Kiev’s iconic Independence Square was naturally the focal point earlier this year when a young democracy celebrated 30 years of independence. And worthy of celebration it was too given the obstacles overcome during this period. There has been continued interference from Russia (most notably the annexation of Crimea in 2014), described as “the worst aggressor in history” in an exhibition on Ukrainian-Russian relations encircling the Independence Column that towers over the Square and city. It is a bold claim that could be ascribed to any number of nations or empires throughout history, but the underlying sentiment seems understandable. And, remarkably, this young nation has undergone two revolutions, with the Square once again their focus.
There was the Orange Revolution in late 2004, when hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians poured onto the streets to reject the claim that the government-backed candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, had won the presidential election run-off and to insist that Viktor Yushchenko, the internationally recognized winner of the poll, be allowed to fulfill his mandate. Kiev turned orange, as the protestors adopted Yushchenko’s campaign colour, and 17 days later the pressure led to the Supreme Court ordering a repeat of the presidential run-off which Yushchenko duly won.
While the TV images of the Square blanketed in orange will live with me forever, I had somehow missed the Revolution of Dignity that occurred just eight years ago when (the by then) President Yanukovych bowed to Russian pressure and withdrew from signing an EU Association Agreement, triggering angry protests. Wandering the now calm and well-ordered streets of a sophisticated modern European capital, the dramatic events detailed in information panels both on-site and in museums felt incongruous. Near the National Art Gallery I learnt that student protestors had barricaded themselves inside and placed burning tyres in the road outside to halt the advance of military and police vehicles sent to crack down on the protests. And in the National History Museum there is a striking photo of Independence Square looking like a giant bomb crater, blackened and scarred from a combination of bonfires lit by protesters occupying the Square and firepower used by the authorities to dislodge them.
That Ukraine should reach the thirty-year mark despite such challenges is indeed worthy of celebration although, as with other “new” nations, it was not starting from scratch. Not only did it have a national language already but it also had reference points buried within its past around which national sentiment could coalesce, most notably the powerful early medieval state of Kievan Rus: a political federation located in modern-day Belarus, Ukraine and part of Russia, which was ruled from Kiev. This state reached its peak some thousand years ago yet its history remains politically charged today; for the current Russian leadership sees in Kievan Rus the origins of a “Greater Russia” including Ukraine, which came to fruition under the Tsars and the Soviets, a justification for continued interference. The origins of the Rus people themselves has also been the subject of intense debate, with some arguing that they were Vikings and others arguing that they were Slavs; the latter interpretation does at least provide Russian and Ukrainian nationalist historians with one point of agreement.