Despite Dangers, Ukrainian Artist Stands Against Russia and For Liberty
Ukrainian artist Mykola Zhuravel fears his country is on the brink of civil war. Despite the dangers to his own life from government militias, Zhuravel spends his weekends protesting on the streets of the capital city, Kiev.
It isn’t far for him to walk. The well-known artist resides in an apartment overlooking Maidan square, known as independence square, where protesters have surged to more than 100,000 since demonstrations began in November. Like his art, he blends into the canvas of Kiev’s historic landmarks and asks the world to stand “with us for liberty and democracy.”
Sitting in his Kiev loft with his painting of Ukraine’s famous poet and hero Taras Shevchenko glaring over his shoulder, Zhuravel, speaking to TheBlaze in an exclusive interview via Skype, described how his nation’s judiciary branch eroded and how the police have become the strong-arm of a corrupt government.
“In other words, there was no recourse to any fight against the wrongdoings of the executive power,” said Zhuravel, whose interview was translated by Vitaly Chernetsky, an associate professor of Slavic languages at the University of Kansas and the president of Zorya, Inc., a New York-based nonprofit that represents Zhuravel and other Ukrainian artists.
“And people in Ukraine have very strong engrained memories of how things were during Stalin’s reign in the ’30s. In a matter of years — from the relatively open-minded time of the 1920s — [Ukraine] slid into absolute repression and catastrophe. … Now, we feel as though we are standing on the edge of the abyss,” Zhuravel said. “The purpose of these protests is to push the country from the brink of falling into a dictatorship.”
Shortly after President Viktor Yanukovych’s election in 2010, Zhuravel said, he watched as his country slid further away from democracy. There have been five presidential elections since Ukraine won its independence from the Soviet Union, but Russia and Ukraine are still tightly enmeshed.
The future of a nation is at stake, Zhuravel said. He remembers when the anti-government protests began in late November. Roughly 50,000 demonstrators rallied in the center of Kiev to demand that Yanukovych keep his promise to sign a landmark economic agreement with the European Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, had already pressured Yanukovych not to sign and instead offered a $15 billion loan to the poverty-stricken nation. Now the demonstrators, many camped out in the square and throughout Kiev, are demanding Yanukovych’s resignation.
Tensions escalated Thursday after Kremlin officials accused the Obama administration of intervening in Ukrainian affairs. A YouTube video surfaced of a private phone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt. In the conversation, the pair discussed which opposition leaders they would like to see in a future Ukrainian government, and Nuland colorfully dismissed the EU with an expletive: “F— the EU.” The Obama administration shot back at Russia for essentially spying, calling it a “new low in Russian tradecraft.”
These are the largest protests since Ukrainians took to the streets in Independence Square in 2004 in what was known as the Orange Revolution. At the time, a fraudulent election forced the uprising which ended with a pro-Western government taking its place.
Zhuravel said the situation today is continuing to deteriorate. Hundreds of protesters from central Kiev to the outskirts of the city have woken up to find their vehicles torched, and many have been beaten. Zhuravel said they are being targeted by a pro-government police force known as the Berkut, by Russian intelligence agents and by strong-armed men called “titushky,” a Russian term for paid thugs that have beaten protesters bloody, including some of Zhuravel’s friends.
Ukrainian business leaders, artists and other professionals were “putting a lot of hope into European integration and so they are now tremendously frustrated because this is not just backpedaling this is really pushing the country in a very wrong direction,” Zhuravel said.
Zhuravel is working on a series of paintings with the hope of “bringing the artwork to Ukraine’s new revolution for democracy.”
“Many are afraid that Russia will be become more involved after the Olympics … the regime keeps on making very radical, underhanded moves like the attack on the Catholic Church, which was the most open of all the churches in terms of organizing prayers at Independence Square with the protesters and ministering to them,” he added.
In January, Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture sent a letter to the Ukrainian Catholic Church and to Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the church’s head, warning bishops and clergy not to continue joining protestors in the street and threatening them with the loss of their nonprofit status by removing them as a legitimate religious entity in Ukraine — echoing the 1940s when the church was banned under Josef Stalin. More than 400,000 Ukrainians were deported to Siberia, including many bishops and priests, and Christianity went underground.
Alex Kuzma, chief development officer with the nonprofit Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation, told TheBlaze the threat is very serious, given the history of the Soviet Union and the persecution of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
Recent reports estimate that at least six people have been killed in the past two weeks alone, including three victims — leaders in the protest movement — who were shot by what are believed to be professional snipers hiding among the riot police, Kuzma said.
Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, told TheBlaze the lack of U.S. involvement risks creating a power vacuum in Ukraine.
“Coordination is absolutely crucial here. So far what’s amiss is resolve and coordination of both U.S. and Europeans to achieve a serious, fast and furious reform in Ukraine, which will help prevent Ukraine from deteriorating into chaos,” Cohen said.
He said that in order to achieve those goals, the White House must wait for a constitutional change that will lead to a “reform-minded government and diminished power of the presidency in Ukraine. Then and only then can we consider a Western economic assistance package through the [International Monetary Fund] or otherwise. If the reforms aren’t implemented quickly it will be throwing good money after bad.”
“There is a threat of Russian involvement after the Olympics in Sochi,” Cohen added. “Russia sees Ukraine as a, quote, ‘younger sister’ with historic ties and a key to the recreation of a broad Russian sphere of exclusive interests and this is in Russia’s own language.”
Zhuravel said the U.S. should remember and adhere to the trilateral statement signed in 1994 under then-President Bill Clinton, which stated that the United States would provide security assurances to the Ukraine after it transferred all strategic warheads on its territory to Russia for elimination.
“We are not giving up and we believe there can be a peaceful resolution to this crisis,” Zhuravel said. “We will stand for democracy and liberty and we are asking that our friends do the same.”