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 changes that the country has undergone in recent years. Sergii entered politics at a young age and has been striving for change in Kyiv and the whole of Ukraine. However, one of the most interesting parts of Sergii’s story involves his participation in the Euromaidan revolution protests in and around Independence Square against the Yanukovych government that unfolded this time two years ago. This interview gives us a first person insight into the extremes that Sergii and others went to, including making napalm.
So you’re originally from Kyiv? What was it like growing up there?
Yes, not from the historical centre, but one of the outer districts. 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 your neighbourhood. 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 deal with international affairs, 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 what are you doing at the moment?
In October I finished two big projects – the renovation of the Zhovten cinema in Kyiv and a media project, which was a combination of internet and TV channel stories focusing on urbanism. So now I’m looking for what to do next, meanwhile I keep updating my activist’s blog: shchelkunov.kiev.ua
So onto the Euromaidan revolution. Where were you when this was happening?
I was there. I have a ball bearing (pictured below) that hit my shoulder from some debris. I wasn’t participating every day but I was there when people were first getting together. I was also there 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 back home and tried to process what was going on and 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 protestors. 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.
Napalm? The explosive?
Yes, we got all of the components together and brought them to the city centre, but during the revolution people were using tyres to stop the riot police, and there was a man who had two tyres 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 on the way to the city centre it was quite scary, but we got through
And was it ever used?
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 protestors.
What was the atmosphere like there? How did it change over that time?
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. There was a smell of gas everywhere, you could always hear people screaming or gas grenades exploding. We were building barricades (pictured above) 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.
How old were the people protesting and working with you? Who was the youngest?
It was a bit different every day but I do remember asking for metal bulletproof vests and a 16-year-old protestor there had some.
Unbelievable, Now for something a little more light-hearted.. What is Ukraine’s idea of Czech people and the Czech Republic?
Probably the first things they think of are beer and also Krtek (laughs). I think that cartoon was on TV in Ukraine as well.
What do you like about Prague? Why do you keep coming back?
I have some friends here involved with human rights who ask me to participate in some things sometimes. And to be honest, it’s also good because It’s not as expensive as other European countries and the Czech and Ukrainian languages have a lot in common, so you can understand a lot here. I also really like DOX, the contemporary art gallery. Prague is really like a labyrinth with Kafka’s scent. Even with the GPS on, I never know which direction I have to go in. Other cities are ok, but here it’s just impossible.
If you could travel back in time and see anything, what would you see?
I’d have to say Ancient Greece.
What’s your favourite word in Czech?
“Pozor” (caution). We don’t have it in Ukrainian, but in Russian the same word means shame. So whenever I hear it I think of that.
If there was a movie about your life, who would play you?
Well, I’m not really into celebrities but I guess some kind of bearded guy with a tattoo. But… if Keanu Reeves played me, that’d be quite funny.
Finally, if you had to give a message to the rest of the world about Ukraine right now, what would it be?
That Ukraine is the outpost between western civilisation and Russia, and if Ukraine fails then Europe will fail too.
Photos from Sergii Shchelkunov