Students Leading the Change: Ukraine

Application deadline: 
December 8, 2023

Euromaidan, or the Maidan Uprising, began late at night on 21 November 2013 as a peaceful protest. 1,500 protesters were summoned following a Facebook post by a journalist, Mustafa Nayyem, calling for a rally against the government. The protests were sparked by President Viktor Yanukovych's sudden decision not to sign the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement, instead choosing closer ties to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union. On November 30, 2013, former law enforcement officers, exceeding their official powers, carried out administrative detention of participants of a peaceful assembly on Maidan Nezalezhnosti. During the detention, Berkut (special police force) used violence against the victims, which prevented the rally illegally. Most of these protesters were students, and the most active students were from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA, or, as the students lovingly call it, Mohylyanka). This university has a rich history: it was founded in 1615, closed during the USSR, and reopened in 1991 as a place of free thinking and Ukrainian patriotic education. Outraged by the violence against the youth, 400,000–800,000 protesters joined Maidan. They were standing against centuries-long Russian oppression and for the freedom and independence of Ukraine. In February 2014, the violence against the protesters escalated. More than a hundred protesters were killed. In Ukraine, they are called the Heaven Hundred. As a result, Yanukovich fled Ukraine to Russia. Ukraine had a new presidential election and started rapidly developing as an independent state. Russia reacted by starting the war against Ukraine and invading Crimea and Donbas.

Pavlo Bondarenko

Pavlo, do you remember the first day you went to Maidan?
It was the very first day, November 21, when Mustafa Nayem called everyone to join the protest. At that time, at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, I was organising an event which was not very successful. At the same time, my grandmother had health issues, and I was alone in Kyiv. That day, I came home late in the evening, around eleven, prepared dinner, opened my laptop, and started reading the news. That dinner remained on the table for several more days. Immediately after reading Mustafa’s post, I sent it to the chat of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’s students, and we went to Maidan. From that day on, I was an active participant in the revolution.

Why did you decide that you needed to join Maidan? And how did your friends who you messaged react to it?
It was a clear signal for all of us that they were trying to return us to Russia. It was clear that it was now or never. At that moment, everyone around me went to Maidan. No one condemned or had a negative attitude towards Maidan among my friends. For us, the Maidan was primarily not for the European Association but against returning to Russia.

How old were you when Maidan started, and where did you study? 
I studied at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in the second year of the Bachelor's program in Economic Theory. In the beginning, I was 18 years old. I turned 19 in the middle of Maidan.

How did your parents react to your decision to go to the Maidan?
At that time, none of my relatives were in Kyiv. At first, I hid it from my mother, but when she returned to Kyiv, she said: 'Okay'. My mother is very combative. At first, she watched live broadcasts from the Maidan and treated her nerves with alcohol, but at some point, she got tired of watching these broadcasts, and she went to the Maidan. There, she joined the medical service. In the beginning, she was a pharmacist, and then she joined the surgical teams that sewed people up and tried to save them in the House of Trade Unions, on Triokhsvyatytelska Street, and in St. Michael's Cathedral.

My mother and I hid from our grandparents together. I clearly remember how, in February, when the shootings had already begun, I crouched down and told my grandmother that I was home and everything was OK against the background of the explosions of stun grenades. They supported the Maidan and worried about us. They were very proud of us when we later told them what happened to us. When my grandfather was still alive, they constantly showed everyone our medals. They supported us very much.

Students of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy on Maidan in December 2013

How did you participate in the Maidan as an organiser of the student movement?
In the beginning, it was a spontaneous impulse. At that time, I administered the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’s News page on social media. On the first day, I wrote on this page that I take full responsibility for this post, but I urge everyone to go to the Maidan.

The next day, I clearly remember that I stayed up all night, then came to classes, and they told me that I was called to Volodymyr Morenets (he was the acting president of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy because Serhii Kvit was in Canada then). It turns out that Sulima (the deputy minister of education at the time of the ministry of Tabachnyk) called him outraged that the students went on strike. In the end, all we did was move the location of the strike outside the campus walls.

Then, attempts to cooperate with other universities began, which later resulted in the formation of the Student Coordination Council. We aimed to unite all student strike committees. This was our attempt to give officiality to our movement, attract speakers, and strengthen students' voices. Everything worked harmoniously until the first bloodshed when the student Maidan was dispersed. Then, when the question arose not about the student association but about confrontation with the authorities, I think the student council lost its importance a little. In the future, the student council will perform representative functions – for example, an essential communication function. Students constantly worked with journalists because students knew how to communicate and knew foreign languages – English, French, German, etc.

At a certain point, I changed my activities on the Maidan. I did not leave the Student Coordination Council but switched from active participation in this organisation to fieldwork because it seemed to me that it was beneficial. I took care of the student headquarters, where we had a heating station, food, tea, and coffee. Then I switched to a line function: I dragged the wounded and snow bags and built barricades. We did different things there. Then I saw injured people for the first time, and for the first time in my life, I saw dead people.

Thank you very much for sharing this with us. Could you please tell us more about what the Student Coordination Council is?
Initially, there was a strike in Mohylyanka, and Mohylyanka students officially announced a strike. The strike committee was an initiative that coordinated student protests and resolved issues with the administration. Then, the students of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv expressed a desire to join. And then it turned out that such people were everywhere. In fact, on the first night, the students on the Maidan were not only from Mohylyanka. There were different students; the only question is that Mohylyanka took the most significant start and announced an official strike.

We held a unity march with the students of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, and after that, we were joined by students from Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, Kyiv National Economic University, Kyiv National I. K. Karpenko-Kary Theatre, Cinema and Television University, Drahomanov National Pedagogical University, and other Kyiv universities. It was a situational story. First, the leaders of the student movements appeared and we sat down together. Then, a group of like-minded people emerged from this movement who knew how to communicate and interact well.

The Student Coordination Council is an association of protest leaders from various universities. They formed the centre of this unified communication and unified coordination. They also equipped the student headquarters with a heating point. The student coordination council organised further large student marches and rallies.

It was an attempt, and, in my opinion, a successful attempt, to represent the student body in the so-called Maidan Council. Among the politicians and public figures who coordinated the protest, we were represented through the Student Coordination Council. In my opinion, it was successful, and it served its purpose. Yes, it could have been done better, but not everyone makes their revolution at 18-20 years old. Therefore, I think it turned out fine.

‘Mom, I am wearing a helmet’: Pavlo and another student wearing bike helmets to protect themselves from police bullets on Maidan

Did you participate in student organisations in Mohylyanka before the revolution began?
I did not participate in student organisations before the Maidan. However, I tried to help restore the student government. At that time, the student government was in crisis due to a legal conflict – there were no statutes, it was impossible to start the re-election procedure, etc. Therefore, as of 2013, there was no student government as a functioning body in Mohylyanka.

How did you manage to mobilise so quickly during the Maidan? Have there been coordinated movements or joint strikes with other universities before?
There were precedents —for example, United students against the Kivalov-Kaletnik law. There were student protests against the Russification laws about language and education. However, I did not get to know the people with whom I interacted there. It seems these were the same people but they did not know each other.
There were also protests against Tabachnyk (then Minister of Education). The Sich organisation coordinated these protests. There, I met, for example, Yaryna Chornoguz [Ukrainian poet, activist, military medic, and senior corporal of the Armed Forces of Ukraine]. Sich also tried to coordinate processes on the Maidan related to youth, but they were not very widespread.

In my estimation, there was no such thing as a ready-made infrastructure waiting to be mobilised. The activation during the Maidan took place spontaneously. It touched many people who had not even attended previous protests against language and higher education laws. But in the case of the Maidan, it was already an existential question.

How do you think you made it?
I think that no one can say how we made it. At some point, the question arose: if we lose, we will face prison terms, torture, mass repressions or emigration. This can be compared to the war with Russia. If Russia loses, nothing in particular will happen to it, but if we lose, there will be mass murders aimed at destroying us, at genocide. Similarly, all people understood there was nowhere to retreat during the Maidan.
I did not always believe in the victory of the Maidan because everything looked very, very, very bad at the beginning of February. But at some point, Yanukovych ran away. It was unexpected that he escaped so quickly and was so frightened, even though he had such a vast resource. I still do not fully understand what happened. But I say this from the position of a field protester. Perhaps at that moment, the situation in Ukraine was already so unstable that he understood there was nowhere to go. But less about that.

How did we make it? I think that we managed thanks to our efficiency, mutual understanding, and interaction. And there was also a synergy – the distribution of many large functions, which in sum give more than the result. Each person performed one role. I think these are the main factors.

Escalation of police violence and protesters’ resistance, 19 February 2014, 03:25

Why, in your opinion, did the students become the driving force of this revolution?
I think, probably, without students, nothing would have happened.

Before the Maidan, I planned to graduate from Mohylyanka and emigrate to Europe. And, in general, I was Russian-speaking. In my family, I never thought about my identity. I was Ukrainian, that's all. But we were the first generation that grew up without the Soviet Union, without a Soviet passport. It seems to me that we were already in another system. We were more connected to the West, knew English, and understood global contexts.
Maybe we were influenced by what was happening in Russia with their white ribbon protests that failed. We had a fresh vision of how the so-called opposition in Russia is dealt with. People added 2 plus 2: if you want to be fun, free and independent, you must prepare – the FSB officers will take you on a drive. Understanding the threat of such a future to us seems to be an essential factor. I didn't become a super-conscious person overnight. But the question arose: 'Are we Russia now?!' And this question shook the youth because it seemed they best understood what this meant. We were most in the context of what is happening with Russia and best felt our differences.

Then, the narrative changed a lot. After the beating of the students, the question of choosing between Europe or Russia became a hot topic, and in the first place was indignation: "The children were beaten; justice must be done." For some reason, it is customary to separate these two stages, but in my opinion, it was a single process; without one, there would be no other. The Maidan became successful because people, without thinking about benefit or gain, went to defend what was important to them and went to certain death with plywood shields and bicycle helmets. They knew this would not protect them from bullets, but they went anyway because this issue was fundamental to them.

No matter how many people you ask, everyone will come up with different reasons, but the demand for justice and dignity was unifying. From the moment the students were dispersed, the need for justice from a broad geopolitical sense moved into a purely practical plane. That's the only change that happened the night the students were beaten by the special police force.

Announcement of the student strike at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

What exactly did the students do during the revolution?
The students did everything! Starting from fights with the police to establishing international relations and finding firewood. We had a back office engaged in communication, namely inventing message boxes, understanding the campaign's mechanics, discussing with politicians, the opposition, and journalists, going on public television broadcasts, and distributing information to universities. We also directly participated in protests, actions, pickets, and marches to participate in the Maidan. We were involved in all functions – security, food service, medical service, people coordination, etc.

Initially, I was engaged in information support; I called people to come out through social networks. Then, I coordinated marches and protests, and I coordinated the campus. By coordination, I mean everything except the actual organisation; I also chopped firewood, cooked, etc. I remember I bought myself a good pair of boots and then wore them for about 6 more years, but the bottoms were burnt because I caught them on the stove where I was making tea, and the fronts were knocked off because I had a little fight with the police in them. The work was different. The situation was more calm in November, December, and January –  you could choose one function for some time. But in February, everything was chaotic. Then I laid paving stones and dragged the wounded to the hospitals.

How, in your opinion, did Maidan influence the development of civil society in Ukraine?
Maidan, in my opinion, enabled and legitimised civil society in Ukraine. Maidan was proof that not only the state can defend justice and has the tools to defend justice. We have public organisations that have become understandable to a broader audience and have political weight.

Pavlo at Maidan barricades

What have you been up to after Maidan?
I worked with Ulyana Suprun in a public organisation called Patriot Defense, one of the first to import first-aid kits according to NATO standards, send these first-aid kits to the front, and engage in military medical training. Patriot Defense was one of the organisations that implemented standardised tactical medicine in Ukraine. I was responsible for collecting first aid kits and oversaw logistics.

Then, I worked in various startups, public organisations, and the Ministry of Health. I was the curator of the volunteer director in the political party Holos. I had my organisation called Radio Podil. It was a podcast production with the mechanics of building a community around content built on specific values. In addition, I am a participant in the initiative Who ordered the murder of Kateryna Handziuk? I was included in the initiative group that organised the Free Sternenko campaign.

After the Maidan, I immediately went to work because the war had started, and I had to help somehow. As a result, I burned out and had to spend some time taking care of my mental health. I started working for justice during the Maidan and haven't stopped since then. My biography continues on the theme of the Maidan.


And what have you been doing after the start of the full-scale war?
I am a volunteer. Together with my girlfriend, my mother, and our friends from Germany, we have an informal volunteer initiative dedicated to ensuring concrete, effective units. We have focus areas: aerial survey, tactical medicine, optics, and communications. So, we have already raised over $700,000 and continue growing weekly.

Students on Maidan on 22 November 2013 at 02;20, before the police special forces attacked them
Pavlo next to the student headquarters on Maidan

By Olena Kushyna

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