LONDON — Vladimir Putin has been described as many things: tyrant, autocrat, villain, gangster. Few would call him a unifier. But by annexing Crimea that is exactly the role he has played in Ukraine.
Putin invaded Ukraine in part to embolden Russian national sentiment. The Russian president has suppressed any remnants of an independent press, revved up the state-sponsored PR machine, which churns out vicious propaganda in support of increasingly irredentist foreign policy.
He has justified the forced annexation of Crimea as a move to protect ethnic Russians, portraying the Euromaidan, the wave of demonstrations, civil unrest and revolution in Ukraine, as radical fascists sponsored by the United States government. But rather than expose the duplicity of Kyiv, his lies have revealed the truth about Ukraine.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Euromaidan camps of Independence Square. Dark-skinned Crimean Tatars help blue-eyed Slavs chop firewood, construction workers from Cherkasy share black bread with weathered Cossacks and Kievan rabbis stand side by side with Catholic priests from Lviv.
The religious imagery on the memorials includes Rosary beads, Sunni scriptures and Menorahs. Gilded icons decorate the laminated photos of those who perished under the Berkut, the deadly militia controlled by deposed President Viktor Yanukovych.
Placards, painted by Ukrainians from every corner of the country, all have different versions of the same sentiment: “Putin, get out!” Those who fought in Maidan are heroes. Those who died are national martyrs. Their religion, ethnicity, profession and origin are of secondary importance. They all fought for Ukraine.
In Maidan, I met opposition from all over Ukraine and beyond. Nikita had travelled from southern Belarus to pay his respects to the dead. He lamented that he had not been there to join his comrades in battle. His hair was styled in the traditional Cossack khokol, shaved at the sides with a long Mohawk on top. We walked to a small stall, where he bought two red carnations. He laid them on the memorial of a 22 year-old fighter from Lutsk, who was shot by Berkut snipers.
On Sunday, March 30, a memorial service was being held in Maidan. It had been 40 days since the first shots were fired. I went together with Alex, an engineer originally from Zaporizhzhya who now lives in Kyiv.
As we walked down Bankova Street, he described the breadth of support for the opposition during the fighting. Activists, farmers, teachers, painters, scientists, engineers, musicians were all united against their corrupt government, which had kowtowed to Putin’s aggressive demands.
Alex described how in February, when armed conflict began, Kyiv united. Blonde girls in stiletto heels carried tyres to bolster defense lines. A man in a Range Rover had parked his car on the pavement, producing a baseball bat to help break bricks to throw at government police forces.
In the face of internal corruption and Russian aggression, Ukraine’s diverse population has been united.
Putin may have physically annexed a part of the country, but he has brought its people together, fuelling a surge of patriotism and strengthening a distinct Ukrainian national and cultural identity. Putin is the common enemy.
This revival of nationalism coincides with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Taras Shevchenko, father of modern Ukrainian literature.
Shevchenko was born into serfdom; his works reflect his struggle against the Tsarist Russian Empire. His poetry is replete with romantic patriotism – tales of the mighty Dnieper River, freedom from tyrants, the boundless steppes and fertile hills of Kyiv, motherland of Rus.
“When I am dead, bury me, in my beloved Ukraine…” begins his poem Zapovit (Testament), which dramatically describes images of slain enemies and national freedom. Shevchenko’s work is second only to the national anthem as an emblem of Ukrainian culture.
Today, Ukrainians are united in their own struggle against government corruption and against Putin’s Russia.
In Kreschatik Street, the main artery of Kyiv, Russian chain restaurants are empty. Stalls outside sell fridge magnets with swastikas on the Russian flag and mugs brandishing an image of Putin depicted as Hitler. Kiosks sell doormats, printed with Yanukovych’s face, with the phrase “Wipe your feet” written in Cyrillic.
As the center of government power, Kyiv has always maintained strong support for the opposition. But this renewed nationalism extends beyond the battlefield of Maidan.
In Lvov, Kharkiv, Lutsk, Odessa and Dnepropetrovsk, demonstrations against Putin have been attended by protestors in the tens of thousands. Even on the Eastern border, in the seemingly pro-Russian stronghold of Donetsk, almost 10,000 people rallied at the beginning of March in support of Euromaidan.
Groups from all over Ukraine and its borderlands stand united in their desire for justice, truth and humanity.
Putin has brought out an unparalleled strength within the Ukrainian nation, ironically the very same national strength he desperately seeks to foster within Russia.
Rebecca Trenner is a writer for The Guardian who has just returned from Kyiv, where she interviewed people in Maidan from all over Ukraine and its borderlands.