WASSERMAN: A letter from Kiev

When you walk through Independence Square, smoke still simmers in the air. The acrid scent of burning tires lingers; despite bonfires now burning wood instead of wheels after the fleeing of the president, the smell of burning rubber nonetheless seems baked into crevasses, both seen and unseen.

Even three weeks after protestors at Maidan overthrew Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, many people still occupy this central Kievan square. Their purpose, as well as the ethos of the square and the events it now symbolizes, is different, however. Gone is the call to overthrow a corrupt government. Gone is the violence that resulted in nearly 100 deaths. Gone is the revolution. Instead, Maidan has evolved from its forward-looking protests to a memorial to its recent past.

A new type of tranquility pervades Maidan. The blockades made up of cobblestones, trash and street signs still scar this recently violent scene, but now flowers dwarf these military mementos. Over the last few weeks, citizens and foreign visitors have arranged thousands of flowers, covering nearly the entire square in a wash of color that seems eerily out of place with the gray skies and buildings, and the even grayer “big brother” to the north. Although visitors to Maidan have exchanged cobblestones for cameras, the peace that has emerged in Maidan is not a passive one. Instead, this peace still fights for Ukraine.

As is so important not only in the Bible, but also in the legitimization of states, names are evolving to accommodate this new Ukraine. Instytutska Street, home to the Ukraine Hotel that functioned as a pockmarked hospital and morgue, now has a new name: “Street of the Unforgotten Hundred,” a homage to the nearly 100 Ukrainians killed during the fighting.

The “Unforgotten Hundred” is the true reason why protestors still remain at Maidan — to ensure that those killed here died for a reason: a less corrupt and more democratic Ukraine.

Every morning at 7 o’clock, an Orthodox priest climbs onto the makeshift stage anchoring the center of Maidan and leads in prayer everyone that the loudspeakers reach — the entirety of the square, along with the neighboring apartment buildings. The city awakes to prayers honoring the fallen as well as reminders that they died for the good of all Ukrainians.

Unfortunately, Russia’s incursion into Crimea following the overthrow of Yanukovych has made the future of Ukraine less certain and threatens to tear apart a country only 23 years after its independence from the USSR.

But as it did in the past few months, Maidan again offers the possibility of saving Ukraine. The true struggle of Ukrainians — past, present and future — is the task of creating a national myth, a history that binds together people into a nation. The protest in Kiev over the last three months might serve as that foundation. I spoke to a high-level official in the interim government who said, “Maidan can unite our nation, from those in the east with those in the west.”

But in order for this to occur, the memorials, flowers and prayers at Maidan would have to grow. They could no longer be for only the unforgotten hundreds who died at Maidan. Instead, the entire unforgotten nation would all have to be included — the Ukrainian soldiers on the Crimean peninsula now being recalled north, the protestors in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv, the Crimean Tatars and the Russian-speaking voters in Crimea.

Maidan, in the view of many Ukrainians I spoke to, offers a place and opportunity to begin to stitch together the country. A bond crafted in solidarity from western Ukraine with those in eastern Ukraine would, in this view, send a resounding message not only to Russia, but also to the rest of the world that there is a real meaning and country behind that once-empty word.

This desire, while admirable, seems everyday to be more forlorn. It has been famously said that in dreams lie responsibility. It may also be that some dreams are doomed to be stillborn.

In Kiev, as in much of Ukraine, the moment to rally a fractured nation is slipping away.

Paul Wasserman is a senior in Silliman College. He just returned from a week in Kiev. Contact him at paul.wasserman@yale.edu .

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