Dispatch from Ukraine: Former PLNU staff member writes from Kiev

Smoke from burning tires looms over Kiev’s Independence Square where protesters have put up barricades, tents, and flags in an area they named the “EuroMaidan.” The ‘Revolutionary Christmas Tree’ (left) was hijacked by protesters and adorned with European flags. Photo courtesy of Sylvia Cortez Masyuk.

Sylvia Cortez Masyuk is the former PLNU director of Discipleship Ministries. She and her husband are residents in Kiev, Ukraine. She is now the Ukraine Learning Center Coordinator and Administrator through European Nazarene College. In this piece she writes about her personal experience of the unrest taking place in Ukraine.

On December 11, my husband stood on the Independence Square praying as military police advanced toward a crowd of Ukrainian protestors in the middle of the night in a tense and violent push and shove that left 20 seriously injured.

Women were gently asked to move toward the stage as a group of men protected them. As police advanced, my husband recalls how the nearby bells of St. Michael’s Church began to ring. According to Kiev journalist, Katya Gorchinskaya, this is “an ancient and powerful call for alarm and mobilization.” Only a few hundred men were protecting the square, while others continuously recited the Lord’s Prayer. When military police broke through the first barricade, people through their cell phones, news, and social media all sent cries for help. By 4 am there were thousands, and by 6 am, there were tens of thousands. This is Kiev’s Revolution.

My name is Sylvia and I’ve been a resident in Kiev for two and a half years. I first came to Kiev on a LoveWorks trip in 1993 and fell in love with Ukraine’s beauty and people. Prior to moving here, I worked at PLNU as Director of Discipleship Ministries in Spiritual Development. In 2011, I married a longtime friend, Volodymyr. We decided to make our home in Kiev, where he pastors and where I serve as Ukraine Learning Center Coordinator for ministry students.

Sylvia and her husband Volodymyr in Kiev.
Sylvia and her husband Volodymyr in Kiev.

A country in crisis

The protests in Ukraine began in late November when then President Victor Yanukovych, decided to abandon the European Union (E.U.) Association Agreement, a treaty between the E.U. and Ukraine that would create a framework for bilateral relations and possibly allow Ukraine to join the E.U. The E.U. deal would have required Yanukovych to pass judicial and financial reforms.

Angered by his decision, Ukrainians began protesting downtown in Kiev’s central square.

People were ready for a change. Ukraine is a nation where corruption is pervasive in daily life. Bribing is prevalent in business, politics, public service programs, hospitals, and universities. People bribe their way through traffic tickets, good grades, a driver’s license or a medical degree. While the one percent enjoys lavish cars and mansions, the rest of the population’s average income is $300 a month. Ukrainians are tired of growing corruption and the reality that the only hope of ever succeeding is through emigration.

Days after Yanukovych abandoned the Association Agreement, a rally at Independence Square was announced through social media sites. I went in hopes of meeting people who wanted to make a difference. To my surprise, I found myself walking alongside a sea of 40,000 people holding signs, banners, Ukrainian flags and E.U. flags.

My husband and I repeatedly visit Maidan, located 1 ½ miles from our home, and have watched historical events unfold. We saw protestors build barricades, topple Lenin’s statue, and take over City Hall and Administrative buildings. A stage was set up for round the clock speeches and concerts.

Despite masses totaling up to 800,000 at subsequent rallies, Yanukovych stood his ground, and eventually ordered an escalating use of force against protestors.

EuroMaidain, hope of the people

The main protest area became known as “EuroMaidan.” Enclosed by self-defense barricades, tents were put up and EuroMaidan became a city within a city. Like work ants, protestors displayed impressive self-organization and discipline, establishing security and cleaning crews, food and medical stations, and donation spots for medicine, food and winter clothes. Volunteers and guards wore badges, and worked together to protect the area from hired government thugs. Alcohol was strictly forbidden. EuroMaidan quickly began to reflect a kind of society protestors hoped to create throughout Ukraine. Suddenly, we found ourselves living in the middle of an extraordinary Revolution.

Revolutionaries protest in Kiev. Photo courtesy of Sylvia Cortez.
Revolutionaries protest in Kiev. Photo courtesy of Sylvia Cortez.

Amidst the crisis, the church was present.

Throughout the revolution, churches responded with prayer tents, food, tea, and donations. Orthodox, Protestants, Catholics and Jews, worked and prayed together in support of eliminating corruption. And when the fighting began, St. Michael’s opened their church doors for protestors to sleep, find shelter, and for medical teams to attend to the wounded.

Members of the Church of the Nazarene mobilized to pray, volunteer, and offer shelter. Nazarene doctors aided the wounded protestors and policemen.

The protests soon became about something much bigger than the E.U. and European integration. People now stood for the right to a peaceful protest, freedom of speech, an end to corruption and the authoritarian regime.

No amount of video footage or pictures could capture the spirit of EuroMaidan. You had to be there. EuroMaidan inspired a nation to hope for a better future, and reminded them that democracy is meant to empower voices to be heard. People once again felt proud to be Ukrainian. In the subways, when a person would start singing the national anthem, the crowd of hundreds would join them. Amidst the ups and downs, the strong spirit of the Ukrainian people was rising.

Fight is not over

On February 18th, a battle between police and the opposition left 100 dead, including 6 police officers. The scope of the violence ignited an international outcry. Within days a deal was made. But the battle and lost lives was still fresh in Ukrainian’s memories, and protestors demanded Yanukovych’s immediate resignation. Ultimately, Yanukovych fled, was impeached, and a new government was formed. When it seemed there might be some respite, Yanukovych re-surfaced in Russia, where both he and Putin continue to claim his presidency and dismiss the new Ukraine government as illegal.

Ukrainian military police advance against protesters on February 18.
Ukrainian military police advance against protesters on February 18. Photo courtesy of Sylvia Cortez Masyuk.

In a cruel twist, Ukraine now faces a greater threat. Russian forces have invaded Crimea, South East Ukraine, and declared war against Ukraine. Despite a warning from the U.S., Putin claims to be protecting its Russian citizens from radical Ukrainian provocateurs.

Many Ukrainians know that the revolution has only just begun. Last week’s events left us all in shock. This week’s events seem surreal as we find ourselves on the verge of a civil war. People here are nervously waiting as each hour passes.

As history unfolds, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters at PLNU, please pray for Ukraine and it’s new leaders. Pray for peace. Pray that God would intervene. Pray that Ukraine would not panic but remain calm. Pray for great wisdom, strength, courage and creativity. Pray also, that we, the church in Ukraine, will continue to faithfully trust in the God who is ultimately in control.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.