Mark Teramae is a researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki.Living three of the last four years in Kiev and my new position of political science researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute have given me a unique opportunity to talk about Ukraine. While most of the Western (and Russian) discourse continues to focus on great power politics, Russia-EU relations, and a resurrection of the Cold War, the domestic factors in Ukraine have been widely overlooked. Much as Hawaii was reduced to the American base at Pearl Harbor during WWII, Ukraine is only being seen in terms of Russian territorial ambitions or Western market expansion.

Maidan, from the full name of Kiev's main square Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), has come to be the most popular and representative word in the Ukrainian language, despite originally not being a Ukrainian word at all. The term comes from the Persian meydan and means "open space" and was introduced to Ukraine via Turkic languages. Interestingly, the sites of other recent major protests have also been held on maidans: Tavisuplebis Moedani (Freedom Square) in Tbilisi, Midan Tahrir (Tahrir Square) in Cairo, and Taksim Meydanı (Taksim Square) in Istanbul. Kiev's Maidan has long been a symbol of protests, ranging from small gatherings of a few dozen people to the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan which both had crowds of up to one million people.

When a small group of protesters following the lead of Ukrainskaya Pravda journalist Mustafa Nayem, congregated on Maidan on a Thursday evening in November to speak out against President Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement, I thought it was quite a pointless act. When I passed by on Friday evening, my initial thoughts were confirmed. About a week later on 30 November however, I went back again and this time a couple hundred activists turned into a couple thousand and the three leaders of the so-called United Opposition (Arseniy Yatseniuk, Vitaliy Klitschko, and Oleg Tyagnibok) were speaking on a stage (which later was strangely dismantled and packed up). A few hours later, riot police from the notorious Berkut squad violently broke up the protests, beating mostly unarmed students and journalists. This act served as the catalyst for getting the Euromaidan movement off the ground.

Between the end of November and the end of January when I left Ukraine for Finland I visited Maidan many times. For long periods of time Maidan would resemble an outdoor festival complete with camping places, food stalls, and live music where a light-hearted atmosphere prevailed. Volunteers served tea and soup in the sub-zero temperatures and groups of young men huddled around fires blazing in metal trash bins which produced a smoke and smell that lingered for months. It was said that you could tell residents of Kiev apart from visitors based on the smoky smell of their coats. My own nose confirmed this upon arrival in Helsinki.

Most of the protesters were not from Kiev, and most of those were from Western Ukraine, as was visible by the names of towns and villages written on their flags. This has been backed up in surveys done by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology. However, all regions of the country were represented, even Crimea, so it is unfair to label Euromaidan as a purely Western Ukrainian movement.

While the majority of people on Maidan spoke Ukrainian, most of them had no problem if someone spoke Russian. I never personally felt threatened either for being a foreigner or for speaking Russian.

Far-right groups such as Svoboda and Praviy Sektor were numerically small but highly visible due to their paramilitary nature of marching in small units and carrying flags, and later weapons. They were also very visibly present in the occupations of both the Trade Union building on Maidan and the Kiev City Administration building down the street on Kreschatik.


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