The Corner

The Resilience of Ukraine’s Freedom-Fighters

As Ukrainian civic-reform activists prepare for a possible assault on Independence Square in Kiev by the massed forces of the Berkut (the Ukrainian internal-security forces) and their hired goons (known in Ukrainian as titushki), morale remained high on February 19, the day after some two-dozen activists were killed and many others seriously wounded.

But in the aftermath of yesterday’s bloodshed, high morale and strong resolve go hand in hand with frustration, Ukrainian leaders report: frustration with the inability of the United States, the European Union, and individual European states to bring effective pressure — including stiff sanctions — to bear on the Yanukovych governments and its enablers among the Ukrainian oligarchy and in Moscow (or Sochi, depending what Vladimir Putin is watching today); frustration with a left-leaning European press that portrayed what happened in Kiev yesterday as a confrontation between “right-wing extremists” and “the government;” frustration that the true story of the Maidan movement continues to be missed.

Yesterday’s violence did not just happen; it was initiated by the government in an attempt to crush the Maidan movement. Moreover, the people who have remained steadfast in Independence Square are not “right-wing extremists.” A few are; and others among the activists have indeed thrown Molotov cocktails in an attempt at self-defense. But the overwhelming majority of the Maidan movement, in Kiev and throughout the country, has shown remarkable restraint in the face of violent provocation, severe weather conditions, and all sorts of deprivation and discomfort. Moreover, the movement has been strengthened in recent weeks by middle-class people from all over Ukraine who have simply said, “Enough.” Enough of extortion in small business. Enough of thugs being hired to enforce governmental greed. Enough of lying. And now, after February 18, enough of the state hiring criminals — the titushki — to attack and punish its own people for exercising elementary civil liberties.

Colorful television images of streets in flames in Kiev tell only one part of the Ukrainian story. That story is important: It’s the story of a state at war with its people, and a government that refuses to negotiate seriously with the civic opposition. But those graphic images and that story can obscure the larger story of a self-generated movement of civic renewal, a movement based on a recovery of conscience and informed in many cases by deep religious conviction.

To understand that Maidan movement and its resilience, consider Mihailo.

Mihailo is the chief chef at a shelter that has been established at the recently dedicated Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Resurrection in Kiev. He’s a man in his mid sixties, a widower who lost his wife to breast cancer and who has four daughters, one of whom suffers from cerebral palsy. Mihailo volunteered to take charge of feeding the hundreds of activists — as many as 1,100 one night — who have sought shelter in the new cathedral. He and a squad of grandmothers cook and serve shifts of meals — including, one Ukrainian leader told me, very good borscht — each day. Other volunteers have organized dormitories with adequate bedding in the cathedral’s basement, while still others have set up an infirmary to care for those wounded on Independence Square and in the streets in Kiev.

Mihailo and his friends tell visitors that “we’re in this to the end.” The activists who stayed on Independence Square all night, February 18–19, with buildings burning around them, receive a great deal of Western media attention — and deserve it. Still, there is more to the Ukrainian drama than that. Mihailo and his fellow volunteers at the cathedral of the Resurrection help those who want to understand to realize that, whatever happens on Independence Square, the Maidan movement of civil renewal will continue. To vary Victor Laszlo to Major Strasser in Casablanca, “Do you think you can kill all of us? Not even Berkut and titushki can shoot that fast.”

If Independence Square is assaulted today or tonight, Western reporters would pay the minimum tribute due the brave and overwhelmingly nonviolent people of the Maidan movement if phrases like “Violence broke out in Kiev again today between the government and its opponents (or ‘between the government and right-wing extremists’)” were rigorously avoided. If there is mass violence on Independence Square and elsewhere in Kiev, it will be because President Yanukovych has decided to follow through on the Putin playbook and try to crush the Maidan movement once and for all, by brute force.

That effort will fail, even if hundreds are killed and thousands wounded. It would be helpful if those reporting on this drama would explain why that is the case — and why the Maidan movement is not just a political opposition composed of a variety of factions, but is, in fact, a movement of national moral and civic renewal with the tensile strength that comes, not from a lust for power, but from settled moral conviction.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. 

George Weigel — George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His many books include the two-volume ...

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