World

02.21.14

The Viral Heroine Of The Maidan

The girl whose message—‘I Am A Ukrainian’—went viral makes a plea to the West to put pressure on her country’s corrupt politicians even as her parliament debates early elections.

In the viral video, I Am A Ukrainian, which hit five million views this week, the young woman stands on the EuroMaidan telling her story and imploring people to help the citizens of Ukraine in their quest for freedom. She goes by only her first name—Yulia—and she is impassioned and articulate. "I am on Maidan, the central part of my city. I want you to know why thousands of people all over my country are on the streets. There is only one reason. We want to be free from a dictatorship. We want to be free from the politicians who work only for themselves who are ready to shoot, to beat, to injure people…"

The video was filmed before the massive violence that convulsed Kiev this week, but its message is eerily prescient. Now, with over 100 dead over the past few days of fighting and the country’s president under pressure to call early elections, Yulia says that her message is ever more urgent.

“What do I have to tell people now? Because of today’s circumstances, I cannot say anything else except something like, ‘Pay attention and see what’s going on in Ukraine and try to support, to influence our authorities through your government,’” she told me via Skype. “When you see this violence on the street, you understand these people [the authorities], they are like not humans, they are from another reality. I don’t know how to influence them. I understand the only language they know is the language of power, the language of money.”

“When I’m talking about ideas, about prospects, about the history of Ukraine, about people—people who are scientists, doctors, artists—they don’t care. The only thing they care about their personal, small worlds. Their yachts, cars, women, buildings and so on. I don’t know how to influence them. They do not listen to words. You have to tell me —what to do with them?”

Yulia is serious when she asks this question. She’s young enough that she wouldn’t remember living under Soviet rule in Ukraine and yet the fight for freedom and democracy is remarkably strong in her. She’s currently stuck outside of Kiev because there is almost no way to get back into the city now. Her family is urging her to stay away even while they protest on the EuroMaidan.

“The only thing they care about their personal, small worlds. Their yachts, cars, women, buildings and so on. I don’t know how to influence them.”

She doesn’t describe herself as a hero. In fact, she didn’t really want to make the video put together by American filmmaker Ben Moses (Good Morning VietnamA Whisper To A Roar). She met Moses on one of his trips to Ukraine and reluctantly agreed to do the video at his urging. She said that a lot of people helped and watched to make the video so popular, but she “doesn’t feel happiness about it because the price is too hard. I dreamt to create something else, not this. We’ll create great things, positive things about normal life, about beauty, about art, about love, about the best parts of my country. ”

She wants people to understand that the current fight in Ukraine isn’t just about replacing one government with another. It’s about “the opportunity to develop, not for development, only to have a chance to develop. If we lose, we will lose not only economic possibilities. We will lose hope.”

Yulia doesn’t rule out a return to protesting on the EuroMaidan. She was a volunteer working to help monitor the treatment of protesters beaten and placed under arrest in a guarded hospital room.  She’s been active in the protests since they started more than three months ago and is deeply connected to the people she’s met.

“I’m so proud of each of them, who are not afraid. It’s an incredible feeling [to have] about your people. They have something that made them leave their job and to go to the streets. To take their money and buy medicine. To risk their cars, to take all the risks without any doubts that we can do this. These people they amaze me. My grandfather asked me, ‘Why are you there? Tell me why you stay there.’ I catch myself. The only answer was, ‘How can I not be there?’”