new normal

Ukraine’s Techies Will Teach You About Forgiveness

A 33-year-old social entrepreneur launched a kid’s app about forgiveness just days before the bloodiest day of clashes in Kiev. Why his message could help shape the new Ukraine.

© Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters

“We’re not fighters—our app is about forgiveness.”

Mikhail Stepanskiy, a 33-year-old techie born and raised in Kiev, is still shell-shocked. An app developer, fried egg-lover, and Breaking Bad-enthusiast, he tears up two minutes into our conversation over Skype. “We are a very peaceful nation. I haven’t thought something like this could happen in Ukraine.”

We’re talking at 8 p.m. on Thursday (eastern European time), in the middle of a tumultuous and bloody week in the country’s capital when police opened fire on protesters agitating against the government of President Viktor Yanukovych.

With tired brown eyes and a thick Russian accent, he brings the gravity of the uprising in Ukraine to life. “More than 70 people were killed in Kiev. What can I say?” he begins, wiping tears from underneath the square, black-rimmed glasses that frame his pale face. “I can’t even put it in my head, it’s hard to believe. If I haven’t seen these bodies, I wouldn’t even believe it myself.”

When the snipers opened fire on demonstrators this week in the Maidan (Independence Square), Stepanskiy was at his work—a modern, Google-esque office complete with fake grass and colorful furniture. It’s a fact that he was embarrassed to admit (“My wife was at the Maidan, which makes me ashamed.”)

But while fierce protestors have spent three grueling months fighting to topple Yanukovych, Stepanskiy has been launching a revolution of his own.

The startup company he co-founded with anothe two partners KidAppers, a “creative studio” with a mission to “make unique apps that help lay a good moral foundation for kids in a fun, informative and interactive format.” Their first official app, Son of the Sun and Wizard Lizard, is an interactive story that teaches kids the importance of forgiveness. "I started to create the book with my partner Ruslan Kosarevych 10 months ago before the uprising had begun." The differences between the founders helped shape their app. "I'm speaking Russian and my partner Ruslan is speaking Ukranian but we feel no discrimination." It was released the first week of February in the Ukraine. “It’s an irony that now it’s very much an actual thing,” he says of the app’s timing. “Because it’s very hard not to hate people who are killing you.”

Hard for adults, but even more confusing for kids. When the fighting in the Maidan began to heat up in the last few days, Stepanskiy decided to take his nine-year-old son, Vlad (one of the main inspirations behind his company), to stay with his grandparents. “We took him to school the day before that, but there were three pupils there. Three pupils! And no teacher.” With the subways closed and the world urging Ukrainians to stay inside, the school system fell victim to the chaos.

But the lesson of forgiveness, Stepanskiy says, is one Vlad wouldn’t learn in school anyway. “Moral education is not a part of upbringing for a lot of kids,” he says. “But in order to teach your kid, first you must entertain him, then teach him.” It’s a strategy he’ll probably use when he explains the current state of Ukraine to his nine-year-old.

No easy task. From the eyes of this young and charmingly geeky father, the situation couldn’t be worse.

What started as a peaceful protest in November, after Yanukovych reneged on his decision to enter a trade agreement that would have moved Ukraine closer to the European Union, quickly spiraled into a tumultuous bloodbath. The turning point came, Stepanskiy says, when news emerged that a female opposition reporter had been hunted down and “beaten senseless” by Yanukovych’s thugs.

Stepanskiy says streams of Ukrainian men flocked to Kiev (“from every town, every city, even little villages”) to stand up against the president’s brutality. Women came, too—some, like Stepanskiy’s wife, to provide sandwiches and tea to those on the front line; others to deliver deadly Molotov cocktails to the protesters. Just a few days before the big attack, Stepanskiy recalls a chilling conversation with a 40-year-old protestor from a remote village in Western Ukraine. “He said that every one of his friends in Maidan realizes that they probably cannot see their wives or kids again. They are ready to die for their freedom.”

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Yanukovych’s enforcers were there to make sure they’d keep that promise. “These hooligans are hunting on people,” Stepanskiy says, referring to the pro-government militias, called titushki, that the president allegedly shipped in to help the authorities suppress the protests. “They were delivered to Kiev from every city. From the Eastern Region and South Region just like thugs….like rednecks.”

“Police gave them bats, axes, sticks, and just said: ‘Frighten them all!’ So they set cars on fire, beating people, killing people,” Stepanskiy syas. “Then they’re given money, everything—[they] even give them marijuana to relax after beating people in the streets.”

But the violence didn’t stop the protestors determined to put an end to Yanukovych’s totalitarian rule. “When Yanukovych was elected we thought ‘Oh well, another not good president. But four years will pass and we’ll choose another one,’” Stepanskiy remembers. “But when the wealth of his family began to increase 700 percent or something, we realized that the level of corruption is unbelievable.” “We are like sheep—and he is a wolf. We have money that he must own. So we’re just moneybags sitting there.”

Stepanskiy captures the infuriating simplicity of Yanukovych’s tactics with a story: “Just imagine I have a gas station. And one day a man came to me and he say: ‘You know, great gas station, but we think you’re not paying taxes.’ I would say: ‘No I’m paying, I promise.’ Then he would say, ‘No, you’re not. Sell us your gas station for half the price or you will be in jail.’ I would have no choice. It would be gone.”

Anything with property, or real estate, or something tangible, the president can (and will) steal, according to Stepanskiy. “You can do nothing if you are against the power,” he says. “It is like a cancer.” Luckily, the young dad has found a way to evade Yanukovych’s reach. “I have a business nobody can steal from me,” he says smiling. “All of my business is in my mind!”

With a passion for borsch soup and family all over Ukraine, Stepanskiy doesn’t want to flee Kiev, he wants to make it better—not only for his son but for all the children of his homeland. “I want to live in normal country. I want to live where people are not tortured, not captured, not killed. I don’t want to live in a country where you can go out and not be sure you will come home.”

As the conversation winds down, Stepanskiy admits that it’s difficult for him to hear Yanukovych referred to as a man. “I think he’s more like a beast,” he says. Then, as if writing the end to KidApper’s next story in his head, adds: “But that’s the thing that’s important for everyone to understand—you can forgive, even the beast.”

Two days later, three words from Mikhail arrive via Skype, hinting that the “normal” he is looking for is closer than ever: “Victory for Ukraine!” he writes. Through sporadic, jumbled messages he explains how all of Kiev awoke Saturday to the news that President Yanukovych had fled the capital. Soon after, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (just freed from prison) rushed to the Maidan to honor the protestors. “Nobody could do it—not other countries, nobody—could do what you have done,” she yelled into the crowd. “You are heroes, you are the best of Ukraine.”

Night has fallen again on Kiev and the streets are quieter than usual. Stepanskiy is sipping a beer. “The atmosphere is great but I haven’t heard celebrations. I have no euphoria because this victory came on blood,” he says. “Kiev is happy and proud of victory, but understands that this is just the beginning of the long way to be a normal country.”

Stepanskiy’s vision for a world where his business can flourish and his son can run safely in the streets is far from being achieved—but the hardest part is over. “We fought down the bloody dictator without big help of politics or international authority,” he says. “Til this day we were lazy. Now we are a new nation that can be proud by itself. Like a phoenix, raised from ashes and blood.”