When you can’t agree on what success is, you risk failure. As Ukraine prepares for a presidential election on 31 March, five years on from what we call the “revolution of dignity” or “Maidan”, has our nation learned where its strengths lie? I often look back to February 2014, the final month of the revolution. Victory came at a price, with almost 100 protesters killed by the police in central Kyiv. The capital’s main square seemed flooded with injured people and coffins. I remember those who aren’t around any more, people I knew and admired. Many were later killed or taken prisoner in the war unleashed by Russia’s intervention.
And I remember the city of Donetsk: renovated before the Euro 2012 football championships, it resembled many other globalised eastern European cities, with both a McDonald’s and a Lenin monument in its main square. Now it’s occupied by pro-Russia separatists and has been turned into a military dictatorship. Its airport, given an expensive makeover and a new terminal at the start of the decade, has become a mass grave.
Back in February 2014 I couldn’t possibly have imagined any of this. Many of my friends were still journalists and activists. Within a few weeks they would become politicians, soldiers and volunteers. I could never have thought such changes would come so quickly. But there’s also another exercise I do while looking back to that winter. I list the things that weren’t there – things that could only have emerged under those strange and accidental circumstances that have become history. Taken from a higher political perspective they may seem minor or insignificant. Indeed, they were never really celebrated as successes. And yet …
In February 2014 I was just about to join Hromadske TV, Ukraine’s first independent grassroots TV station, founded and run by journalists. It was something the Ukrainian media had desperately needed for years – until then the industry had been solely controlled by oligarchs, each with his own political agenda. As a result it was incapable of providing objective coverage. Almost 90% of Ukrainians named TV as their main source of news, so when Hromadske first went on air in November 2013 (coinciding with the first Euromaidan protests), it was timely.
During Maidan our broadcasts were viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube, becoming the most popular and trusted streams of the revolution. When the protests ended, the team had to reinvent itself. I wondered what our true impact on society had been. By overcoming a number of economic and political challenges, the example set by Hromadske did offer encouragement to many small media outlets across the country. A number of other independent broadcasters emerged in the regions. We operated as a platform for other (smaller) media projects. We became a part of a real media network with people who shared common values. We knew we were not a single player any more, but rather part of a wider market. We’re tiny, perhaps, compared with the power of the oligarchs. But here’s the thing: none of this existed five years ago.
In a way, Hromadske acts as a mirror to Ukraine. There are endless debates about what the country has achieved since 2014, and there is no agreement as to how success should be defined. The presidential election campaign has been marred by resentment, manipulation and anger, and that’s understandable: Ukrainians have paid a high price for their freedom and the changes in their country. Reforms could have delivered far greater results.
This is why Ukrainian voters are following the “Zelenskiy” phenomenon with such an interest. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian who is famous both in Ukraine and Russia, presents himself as an anti-establishment candidate. Despite his ties to the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, his obvious political inexperience means he is viewed as a breath of fresh air – even if his message rehashes those of other anti-establishment figures from across Europe. But despite the prevailing anti-establishment wind, in Ukraine there’s a strong attachment to the status quo, in the face of possible further Russian aggression. Zelenskiy’s candidacy makes these elections even less predictable.
But as we ponder the impact of the momentous events we have experienced, we rarely pay attention to the “smaller” stories. Such as this one from the region of Zhytomyr: under a new decentralisation law, local communities have united into a single entity to control their budget and finance priority projects they’ve chosen themselves. They have been able to set up a local fire station – something the state had for years failed to provide.
And another example: in the city of Mariupol, not far from the war zone, a contemporary art festival gathers dozens of cultural projects together, uniting theatre, music and urban activism. This industrial city on the shores of the Sea of Azov might one day become a hub for cultural initiatives helping people to overcome the trauma of conflict. A group of war veterans has opened a pizzeria there, hiring former fighters as chefs and waiters. They have recently formed a rugby team. A growing community has launched social rehabilitation programmes for former soldiers – again without waiting for the government to act.
Whatever international attention Ukraine gets these days tends to focus on Russian aggression, geopolitics, electoral competition or the struggle against corruption. But that misses some of the underlying transformations we are experiencing – the spread of many individual agents for change across the country, whose stories rarely reach wide audiences. The solidarity and sense of responsibility they demonstrate is arguably one of the great legacies of our revolution. Citizens taking the initiative will shape new markets, help create new infrastructures and will eventually define the national agenda. That’s a success we should cherish.
Angelina Kariakina is the editor-in-chief of Hromadske TV in Kyiv.