Kiev, Ukraine – The vendor’s table was overflowing with souvenirs, just metres away from Maidan Square in the centre of the city.
Though the vendor’s wares looked merry and bright, a closer look revealed a full-blown smorgasbord of newfound Ukrainian nationalism. Faux-golden loaves of bread cheekily referred to the genuine article found in former President Viktor Yanukovich’s residence after he fled to Russia; small gold-coloured toilets did the same. Doormats and rolls of toilet paper featured the ousted leader’s face. Military patches were emblazoned with the national symbol, a stylised blue-and-gold trident. Others were coloured in red and black, the colours of the ultranationalist Right Sector group.
Refrigerator magnets portrayed a Ukrainian woman wearing a flowered wreath and a gas mask; another bears the words “Death to Fascist Toads”, as a blue-and-gold soldier bayonets a swastika with the head of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In fact, Putin appears as prominently as Yanukovich on these knickknacks, though his face is usually adorned with a Hitler moustache.
“The victorious revolution of dignity has not only changed the government. The country has changed. People have changed. The time of inevitable positive changes has come. To implement them, we need first of all peace, security and unity,” said President Petro Poroshenko at his inauguration ceremony in Kiev on June 7.
Changes have indeed come – and the people have changed, too. The Khreshchatyk, Kiev’s main shopping strip, which leads through Maidan Square – the centre of Ukraine’s revolution earlier this year – has always featured souvenir peddlers. But their goods now reflect a more robust Ukrainian nationalism.
Poroshenko and his government are now promoting unity through reconciliation. “As president, with what will I come to you in the nearest time? With peace. With the project of government decentralisation. With a guarantee of the free usage of the Russian language in your region. With the strong intention not to divide people into right and wrong Ukrainians,” he said in his inauguration speech.
But Ukraine’s souvenir manufacturers appear not to have gotten the message.
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“People from Kiev and Lvov and the people from the east and the south, we are all alike. We all have one motherland and we all have the same future,” said Aleksander Korobka, travelling with his wife on a business trip from his native city of Kharkiv, in Ukraine’s restive east. “I don’t see that those other regions will have a separate future from Ukraine … I hope that [the fighting] finishes quickly and that our country holds together.”
Nevertheless, he still decided to buy a doormat with the words “wipe here” and a picture of Yanukovich’s face. “If we have guests, the blank side will be for them. For those we know well, we’ll flip it over.” Korobka’s contradictory sentiments highlight the extremely confused mix of feelings, politics, beliefs, history and geography that make the current knot that is Ukraine so difficult to unpick.
At another table, a set of shot glasses featured the slogan, “Thank God I’m not Russian”. A T-shirt with a fearsome Cossack was emblazoned with the phrase, “Better to die free than live on your knees”. The red-and-black flag of Right Sector – whose violent fight against Yanukovich’s security forces helped secure the recent victory in Maidan this year – fluttered in the wind. The group is affiliated historically with Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist who declared an independent Ukrainian state just days after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. He was assassinated by the USSR in 1959 for treason.
While the unspoken message of the souvenirs is clear – reaffirming a robust and militant Ukrainian identity – the feelings of the salesman were more nuanced. “If Putin is a bad person, that does not mean that all Russians are bad people. Russians are good people. Putin only represents himself. He’s done this all specially. He’s specially carried out these provocations so that war would start between people,” said Rostislav Klimenko, who has sold souvenirs on the Khreshchatyk and Maidan for a decade.
Tourists are spooked
Klimenko said sales are down right now because tourists have been scared away by the fighting in the country’s east. But he is sure they will return. “After the Orange Revolution, there were lots of tourists. Right now, there are few because they are afraid of the war,” Klimenko, who fought at Maidan Square on December 11, told Al Jazeera.
“Right now, EuroMaidan souvenirs are much more popular,” he said, but acknowledged that the majority of tourists are Ukrainian and not foreign. “If people want to join Russia, fine, let them go to Russia, it’s understandable. Half want to join Russia, the other half don’t want to join. It’s not clear what is going on here now.”
At Maidan itself, the square of fountains and white brick and marble is still mostly invisible under its coating of dilapidated army tents. Chants of “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” echo across small groups of camped-out drunks, curious foreign tourists, retirees, pro-Ukrainian militiamen and people living in the city centre walking their dogs or meeting up for dates. Most say that those camping out here are not those who fought against Yanukovich’s forces.
“There are a lot of crazy people around. The people who fought in the revolution, they’ve all gone down to Donetsk to fight – and those who drink, they’re here,” said Tatiana, a souvenir vendor who has worked on Maidan for four years.
In the east and south, Poroshenko is facing open, armed rebellion. In Kiev he faces a disorganised, nationalist bloc not opposed to violent overthrow – or at least not opposed to talking about it.
“We will only clean up the Maidan when we clean up the system,” said Stepan Vakula from western Ukraine. “We will only leave the Maidan when the situation here in Ukraine has been normalised.”
Will there be a third Maidan?
Walking through the seemingly drunken centre of the Maidan encampment in front of the McDonald’s, Sergei Feisun, a former press secretary of the Orange Revolution on the Maidan from 2004-05, gave his analysis of the situation – essentially a warning to the newly elected Poroshenko.
“The face has changed, but the system hasn’t. The people now understand that the system is not useful. It is fighting against our needs. It is the same exact economic system as existed before. The same laws are still in place,” Feisun said. “If the situation does not change, then there will be a third Maidan.”
Maidan itself remains a surreal and chaotic scene, in many ways mirroring the chaos tearing at the political and social fabric of the country. While fighting continues to rumble in the east and peace talks are held in Kiev between Ukraine and Russia, the situation on the ground remains muddy with no clear resolution in sight.
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