An Absurdly Brief Intro to Ukraine
Ukraine is, by area, the largest country located entirely in Europe. It has thousands of years of history, and the capital city predates Moscow by hundreds of years.
Ukraine spent most of the last few hundred years under other nations, and historically it was usually split east-west, with the western portions under nations like Poland, Lithuania, and Austria, and the east under Moscow. This, along with massive ethnic cleansing and repopulation campaigns conducted by Russia in the 1930s, has resulted in an eastern population which often speaks Russian, has a large ethnically Russian minority, and tends to align itself closely with Russia in many ways. On the other hand, western Ukrainians usually speak Ukrainian and tend to align themselves with Europe.
I could talk for days about Ukraine’s history, but this is basically the minimum context you need to learn about the revolution.
The Orange Revolution
To discuss the 2014 revolution we need some more recent background, going back to the 2004 presidential election. The main candidates were Victor Yuschenko and Victor Yanukovych (I know, that’ll be easy to remember on the test – try remembering that “Yanukovych” almost has the word “anus” in it and he was the anus of the two). Yuschenko was generally favored in more progressive, Ukrainian areas in the west while Yanukovych was more popular in more conservative, Russified areas in the east. The election was marred with widespread voter intimidation and fraud, with exit polls giving Yuschenko the win by 3% but the official tally having Yanukovych as the winner by 11%.
This sparked the Orange Revolution, with massive protests across the country, but especially in the capital city of Kyiv. Ultimately the Supreme Court invalidated the election results and in the re-run Yuschenko won 52% – 44%.
“Together we are many” became the “official theme song” of the Orange Revolution, and the music video shows what it was like:
The Yuschenko Presidency
Yuschenko had run with a main campaign platform of fighting corruption. In late 2004, however, he was poisoned with what should have been a fatal amount of dioxin. The picture below shows his change in appearance as a result of the attempted murder:
After this moment, he seemed to lose a lot of the “fight” in him and ultimately accomplished very little during his presidency. His approval ratings plummeted so much that he wasn’t even considered a realistic candidate in the next election.
In the 2010 election, Yuschenko ran again but only received 5% of the vote. The two main contenders were Victor Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko. Yanukovych won 49% – 46%, and this is considered to have been a relatively fair election. Yanukovych had largely retained his earlier base while also winning over people who felt disenfranchised by Yuschenko’s failure to make progress in improving people’s lives.
The Yanukovych Presidency
Once in the presidential chair, Yanukovych began consolidating power for himself and acted very controversially. For instance, he declared that the Soviet genocide of millions of Ukrainians in 1933 was not actually a genocide. This would be similar to the president of Israel claiming that the Holocaust was not a genocide.
Furthermore, he took steps toward making Russian an official language, which would have further endangered the preservation of the Ukrainian language. He imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko, his main political opponent, on trumped-up charges. He allowed the Russian Navy to keep its base on the Crimean peninsula despite the post-Soviet transitional period expiring. He even reverted the constitution to an older version which gave himself much more power. This was accomplished by declaring the newer constitution unconstitutional.
The last straw was when Yanukovych cancelled preparations for the European Union Association Agreement in November of 2013. Ukraine was working toward integration into the European Union, and this process has stiff requirements for anti-corruption and government transparency. Ukrainians tolerated many of Yanukovych’s actions simply because they believed things would get better so long as steps continued to be taken toward joining the European Union.
Once preparations were halted, people, especially young, west-looking students, were very upset. Mustafa Nayem, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian journalist of Afghan origin, posted on Facebook asking people to come out to the Independence Square in Kyiv to protest.
Translation: “Okay, let’s be serious. Who here would be ready to go to Maidan today by midnight? Party-poopers will not be taken into consideration. Only comments on this post with the words ‘I’m ready.’ Once there are over a thousand, we will organize ourselves.”
These first protests were on November 21, 2013. This was the start of Euromaidan, which earned its name from a hashtag used on Twitter on that first day. The name stems from ‘Euro,’ as in Europe, and ‘Maidan,’ the Ukrainian word for ‘square.’ These early protests were quite small:
Just over a week later, on November 30, Berkut, the Ukrainian riot police, violently dispersed protesters on the square:
This use of violence on protests was unprecedented in independent Ukraine and never occurred during the Orange Revolution.
The Euromaidan protests had primarily consisted of students up until this point, but suddenly older generations came out onto the square in order to protect the rights of their children. While Euromaidan retained its original name, the actual goal of the revolution began to shift from fighting for European integration to fighting for the protection of fundamental rights. Riots broke out the next day, on December 1, and Berkut responded with an even more brutal crackdown:
The protesters, no longer feeling safe on the square, constructed barricades in a very Les Mis turn to the protests, occupying a large chunk of the center of the city for weeks.
Here are some pictures of the square during this period (many more here):
Here’s a translation of “Do you hear the people sing?” into Ukrainian showing what things were like during this period:
Even at night the protest area was often packed solid:
Dictatorship Laws and Hrushevskoho Riots
On January 16, what quickly became known as the dictatorship laws were “passed” in the Ukrainian parliament. In reality, the vote occurred much too quickly (in about 3 seconds) to actually be counted and was done with a raise of hands, despite Ukrainian law mandating the use of electronic voting machines. Many of the laws were not even made public until after the vote.
The laws were essentially clones of Russian anti-protest laws. They included a ban on distribution of “extremist materials”, which were broadly defined. The government also claimed permission to censor or shut off the internet altogether, and could now find people guilty without them being present in court. Most notably, all mass disruptions became illegal, effectively rendering the Euromaidan illegal.
Three days later, on January 19, the Hrushevskoho Street Riots broke out between protesters and riot police. The first deaths of the revolution occurred as violence intensified on both sides. Improvised weapons were used, including Molotov Cocktails and fireworks. The Berkut riot police often wrapped noise grenades with bolts and duct tape to create shrapnel.
Starting on January 23, Ukrainians began taking over Regional State Administration buildings in many oblasts (provinces), effectively ending central government control over many of them. In three of the regions, Volyn, Lviv, and Ternopil, a new government structure called Narodna Rada, or the People’s Council, came into power. Sergii Gorbachov chronicled the takeovers as they occurred by posting maps on Facebook. (Note for the graphic: The Party of Regions was the ruling party under then-President Viktor Yanukovych)
Revolution of Dignity
On February 18, there was a peaceful march toward parliament. Unbeknownst to the protestors, snipers were positioned on rooftops. They fired at the crowds in what was to become the largest bloodbath Kyiv had seen since the second World War. Riot police closed in on the square in an attempt to squeeze the protesters out. However, instead of running away, protesters held their ground and fought back with whatever they could find, going so far as to tear up the road and hurl hunks of it as police with guns closed in.
During the calmer moments of the revolution, ordinary people reinforced the barricades, replenished food stocks, and broke apart hunks of the road to be ready to use as projectiles:
One protestor played piano as the city burned:
The following video is an extremely intense and gory video from the revolution but does an incredible job of showing what it was like:
After 3 days of violence, the riot police retreated from the unyielding crowd.
Yanukovych fled the country and was impeached. The revolution succeeded. Those 100 people who died were immortalized with the name “Nebesna Sotnya,” which translates both to “Heavenly Hundred” and “Heavenly Battalion.”
The interim government was left with a destroyed city center and mess of a country, economically destroyed, greatly in debt, and filled with corruption in all ranks. They had a massive task of rebuilding before them.
Less than a week later, Russia would invade Crimea and create the artificial Pro-Russian Crisis in Ukraine.
On February 26, less than a week after the revolution, Russian troops invaded Crimea, a large Ukrainian peninsula. While Russia originally claimed these forces were Crimean natives, it is now well known that they were regular Russian troops, albeit without any identifying insignia. The Ukrainian military, which had been systematically destroyed under the Yanukovych regime, proved unable to cope and gave up the peninsula with little resistance.
After cutting off access to Ukrainian television, Russian television became the only source of news in Crimea. It became flooded with propaganda claiming “Nazis” and “fascists” had taken over in Kyiv and were killing all the Russians in Ukraine. The troops then took over the Crimean Rada, or parliament, and held a referendum on the status of Crimea. The referendum offered two choices: to declare independence from Ukraine, or to join the Russian Federation. There was no option to maintain the status quo as part of Ukraine.
The official results indicated that the vast majority, 96%, of Crimeans wished to join the Russian Federation. The referendum was almost certainly falsified, as polls of the peninsula indicated the actual result to be between 30-40%, even at the height of the hysteria caused by propaganda. Furthermore, no international observers were permitted to monitor the election.
Crimea was officially annexed by Russia on March 21, and the annexation is only recognized by Russia and a handful of other countries, while it remains unrecognized by the European Union and United States. Since the takeover, massive human rights violations have taken place. The Ukrainian language has been de facto banned, and dissidents are welcomed with either a damp jail cell or removal from the peninsula. It was one of the most blatant landgrabs in Europe since the German takeover of Sudetenland in 1938.
Donbas (Eastern Ukraine)
Donbas is the most Eastern region of Ukraine and consists of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Following the Crimean annexation, rebels stormed the Regional State Administration buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk demanding that a similar referendum be held in their cities.
The Donetsk People’s Republic was declared April 7, 2014, and the Luhansk People’s Republic was declared on April 27, 2014. On May 11, a referendum was held in both. They reported a large majority believing in the legitimacy of the self-declared republics. Irregularities were rampant including allowing people not on the voter lists to vote, allowing ballot stuffing, and having far fewer voting stations open than necessary. This created long lines and ergo the illusion of popularity for the media. There was no international observation.
On May 24, the two republics formed a de jure union known as Novorossiya, or “New Russia,” an aged term for the region used when it was conquered by the Russian Empire in the late 1700s.
War in Donbas
The terrorists then took over major cities in the region: Donetsk, Luhansk, Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Horlivka, Mariupol, and others.
In response, the Ukrainian government began to organize an ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation). Many volunteer battalions also sprung up, motivated by seeing the pitiful shape the Ukrainian military was in. The most well known of these is the Donbas Battalion, which, at the time of this writing, had roughly 900 volunteers.
The Russian terrorists held their ground at first, but the Ukrainian army quickly organized itself and began to make progress into the rebel-held territory. The Russian Federation continued to secretly provide weapons and “volunteers” to the terrorists, but the lack of local support allowed the Ukrainian soldiers to gradually reclaim territory.
One of the first major skirmishes was the Battle of Donetsk Airport, which ended in a Ukrainian victory and a destroyed airport.
On 17 July, flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine. It was shot down by rebels who had been discretely given an anti-aircraft missile by Russia. The rebels believed the flight was a Ukrainian military target and actually bragged online about having shot it down before it became clear that they had killed nearly 300 innocent civilians.
Since then very little has changed. Russia retains control of Crimea. Eastern Ukraine continues to be occupied and Russia keeps it destabilized just enough that Ukraine needs to keep pouring troops and money into the region, but is not so overtly aggressive that the international community intervenes. Ukraine also remains heavily reliant on Russia economically resulting in a strange situation where the two countries are de facto at war but both are pretending they’re not.
- “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” on Netflix
- Borislaw Bilash’s “Primer for Teachers“, which itself lists many resources
- My Playlist of Euromaidan-related Youtube videos
This article was adapted and updated from an article I wrote in 2014.