Markian Hawryluk has covered health for The Bulletin since 2004. Born in the United States of parents who emigrated from Ukraine, he grew up immersed in Ukrainian culture and is fluent in the language. This was his first visit to Kiev in 23 years.
Stepping onto Kiev’s Independence Square, known here as the Maidan, I get a sense of treading on hallowed ground. The oft-violent clashes that occurred here over the past four months began as protest, grew into an uprising and ended in revolution. In the process, the mettle of a people with a long, sorrowful history was tested, and — in the hot fires that raged through the city’s main square — proved to be strong and true.
Baptized with blood, purified by fire, its pavement stripped of cobblestones for use as weapons against a corrupt and ruthless government, the Maidan has seared itself in to the history and the hearts of the Ukrainian people — even those of us born and raised in far-off lands.
I was born in the United States, but I’ve always considered myself first and foremost a Ukrainian. My parents were born in western Ukraine, then a part of Poland. Unwilling to live under a communist regime, my grandparents and their children fled west when the Red Army pushed through toward Berlin during World War II, eventually annexing the region.
My mother’s family emigrated to Canada, my father’s to the United States, initially expecting they would soon return to their homeland. But as it became clear that Soviet control would continue, they settled into creating a Ukrainian life for themselves, preserving the language and the culture for their children and grandchildren.
And so my siblings and I, like my wife and her brother, were raised speaking only Ukrainian at home. Each week, our schedule revolved around Ukrainian activities — Ukrainian choir practice one night, Ukrainian scouts another. On Saturdays we attended Ukrainian school, on Sundays, Ukrainian church. There were dances and summer camps, festivals and jamborees, all firmly establishing a Ukrainian identity.
All the while we sang, we prayed, we hoped beyond hope for a day when Ukraine could cast off its shackles. We hoped not because we wanted to return to Ukraine, but simply because we were Ukrainians, and we believed in the right of all people to be free.
Through most of the Cold War, I’m not sure any of us believed that would ever happen. Yet at three times in my life, I’ve seen Ukraine attempt to reassert itself as a nation.
There was the vote for independence in 1991, which established Ukraine as a free and sovereign nation after the fall of the Soviet Union. In 2004, the people took to the streets in the Orange Revolution to overturn a presidential election marred by corruption and fraud. And then in November, Ukrainians filled the Maidan after President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a long-awaited accord with the European Union, further aligning the country with Russia instead.