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Image: DW/J. Schylko

The Maidan Generation

Frank Hofmann
November 9, 2016

Three years after the protests on Kyiv’s Independence Square, the Maidan Generation is working to keep alive the dream of a progressive and pro-European Ukraine.

DW Dokumentation Maidan Dreaming Nasarij Sowsun
Nazarii Sovsun: A political activist who mobilizes Kyiv’s young people onto the dance floorImage: DW/J. Schylko

“Today I’m freer than before,” says Nazariy Sovsun, a member of a young group of artists and political activists who were among the first to join demonstrations on Kyiv’s Maidan Square in 2014. At the time he was only in his mid-20s. Most activists from his circle of friends had one thing in common: they all studied at Kyiv’s Mohyla Academy in the neighborhood of Podil, the historic heart of the city. The so-called “Lower City” is located down on the right bank of the mighty Dnieper River. With the help of Ukrainian exiles in the US and Western Europe, the university was re-established after the fall of the iron curtain - within sight of the Ukrainian capital’s dockyard and harbor. Since its rebirth, it has sought to establish academic excellence and a new intellectual legacy after 70 years of Soviet occupation, with a strong focus on the humanities. Its alumni include many artists and scholars of cultural studies. Kyiv’s Visual Culture Research Center, set up by a group of former students and academics, is located nearby. It’s positioning itself as a key space in the city for the promotion of critical thought and debate.

DW Dokumentation Maidan Dreaming Schachspieler
Kyiv’s Podil neighborhood is turning into a laboratory of ideas for a new UkraineImage: DW/J. Schylko

Fostering Critical Dialogue

Its guest speakers have included the Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who was captured and held in Russia for two years before being released amid international pressure on Moscow. Since her return, she’s also garnered attention as an outspoken nationalist - who expresses views counter to those held by the center’s generally left-leaning and progressive audience. But it’s this type of friction that activists say is vital to democratic discourse in Ukraine.

The Izolyatsia art center is also located in the neighborhood of Podil. Spread out over four floors of a factory in the harbor, it stages exhibitions, concerts, readings, and even art is created on site. It offers young artists the opportunity to use a laboratory that has all kinds of equipment, including a 3D printer.

DW Dokumentation Maidan Dreaming Unabhängigkeitssäule
Independence Monument in Kyiv symbolizes the rejection of RussiaImage: DW/D. Katkow

Podil - Kyiv’s Melting Pot

In the summer of 2016, Izolyatsia staged a show here entitled Social Contract, exploring the ways Ukraine has dealt with its Soviet legacy. It’s one of the emotionally charged discussions that the government has sought fuelled in a bid to distract from its economic woes. But it was Izolyatsia’s activist artists who really brought the debate out into the open by an examination of the fate of Soviet-era monuments - which, by definition, are also artworks. Such discussions were held across Eastern and Central Europe back in the 1990s. Izolyatsia was founded in the eastern Ukrainian town of Donetsk, in the steel production and coal mining region of Donbass, where Ukraine has been engaged in a war against Russian-backed separatists since 2014. The artists had to flee, and found refuge in Kyiv’s Podil neighborhood. They set up near branches of the British Council and Goethe Institute. The latter’s director, Beate Köhler, believes that since the Maidan protests, art and culture have had a far bigger political role to play in Ukraine than in other Eastern European countries. In the now independent nations of the former Soviet Union, it was the field of culture that often lit the spark of social change and brought forth individuals who would go on to challenge the status quo.

DW Dokumentation Maidan Dreaming Protest
The Maidan protests in winter 2013-2014: Ukrainians protested for months against the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych until he was oustedImage: DW/W. Sentschenko

Techno turns political in Kyiv

It’s possible that’s how things will pan out in Ukraine too. The political activist Nazariy Sovsun works for the Visual Culture Research Center in Podil neighborhood. In summer 2016, he also helped launch the techno raves called Cxema. For the 28 year old, the parties are political in nature. “The crowd that comes to the techno raves will one day develop the kind of society we wish were already in place today,” he says. He sees himself and his small circle of associates as the avant-garde of a movement that started on Kyiv’s Maidan Square and could end in a power struggle with the current leadership. That’s particularly the case because the politicians who came to power during the revolution are for the most part familiar faces which Ukrainians have seen on television for two decades - some of them in the role of an alibi opposition against the cronies of the former Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted by the Maidan protests in February 2014, others in the government of the current president and oligarch Petro Poroshenko, who served as Yanukovych’s economics minister. A political elite, in other words, who one was made to look up to, Nazariy Sovsun says. “Since Maidan,” he adds, “those days are over.”

Frank Hofmann was bureau chief of Deutsche Welle’s first permanent office in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv from 2014 to 2016. During the final summer of his posting, he accompanied young Ukrainians of the Maidan Generation and produced the DW documentary Maidan Dreaming - Kyiv’s Move towards Europe, a portrait of the Ukrainian capital and young people’s lives in the wake of the Maidan protests of winter 2013-2014.

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