There is a photo on the wall of IRI’s Kyiv office as you enter of a young child sitting on his father’s shoulders wearing a “Ukraine” headband and waving a small Ukrainian flag.
It was taken at the 1996 Ukrainian Independence Day parade by IRI’s Senior Advisor for Eurasia, Chris Holzen. As Chris will tell you, the reason he snapped the photo and why we as an office have decided to place it so prominently on our wall, is that before that date no one really waved flags or displayed Ukrainian “flair” on Independence Day. It was too new, memories of the Soviet Union and the oppression of Ukraine’s language and symbols all too fresh. Even in the years prior to the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity, it was not common to see a Ukrainian flag displayed except on national holidays or on a school or government building.
I vividly recall riding on the Kyiv metro one day during the Revolution of Dignity. You could see the stress and worry etched on faces young and old riding quietly to their next stop. All of a sudden, there was movement at the back of our car and slowly a young man and woman worked their way through the half-filled car towards the opposite end, quietly pulling little Ukrainian flag ribbons out of a backpack and offering them to passengers, constantly looking around as if they were handling an illegal substance. That one could be suspected of criminal behavior for displaying your own national symbols is a very strange feeling. Outside of certain cities and regions in western Ukraine displaying such symbols would appear out of place and provocative. The Revolution of Dignity made it okay to be a patriotic Ukrainian.
This week in Kyiv, Ukrainian flags, t-shirts, banners, car decals, tattoos and hats will be everywhere, as they have been since the revolution. With their dignity returned to them, Ukrainians have also shed their fear of being proud to be Ukrainian. They stood fearlessly together in squares like Kyiv’s Maidan, both large and small, across the country, proudly wearing and holding their country’s symbols.
On August 24, they will do so again and there will be pride and no fear.