THE BLOG
01/24/2017 05:15 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2018

Ukraine: Reflections on Maidan's Third Year Anniversary, Youth Culture and Bernie Sanders

Two years ago, during my first research trip to Kyiv, I had the honor of meeting one of Maidan's most dedicated youth activists, Denis Pilash. A post-graduate student at Kiev National University, Pilash hails from the western region of Transcarpathia and helped to spearhead left politics on the Maidan. Not to be confused with the old, Stalinist left, Ukraine's youthful independent left sought to push a progressive social agenda on the Maidan focusing on the need for greater educational opportunities, for example. At a certain point, the left's "anti-authoritarian" and anti-oligarchic message was widely embraced during the struggle to topple president Viktor Yanukovych (for a more thorough discussion of these matters, see my booklet Ukraine's Revolutionary Ghosts with original reportage accompanied by photographs).

Recently, I had the opportunity to return to Kyiv and to speak to Pilash once more on the third year anniversary of the Maidan revolution. During our discussion, the veteran activist touched on the prospects for police reform in the midst of war with Russian-backed separatists. For activists, such matters are hardly academic since it was police brutality which sparked the Maidan revolution in the first place. I then asked Pilash about his views on the leftist political scene and progressive social agenda, both of which tend to get lost amidst news coverage and wartime hostilities. We also talked about the relationship between Maidan, Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders' political revolution.

NK: What is the political mood amongst youth on the third year anniversary of Maidan?

DP: Though students and youth were regarded as the heroes of Maidan, student sacrifice was never honored in practical terms. To be sure, a new law on Higher Education which was more or less positive has been passed. The legislation mandates that two thirds to three quarters of students on a budget must receive a stipend. On the whole, however, students haven't received any tangible benefits from their struggle, unlike Greek students who fought against the rightwing military junta of 1967-1974. To this day, Greek universities enjoy "extra-territoriality," which means that police cannot enter local campuses without strict approval from the student body. As a result of this constitutional loophole, anarchists hailing from the innovative local community of Exarcheia, who are at odds with the police, receive shelter and protection on the campus of Athens Polytechnic University. Meanwhile, education is free to all and students aren't thrown out of school if they flunk exams. Student lunches are free as well, and wine is even on the menu! Contrast this bright record with officials at Ukraine's Ministry of Finance, whose notions are even more neo-liberal than the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) and World Bank. Recently, they came up with the idea of actually abolishing stipends. Under new rules, the government would just pay stipends to a tiny sector of students who get the best grades. However, students would have to be pretty dirt poor to receive any monetary support, and in a country where two thirds of the population is already below the poverty line such belt tightening is difficult to accept.

NK: Have students manifested their opposition?

DP: Not surprisingly, there's a lot of discontent about the overall neo-liberal arc of the Poroshenko government, and recently student activists literally threw a cake in the face of the Deputy Minister of Finance who was in the midst of presenting this plan to scrap stipends. Sensing just how unpopular the measure had become, the government withdrew its plan to shelve stipends. Ultimately, however, the government managed to cause some damage by curtailing the overall number of students receiving such payments. After the "cake incident," ungrateful neo-liberal experts and opinion makers called students anti-patriotic and claimed Ukraine supposedly needed more money for war as opposed to education. Ukrainian media meanwhile demonized students by claiming they were lazy and needed to work more. Unfortunately, students find it difficult to fight back because they aren't particularly united as a social group. To be sure, we have some student organizations and I personally was involved in one student union called Direct Action. The latter participated in the cake throwing action, but overall these groups are pretty tiny.

NK: What has happened to Maidan's independent left three years on?

DP: I would say these leftist groups were marginal then and they have become even more marginal now. Amidst the worsening conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east, leftist groups have become deeply divided. While the majority of new left groups in Ukraine stand against Putin's expansionist regime, there are exceptions. Take, for example, Borotba Union, a Stalinist group which openly supported the secessionists. Fortunately, Borotba has ceased to exist but the group managed to curry some favor with certain sectors of the Western left. At the same time, some former anarchists who got swooped up in a nationalist fervor are no longer engaged in real political work but rather prefer to speak out exclusively against Russia on social media. On the whole however we still have a sane and level-headed political left. One group called Left Opposition is engaged in building up a new political party called Social Movements by bringing workers and independent unionists together with student activists and other progressive constituencies. However, our political work has turned out to be much more challenging than we anticipated at the outset.

NK: So you're actively involved in these goings-on?

DP: Yes, in 2016 we actively opposed I.M.F. austerity measures as well as budget cuts. In addition, we supported a hunger march from the town of Romny all the way to Kyiv which is a distance of 240 miles. Local residents in Romny were up in arms because their hospital was closed down due to this austerity policy which is promoted as "decentralization." In actuality, however, the policy has resulted in the closing of many schools and hospitals which are no longer funded by the state but rather must rely on the municipal authorities. But the latter has no funding, so health and education winds up getting shut down entirely.

NK: In New York, Occupy Wall Street disappeared after a certain point though some activists went on to work with the Bernie Sanders campaign. It sounds like Maidan has wound down too, but perhaps has given way to a new spirit of politics in Ukraine?

DP: I hope so, and that's one of the reasons we kept a close eye on the Sanders campaign while hosting discussions about what was happening in U.S. politics. Unfortunately, while socialism is no longer a taboo word for youth in the U.S., which is the stronghold of global capitalism, our situation here in Eastern Europe is the total opposite. Meanwhile, the threat from right-wing populism in Ukraine is pretty comparable right now to right wing populists in the West. We're very concerned about leftists being outflanked by right wing groups. Bizarrely enough, a trade union confederation, which counts some old time mining leaders as members, has links to the civilian branch of Azov Battalion. The latter is a military outfit and the most far-right group in Ukraine. These folk recently established a political party which is even worse than Svoboda, yet another party which inhabits the far right end of the spectrum. This is absolutely crazy and reflects the low level of political consciousness in Ukraine.

NK: What about other leftist demands?

DP: Working and progressive people need a voice, because popular demands can be manipulated by right wing populists. They need a political platform which will counteract the existing parties which are all run by the ruling class. All these "experts" are talking about privatizing everything, and we need to counteract their rhetoric by securing free education and healthcare. We need to stop austerity measures and take on the oligarchs. We must promote the progressive agenda including civil liberties, gender equality, and freedom of speech. If we live up to these ideals, then we will be fulfilling the original intent of the grassroots movement at Maidan.

Denis Pilash is a political activist in Ukraine. Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based writer. See his booklet, Ukraine's Revolutionary Ghosts.