” Lviv’s Students – The Beating Heart of EuroMaidan”
Lviv’s Students – The Beating Heart of EuroMaidan
If you’ve been able to find open tables at your favourite restaurants, relaxed in the extra space on one of Lviv’s crowded metros, or wondered where the kissing couples from Lviv’s romantic park benches have gone, it’s likely because many of our youth – the student population of Lviv – have migrated to Kyiv this month to help lead the EuroMaidan protests on Maidan Nezholeznosti. The movement, led by protests in Kyiv and Lviv, was sparked by President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to forego signing an Association Agreement with the European Union in lieu of pursuing closer ties with eastern neighbour Russia. Even with the exodus of Leopolitan students to the capital, the city of Lviv has continued to draw record crowds in support of leading Ukraine along the path to European integration, with over 50,000 people drawn to the Taras Shevchenko statue on Prospekt Svoboda on Dec. 1 in support of Ukrainian-European integration and the efforts of Leopolitan students. What Leopolitan students, in many ways the beating heart of the EuroMaidan movement, may recognize more than most is that they are continuing in the sacred path of protest set out for them by their trailblazing student ancestors.
The Uncommon Responsibility of Being a Leopolitan Student
Lviv has a long history and well-known reputation as one of the leading educational centres in the whole of Ukraine, drawing students from across the country to one of our many fine institutions. Ukrainian youth are drawn to the inimitable European atmosphere of our city, to our chic art and coffeehouse culture, and to our long and hard-earned reputation for student activism. Lviv is widely regarded as a hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism, but also as Ukraine’s most European city – both in atmosphere and attitude. As one Russian-speaking Eastern student explains, “I was expecting people to be angry at me for speaking Russian, but the people of Lviv are so friendly. It’s not European because it wants to be; it’s European because they already express European values, like toleration.” This role as protector of traditional Ukrainian values and chief ‘spokescity’ for European ambition has a storied history among our city’s higher education institutions.
Since long before even the oldest of Leopolitan citizens remember, the students of Lviv have played a vocal, and at times violent, role in protecting minority values. As early as the mid-19th Century, while Lviv was under the auspices of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, students rallied against the use of German as the language of instruction. The issue of language was once again brought to the fore in the early-20th Century as students in Lviv, which was by then under Polish rule, agitated to have the Ukrainian language recognized as equal alongside Polish in the sphere of education. This movement culminated in the murder of a Leopolitan student at the hands of the Polish Governor of Galicia. In those years, even professors were part of the avant-garde spirit as Ukrainian-bred professors refused to give an oath to the Polish state. The Second World War was particularly difficult on Lviv’s students as many were shipped far away to die on foreign battlefields. By 1991, Lviv was one of the epicentres of the Ukrainian drive for independence and our students were especially active in the 2004 pro-Western / anti-corruption Orange Revolution movement, which culminated in a fraudulent election being annulled.
There is perhaps no bigger responsibility of a Leopolitan student than standing up for the interests of Ukrainian nationalism or the Ukrainian aspirations of joining Europe.
The Portrait of a Protesting Student
In an October poll, 73% of students aged 16-29 supported Ukraine’s move to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, with the support even higher among those with a college or university background. It’s clear that students from across Ukraine, especially at Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko and Kyiv Mohyla institutes – who were the first to begin the EuroMaidan protests in late November – support Ukraine’s original position of signing the Association Agreement. So when a city’s student population has a reputation for being activists, what exactly is expected of them when a likeminded protest takes root? Firstly, Leopolitan students quickly organized their own EuroMaidan in front of the Shevchenko monument on Prospeckt Svoboda. What began on Nov. 21 as just 100 students calling for others to join them, swelled to thousands just the next day with chants like “Lviv is for EU” heard all the way down at the Opera & Ballet Theatre. The level of organization by the student leadership in Lviv was remarkable in that at first they refused to work with the opposition parties; the stage, scheduling, and other preparations were largely organized themselves. A tent was pitched to serve as a kitchen and information centre. Preparations were made to get Lviv students to the main camp in Kyiv, numbers were posted on where to find transportation or other support, and all the while daily protests were maintained at Lviv’s EuroMaidan home. Using the popularity of EU-integration in Lviv as an anchor and wanting to use the sheer weight of numbers to its advantage, organizers then worked to free students from their academic commitments to join the movement. Administrators at virtually all of Lviv’s higher education institutions cancelled classes in order for students to head to Kyiv. Thousands of students headed to Kyiv first by bus, until busses were prevented from entering the city, and then by lawyer-accompanied car-caravan, in an effort to swell the numbers in Kyiv. Following the brutal clearing of protestors from Kyiv’s main square by Berkut riot police on Dec. 1, protestors retook the square and set-up a mini city replete with hospital, media centre, kitchens, winter clothing giveaways, churches, and more. At the same time Lviv’s students began to work with political opposition parties and civil society groups to form a united committee to represent the hundreds of thousands of protestors. And as Lviv’s students migrated to Kyiv, the residents of Lviv continued to support Lviv’s own EuroMaidan square.
Love is in the Air
While some students do walk in the footsteps of former Leopolitan activist students, others attend the rallies for myriad other reasons. Stories abound from the 2004 Orange Revolution protests of students meeting at Maidan Nezolezhnosti, falling in love, and getting married on the square. In between speeches, calls to action, and repeated renditions of Ukraine’s national anthem, stages are filled with both up-and-coming and more well-established Ukrainian musical talents. Performers such as Ruslana, Plach Yeremiye, Tartak, Mandry, and Dzidio have already graced the EuroMaidan stages, while Lviv’s own Okean Elzy has provided a soundtrack to much of the action. With the world’s attention turned toward Ukraine, and with thousands of young people gathered in one location, the EuroMaidan meeting places have become quite the festive place to meet. Ukrainian patriotism has rarely been seen at levels such as this – not even on Independence Day – as ‘Slava Ukraina’ and its reply ‘Heroim Slava’ can be heard repeatedly on streets, in cafes, and certainly at the squares repeatedly throughout the day. Ukraine’s anthem is sung every hour at the squares, and is often heard in more interesting places, such as exiting the metro in Kyiv. While EuroMaidan is undoubtedly a political protest, many students attend for a myriad of factors, including those above. This prompted at least one group to release EU-related posters of things to do at a protest, including listening to music, meeting friends, and falling in love. Whether this year’s EuroMaidan spawns more love stories than the Orange Revolution remains to be seen.
It’s Not Just About the Students
Undoubtedly, Leopolitan students represent the most active form of Lviv Region and Western Ukrainian nationalist and European-minded sentiment. For instance, on just Day 3 of the protests, Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyy held a ceremony at Lviv’s Vysoky Zamok (High Castle) in which he raised the EU flag along with the Ukrainian standard. After busses of students from Lviv were prevented from entering Kyiv, Lviv Regional Council organized lawyers to accompany students in car-convoys. The Regional Council also supported a call for a general strike in the region. Even Lviv’s own FC Karpaty showed their support by taking their team on their official bus to the Maidan in Kyiv to stand in support and deliver a variety of goods to cold and hungry supporters, including medicine, food, warm clothes, and personal hygiene products. Ukrainian flags, emblazoned with the symbols of Lviv, its regions, or its universities, can be seen at EuroMaidans right across the country. But for the average student, it’s just another day in the life of being a Leopolitan student – an ancient rite of passage to tie them together with their nationalist and pro-European student forebearers.