Sergii Kharchuk is best known as an event impresario, organizing Kyiv’s biggest amateur cycling race and an international rock festival before Maidan, before successfully running for City Council. Trained as an applied mathematician, he recalls the moment when he chose to participate and resist. “Surmountable: How Citizens from Selma to Seoul Changed the World” explores how citizen movements overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve political change. This interview is drawn from the chapter on the Ukraine Euromaidan protest movement in 2013-2014 that drove the Moscow-backed head of state from power. 


“I got this feeling immediately after I saw young people, students beaten by local police on the Independence Square on Maidan. It is really just one very short emotional moment when you decide to join a protest movement. At such moments, you don’t think about results, about the future, what may happen with you, that you can be taken to prison or you can be beaten by police. You just act, I don’t know, on a biological level, to protect your freedom.”


300 Years


Ukrainians have various views as to the earliest days of resistance to imperial rule. For Kharchuk, it was a specific 18th century battle.


“We lost the Ukrainian state in 1712 when Ukrainian Cossacks and the Swedish army lost against Peter the First at the famous Battle of Poltava. For almost 300 years, we were culturally and militarily occupied by Russia.


“Ukrainians tried many times to get back independence. The last was a hundred years ago, in 1918, after the First World War, (when the) Ukrainian state was announced at a peace conference in Brest.


“Russian troops came to Kyiv, and we were occupied. The (Russian communist) Bolsheviks were kicked out by joint Ukrainian and German troops. When Germany left Ukraine, we faced a huge army coming from Russia.”


Ukraine was absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1922 as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.


“After this, we had the Holodomor (1932-33), the artificial famine which Soviet leaders arranged, where millions of people died through hunger.”


The Holodomor, a compound of the Ukrainian words holod (hunger) and mor (plague), is Stalin’s punishment of Ukraine’s farmers for resisting collectivization, the forced surrender of their land to work on government-controlled farms. Eighty percent of Ukrainians work the land. The famine is further intended to crush aspirations for independence. By June 1933, 28,000 are dying of starvation each day.


Ukraine achieves independence peacefully in 1991 during the USSR collapse.


“Frankly speaking, part of the population with Russian roots, especially ex- military officers, were not mentally ready to build a new Ukrainian state. That’s why we did not vote for progressive leaders like Lech Walesa in Poland or Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic. They decided to vote for ex-communist Leonid Kravchuk instead of progressive prisoner of freedom Viacheslav Chornovil. But we have been changing for the last 30 years, becoming more patriotic and pro-western.”



The Orange Revolution lasts for two months. “And then,” confirms former Kyiv city council member Kharchuk,


“everybody came home and just thought that top national authorities will make changes. And it did not happen. We took some lessons from the Orange Revolution. We understood that if you just protest for short period of time, and then you go back home to normal life to watch football and drink your beer in the evenings, and you don’t participate in social activity, it doesn’t change your country. You have to be involved in activity on a daily basis. If you think that somebody else will do it for you, it will never happen. The involvement of people in social and political processes in the current Ukraine are much bigger after the Revolution of Dignity.”


Putin’s plan in 2013, says Kharchuk, is to penetrate Ukraine to make it part of the Russian empire again, with Yanukovych as his agent. The Russians began to publicly report that “Ukrainians are nationalists and fascists,” says Kharchuk.


“I think the Ukrainian police got a command from Kremlin to start shooting on the Independence Square protesters and the Heavenly Hundred were killed by instructions of Russian special service officers. Putin tried to put chaos and panic in the central part of Kyiv.”


A Trigger Switches Inside Yourself


“There is a certain point when you just stop thinking about your personal safety. And don’t recognize how brave you’re becoming, because something, a trigger, just switches inside yourself, and you overcome the scariness or fear, and you’re just getting on the street, together with your friends, just protecting or defending your freedom, and this is a unique moment. You’re taking into consideration your career and peaceful life and family, but the major value is freedom. At a certain moment, you don’t care about anything else.”


There are people who say protests are a waste of time. People go home, they had fun, nothing is achieved.


“Sometimes we definitely feel so frustrated with the slow tempo of reforms. And some people pessimistically say it was a waste of time. We spend a lot of nights on the cold Maidan, didn’t achieve results we were planning to achieve. But I don’t share this pessimism. The long-term results will appear in a certain period of time. And things have changed substantially.”


Kharchuk’s son is too young to participate in the Orange Revolution. But he’s a very active participant in the Euromaidan. As is Kharchuk’s 14-year-old daughter.


“She joined us for a couple of evenings bringing some hot tea or food to protesters. And now I see how socially active she is. If she sees some violence on the street, she calls the police immediately. Or she’s protesting when somebody’s parking on a pedestrian crossing way. It’s a big experience, not only for short time of protest, it gives certain values for their whole lives.”


Pea Soup and Winter Shoes 


“Hundreds of thousands of Kyivites from various social spheres united around one strategic goal: to protect freedom,” recounts Kharchuk. “We were spending a lot of time every evening, every day, sharing food, supplying necessary things to military veterans of war, protecting civilians from Yanukovych’s police trying to squeeze us out from Maidan.


“I’ll never forget the feeling when older people, pensioners, professors, businessmen, students, getting together, were eating green-pea soup from the big pot on the Square, standing in the cold night singing the Ukrainian national hymn or popular Ukrainian songs.


“Many friends of mine who run restaurant businesses were just nonstop supplying soups and tea and sandwiches from their restaurant. And hosting people from other cities arriving to Kyiv to support us. A friend of mine is the owner of a shoe factory. He brought a lot of winter shoes to the Maidan because some students arrived from Western Ukraine in summer shoes. It became very chilly. People brought winter clothes or winter shoes – an outstanding level of solidarity. Kyivites were taking people from other cities to stay overnight in their apartments. I really will never forget; it was an emotional moment.



 To read about all 13 of the successful citizen movements explored in “Surmountable,” buy the book.

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