KYIV – While voting statistics show political engagement among youth in Canada, the United States and parts of Europe is declining, the same cannot be said of Ukraine. Maybe what Canada needs is a nasty little foreign invasion on its eastern flank to stir greater interest among its young people in politics and the country’s future. It sure seems to be working in Ukraine.
A rich blend of teens and twenty-somethings assembled with a core group of 40- to 70-year-olds on Maidan or Independence Square in downtown Kyiv last Sunday, as speaker after speaker criticized the government’s handling of the war in the Donbas or exhorted citizens to put their patriotism into action by saving energy and supporting their soldiers with donations of food, clothes and money.
And this happens almost every weekend.
“We are standing on the very place it all began,” an opposition speaker declares, alluding to the revolution last winter that saw the departure of former president Viktor Yanukovich, accused of corruption and close ties to Russia. “Take off your hats and give a minute’s silence for the fallen,” and everyone does, including 15-year old Ihor Dykun and three of his peers.
Dykun says he and his friends are involved because the burden of protecting the state from Russia’s soldiers and the separatist rebels on the eastern border, which lately has exploded into more deadly warfare in places like Debaltese, will fall to them in a few short years. As well, he says, they soon must grapple with the corruption and enormous debt that also threatens the welfare of Ukrainians.
“It’s our country, it’s our life, it’s our soldiers, it’s our brothers,” he says. “We are children but we can also do something – we can write letters to the soldiers, save energy, wear Ukrainian flags and symbols,” as his friends nod in agreement. “I think in Ukraine there are a lot of teenagers like us who really interested in politics.”
Nearby, 21-year-old Helena Vigowskaja, dressed like Bugs Bunny to lure people into paying her for a picture, listens carefully to what the speakers – opposition members, civil society activists, soldiers from the east – say.
“Every Sunday they talk about the things they want,” she says. “More changes. Our Ukrainian money is down, down, down. The cost of products is up, up, up, and people don’t like this. If we want to integrate with Europe we must have higher wages. It’s bad. People here have a very hard life. And this is only one of a number of problems.”
Other young people have starker links to the war. Eighteen-year-old Andrey Kalinchenko’s father is fighting there and he himself is a “volunteer,” meaning a civilian who devotes many hours to helping accumulate, package and convey food and other materials to the men and women at the front, since the government is unable to supply them sufficiently.
His father, he says, was fighting in Debaltseve but now is in hospital. In recent weeks dozens of soldiers have been injured or killed in intensified fighting which has seen the rebels take additional turf in the oblast of Donetsk.
Katya Konta, 30, married and the mother of a little boy, says that before the war “we weren’t interested” in politics “but today we have war, so we must.” She is also a volunteer who has traveled east more than 10 times.
“Tomorrow we have the funeral of a very, very close friend,” she says, pausing and tearing up. “Ivan was 37. He was killed in Luhansk on 29 of January. A sniper (got him). He was a very good friend, a good man. He had two sons, a wife, and he was very popular in our town, Fastov. Everything I can, I do.”