By Ryan Keating-Lambert
Regular Prague visitor Sergii Shchelkunov is a Ukrainian civil activist based in Kyiv and has been at the core of the turbulent changes that the country has undergone in recent years, including his participation in the Euromaidan Revolution, which broke out after the then President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a deal for greater economic integration with the European Union. I sat down with Sergii, who’s also a close personal friend, for a chat about the injustice and violence inflicted upon himself and the Ukrainian people by the Yanukovych government two years ago.
Tell me a bit about your background, Sergii. What was it like growing up in Kyiv?
I grew up around an aircraft plant there, where my father worked and still does. I went to a school for oriental languages and I studied Chinese. You were never allowed to leave the school without your parents. I always had to wait for them to take me home so there wasn’t really any time to play with kids in the neighborhood. I’ve never learnt how to ride a bicycle, and these are things that kids usually learn quite early.
Well, it’s overrated anyway. What did you want to be as a kid?
I think when you learn foreign languages like I did, you are supposed to grow up to be some sort of diplomat, and it was kind of what I wanted. But then I changed my mind and wanted to become a politician. It was just the idea of wanting to change something that got to me.
I was hoping to get a national university scholarship, but despite all efforts I had to pay. That’s why I went looking for a job, and then got into social engineering and politics. And now I’m looking for what to do next, meanwhile I keep updating my activist blog.
It sounds like you’ve always been a fighter for human rights. Tell me about the revolution. Where were you when everything began?
I was there. I have a ball bearing from some debris that hit my shoulder. I wasn’t participating every day but I was there when people were first getting together, and the night before the riot police had their last crowd ambush attempt… And that’s when they burnt down The Trade Unions Building.
After that happened, I went home and tried to process what was going on. I was receiving a lot of text messages that people were organising medical help points and needed all sorts of equipment – scissors, knives, needles etc.
When the riot police first started to ambush they shut down the subway, there were also issues with mobile internet. Basically, they were trying to limit communication between protesters. So we had a girl who was sitting down and monitoring requests from these medical points and relaying what they needed to us. We then created a group of people to try and fill the requests and go to pharmacies and shops etc. That’s how we spent our nights during the revolution.
And the last thing that we did was actually prepare napalm.
Yes, we got all of the components together and brought them to the city centre. But during the revolution, people were using tires to stop the riot police, and there was a man who had two tires in his car, got arrested for it, and went to prison for two years. And we were carrying NAPALM components (laughs). As we were passing through the checkpoint it was quite scary, but we got through
And did you use it?
No, nobody ever used it but there were a lot of Molotov cocktails around. It was more of a precaution to protect ourselves from the riot police who were using a lot of different weapons.
‘They would throw gas grenades with screws and nails taped to them. They would throw these at protesters.’
That’s horrible. Was it always that violent?
Well in the beginning it was quite good, people were singing and playing music on the stage. Everyone was in a good mood. Everything smelt like a campfire, people were cooking food, musicians were playing the piano that was there. There were kids there as well.
But when the protests had to become violent, everything changed. The smell of gas was everywhere. You could always hear people screaming or gas grenades exploding. We were building barricades with bags filled with water and snow. It was -20 degrees so they would quickly turn into ice. But they soon learnt how to break through them, so then we used garbage, snow, wood and other things. The barricades never really lasted long, but sometimes a few minutes was all we needed.
Ukraine is still engaged in a silent war with Russian backed separatists in the now annexed peninsula of Crimea to this day, but the world seems to have forgotten that as a lot of mainstream media coverage seems to have slowed down.
What message do you have for readers?
That Ukraine is the outpost between western civilisation and Russia, and if Ukraine fails then Europe will fail too.
Photos: Sergii Shchelkunov