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The seeming ordinariness of the courageous in Ukraine

By Peter Shmigel - posted Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Jet lag sent me into the dawn streets of downtown Kyiv last week. I would be alert before 5 am and walking by the time the sun – orange, huge and undeniable - was rising from the east over the Dnipro River.

I went to the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square of Kyiv, and walked and paid respects at the make-shift monuments to the Maidan's fallen with their red, green and purple glass jars for votive candles and the photocopied and sticky-taped images of violence's victims.

Here, I'd try to at least honour if not understand how very regular people – the unemployed butcher or the retired grade school teacher or somebody back from working in construction in Ireland – chooses to get on the local subway, get off at the stop that is a Mad Max war zone, and die in the name of a more normal life. All this while I sometimes can't choose to just be kind to those in my own very normal life.


I walked through the stacks of cobblestones levered from the streets and the piles of old tyres at the checkpoints around the city centre.

The illusions of digitally-viewed events fades fast when I see the physical reality. This was no anonymous fight of distant bunkers and drones; rather, opponents squared off in spaces the size of my suburban backyard. It was intimate and immediate violence, almost unimaginable to someone from the first-world who backs away even from confrontations with baristas when I get the wrong coffee.

With a cousin, I walked though the golden gore of the deposed dictator's personal DisneyLand of bowling alleys, brocaded rubbish bins, vintage Chevrolets, faux Spanish galleons that don't sail, and roaming ostriches. All paid for with money stolen from the public who now stream through, lying down on the oligarchical bed to pose for photos. I admired my companion's constant banter and humour – while I sometimes can't even laugh about typos or flat tyres.

I walked past the smoking tin chimneys of the wagon-like military stoves of the remaining camo-clad men on the Maidan, blue sacks below their exhausted eyes. I wondered how to judge these men, and some women, who are determined to remain in place until the Presidential elections at the end of May (should they occur) – desperados or democrats; naïve or knowing; homeless or heroic.

I walked along my own mental and emotional landscape of culture, nation and belonging – shaped by both inheritance and by choice. I listened to the stories of old colleagues – reverse migrants from the West. They told of where the sniper nests were, of carrying bodies to hotel lobbies with blood-stained carpets, of finding words like "wife" or "daughter" in mobile phones and of making calls to families for people who were dying. I walked into packed churches where faith isn't a matter of practice but a way of life and source of solace. I think of all the times I see the caller ID and don't take the call, or when it's more convenient not to pray or pause for reflection.

I walked to flats of friends and family members who strike chords of hope, determination, anger and anxiety. They carried trays of food to the protestors in between helping their kids with their homework assignments. Now, they laugh about invasion dates as they book dental appointments. They prepare their "evac kits" and weigh up border crossings, and then go to their jobs of saving lives, or selling fishing rods, or making investment decisions. They fight hard to determine facts and truth in a digital storm of disinformation and paid trolls and a real storm of steel from provocateurs' bullets.


They reasonably fear not only for their physical safety and for the future of their children, but very specifically about the prospect of "erasure". Several talked to me of concern about a Putinesque return to Soviet-style times where personal and cultural identity was wiped from public view, where Komsomol poems were committed to ever-lasting but unwanted memory.

I see their pain in all of this but their purpose too – how theirs is the unique dignity of balancing normalcy and immediacy, practicality with idealism, and love of family with love of culture and country. In this, I make out that they embody what it is to be human and humane, to live and hope where there is much reason not to be so inclined.

I walked because much of the time I didn't know what else to do when confronted by the intense complexity of Ukraine both past and present.

There are however things I now do know: the place I walked is called bravery and there I realised some of the limits of my own.

And, because ordinary Ukrainians are now courageously choosing to be extraordinary, that home of the brave will in the end withstand the hatred of the barbarous.

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This article was first published on Walk & Talk.

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About the Author

Pete Shmigel is a consultant with Crosby|Textor, an international research and strategic communications firm. He was formerly Chief of Staff to three serving NSW Cabinet Ministers, including the NSW Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, as well as CEO of industry associations in the sustainability sector.

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