By Maxim Eristavi, 2015 Poynter Fellow
Introduction by Gregg Gonsalves, the co-director of the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership.
Gonsalves: Hi, my name is Gregg Gonsalves, I am the co-director of the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership, an initiative of Yale’s law and public health schools. The late, great New York Times reporter David Carr, apropos of the events in Ukraine and in Gaza in 2014, said:
“The act of witness, a foundation of war reporting, has been democratized and disseminated in new ways. The same device that carries photos of your mother’s new puppy or hosts aimless video games also serves up news from the front. So now that war comes to us in real time, do we feel helpless or empowered? Do we care more, or will the ubiquity of images and information desensitize us to the point where human suffering loses meaning when it is part of a scroll that includes a video of your niece twerking? Oh, we say as our index finger navigates to the next item, another one of those. As war becomes a more remote, mechanized activity, posts and images from the target area have significant value. When a trigger gets pulled or bombs explode, real people are often on the wrong end of it. And bearing witness to the consequences gives meaning to what we see.”
Bearing witness to the consequences gives meaning to what we see. Eastern Europe has a long history of those who have taken up this task, from the great Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam in the early 20th century to the newly minted 21st century Nobel laureate and “writer of three nations” as Yale’s Timothy Snyder has called her, Svetlana Alexeivich.
Maxim has been bearing witness since he was 17 years old. Forced to leave university, took up a job with the radio station in his hometown of Zaporizhia, and ended up covering the Orange Revolution, reporting on electoral fraud in the East. For this work, he was harassed and detained by police and fled to Kiev where he ended up later joining Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The chance to join a global newsroom took him then in 2012 to the Voice of Russia in Moscow, but the editorial pressure of a state-funded news service and the rise of state propaganda against gay people became too much and he returned to Kiev in 2013 just in time to cover the second Ukrainian revolution of the 21st century, the events on the Maidan.
Since the fall of 2013, Maxim has covered events in Ukraine for many outlets including Politico, CNN, the BBC, Reuters and The New Republic. In late 2014, he co-founded Hromadske International, a digital start-up designed to provide high-quality journalism and analysis together in one place for English language coverage of Ukraine.
Maxim is also the only out gay journalist in Ukraine and has focused his attention on some of the civil rights battles happening in his country as well, including the struggle of the Ukrainian LGBT community against far-right attacks and homophobia from the government, while less virulent than its Russian counterpart, still potent in its own right.
Enough from me. Let me introduce you to Maxim Eristavi. After Maxim’s talk we will have plenty of time for questions and answers and robust discussion as we collectively reflect on what it means to bear witness in a new century off to another brutal start.
Gregg Gonsalves (@gregggonsalves) | Twitter
The latest Tweets from Gregg Gonsalves (@gregggonsalves). I work at Yale focusing on operations research & mathematical…
Eristavi: I would like start by thanking the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism at Yale and their advisory committee.
Also all co-sponsors of my visit:
1) Yale Global Health Justice Partnership;
2) Department of History;
3) LGBT Studies at Yale;
4) the Council on European Studies;
5) Berkeley College and Berkeley College Master, Professor Marvin Chun and Dean Mia Genoni;
6) The Office of LGBTQ Resources
7) The Orville Schell Center for International Human Rights
Marci Shore, the History Department
Francesca Trivellato, the History Department and Council on European Studies
Karen Nakamura, LGBT Studies at Yale
Andrew Dowe, the LGBTQ Resources Center
Hope Metcalf, the Orville Schell Center for International Human Rights
Ali Miller, Amy Kapczynski from the Global Health Justice Partnership
Meredith Berger, without whom I would probably lost in the corridors of the Newark international Airport forever.
and Gregg Gonsalves who is a powerful inspiration sources for me and people like him help me going and don’t give up
Living in Ukraine and covering the country for the outside world as a journalist is often a highly frustrating experience. Turns out, most of your energy and talent is used just to debunk myths and stereotypes.
My mission today will be to highlight the 5 most popular myths about Ukraine and the Ukrainian-Russian war, to debunk them and by doing so to show how Ukraine is not, as it may appear, a far away localized conflict but instead a good case study for many global developments in international law, six main theories of international relations, social deconstructive studies, global fight for civil rights equality and development theories.
Myth #1: Ukraine, A Failed State.
It seems my path toward journalism started early: already at the age of four, my grandmother was teaching me to read, telling me “Education is the only way to break free from the circle of poverty.” I was born in a poor family and, although my parents worked hard, the economic reality of 1990s Ukraine was grim.
Between 1990 and 1999, Ukraine’s economy was shrinking constantly, and 87 % of the GDP was wiped out. In 1993, the first year I went to school, I clearly remember my parents struggling to provide me with the basics: by then, hyperinflation was running over 10,000%. My mom was working in a military lab designing electronic systems, but had to quit and find a job as an ice-cream seller.
Even after coming back late in the evening from jobs they never imagined they would have to do, my parents still kept telling me: “If you work hard, you will achieve anything you want.” However, I quickly learned that some things couldn’t be achieved simply by working hard. Being a poor and gay kid faced with everyday bullying, pushed around in hallways, I realized that basic social and economic equality wasn’t something I could simply work hard for: it depended on society as well.
For so many Ukrainians, who often have a University diploma or even two, working hard is not a voluntary commitment; it is a constant survival mode. In 1989, the average per capita income in Ukraine was over $8,000 — higher than in modern China or South Africa. By 1998, that had collapsed to $3,500. In 2012, GDP per capita had recovered somewhat — but it was still only $6,400, 25 percent below the level nearly a quarter-century earlier. Then in 2014 it took a deep dive again to a little bit over $3,000, joining the club of Egypt, Nigeria and Guatemala.
Robbed of opportunities and dreams, struggling to put food on the table, harassed by criminal gangs and corrupt bureaucrats. In spite of all that, Ukrainians still showed a remarkable strength, resilience and calm. There were no riots, no coups, no social disintegration amid unprecedented economic and political catastrophe of the Nineties, something I would witness in Ukraine over and over again in coming years. When in harsh times like these many social actors in other countries would usually choose to opt out, leave or revolt, Ukrainians would keep calm and carry on.
Why were Ukrainians so resilient?
Because after going through centuries of being colonized and exploited as slaves by neighboring Empires, losing almost half of its genetic pool during the World War II and Soviet repressive policies, this is really not the worst thing this country remembers going through.
Even during the Maidan Revolution, I would marvel at reports comparing the country with a failed state. A failed state, where millions of government employees kept doing their work? A failed state, where revolutionaries would work during the day at their regular jobs and guard the barricades at night? A failed state, where schools were open and I could get a good coffee from a Kyiv coffee shop while I was reporting on clashes around the corner on the Maidan square?
Following the economic crisis in Ukraine, you can see that these days it is very fashionable to compare the country with Greece. I would really like to do that now to help us break the myth of Ukraine being a failed state.
This year Ukraine has successfully followed almost all IMF austerity requirements, passed over 350 reformist laws, managed to stabilize macroeconomic indicators and brought back to life the country’s currency after its clinical death following the world’s deepest dive of 2014. Still, inflation runs over 60% with incomes collapsing in dollar value sharply. Everybody knows that the economy will probably stop shrinking only sometime in 2016 or even 2017, and only if Russia loses interest in covert war against its neighbor.
Do you know how many mass anti-austerity rallies there were in Ukraine in the last year? Zero. Everybody gets what kind of price they have to pay for painful reforms.
Do you know what the general rate of support local populist parties with anti-austerity messages have according to latest polls? Around 5–7%.
So the next time you hear about Ukraine being a failed state, or rapidly becoming one, you can be sure it is either a part of our negativity-driven news-cycle culture or a conscious or unconscious result of Russian propaganda, but: it definitely has nothing to do with reality.
Myth #2: Ukraine Is A Nationalistic State
If you want to know the truth: just look into recent election numbers. During parliamentary and presidential runoffs in 2014 far-right forces managed to get less than 3% of support — combined. In an era of rising far-right sentiments all over the Europe, this is the lowest number on the continent.
Do you want to know what was the most discombobulating question I’ve ever been asked about Ukraine?
It was a week or two after the Maidan Massacre in February 2014, when riot police slaughtered over one hundred protesters on Kyiv’s main square. After speculating about what kind of post-revolution government Ukraine could get, a TV-anchor suddenly asks me: “Will it help to have ethnic Russians in the cabinet?”
The logic was so alien to me.
Historically speaking, Ukraine has always been a gigantic melting pot for different nationalities: starting with Greek, Roman colonies, and the Mongol Empire invasion, ending with the huge and often dramatic resettling campaigns under both the Russian and Soviet Empires. In the end, more than 100 national minorities now live in Ukraine. My own family comes from a very diverse background: 19th century Georgian settlers, and Russians who moved to Ukraine in the 1950s, we also have strong Polish and Roma (Gypsy) traces. Maybe not for the average American family, but that’s a lot of diversity for Europe. And it’s a common genetic story for many families in the country.
Also let’s clear up another important issue: Ukraine is a bilingual country. Everybody speaks or knows both Russian and Ukrainian. Your own Professor Timothy Snyder (whom I deeply admire), once called Ukraine a modern-day Babylon. So how do you even tell apart most nationalities in Ukraine without a serious genetic test first? And even if you do the test, you’ll probably find out that many people’s self-identification has little to do with their genetics.
Yes, nationality in Ukraine is more of a concept now, rather than a matter of blood. If you compare two recent Ukrainian censuses, from 1989 and 20o1, you can spot a spike in the number of people identifying themselves as Ukrainians in the latter.
It is still a matter of great debate for historians, but as an old agrarian society with a painful history of being constantly occupied and exploited, Ukraine now expectedly leans toward a decentralized form of some kind of a federation, as many polls suggest. But when crises hit, like the recent one, the whole country quickly comes together, as we saw on the Maidan square in Kyiv and on central squares all around the country in late 2014. The first thing people would build there was a Cossack fortress, which didn’t make much sense from a defense point of view in our days, but probably represents some kind of a genetic shared memory mechanism that still acts like a societal glue for Ukrainians. We just don’t know exactly what it is yet. It is exciting to observe as a case study for upcoming post-nationhood era, but also contains a number of concerns.
One particular example is especially illustrative for both issues: the Ukrainian extreme far-right movement. When you first encounter members of the notorious Right Sector or Azov paramilitary groups, one thing strikes you the most: the defense they employ regarding accusations of being neo-Nazis. Do not be mistaken, the leadership of these groups is neo-Nazi, but many regular members aren’t.
As they show, they often speak Russian, they have a diverse pool of fighters from different ethnic and social backgrounds, even Jews, and they welcome literally anyone. They don’t have to speak Ukrainian, or be ethnic Ukrainians, they just have to be a Ukrainian patriot, which in their minds means sharing a concept of a victimized Ukraine that is predispositioned to an aggressive Russia. In other words, for Ukrainian neo-Nazis, that means if you hate Russia, you are a Ukrainian.
As newly-formed forces, they have a very modern, in my opinion, recruitment tactic, perfectly suitable for the consumerism culture of the 21st century and modern-day Ukraine. It skillfully uses the general national identity confusion of regular Ukrainians, who have already started the machinery of massive nation building, but because in the Ukrainian case it can’t be based simply on genetics, ethnicity or color of skin, now faces troubles identifying what being a Ukrainian actually means.
Myth #3: The Local Conflict In Ukraine
One of the biggest media misconceptions when it comes to Ukraine coverage is labeling it as a crisis and a local conflict. If you want to uncover the true nature of what’s happening in the country you should start calling what it really is: a Ukrainian-Russian war and an assault on the system of international law.
The ongoing military showdown in Ukraine fits the definition of a war. However, neither the international community nor Russia and not even Ukraine will call it a war. Why?
Well, for Ukraine there’s simply no other option except keep calling what is happening ‘The Anti-Terrorist operation’, a bogus legal term that preserves a safe status quo for the country at home and abroad. What’s the benefit? Let’s imagine for a second the Ukrainian government has stopped playing with terminology and started naming things as they are: cry invasion, and declare war on Russia. Put frankly, if you are Ukraine, you don’t want to go poking a military bear like Russia with an army 7 times bigger than the Ukrainian army.
And even if Russia doesn’t retaliate, the outcome could still be equally devastating for Ukraine: losing the international bailout lifeline, the few remaining investors running away, a declaration of martial law, shutting down a newly-revitalized democracy.
Russia won’t admit it’s involved in a war against Ukraine because the Kremlin is not strong enough yet to face the consequences both abroad and at home.
For example, did you know that the vast majority of Russians, as polls suggest, still believe that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine?And, when asked if they would like to invade their neighbor, 60% of Russians say no. War has never been popular in this part of the world: starting with the horrors of the World War II that almost genetically erased the region, and ending with the recent Chechen Wars and the following terrorist attacks, which remain highly traumatic for Russians.
And, when it comes to openly recognizing its war internationally, Russia is not ready to come out as a bad guy either, primarily because of money. Whatever the Russian propaganda machine may have told you, the country is not the economic giant it once was. Russia’s economy is the size of Italy’s and it is dangerously dependent on selling its natural resources to foreigners, mostly Europeans. Further, it is crumbling under international sanctions. But, despite recent disturbing tendencies, it is still a generally-shared sentiment that to trade with countries openly breaking the rules is not okay. So, instead, Russia is cheating, using exquisite manipulation techniques to confuse all of us, breaking the rules of international law without admitting it.
But even for those abroad, who clearly see a war between Russia and Ukraine, it is sometimes challenging to say it out loud. If they do, it will be the same as to admit the colossal failure of an international law system that allows blatant invasion tactics circa 18th century to go unpunished in 2015. Despite rising tribalism in geopolitics, we are still not ready to declare that the system of international law, which was put together after the worst bloodbath in the human history to prevent another one, is seriously malfunctioning.
But many keep watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine very closely and taking notes, many who would like to use the same tactics of hybrid warfare in the near future.
For the post World War II international order, Ukraine is the last battleground for survival.
Myth #4: Ukraine: The Truth Is Somewhere In The Middle
I know how the Russian propaganda works. I know it from inside, and it is outstandingly good. Goebbels-kind of good. But, when I fled Russia in 2013 disgusted by what local journalism had transformed into, I never thought I would meet the same tactics again in Ukraine.
So what kind of things have I learned from being in the epicenter of the most intense media warfare of our times?
First, word fights matter more than actual battlefields. Propaganda is far worse than any usual media polarization we are used to in the States in recent years. It ruins families, endangers lives, and starts and ends wars. I remember one Hromadske story from the epicenter of one of the biggest battles in the Eastern Ukrainian war. Our reporter went to the city of Debaltseve hours before it was captured by Russian and rebel forces. The town was shelled heavily back then. But, all interviewed locals were sure that the Ukrainian army was responsible, despite acknowledging that to do this they would have to shell their own positions in the downtown as well. The Ukrainian TV and radio was cut off here months ago.
Secondly, Russian propaganda isn’t designed to convince people. What it does instead is radicalizing the society, pushing it to extremes and destroying the middle ground for any debates. And then you have a perfectly fertile soil for political manipulations on a grand scale. Let’s be clear: neither Russia, nor Eastern Ukraine are internet black holes like North Korea or Iran. People have access to almost all internet resources possible. In Russia an impressive 77% of the population have a stable internet access, and before the war Eastern Ukraine also had the biggest and most dynamic rate of new internet users after Kyiv. People are able to hear the other side’s point, they just don’t want to.
All You Need To Know About Exquisite Art Of Russian Propaganda & Media Lies
Hromadske International’s Sunday Show Examines The Russia-Ukraine Media War
Because of Russian propaganda and Ukrainian media bias, the balkanization of the news market has reached unbelievably horrible proportions. In one remarkable study by New York University’s assistant professor Leonid Peisakhin, he used quasi-random variation in the availability of the analog Russian television signal along the Ukrainian-Russian border. Using precinct-level data from the two national elections in 2014, he found that Russian television significantly increased electoral support for pro-Russian parties at the expense of pro-Western parties. However, he also found that Russian television affects different types of voters very differently: it persuades voters with pre-existing pro-Russian political preferences, but pushes away those with pro-Western political preferences. The overall effect of exposure to biased media is therefore increased voter polarization.
Third, the longer the fight, the more you become like your enemy. During my time in Russian newsrooms, I would witness propaganda creep among my Russian colleagues. The remarkable thing, however, was that it would usually start as self-censorship and personal initiative amid rising international pressure on the country, even before it became ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘treasonous’ to criticize the government and Vladimir Putin. Lately, I have watched with horror similar tendencies developing in many Ukrainian newsrooms after the war with Russia started.
Many Ukrainians would quickly adapt a paranoid skill of filtering out what they can or cannot afford to report. For example, many shied away from reporting the story of President Poroshenko granting honorary citizenship to a well-known neo-Nazi leader from Belarus, Sergey Korotkih, because Russian media could use it in strengthening the “Ukraine is a Nazi state” narrative. The same happened with stories about rising LGBT violence and war crimes by Ukrainian self-formed paramilitaries. The Ukrainian government is increasingly deploying the same kind of Russian-style tools in its ongoing media war: banning critical foreign journalists from the country, using the black-and-white rhetoric when talking about the war, and backing the creation of ridiculous Ministry of Information, which many quickly dubbed as Ministry of Truth referencing to the Orwell’s ‘1984’.
Ukraine’s “Ministry of Truth”, Explained.
Ukraine’s newest Ministry of Information is the most controversial and dangerous move by the post-revolutionary…
Although you can’t possible equal Russian and Ukrainian propaganda. Just think of these two numbers: 247 million dollars — it is the 2015 budget for state-run Russia Today, which is a fraction of much bigger multi-language propaganda machine. Do you know how much Ukraine allocated for its Ministry of Information this year? 184 thousand dollars.
Fourth, the Internet makes us free. Despite the balkanization of media that comes with a wider internet access, experimenting with new platforms and digital storytelling keeps windows for freedom of speech open. Oppressive structures always catch up, but they are never sources of creativity. When the Maidan revolution happened, many would use Twitter as the main communication tool. The Yanukovich government didn’t even understand what Twitter was about, so they never managed to interfere.
Livestream platforms, like Youtube, Ustream and others made another profound impact on the revolution. Hromadske actually started as a Youtube livestream news-network. With the tight control of censorship-loving oligarchs over mainstream media and the state over broadcast licenses, many news outlets weren’t able to satisfy the public’s demand in showing what was happening on main squares all around the country. Our reporters would pick up a photo camera or smartphone, with portable broadband, and go inside the crowd livestreaming and reporting, as simple as that. In a matter of days since the launch, our audience would explode to millions, something nobody would expect from a country where the level of internet connection is still quite low and only 55% of people are connected.
Hromadske experiences a lot of web-sites attacks regularly, some of them taking the website down. We’ve also found the solution is embracing as many digital platforms as possible to distribute the content: on top of Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter, we use Medium for publishing longread multimedia stories, Periscope for live streaming (sometimes we even live-stream our editorial meetings), Snapchat, and Slack for internal and even external communication when we invite guest editors or some viewers for a limited sneak-peak of our newsroom processes. We plan to launch a Whatsapp notification system for the audience. With constant digital experimenting, it is just not possible to silence someone. If you shut down one platform, we will pop up on another.
Fifth, the truth is never in between what Russian media and Western media report. When one side lies, fabricates stories based on nothing, stages events, pays actors for playing in orchestrated interviews and then sells it as news, you can’t possible treat is as a credible source of information. The Western newsrooms are also guilty in faulty coverage of the war. But sensationalism, blood-driven coverage, generalization, lack of expertise or political bias are not the same as outright lies and staged theatrics.
Any educated person in the West knows that truth is always somewhere in the middle between two biases. So you would usually consume something from Russian media and then Western media and settle for the middle. This is well-understood by the Kremlin and they manage to use it perfectly by positioning their media as ‘an alternative voice’. So, by creating ridiculous parallel reality of lies and theatrics, they don’t expect you to believe in it. They instead create so much confusion that it shifts the middle further towards them.
The truth is always in between two biases, but never in between bias and pure lies.
Myth #5: Positive Changes In Ukraine Are Irreversible
There are so many remarkable and progressive developments in Ukraine recently: flourishing media freedoms, rising power of civil rights groups, a new police force, even a small hipster revolution in downtown Kyiv (at least according to some easily-impressed authors.)
But, one story I personally like the most: a former construction site in downtown Kyiv was “occupied” back by the local community and named after a Maidan martyr. Just a couple of months ago I went there for a crowdsourced screening of ‘Pouta’, a Czech movie about the Czechoslovakian KGB. The film is banned in Russia and the whole event was devoted to the outrageous miscarriage of justice by a Russian court which jailed two kidnapped Ukrainians for 20 and 10 years of supermax prison respectively. A representative of the local Czech embassy read aloud a harsh statement of his government condemning the Sentsov/Kolchenko verdict. I said ‘hello’ to the Ukrainian foreign minister casually socializing with the crowd. But no official had anything to do with all of this. It happened thanks to Zhenya Kuleba, a tender, but brave and energetic woman. A year ago she quit her job and started fighting against illegal construction development in her own backyard. Now she travels around the country trying to implant ideas of her own small urban revolution elsewhere. One person, but a big step forward for the country.
But, not all changes are positive. You’ve probably heard about the still rampant corruption, the general incompetency of the political elite and the profound influence of the oligarchy over the state. But I think the fight for LGBT equality in Ukraine is the most important battle in cementing its recent progress, and it is not just about gay people: if a society will not get behind the concept of universal civil rights and equality, its democracy is doomed.
Situation For LGBT People In Ukraine Worsened Over Last Year
Hromadske International’s Sunday Show Examines Civil Rights For Gay People In Eastern Europe.
This summer the southern city of Odessa, fourth largest in the country, banned the local gay pride. The ban on the city’s first & Ukraine’s third ever LGBT pride was a major setback for the Eastern European fight for equal civil rights. When I decide to get my concerns heard and peacefully march through my city for it, I expect my tax money to be used to protect my constitutional right to do it: to protect my safety, not to ban and repress me. But, the newly-appointed and one of the most high-profile reformists in the country, governor and former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, decided not to fight for the citizen’s right to peacefully march.
Because it is 2015 and Ukraine still has not a single law protecting gay people from hate speech or hate crimes, on the same day of the ban being introduced, Pavlo Unguryan, a member of the Ukrainian parliament can shamelessly go live on TV in Odessa and call homosexuality ‘a treatable disease’, accuse gay people of pedophilia and state that LGBT tolerance in Europe is a myth. He returned to his job as an MP with the party of the Ukrainian prime-minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk as if nothing happened. Nobody from 450 of his colleagues publicly shamed him. This same guy is also a member of a parliamentary contact group with the United States. I can only imagine how hard it is for him to travel to the US where gay people are mostly being treated, well, as people.
At the same time, there’s a change in the parliament: two deputies showed up for this year’s Kyiv Pride. Serhiy Leshchenko and Svitlana Zalishchuk. Two out of 450. But they were the first ever MPs marching shoulder to shoulder with fearless pride people. Other so called reformist politicians, like Kyiv’s major Vitaliy Klychko, openly called for cancelling the march.
I also salute all those hundreds of policemen showing up to protect this year’s pride in the Ukrainian capital. Some of them were injured in following violence. One policemen got hit with a homemade grenade packed with metal parts that the neo-Nazis brought with them — with intent to kill. The LGBT community raised a sizeable sum of money for the officer’s hospital treatment. It happened exactly a year after the same police refused to protect the first post-revolutionary Kyiv Pride and it got canceled.
This year we also saw the biggest influx of support for Kyiv Pride from regular straight people, especially those who went through the hell of violent revolution. Before the march, the organizers distributed guidelines on personal safety online: what to do in case of a teargas attack, first aid in case of broken bones or head injures, how to avoid panic in case of a bomb attack. It was exactly the same self-help guidelines that were distributed during the Ukrainian uprising and, when the Maidan revolutionaries saw those they were terrified: how could it be that a year after the revolution, anyone in this country still has to face the same kind of brutal violence for exercising the right of peaceful assembly? It shifted many people towards supporting Pride. It doesn’t, however, mean they support full equality.
The devil is mostly in lack of education. As a viral experiment from Central Ukraine shows, most people don’t know anyone openly gay or even what LGBT stands for. In Kryvyi Rih, local activists interviewed regular folks on the streets asking a question: what do they think about heterosexuals: most people would answer with disgust that they condemn heterosexuals as something unnatural. Kryvyi Rih was quickly declared the gayest city in Ukraine.
But then there’s another viral video of my two dearest friends walking around in Kyiv holding hands. Yes, there are inappropriate comments and jokes, but there’s almost no aggression seen as in a similar Moscow experiment. Everything is mostly fine until the guys meet a bunch of neo-Nazis. And those two brave fellows were literally looking for them all over the downtown. Which brings us to the same point I make for local LGBT community over and over again in the last two years: the only thing that makes homophobia worse in Ukraine is unwillingness of its political elite and law-enforcement bodies to keep at bay extremists who feel themselves overtly confident and fear no consequences for their actions at all.
This incident in downtown Kyiv, the recent shootout in Mukacheve or the bomb attack near the Ukrainian parliament that killed four, have the same root. Protecting gay Ukrainians from violence is not an excessive charity in times of war: it is the only way to give this country a chance to become a strong state. Ukraine’s homophobia is fixable.
When you grow up in Ukraine, you don’t know queer people. Apparently I was the only gay kid in school, a constant target of all bullies. When you get older it doesn’t get better. Ukraine is a huge closet for gay people, literally nobody’s out, except a handful of LGBT activists.
Still, my story is quite irrelevant and my mission, my real service to the society as I see it is giving voices to real heroes, to make sure the world hears their stories, like:
- A gay kid from Eastern Ukraine, who traveled 500 miles for his first ever gay pride, only to have neo Nazis break his nose so badly he had to go through reconstructive surgery. He still wants to become a local human rights activist at home.
- Gay activists in Russian St. Petersburg who every year on the International Day Against Homophobia come to rally at a local square, despite knowing that they will face violence from police or neo-Nazis or religious fanatics, or both at once.
- Millions of invisible refugees in Ukraine — a European country — left to their own devices by the state and the international community.
- Small and brave uprisings in Armenia or Moldova that show more courageous and blatant faith in democracy than many established democratic societies.
“Rights are won only by those who make their voices heard,” as Harvey Milk once said.
If you still believe in international law and justice — care for Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
If you believe that more prosperous countries and not more failed states make our planet more secure — care for Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
If you believe that the battle for modern civilization runs through the frontlines of global fights for civil rights equality — care for Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
But if you don’t care or don’t believe in all of this, let the Ukrainian story to be your nice reminder about the transformative power of redemption and second chances.
Because no matter how hard it is to look at your kid’s eyes when you don’t have much to offer for dinner, or how hard you’ve been beaten by your bullies at school or on the street by your own police you are paying for, how much humiliation you went through in a cabinet of a greedy bureaucrat or how heartbroken you were when forced to abandon your home forever fleeing a deadly shelling, people in Ukraine refuse to give up, and I refuse to give up. You get back up and you fight back.
Because by fighting back you are not only giving a second chance to your country, by fighting back you give a second chance to yourself.
Yale School of Law, 10/13/2015