Today, on Sunday October 14, 2012, Ukraine’s right wing political party ‘Svoboda’ jointly commemorated the religious holiday of Pokrova (Protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary) together with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army(UPA). The largest of these meetings occurred in Kyiv where some 25,000 people rallied at the Taras Shevchenko monument and then marched down Volodymyrska street to Mykhailivska ploshcha for an outdoor concert a kilometre away. As a long time observer of many displays of public gatherings in Kyiv this was by far the most skillful blend of politics, religion and nationalistic fervor that I’ve seen in the last 20 years.
While the numbers were impressive (it was certainly the biggest rally during the current Parliamentary election campaign) the event was nonetheless completely staged and choreographed as is typical of most political events now taking place following the Orange Revolution. What it lacked in spontaneity and energy it made up for in absolute numbers, its professionally designed banners and the standardized sizes of the UPA and Svoboda flags. The absence of any well known cultural figures or politicians from other parties only added to the starkness of the event and reinforced the perception of the general anemic state of the opposition in present day Ukraine.
As a demonstrative show of strength, Svoboda’s rally certainly appeared to make an impression on hundreds of Russian speaking Kyivites lining the streets who watched, often with sympathy, at the sheer number of participants taking part in the march. However much of this was quickly dissipated as approximately 100 masked young men and women quickly moved to the head of the column and began setting off percussion explosives, flares and smoke bombs to the joy of paparazzi photographers covering the event. Although unidentified by origin, the masked participants had all the attributes of the well know Tryzub youth organization which appears uninvited on the margins of many nationalist rallies to express their clenched fist fusion views of extremist nationalism and racism. That the Svoboda organizers and their many beefy megaphone-carrying crowd controllers made no attempt to neutralize these ‘party crashers’ speaks volumes for what Svoboda is prepared to condone. Why Svoboda would tolerate this charade, knowing full well that the media (and the Party of Regions) will focus on these sensational acts, is totally incomprehensible, - especially when independent pollsters now indicate that Svoboda is on the cusp of breaching the 5% barrier which would allow it to enter Parliament if the election were held today.
Watching the events today one couldn’t help but feel that the torch of UPA mythology has now passed to a new generation of Ukrainians, the grandchildren of that epoch, who selectively idolize and mythologize that part of the UPA legacy that best fits their perception of Ukrainian identity and, if necessary, challenges the political regime in power today. One also can’t help but conclude that as long as UPA mythology acts as a rallying cry for nationalistic Ukrainians, and continues to bait the russified eastern parts of the country, the legacy will continue to endure and remain relevant for both sides, -- but unfortunately for opposing ends. One ongoing fallout of this polarization continues to felt in Ukraine’s educational system where the politicized legacy of the UPA era prevents it from being integrated into the state educational curriculum where it could be taught as a legitimate subject of historical relevancy for understanding Ukraine’s 20th century evolution to an independent state.
Meanwhile two blocks away on Khreshchatyk street, hundreds of Kyivites continued to shop and relax in the cafes of the Globus mall as they have on every Sunday. Two solitudes, in proximate though very separate coexistence.
-- an Observer