Are You Alive, Brother?

The moment I opened my computer on Thursday morning—Thursday afternoon in Ukraine—a friend from Kyiv called me on Skype. She was rumpled, panicked, like so many other people in the city that day. The metro had shut down, there were runs on groceries, gas, and cash, and martial law seemed imminent. Government snipers were shooting to kill. “This is the sort of thing that you should only see on television,” she said, looking like she was about to cry.

For the rest of the day I was glued, as I had been since Tuesday, to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Skype, wishing I could do something besides stare at a screen. (I lived in Kyiv for several years, but now I live in New York.) Since the protests started, in November, I’ve read endless news articles, editorials, analyses, predictions, exhortations, trying to make sense of what’s been happening. But as opinions proliferated they seemed more and more meaningless, the situation ever more fragmented. To understand what happened in the past is hard enough; to predict the future is surely impossible. I have never believed in “political science.” By the beginning of this week, I was only reading news updates, looking at photos, watching videos. Most importantly, I talked to my friends, and followed their posts online. There are many reasons to hate social media, but Ukraine’s revolution has left me with a certain tenderness for Mark Zuckerberg.

At lunchtime on Wednesday, I watched on the live feed as priests and an imam prayed on the Maidan stage, surrounded (at least in the video) by flames. On Wednesday evening I watched a video made after one of the battles, showing bodies are splayed across the street where my friend Yulia walks her Labrador. Men in camouflage and an older woman in a headscarf help carry people, bloody and dazed, to an ambulance, as a priest in a black gown and green helmet talks to a crowd of injured men. A medic does chest compressions on a man who seems, to my untrained eye, to be obviously dead. The camera lingers until the medic says, “Don’t stand here!” “A person is dying!” another man says angrily. The camera retreats, ashamed. Wanting to be helpful, it approaches a young, fair-haired man spread-eagled on the muddy ground. It leans in close to his face. His eyes are closed. “Are you alive, brother? Hey, what’s your name?” The blond man doesn’t answer, probably because he is dead. The cameraman takes his pulse and then steps back, lingering on his body before hurrying down the path at the edge of the park. He sees another man and repeats his question: “Are you alive, brother?” This time the man nods. His eyes are open and his face is covered in blood. “Alive, that’s good!” the cameraman says, and hurries along. He comes upon another body and repeats his question. “No, he’s not alive,” a woman’s voice wails. The crowd is roaring in the distance.

Another video shows five bodies covered with a bloodstained Ukrainian flag, under the awning of a fast-food kiosk, the kind where you buy hot dogs and beer in plastic cups. A man in camouflage, his face blackened by smoke, says, “Let’s take the bodies of our brothers that way—closer to McDonald’s.” The video was posted by Right Sector, one of the far-right, paramilitary groups active in the most violent parts of the protests. In another society, these kinds of men might have been brave warriors, but in modern Ukraine they are right-wing fanatics. A certain part of the population will always be eager for war, I think; this is why the world has football hooligans. It seems appropriate, somehow, that the violence in Kyiv is happening at the same time as the Olympics, approximately 800 miles away. The International Olympic Committee, which is happy to plaster corporate logos over every available surface, refused the request of Ukrainian athletes to wear black armbands in honor of the people, on both sides, who had died in Ukraine. The IOC refused, on the grounds that “political protests” are not allowed at the Olympics—that festival of human rights abuses. (I’m not just talking about Russia.) In their own disgusting way, maybe they’ve made a good point: respect for human life is political by necessity.

Someone on Twitter posted a video with the note this is the worst so far. I clicked. It showed a dark-haired woman in Khmelnytsky, a smallish town in Western Ukraine, being shot in the head by a sniper. I remembered what a friend in Kyiv had written a month before: that the state no longer had the right to a monopoly on violence. The woman’s blood was very bright as it flooded the pavement. A couple of people screamed, but the rest remained calm. No one seemed to run away. Instead, the mass of protesters surrounded a passing trolleybus. I wondered if they were trying to get on, to escape the scene; the sniper, after all, was still there. Instead, they hauled the trolleybus over to block the entrance to the government building. It looked easy, because there were so many people pushing.

Pretty much everyone I know in Kyiv participated in the protest movement somehow. They were upset, but not afraid. A friend posted about seeing a man near her being shot by a sniper, and then, on her way home, being chased by thugs with a tire iron. “Do you know what it’s like to feel your legs like cotton, your lungs hot?” she asked. Then she went back to her work helping to coordinate aid efforts. The city was disfigured, but it was transfigured, as well. A stream of people went to St. Michael’s Church to offer help, donations, medicine, food. Blood collection centers had to turn people away. Sometimes people donated the very last things they had—a bag of sugar, a bottle of vinegar. Medics risked sniper fire to help the wounded. My friends at a public health organization turned their office into a makeshift clinic. People sent their children to stay with nannies, asked older children to make themselves dinner as they work around the clock. One acquaintance who lives close to Maidan took the wounded into his apartment. A guy died in his arms; a stranger, I guess.

On Thursday, the internet started asking if Kyiv was the new Sarajevo. The actual Sarajevo, along with the rest of Bosnia, just saw a wave of protests against a corrupt, anti-democratic, dysfunctional government. Justifiably furious citizens set their government buildings on fire, and established a radically democratic system of local plenums.

And then, on Saturday, I woke up, opened the computer, and learned that Ukraine’s president, Yanukovych, had fled Kyiv. Parliament declared him unfit to fulfill his duties. His mansion, which looks like a hybrid of Versailles and a banya, opened for tours; the people flooded through the gates. Yanukovych left behind a number of incriminating documents, including a handwritten receipt for 12 million dollars and a list of journalists and activists, with photos and even, in the case of a journalist who was stalked and almost beaten to death, license plate numbers. There have been calls to make the mansion into a Museum of Corruption; this strikes me as a splendid idea. Protesters in helmets, wrapped in flags, still carrying shields, their faces still smeared with soot, started playing golf on Yanukovych’s private course. The revolution is complete.

Now people in Kyiv are crying with happiness, but no one knows what will happen next. The opposition politicians don’t inspire confidence (to put it mildly). The return of Yulia Timoshenko, who, as Prime Minister, made such a mess that Ukraine elected Yanukovych to get rid of her, raises fears that Ukraine will simply repeat the mistakes of the Orange Revolution. Economic catastrophe looms, and it looks like the far right will continue to be an important political player. This victory is not a final one. Everything could still go to hell, and quickly. But the unflagging bravery, energy, and solidarity of the Ukrainian protesters over the last months have reminded me that we—human beings—are capable of much more than we’d remembered.

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