Study visit to Ukraine: 28th August – 6th September 2017 (Part One)

In the first part of this diary feature based around a study visit to Ukraine, Oksana Chelysheva finds a country struggling to deal with the aftermath of revolution and the rise of right wing ideologies in the region.

In the first part of this diary feature based around a study visit to Ukraine, Oksana Chelysheva finds a country struggling to deal with the aftermath of revolution and the rise of right wing ideologies in the region.

Karstein Volle

26th of August.

Arrival in Kiev

Passing through Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), I came across a group of men – some of whom were selling books, mostly published in the USSR. Some of them were in advanced age, although the majority were between 30 and 40. I stopped to look through the books then realized that the books on sale were just a cover. What the men were actually disseminating was anti-Semitic literature, both “samizdat” booklets and booklets published. I expressed some interest to get to know what was going on and one of the men dedicated some of his time to educate me on “the global threat posed by Jewry for all the other, proper white people”. It turned out that the man regarded himself as a Svoboda party member. He told me that these views are shared by many “true patriots of Ukraine, regardless of what party they belong to”.

I got to read such pieces of literature as Occupation of Ukraine: “Khabad. The Way to Hell” by Maxim Zatula-Semenko. The book attributes all the misfortunes and the failures of Ukraine after Maidan to the ethical background of Petro Poroshenko and some other leaders of Maidan.

First meeting with Alexander Hug. The meeting was not official. The accompanying followers from SBU (Security Service of Ukraine). Poor guys had to drink too much coffee in the evening.

Oksana Chelysheva

27th of August

I went to Zhitomir, a city in the north of the western part of Ukraine. It’s the administrative center of the Oblast region. There are four universities there, Ivan Franko State University and the Ukrainian Agroecological University, Technological and Military academy.

The reason for the trip is to acquaint myself with the circumstances of the case of Vasily Muravitsky, a local journalist who is charged with state treason by the SBU. I met with Andrey Laktionov (the editor-in-chief of the Patriot Newspaper : 0380978358901) as well as with Andrey Gozhiy (Vasily Muravitsky’s lawyer). Both people are in pro-Ukrainian positions. Both were active participants of the Maidan revolution of 2013-2014.

SBU opened a criminal case against Muravitsky (born 1984) in August of this year. The only charges against him refer to his legal job agreement with Russia Today International News Agency. He was detained in the maternity hospital on the day when his wife delivered a baby. Both Vasily and his wife are Ukrainian-speaking. If found guilty, Muravitsky is facing up to 15 years of imprisonment.

He was detained in the maternity hospital on the day when his wife delivered a baby. Both Vasily and his wife are Ukrainian-speaking. If found guilty, Muravitsky is facing up to 15 years of imprisonment.

Gozhiy and Laktionov state, “If we didn’t support Muravitsky now, we will be imprisoned next as there will be no one to defend us”. They recall that the atmosphere in the country is escalating. The level of trust for Poroshenko and the government is minimal. “While there is an anti-terrorist operation developing, there are no terrorists in the country. Therefore, the authorities need to create terrorists or supporters of terrorism and journalists are the easiest targets”. Besides, they explain the specific atmosphere of Zhitomir with the ambitions of the regional SBU chief Pakhnyuk who thrives to get the rank of a general. Kiev SBU claims the whole thing against Muravitsky is a “Zhitomir initiative and they have nothing to do with it”.

The choice to arrest Vasily Muravitsky, in the opinion of both people I spoke to, is with the perception of he being an ‘easy target’: “Muravitsky was a kind of outsider who never mixed with anyone. We didn’t see him anywhere in the last two years. The SBU press statement regarding charges pressed against him were a complete shock. We decided to check on him and it turned out that he didn’t have a lawyer. Then we sprang into action by contacting the local Union of Journalists and signed a lawyer’s agreement with the Union. On August 7th we tried to see him in the SIZO (Investigative prison). The chief of SIZO tried to not let the lawyer meet his client. He even called for the riot police unit and attacked Andrey Larionov”.

An official complaint on an attack against a journalist was filed with the prosecutor’s office – but there have been no developments, according to Andrey. “They are afraid to institute a criminal case preferring instead to drag the situation out”, he tells me.

Both Laktionov and Gozhiy tell that the “SBU is trying out methods to stamp out any dissent. If we fail him, we will go next”. Among the deputies of the local city council and the Supreme Rada who are behind the case against Muravitsky are, reportedly, Ilya Smychok (city council) – previously convicted on charges of fraud – as well as Rozenblad (Rada) and his assistants.

The ones who “orchestrated the case against Muravitsky thought that he being a loner, he would be easily broken. He was offered an agreement to sign, but he refused”, according to his lawyer. The whole case is “legal idiocy” with no proof or any foundation of truth as regards the accusations. Already in the SBU press statement he was described as “a traitor of the Motherland” (jumping to a conviction long before the trial is held).

The lawyer was denied access to the case during the initial eleven days due to various pretexts. He was allowed to acquaint himself with the case one day before the appeal hearing on terms of pretrial restraint on Muravitsky. Later it became known that the SBU had been tapping Muravitsky’s phone conversations and mistook the name of his pet cat for the nickname of some Moscow agent.

Later it became known that the SBU had been tapping Muravitsky’s phone conversations and mistook the name of his pet cat for the nickname of some Moscow agent.

Oksana Potapova and The Theater for Dialogue group

That same evening, on my return from Zhitomir, I met with Oksana Potapova. She works with The Theater for Dialogue group. We are meeting in an alternative cafe in Kiev’s Poshtova Square. It’s tiny, furnished with self-made furniture and good coffee. Oksana tells me that this is one of the favorite places for the artisans of Kiev. Oksana comes from Donbass, the village of Chernukhino (close to Debaltsevo). She Graduated from the Foreign Languages Institute in Kiev.

Oksana Chelysheva

She supported Maidan. But soon developed a crisis – “my family of three generations are miners. First and foremost, my father. I was aware that none of my relatives in the East supports the revolution. Especially, my father. They asked me questions but I didn’t have answers. I also saw that no one in Maidan really cared what the East thought of them. No one appealed to Donbass and no one had anything to tell Donbass about what awaits people there. The entire rhetoric of Maidan was Ukrainian-speaking. Then the final straw was the attempt to push forward the Language Law”.

In February 2014 some groups within Maidan started to search for ways of a peaceful resolution to the situation. They invited the Theater of the Oppressed. Oksana tells me, “Already in February 2014 I could hardly see myself being a part of Maidan, growing more and more violent and militaristic. What happened in Donbass later, was legitimized by what Maidan had unleashed. I realized I didn’t want to be part of such changes in my native land”.

Oksana and her friends within the Theater of the Oppressed decided to go to Donetsk. But there they were seen as “the ones from Maidan” bringing a threat. They were being followed in Donetsk and finally forced to leave. Then Oksana cooperated with theater projects as a volunteer and also having a job as an interpreter at the Canadian embassy. She tells me that one of her last assignments with the Canadian Embassy was to accompany a consul to mediate on possibilities to establish their “representative office” in Donetsk (2014!!!)

As for the Minsk Process, Oksana tells that the media in Ukraine doesn’t cover it in a positive light because for them, any contact with official representatives of the republics are not acceptable. They refuse to accept the demands the Minsk Agreements set on political changes in the Ukraine. “It is already a “defeat” in war if they start to discuss the implementation of the Minsk Agreements” Oksana says.

Oksana tells of growing concerns within Ukraine’s feminist movements. Some groups comment “How could we stand up for the equal opportunities of women in military service if we don’t approve of the war?” or “We can’t resist the consequences of war when there is war going on”. She also tells of the growth of ultra-right and militaristic tendencies.

She gives examples of a growing number of people from an art background receiving threats despite being with the Maidan cause. Larisa Denisenko with her children’s book about Maya and her mothers. Nadya Kushnir and her Facebook comics about the goose because “the goose speaks wrong Ukrainian (its dialect)”.

She gives examples of a growing number of people from an art background receiving threats despite being with the Maidan cause

Oksana points out that a number of art projects declaring dialogue as a goal in reality are aimed “to explain to people in the East that their way of life is wrong and that they should just think differently”.

Oksana Chelysheva

28th August

Morning starts with meeting Insight – an LGBT group in Kiev. Olena Shevchenko (the chair) and Olga Olshansky (regional development projects coordinator).

The Insight group is the only NGO which runs a shelter for LGBT IDPs (Internally displaced people) and also victims of violence. Olga is the chief responsible for the shelter. To provide a shelter, the organization rents a four-room apartment in Kiev. Up to nine people can be accommodated there. Usually people stay there for up to three months. But there have been people who needed shelter for a lot longer period: mostly, these are transgender people whose appearance doesn’t correspond to their documents. These people are assisted with moving out from a danger zone, they are provided with food as well as legal and psychological counselling. Olga recalls “Problems with renting a flat to organise a shelter were not conditioned with the LGBT as such. Firstly, it was due to a negative image of IDPs in general created by the mass media. Many real estate agents demanded that we answer “Are you for Ukraine or for Russia?”

The shelter has been run since July 2014. 65 people have passed through it. Currently, the shelter also accepts people from the “grey zone” and LGBT people from other parts of Ukraine and victims of violence. At the moment, there are six people living in the shelter. They tell me it was extremely difficult to find a flat to rent to organise a shelter. Firstly, because IDPs are marginalised. Secondly, IDPs who are LGBT are even more victimised.

Both Olena and Olga supported Maidan. Olena ran a self-defence course for the “Women’s Hundred”.

They tell of the growth of influence of ultra-right groups, such as S14, Sokol and Misanthropic Division. They tell that all “legitimized” ultra right forces, such as Svoboda party, Right Sector and National Corps (based upon Azov battalion) have their own youth gangs which are well armed. The Ukrainian Church Council which unites representatives of all confessions has signed a memorandum of cooperation with all ministries, especially with the Defence Ministry, Health Ministry and Education Ministry. This Council has blocked the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. They also have a youth movement called ‘Love against Homosexuality’.

Both women state that no LGBT/Feminist event, lecture, discussion, festival can be held without intrusions by these groups which are often violent. “The state doesn’t do anything because the authorities are either interested in increasing pressure or are afraid of these groups or both”.

Both women state that no LGBT/Feminist event, lecture, discussion, festival can be held without intrusions by these groups which are often violent.

Anything is justified as “war with Russia”, they explain. Nothing else matters or “a solution for these issues can be postponed until a better time”. Thus, when “foreigners were being forced out of Linos cafe in Bessarabska Square, no one cared.” If a crime is committed by the Ukrainian military, it is silenced by stating that speaking about crimes by the army is already “a defeat”.

Therefore, when Azov beats LGBT people up, nobody writes about it. When a Svoboda gang attacked a feminist lecture in Kiev, they were all released within two hours. The same group interfered with protest action against sexism at the Shevchenko University of Kiev”. When asked what Olena meant by “university sexism”, she explained there had been numerous complaints from female students of teachers sexually harassing them or, “at least”, making jokes of “shorter skirts being a necessity for a girl” or “kitchen being the right place for girls”.

Both state that “nothing has changed for the better after Maidan”. In addition to problems they had had before, they have to cope with additional problems caused by the war and the ultra-right groups’ impunity.

At 15.10pm Antti joins me in Kiev. Within the next hour we go to the airport to take the flight. Our plane to Lviv departs from the airport of Zhulyany. It is one of two airports in Kiev – and the oldest dating back to the mid-1920s. Our plane is Soviet – AN 24 produced in 1972, it has a metal plate attached to its interior. And it’s in good condition. But for me it was kind of reminiscent of coming back when I was a child – I was placed on such a plane to be brought to my grandmother in the Ukrainian Zaporozhye.

16.20pm Arrival to Lviv
We stay in Lviv Central Jam Hotel at 18A Kopernik Street. This is the very center of the old Lviv. A very narrow street leading to the main Market square. The beautiful building of the Art Gallery just a few steps away from the hotel on the opposite side of the street. The hotel is a small one, hiding in the backyard of house No.18.

We took a taxi from the airport to get to the hotel. The driver was a Ukrainian man in his 50s speaking Russian to us. When I told him that his Russian was just excellent, he suddenly responded, “The worst thing nowadays is nationalism. Certainly, I speak Russian as well as Ukrainian. Languages don’t make us worse or better than our neighbors”. Actually, the three taxi drivers who were driving us in Lviv all expressed the same attitude.

The next day we meet two local people, Denis and Olga. Then we took a taxi to go to see a number of historical and architectural sites associated with World War II – the history of the Polish and Jewish in Lviv. The driver, Boris by name, told that he is a son from a mixed marriage, a Russian father and a local Ukrainian woman who both speak either Russian or Ukrainian. As a result, Boris said he has two native languages, Ukrainian and Russian – which he speaks without any accent.

Oksana Chelysheva

We visited the Lviv Ghetto Victims memorial located near the busy Chornovola avenue. There was a new open-air exhibition with two dozen portraits of the Jews who survived World War II. However, the whole state of the memorial was rather poor. But the situation with memorials dedicated to Soviet soldiers was a lot worse. Both memorial sites were not just seemingly abandoned – but there were clear signs of vandalism. For instance, the grave of Nikolay Kuznetsov, a Soviet intelligence agent and partisan who operated in the western part of Ukraine disguised as a Nazi officer. Kuznetsov was killed by Ukrainian nationalists in 1944. When we came to the cemetery, his grave had been damaged. There were also signs of vandalism on a number of other monuments, including the one dedicated to soldiers of the Russian army who perished during the World War I.

Being in Lviv, walking the streets of this old city, I never lost the feeling of being lost in time.

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