Ukraine now has a government that has undertaken constitutional reforms to create a parliamentary democracy and has scheduled presidential elections. Like other countries, Ukraine is home to a number of political parties with different views of the future of the country. We believe that these differences should be resolved in peaceful discussion and free elections among Ukrainians themselves. As we in Kharkiv try to undertake such a discussion, which would be normal in any civilized country, Russia intervenes with brutal force. Besides having used its troops to occupy Crimea, a sovereign part of Ukraine, Russia is sending hired thugs from across the border to beat, intimidate, and disperse the representatives of the new Ukraine, especially in border regions, such as our own.
As teachers, our concern is the future of our students. Among the undergraduate students of the universities existing in Kharkiv many support democratic principles and Ukraine’s European orientation. In Kharkiv, unlike in the capital Kiev, these basic ideas still face opposition from local authorities. Our students along with others have been peacefully gathering in the premises of the Provincial Administration, to which they had been invited as a place to stage their entirely legal protest. They were demanding the appointment of a new governor who would replace the deeply compromised Mykhailo Dobkin, an associate of the ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. Most of these hundred or so protestors are university freshmen, so teenagers.
This protest was met not only with violence, but with violence in which foreign citizens were involved. Dobkin, together with his crony Hennadii Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv (and a convicted criminal) orchestrated a pro-Russian rally to which about two thousand participants from the nearby Russian city of Belgorod were brought across the border. To avoid any clashes, the Co-ordinative Council of the Maidan for Europe cancelled its own rally, previously summoned at the same time and place.
After the end of the pro-Russian rally a large group of well-trained fighters, armed with bats, compliance weapons, and tear gas attacked the building of the Provincial Administration and severely beat our young students. Then they threw them into the midst of an enraged pro-Russian throng, who beat and kicked them. Most of this crowd could not help being pro-Russian in the elementary sense that they were Russians, brought from Russia by bus. The police, corrupted by Mayor Kernes, did not intervene. Alongside the students a number of adults were injured, including Dr. Serhii Zhadan, a writer of international renown, and Dr. Valerii Romanovskyi, who teaches at a local university.
Russian official propaganda and media try to portray the supporters of democracy and freedom in Ukraine as nationalist extremists who menace the existence of the Russian-speaking community. This Goebbelsian rhetoric has nothing at all to do with Ukrainian reality. The Nazi tendencies can rather be observed on the other side. As part of this staged protest, a Russian flag was raised on the flagpole of the Kharkiv Provincial Administration. The person who raised that Russian flag was Mika Ronkainen, a Russian citizen from Moscow, who expressed his admiration for Adolf Hitler on the web. It is bad enough when a foreigner raises a foreign flag. It is perhaps worse when that person admires Nazis—and still worse when his actions are portrayed as a fight against Nazism. All of this would be simply preposterous if it were not so dangerous to the lives and futures of our students.
We ourselves are native speakers of Ukrainian and fluent speakers of Russian. This is very natural in a city where 63 percent of the population are ethnic Ukrainians and 33 percent ethnic Russians. Due to long-term denationalization policies practised both in imperial Russia and in the former Soviet Union, the proportion is reversed when it comes to the use of languages: Russian is the mother tongue of approximately two-thirds of the city’s population, and Ukrainian of one-third. This does not cause any real problems, as many inhabitants are bilingual and the two languages are mutually comprehensible.
We want the world to know the truth about our lives and experiences. Russia claims that it is protecting the right to speak Russian. We would like to clearly declare that the Russian excuse for intervening with such violence in our lives is an utter invention and falsehood. The Russian language is freely used in the Ukrainian media, schools and universities, and everyday life. During more than two decades of independence, Ukraine has learned to handle its ethnic and linguistic problems in a responsible way. Unlike many other post-Soviet states, it has never had conflicts on ethnic grounds. In case of need, we solve all our problems by means of open discussion resulting in a viable compromise. No intervention from outside is necessary. And what happened in Kharkiv on the 1st of March was a criminal intervention.
Ihor Mikhailyn is Professor of Literature at the V.N. Karazin Kharkiv National University.
Serhii Vakulenko is Associate Professor of Linguistics at the H.S. Skovoroda Kharkiv National University.
First published in The New Republic, March 4, 2014.
© Authors / The New Republic