ukraine

Activist Sergii on Ukraine’s revolution

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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.

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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.

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Source: euromaidan-researchforum.ca

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.

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Photos from Sergii Shchelkunov

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“When everything started I thought there is no way there is going to be violence” – Ukrainian expat Lilia on the shootings in Kyiv

Almost everyone has heard about the major political problems that are currently plaguing Ukraine. There are a number of opinions on both sides that deserve attention. Lilia, a Ukrainian citizen living in Prague caught up with us to give you the chance to hear an opinion from a local rather than a sensational news agency.

Lilia discusses a number of fascinating and controversial issues in Ukraine including the Czech Republic’s supportive response to the bloodshed in Kyiv, as well as the ‘information war’ sweeping through the media, especially in Crimea. What started off as a regular People in Prague interview in her kitchen turned into something incredibly informative and inspiring. Lilia’s positive attitude is infectious and will surely make an impact on many of you. Take the time to read the interview and please feel free to comment and express your opinion on this dire situation.

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So where are you from in Ukraine, Lilia?

I’m originally from a small town in Western Ukraine, but I studied in Kyiv for four years so that’s where my conscientious life began!

What did you study?

I did a BA in History and an MA in Interdisciplinary Political/History/Cultural Studies in the Netherlands.

Tell us a little bit about your childhood.

I grew up in a kind of rural area. My dad is a farmer, we lived in a house surrounded by chickens and stuff. But I went to school in the town and it’s a very kind of core Ukrainian nationalistic part of the country. Everybody speaks Ukrainian. When I was growing up there I never spoke Russian nor met a Russian speaking person – yeah, it’s very very Ukrainian.

So quite different to the east.

Yeah definitely, because Western Ukraine was a part of Poland and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire after that. It only became a part of the Soviet Union in 1939 when they came to rescue us from Hitler. So, that’s where all the core differences come from; the fact that we belonged to different empires for such a long time.

How do you think Ukraine is seen by the rest of the world generally?

Well first of all Ukraine is on the map now, woohoo! Most of the world that knows anything about this situation, they tend to oversimplify it. That’s why the idea of Ukraine being so equally divided, that it’s just Russian versus Ukrainian stuff going on and Ukraine actually becoming two different countries based on the language is sort of bullshit.

When it started, the problem was that most of the world believed that it was about the EU only and that we wanted to join Europe so much that we were prepared to die for it – which is nonsense. It started like that and it was really small. It was more about showing the government that they can’t treat us like that. We have something to say and we’re going to say it, so fuck you (laughs).
And now, we have a new government that has no choice but to listen, at least for now. We, the people, are still at the square in Kyiv and we’re not going anywhere until we’ve got what we want. But I think now, after everything, that people are finally starting to realise that the Ukrainian revolution was so much more than just the EU, and that we actually has a chance. The problem is that Russia has so much more money and influence, resources and power. So we are seeing what we have seen so many times before in history… Other countries not wanting to poke the bear and saying ‘yeah, you know we condemn it so much. That’s so not nice Russia, don’t do that!’ (laughs).

How do you think Ukrainian people are seen by the Czechs?

Well the Czech Republic really don’t like Russia at all. They’ve been supporting Ukraine a lot. They send tonnes of money and aid and we have had so many demonstrations with so many Czechs. They started their own initiatives and they actually understand what’s going on, that’s the difference. In countries like Germany or France or the US, it’s completely different. Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, countries that have been through these Soviet camps – they get it. I feel so proud being Ukrainian here. I wear blue and yellow ribbons on my bag all the time.

Yeah? That’s great.

People actually talk to me about it. They will come up to me and say ‘oh we’re supporting Ukraine and how can we help?’ – it’s really nice. They also made a pegasus sculpture out of tires recently in Václavské náměstí to honor us. In Kyiv a lot of people were burning tires in the square.

Generally speaking, let’s say that Czechs are not very tolerant, and they don’t like Ukrainians so much. There are a lot of prejudices and clichés about Ukrainians being cleaning ladies and construction workers only and that they are stealing their jobs, it’s just insane. But, in this situation they have been great. I feel super lucky being here actually. Czech Republic – thumbs up.

Ok good, would you say that these common stereotypes of Ukrainians here have changed now as a result of the situation or are they still there?

No, that’s not going to change. They are still the same. Frankly, a lot of them have these jobs but they are still highly educated. There is so much more to them than that.

Ok. Now is it the language barrier that puts them into these jobs? Or is it to do with the Czech Republic not always recognising Ukrainian education?

A lot of people come here in their 30 or 40s, they don’t speak Czech and can’t get anything better. I’m not sure about diploma recognition. I know it is possible, but very difficult.

How have the recent incidents in Kyiv and Crimea affected you?

When everything started I was like ‘there is no way there is going to be violence’ because we had the Orange revolution in 2004, where there was zero violence and millions of people on the streets. Then when they beat up the students the first time, I thought ‘come on, this is crazy. This is my country and this is impossible’. And then, when they started shooting, I thought ‘what the fuck! This is not possible’. Things like that don’t happen in Ukraine. And we thought that Russia would never bring the army into the country, this is insane. And then they did. Myself and tonnes of other Ukrainians have just been watching the news non-stop.

It’s been very emotional for me. I really want to go there, I want to be there and be a part of it. The band 30 seconds to Mars were recently there and spoke out about it, and the atmosphere was just incredible. That’s what it is like in Kyiv and other big cities at the moment. We’re witnessing the birth of a political nation in Ukraine. Putin actually managed to unite the country more than our politicians have in the last 22 years.

Wow, that’s interesting.

Yes, it’s because of the common enemy we have right now. It started off as being against Yanukovych and also because a small portion wanted to join the EU, but then it was about freedom and dignity – that brought a lot of people to the streets. But it still didn’t gain support from the eastern and southern regions, and then Putin brought the army in, and now the people are chanting things in the streets! They are marching and proud to be Ukrainian, and that’s a good thing.

And have these protests affected anyone you know?

My sister has been volunteering a lot everywhere. Fortunately, nobody I know was hurt. No one I know lost any relatives, but I don’t know if our country will ever be the same again. It was a tragedy and at the same time, it’s a necessary thing for Ukraine to become a true political nation. We can do it!

Great! And on a different note, do you like 30 seconds to Mars?

(Laughs) They’re good, I don’t know too many of their songs though. But Jared Leto is cool.

I believe he also mentioned Ukraine as well as Venezuela at the Oscars?

Yes, he did which was great. Apparently that part was cut out in Russia when they were broadcasting it.

Do you think that really happened or do you think it’s just a rumour?

I’m pretty sure that they really did that.

Ok then, since we’re talking about the media now. There are posters glorifying Putin as the new Hitler. What’s your opinion on those?

We have an information war going on right now. In Crimea, there are posters that show the region as Russian and prosperous, or as a Ukrainian fascist state with a swastika… In Russia they are showing people in Kyiv as ultra nationalistic and fascist. They also say that everyone in the square are drugged to pump them up more. It’s crazy!

Do you believe the Western media when they say that Putin is going to continue to invade countries or do you think it’s a bit too sensational?

Putin wouldn’t mind becoming the new great collector of the lands or become the new Russian Peter the Great. I’m pretty sure he has ambitions like that of course. He has grandeur issues… Well, pretty sure he has a lot of issues (laughs). When Georgia happened, some people, President Kaczynski for example, were saying ‘today it’s Georgia, tomorrow it will be Kyiv and then Warsaw.’ Everyone thought that was ridiculous. But now people are starting to think ‘ok, how did this happen!?’ At this point, I’m not going to be surprised by anything he does.

But Russia has no chances when it comes to real war. Even if you compare military budgets of some of the major countries, there is just no way. But, he might try to bite off some small pieces of countries around him instead. He is walking on thin ice though because Russia in the end is just a bunch of different republics and quite a few of them wouldn’t mind being independent themselves.

What can people here in Prague do to help out?

Well they can spread the word. Make sure people understand what is really going on and don’t get into the trap of Russian propaganda or oversimplify things. It’s important to raise awareness and of course donate money. There are more than 100 people in critical conditions in the hospital now. There are victims being treated for free in Czech hospitals too which is great.

I’m curious. What’s your general opinion on the Czech government?

Well, Zeman is a ‘bubble bum’ (laughs). For those that don’t know, he was in the European commission and he wanted to say bubble gum, not bubble bum… Check out the video on Youtube. Fortunately, the president doesn’t have that much power, but he is the face of the country.

Anyway, I know there have been struggles here, but the government is functional unlike the Ukrainian one. There is no need for revolution.

Now tell us a little bit about the language, a lot of people presume that Ukrainian is similar or almost the same as Russian.

They are really different languages. Just because everyone in Ukraine is to some extent bilingual, it doesn’t mean they’re the same. And Russians don’t understand us when we speak Ukrainian. Ukrainian, vocabulary wise, is much closer to Polish. Not only is the language different but our mentalities are also. These differences kind of stem from the language as well. For example, the role of Ukrainian women in society. In Russian, a man marries ON a woman, but in Ukrainian he marries WITH the woman. Also the word man as a human being in Ukrainian is of female gender.

Does this mean that women have or had quite a significant role in Ukraine?

Of course it’s not as significant now, but this role is somewhat still there, yes.

That’s very interesting. Will you ever go back and live in Ukraine?

I would love to, but things change so often. When I left the first time to study, I was convinced I was going to be back in 18 months. But then I got a job, and it was a question of gaining experience here and going back and starting from scratch. Of course right now with everything that is going on, I really want to be there. I wanna be a part of it. I feel kindof deprived of a chance to witness and participate in all of this. I totally see myself going back though, I love Kyiv, I love Ukraine.

Would you say that Prague is home for now?

I think Prague is a very comfortable city to live in. At first it was too peaceful for me. In Kyiv everyone is in a rush and it gives me a rush as well. Prague is much more slow and peaceful, but now I’m so used to this comfortable life, and I have friends here. I have a job, I have a choir and a very active life.

How would you describe Prague in adjectives?

Delicate – architecture wise especially, sunny (laughs), no but I feel like it is, really!

What do you miss the most from home?

Being able to speak Ukrainian everywhere! I work in Ukrainian but it’s writing so it doesn’t really count. I miss using it in everyday life.

Where do you like to hang out in Prague?

My weeks are VERY busy. I learn German, I go to quizzes, I go to the movies, I meet my friends, I go to the gym.

Wow, very busy.

I love house parties too AND I love baking.

What’s your favourite thing to bake?

I try not to bake the same thing twice. But I am proud of my carrot cake and chocolate cake!

So… I guess you like cake?

YES.

If you could go back in time and see anything, what would you see?

That’s a tough one. There are too many options! Maybe I would go back and be a part of a Native American tribe, but not a violent one! (laughs) Yeah I think that would be cool.

Thank you so much for your time, Lilia! Please comment and let us know your thoughts on the present situation in Crimea. All opinions arewelcome.

Written and transcribed by Ryan Keating. Photography by Petr Kurečka.

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