Activist students in Ukraine
Nina fights for revolution
By Christiaan Triebert
‘Could you wait a minute? I have some people who are interested in our activities’, says a blonde girl with a sidecut. She looks tired, but she is determined to speak to a couple of students who have just entered the room.
Nina (24) is one of the three coordinators of the Student Assembly that was formed during the ongoing Euromaidan demonstrations in Ukraine. She holds a Master of Arts degree in International Performance and studied in Finland, Serbia and the United Kingdom via the Erasmus Programme. On 30 December she returned to her hometown of Kiev to join the protest movement.
Her office – which consists of a few tables and cabinets – is located in the main hall of the International Convention Centre in Kyiv and is popularly known as Ukrainian House. It has been occupied by protesters since 26 January. The house, which faces the barricades on Hrushevsky Street, is situated at the epicentre of the anti-government protests. One day after the occupation, the students moved in. Now they use it to organize public lectures, workshops, and open discussions via microphone, while men with balaclavas guard the entrance to prevent government forces from entering.
Nina finishes talking to the visitors and returns to speak more about the student strike three weeks ago at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. It was this strike that led to the foundation of the Assembly. ‘University switched to the distance-mode of education’, Nina explains, ‘so all classes were cancelled and only online contact with our teachers was possible.’ The students refused to accept the move.
Nina would like to see more young people involved in the movement, since many students seem to have avoided the protests after the first phase. The average age of the participants was around 35 years old, a British Academy survey revealed. ‘We would like to see 20,000 students at the protests’, Nina says. ‘There’s a lot of potential.’
Students can talk, write and use computers
At the moment the Assembly consists of only 20 active and 200 passive members. However, those 220 members already have a strong influence, which can only increase. ‘People have been living in Independence Square for two months, but they aren’t doing much. They’re just busy managing their lives.’ Huge human resources are needed, Nina says, and students can provide them.
‘We can talk, write and use computers – that’s why we are students. Going on strike is easier for us, because we have less to lose. Also, we can develop methods of boycotting state-owned businesses that are not in favour of the Ukrainian people.’
Initially, the lack of coordination made it hard to organize well-structured, frequent protests at the universities. However, now the Assembly is there, things have improved, Nina says. ‘Here, people know what they need and know how to get it. They go to the universities to talk to students, find ways to print leaflets, occupy buildings and persuade others. They’re clever. This assembly is not just for students; it’s for anyone who’s young.’
The actions must be peaceful, though, she stresses. ‘Spontaneous protests, where Molotov cocktails were thrown at the police, didn’t have much effect. They only led to kidnappings and, obviously, the President has more military force than the protesters. So there is no point.’
We wander through the 1982 building. Apart from the students, other activists use it too. There are nationalist factions and veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, who were partly responsible for the defence of the square, as Nina explains. They all greet us with a smile or a gentle nod. The building also houses a church, a library, a hospital for minor ailments and even a surgery.
In the hallway activists are clearing the floor of broken glass and litter. They use pieces of fabric and plywood to fix windows. Everywhere people are squatting on the cold marble floors.
Squatting on cold marble floors
She wants to continue talking, but suddenly starts coughing heavily. ‘Sorry, I am ill’, she says. She is not the only one. The flu is passing through Ukrainian House – at least that’s how it seems with the many pale faces and the constant coughing. Nina gets something to drink, while a man wearing a black balaclava starts playing the piano. Radiohead and Chopin echo through the building.
‘We decided to concentrate on two universities’, Nina continues. ‘One of them is the progressive Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, the other one an art acadamy. Art students can make the protests more understandable via other ways than the usual leaflets, for instance by using other visual means, performances and other material.’
‘This is really the most tolerant part of the Maidan’, Nina stresses. Initially there were clashes between leftists and right-wing protesters. However, since the leftist Student Assembly now coexists peacefully with right-wing groups in the Ukrainian House, things have changed. ‘We just don’t use the words “communism” or “anarchism”, but we do talk about the ideals. That is accepted.’
One of those right-wing groups is a nationalist political party, namely the All-Ukrainian Svoboda Union. A member of the Svoboda hierarchy told the Student Assembly: ‘I am not against people, but against conflicts. Let’s avoid those.’
And they do. They work together cleaning the building, for example. The short-term common goal of protesting against the regime has united left and right. However, will it last in post-Yanukovych Ukraine?
Nina isn’t sure. ‘The other day a guy from the Svoboda youth came to our Assembly and offered protection. He could provide us with martial arts experts to protect us during our protests. He said: “We know you are a bit different, but we have a common goal.” So I asked: “What do you mean exactly?” “To change the system!” he answered. That sounds good, but what are they going to change – and how? We differ completely in those areas.’
The opposition would do nothing to bring change
The militant left-wing group Antifa, which actively opposes fascism and fascists, currently takes care of the Assembly’s protection issues. Whether or not that will create conflicts in the future doesn’t worry Nina. The opposition is a concern, though. ‘We don’t think that if the opposition gain power, they would make fundamental changes – or at least nothing that would help my poor family, or do something about the medical system that fails because of corruption or about tuition fees.’
Nina and her fellow students have a long-term goal: grassroots politics. ‘We want a social revolution,’ she concludes. ‘It is not about swapping one guy in parliament for another. It is about changing the country. It is about the people who are willing and able to fight for their rights.’
When she walks away, the masked pianist pauses to let a child play the piano.