an NGO might be more “fruitful” than simply going into politics. Unfortunately, he adds, “a lot of journalists and activists went into politics and we lost them as well as our voice.” At the very least, NGO’s can be effective in monitoring the government.

Failing that, Stadny argues that “if you want to have any influence you should join the government and start working in a ministry. For me, simply running for office and becoming a member of parliament is more about PR. About eighty percent of what gets done in society is the result of government ministries; not politicians. While parliament passes laws, government is ultimately responsible for implementation.”

Like Stadny, Gud also works on the NGO circuit, in this case at Kiev’s Center UA. There, he is affiliated with the group’s parliamentary division which is helping to monitor Ukrainian MP’s. “We look at where they get their money; their corruption cases and so on,” Gud remarks. To be sure, he adds, the left debates whether it should be involved in issues like corruption, “which is generally more of a liberal concern.” Nevertheless, Gud says there are plenty of leftists working at his organization and during his free time, the Direct Action veteran “wears an activist hat.”

Maidan’s Legacy

The student movement in Ukraine, and more specifically the student left, has certainly had its ebbs and flows over the last few years. In the wake of Maidan and earth-shattering political developments which ensued, what’s next for the younger generation? In the midst of war and general instability, it may be difficult to assess where civil society is headed next. Judging from recent developments, however, many students have been radicalized by their experience and continue to press for Maidan’s legacy.

Indeed, in December 2014 students with Direct Action picketed Kiev’s City Hall to protest increases in public transportation fees. Rather than raise fees, students have called for a fairer and more progressive tax system which could adequately fund the system. “Things have tilted so far to the right that disillusionment is inevitable,” says Pilash. Pausing for effect, the activist muses, “I don’t think this last Maidan was the last.”

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