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The individual always yearns for freedom. The entire history of humanity is an attempt to describe how to achieve this freedom; how to cast off the chains of oppression. Many ages have passed and we are still struggling to breathe more freely, to live better, to see the world beyond our lives. The individual will always defend these high ideals because our civilisation is built upon them.
In the last days of November 2013, three dozen or so students came to Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv’s central square, their sole demand was that the president sign an association agreement with the EU. President Viktor Yanukovych had previously rejected the plans developed by Ukraine to join the European community; his change of policy resulted in a storm of indignation. The young people gathered on the square and stood peacefully with placards in order to protest his decision; they did not riot or break windows. This peaceful demonstration showed the awareness of younger Ukrainians that they understood their country’s place in the world: Ukraine is part of Europe. They are Europeans. They are part of Europe’s ancient culture. However, late in the evening on 30 November this small group was dispersed by the police. Young men and women were beaten with metal truncheons and kicked. It was as if the police were trying to beat the European aspiration out of Ukraine’s citizens. The cruel and bloody disposal of a peaceful demonstration, the assault on teenagers with a sincere, albeit naïve, view of their country had a huge impact on the population.
The following day dozens of people gathered on the square. They demanded that the law enforcement officers who had organised the crackdown be held to account. The police also tried to beat and kick the new demonstrators from the square. One week later, one hundred people gathered and the police beat them and tried to crush the peaceful demonstration of popular opinion. Two weeks later there were one thousand people on the square, and one month after that tens of thousands.
During the winter of 2013 to 2014, every day in Kyiv saw a struggle occur between the police and demonstrators. Troops from the interior ministry’s special units deployed specialised equipment and sprayed demonstrators with water in temperatures as low as twenty degrees below freezing. The protestors lit bonfires on the square, built barricades and did not surrender.
President Yanukovych wanted to use force to compel people to abandon their European aspirations. He wanted to physically beat people’s desire to determine their own future out of them. He was akin to a dictator from the Europe of the nineteen thirties. The police were therefore ordered to fire upon the demonstrators. The number of their victims rapidly increased from ten to several hundred. The name ‘The Heavenly Hundred’ was given to those people who died on Maidan Nezalezhnosti at the hands of the police. Hundreds of civilians were killed in Ukraine, which is part of Europe, as if it were the Middle Ages. If you visit Kyiv today and go to the square, and walk along Institutska Street, you will see dozens of pictures of the people who died during those months. Young and wholesome, or older and marked with wisdom, those faces stare at you. You need to come and look in their eyes to understand how much they reflect the will and the strong desire for freedom. They were all killed.
More and more people rose in protest with each new death until hundreds of thousands gathered and sang the national anthem, demanding that Yanukovych resign and admit that ordinary citizens had been murdered. They waved the flags of various European countries and the flag of the EU. By February 2014 the popular movement could no longer be restrained. What had begun as student protests now became a popular uprising. President Yanukovych fled Ukraine at the end of February 2014 to avoid being held to account for his actions.
While the western and central areas of the country supported the Maidan protests and their European aspiration, these ideas were not popular in some areas of the east of the country and Donbas. Large industrial enterprises, mines and factories, including the metallurgical industry, are concentrated in this area. Yanukovych’s party, the Party of the Regions, had controlled this area for over a decade.
I was born in Donbas. I worked in a mine and saw the harsh conditions miners laboured in to earn a crust. Every week someone died in the mine and their fellow miners would carry the corpse to the surface; I saw the dead, young faces carried past me. The technology used at the mines was at the level of that utilised in the developed world in the nineteen forties and fifties. Furthermore, these enterprises humiliated and abused people, trying to rob them of their dignity. Most of Donbas did not understand the Maidan protest and why it was necessary. What was the aim of overthrowing the president, even if his hands were smeared with blood?
Russia successfully exploited this mood. Their leadership, as personified in Vladimir Putin, annexed Crimea. The Russian government then decided to split Ukraine. In order to do this Russia intimidated the population of Donbas by using propaganda primarily distributed by the TV channels. The population of Donbas feared that radicals from the Kyiv Maidan would come and slaughter everyone in the east. The absurdity of these accusations is obvious because the main slogan of the protestors in Kyiv was European values. Russian special intelligence units soon began to arrive in Donbas. They provoked mass demonstrations and seized police and security-service buildings.
The Kyiv government soon lost control over Donbas. So called Cossacks, military, non-government organisations, simultaneously entered Donbas from Russia. These Cossacks took advantage of the weakness of the Ukrainian government after Yanukovych had fled. They began to seize entire cities. Ukraine, weakened after the rule of a president with dictatorial tendencies, was almost torn into two separate parts. One part comprised Crimea, captured by Russian special forces, and Donbas, where Russian military organisations and the Russian army battled against the Ukrainian military. The vast majority of Ukraine remained under the control of its government.
My book begins at the end of the Euromaidan revolution. Its heroes are two brothers who are on the opposing sides of the conflict. One supports Ukraine, which has chosen a European course, the other does not understand why that is necessary. They are opposites, like light and dark, but sometimes the darkness is not utterly dark. This book is, in effect, a true story based on my relatives. I saw many of the things that happened in the lives of these brothers. I can only record them and replay their fate in this book. How could such a large war with missiles and Howitzers be possible in the centre of Europe? Why have ten thousand people been killed and who is to blame? What happens to a family when two brothers become bitter enemies? This book tells us about Ukraine’s past and warns of future dangers. It tells us that the desire for freedom is stronger than the fear of death.
Maxim Butchenko; foreword to The War Artist. Translated from the Russian by Stephen Komarnyckyj
The War Artist: A Ballistic Missile of a Book Launched on 7 July 2017