News

Young, zealous, and tenacious: the Ukrainian students behind revolutions

Published on Nov 23, 2023

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 8th edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on November 23rd, 2023. The article was written by Tetiana Yavorska for espreso.tv and was translated for n-ost by Tetiana Evloeva.

Check out the complete edition of this week's newsletter

Access the original article in Ukrainian via this link. It was first published on 17th November 2023.

The 17th of November is observed in Ukraine as International Students’ Day. Nowadays, it’s often associated with celebrating youth, having fun and making merry. However, the date commemorates the Nazi police and SS breaking up peaceful demonstrations in 1939 in Prague.

On 17 November, the Nazis arrested students en-masse. The Fascist invaders executed nine of the student leaders on the university campus and sent over 1,200 to concentration camps. Soldiers raided the student dorms, beat up the occupants, and took them to the outskirts of Prague, where the Nazis forced them to the ground and stepped on their necks.

Ukrainian students, too, were one of the first groups of people to stand up, and fight for their values, the national cause and independence — at times fearlessly facing the dangers of persecution, imprisonment and torture.

On International Students’ Day, news media Espreso spoke to heroes of the three Ukrainian revolutions, the Revolution on Granite (1990), the Orange Revolution (2004/2005) and the Revolution of Dignity (2013/2014).

Revolution on Granite: a prologue to Ukrainian independence

In October 1990, students launched a hunger strike in Kyiv, which was later branded the Revolution on Granite. It was the first successful non-violent political protest against the communist government in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). Several hundred students took part in a tent encampment in the Maidan square in central Kyiv, and 137 went on hunger strike for up to twelve days. Several thousand people came to Maidan daily to offer support.

Back then, Serhiy Rudenko, now a journalist, political commentator, and a host on Espreso TV, was a 20-year-old student at Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko University. He joined the Revolution on Granite, ignoring the risk of expulsion from his faculty.

“In the late 80s, a special type of people was emerging, which you may call the national liberation movement,” recalls Rudenko. “In the capital, specifically in my alma mater, the Kyiv National University, the student body and different movements were very active. When the Revolution on Granite began, every famous student was there, in the Kyiv streets, expressing their support for those on a hunger strike on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, previously known as Ploshcha Zhovtnevoyi Revoliutsiyi [Ukr. “October (of 1917) Revolution Square”].”

Back in the day, many youngsters were drifting towards Ukraine’s independence from the USSR and wore hand-made blue-and-yellow pins on their jacket.

“By doing so, one could easily catch the attention of the police and the KGB, and be expelled from their university,” explains the commentator. “However, that never disheartened us. We were young, zealous and tenacious, and had a strong belief in Ukraine’s statehood and independence. Looking back, I conclude that it was the Ukrainian students who put the final nail in the coffin of Moscow’s illusions of creating another state based on the USSR. While we were carrying out our historical mission, we never thought of it as such.”

What Serhiy Rudenko remembered most was the ease with which students went on protests in 1990.

“Back then, the youth had nothing to lose,” recalls the journalist. “Most of us had nothing except for our freedom — no families, no wealth, nothing. That’s why we were quick to join any protest, and to self-organise. I always feel nostalgic looking back, when we were happy to stand shoulder to shoulder, feeling ourselves part of a whole body of protest, flooding the Kyiv streets and raising our voices against the Soviet authority. We perceived everything happening around us as a prologue to Ukrainian independence. We saw the change in the people surrounding us and understood that this was history in the making. We were ecstatic that ahead of us was our own independent state, and our life would be different from that in the USSR.”

The Revolution on Granite turned into an all-student strike, with students taking over the university buildings and campuses. About 100,000 workers, students, and passers-by gathered on the Maidan. On the 17 November, the parliament of the Ukrainian SSR, the Verkhovna Rada, made concessions to the students, with 314 MPs upholding the new legislation with their votes. The parliament dismissed Vitaliy Masol as the head of the council of ministers of the Ukrainian SSR, Ukrainians drafted for military service could only be deployed within the Ukrainian SSR (and not in other Soviet republics), and the republic did not sign the Moscow-backed New Union Treaty, which aimed to reconsolidate the Soviet Union.

Orange Revolution: a bloodless battle for voting power

Mass fraud in the 2004 presidential election, in favour of the government candidate Viktor Yanukovych, caused a mass upheaval — the Orange Revolution. Back then, student and youth organisations like PORA [Ukr. “It’s time”], Chysta Ukrayina [Ukr. “Clean Ukraine”], Studentska Khvylia [Ukr. “Student Wave”], and Sprotyv [Ukr. “Resistance”] took an active part in the events.

In 2004, Dmytro Romaniuk (now an economist, entrepreneur and statesman) was a freshman at the Department of Economy at the Prykarpattia National University. He won notoriety for egging Viktor Yanukovych, then-Prime Minister and the presidential candidate.

Dmytro explained that he threw an egg to show that the youth of the Prykarpatitia Region didn’t unanimously support Yanukovych, as the media were trying to portray.

“Freedom of speech back then was on a completely different level,” Romaniuk tells Espreso. “20 years ago, the country was very different. Back in the day, the prospect of a person with a criminal record becoming the President of Ukraine stirred up students and the entire pro-Ukrainian part of the society to revolt. There was also a clear understanding that this candidate was pro-Russian, which also became one of the key factors.”

But Romaniuk says he was flabbergasted by the enormous crowd on the Maidan in 2004.

“I have only positive emotions when recalling those events. The biggest achievement was that no blood was spilt. We had gained Independence through an evolutionary process, and in 2004, it was time to take another step forward. Society demanded that the political elite took a more pro-Ukrainian and pro-independent stance, so in terms of those goals, it was a success,” adds the participant in the Orange Revolution.

He says that it is not surprising that youth and students are the driving force of any Ukrainian revolution.

“The youth has a more profound sense of justice,” he says. “When we are young, we tend to take things to heart and are prone to more radical actions. Besides, young people, forming a united front, can set the agenda and achieve a goal that most of the society actually supports, yet is not ready to stand for.”

The statesman believes that Ukrainian society has already mastered the useful skill of standing up and protesting against injustice. Now our people need to learn and create, and work conscientiously, he says.

During those protests, the Verkhovna Rada passed the vote of censure on the Central Election Committee, as the data presented by them was drastically different to a nationwide exit poll. On the 3 December, the Supreme Court ruled that a second ballot must take place, where Orange protest leader Viktor Yushchenko prevailed.

Revolution of Dignity: Daydreamers changing history

In November 2013, on the anniversary of the Orange Revolution, several hundred people gathered on the Maidan demanding that President Viktor Yanukovych sign an EU Association Agreement.

The youth who organised a large-scale student strike were the driving force behind the Revolution of Dignity. On 30 November, riot police violently attacked the students, which became a turning point for taking the protest nationwide. The protest, initially branded as “EuroMaidan”, grew into the Revolution of Dignity that led to President Yanukovych fleeing the country.

Yuriy Yatsenko was a fifth-year student of the Department of Law back in the day, Yuriy took an active part in the protests. After the students were beaten with batons on the 30 November, he volunteered as a paramedic, driving the wounded from Kyiv to Lviv in a mobile ICU.

“I joined the Revolution of Dignity as early as in November,” Yatsenko tells Espreso. “To be honest, I guess we didn’t fully understand the meaning of that Association Agreement back then, such as its legal and budgetary implications, and how it would impact our international standing. However, we had an intuitive understanding that we were either moving towards the EU or in the opposite direction.”

He viewed his trip to Kyiv as an idealistic journey for the sake of the greater good, without grasping how the events would play out. He was on his way home after that first visit to Kyiv and was approaching Lviv when he learned that that riot police beat up the students.

“My friends and I went back to Kyiv,” recalls Yatsenko. “The great gathering of people I saw that day was a rare sight, both in Ukrainian and world history. I saw those people. They were passionate, mostly intelligent people, mostly citizens of Kyiv. I was so excited to see such a crowd! I also had another meaningful moment there, a few months later. Despite the fear of being shot, we weren’t afraid to stay there, because we were driven by such a powerful inner force and had such powerful support, that all the fears were gone. That hardened me for my further hardships in life when I was arrested in Russia as a participant of the Maidan.”

Yatsenko spent over a year in Russian captivity, where he says the Russians were mostly interested in his role in the Revolution of Dignity.

Despite the pivotal role played by students in the Revolution of Dignity and the fact that Yuriy himself was a student back in the day, he doesn’t believe the youth can determine public sentiment towards the protest.

“Those desperate actions were not as much a matter of young age as personal beliefs,” says the former political prisoner. “There are families that you can draw inspiration from. Today we have people who were inspired by our present-day heroes and who now believe that one’s values are something worth fighting for. I believe that both the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Granite had a great impact. Gradually, with each new revolution, new people were being born who discussed those events in their social circles. After the full-scale invasion [of 2022], I both expect and observe a significant recovery of Ukrainian society in the context of understanding its identity and historical memory.”

Recalling those events, he shares his pride at being a part of history in the making.

“Today, ten years later, I see the historical significance of those events,” says Yatsenko. “How I chose to react and go to Maidan, driven by idealistic impulses and the intuitive understanding this was the right thing to do, played a significant part in the history of mankind. Now, I view those events in the context of wars between democracies and authoritarian countries.”