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20 August, 2015  ▪  Anna Korbut

Learning Independence

The possibility of change, and the opportunity to make that change stick brings meaning to the idea of independence for many ordinary Ukrainians today

A 35 year-old woman pushes a wheelchair with a trim man of the same approximate age. He has lost both legs. The two are on their way to one of Kyiv’s many parks, where a group of children is screaming, running and laughing—they come on weekends with their parents from the entire neighborhood. Not far from the park is the military hospital. The pair rolls up to a bench where other handicapped men are sitting. Some are missing arms, some with only one leg. A little boy stares at them and his parents explain that these men have come back from the war, that they were defending us against our enemy, Russia.

In the middle of the night in a small town in Western Ukraine, a siren suddenly wails from the roadway as a column of cars drives along the sleepy highway and fades away into the silent night. When someone asks what’s going on, they are told that a soldier’s body is being taken from the front to his hometown to be buried. It’s been like this for the last year and a half, although in the summer of 2014, such sirens were heard far more often. In the local town’s social networks, these corteges are announced in advance, so people come out, line up along the highway with lit candles to say good bye to the soldiers on their last journey. Locals say it’s good that his mother died when he was still little and his father passed away a year ago, because they won’t experience the death of their son.

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Some 10 years ago as a sixth grader, this boy stood on the weekly line-up that was the Monday-morning tradition at Ukrainian schools: the pupils gathered, sang the national anthem and, it would seem, read verses from a poet whose birthday happened to fall in that week. For most of the kids, this was a strange routine with a purpose they did not understand, something they went through just because. After school, the older pupils dreamed of running away to bigger cities, and, if possible, abroad. Not in order to travel around, see the world and learn something, but simply to leave a place where “nothing changes, and nothing happens.” The teachers with their wretched salaries were busy thinking about how they could feed and clothe their families. Few of them felt inspired enough to explain to their pupils what they should appreciate and respect their anthem or statehood for. The poets whose verses they read and who, more than likely, spent a decade or more in the soviet Gulag for writing in their own language or even just criticizing the regime did a much better job of conveying this.

Now, this legless soldier is being sent money from strangers for treatment or for a wheelchair. Someone has organized courses where crippled veterans can learn IT or gain some other qualifications. At every bazaar, boxes stand where plastic lids are collected and melted into prostheses. The dead boy’s classmates help his sister organize the funeral. One of them has been collecting and bringing care packages to the front for a long time now. One has been passing on humanitarian assistance to IDPs from the east. One of them studied at the Sorbonne and returned to work in Kyiv on a project whose goal is a liberalized visa regime with the EU. There are also many people who live ordinary lives, watch the news on TV from time to time, and worry what will be next—for mercantile reasons.

For all these people, August 24 is unlikely to be a holiday, at least not now. The war has died down, but it’s far from over. No one understands in the least how elections will take place in occupied parts of Donbas, and what role the terrorists will play once they are amnestied after the elections. Will Ukraine continue to have to make concessions to calm down the aggressor? People are feeling angry that reforms are going slowly and those in power appear to be only taking superficial steps or doing things in response to pressure from civil society and the West. And this is in the heart of the capital, where a posting in Facebook can get a decent sized rally complete with journalists and cameras happening outside the Prosecutor’s Office within an hour. In those places where journalists and cameras never go, even less change is evident. Ordinary Ukrainians are worried about layoffs, unemployment, and how they will pay for the new rates for gas and electricity. Few of them feel like celebrating.

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Yet, those events that once seemed like empty officiousness barely transformed from soviet days are seen differently today. Now, independence and the attributes of an independent state such as the anthem or the flag are seen more as the right to fight with all of the problems listed above. To get there, Ukraine had to fight its own regime on the Maidan and then the remnants of the old system who are only willing to change under the rod, but even more so with the big neighbor. Fear of confrontation with Russia left both Ukraine and Georgia denied even the prospect of protection by NATO’s wealthy, developed countries. Ukrainians know very well what will happen if they lose this battle, which is why, when western observers start to say “if Ukraine survives,” most Ukrainians would prefer to leave out this particular “if.” Young Ukrainians in particular, who have been disillusioned by the West’s failure to defend its values, understand that no one needs them abroad and that their efforts and determination work are needed—and work—at home.

These days, you also hear the phrase “Nothing’s changing” an awful lot less. Understanding has emerged that to see change, we shouldn’t wait for someone else to bring it about, that without our own efforts, they won’t happen. That’s why so many volunteers drive to the East, work on drafting reforms, help refugees settle into a new place, and buy medications for the wounded. That’s why local activists let journalists know about huge illegal diggings for amber, despite the threat of potential and often actual physical payback from criminal elements and representatives of the old “law enforcement” system who provide cover for business and put a fair penny into their pockets as a result. That’s why volunteers organize trips for children of veterans of the ATO or IDPs to vacation in the Carpathians. That’s why many, although not all, Ukrainians are trying to do something, however small, for the overall goal.

This goal, the possibility of change, and the opportunity to make that change stick brings meaning to the idea of independence for many ordinary Ukrainians today. It has become something that is not officious and abstract, but something absolutely attainable, complicated and still distant, yet something that gives them drive. The crippled veterans and the lit candles that trail several kilometers down the sidewalk after the funeral of yet another fighter make sure no one forgets the price that this Day has cost us now.

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