I met up with Nazar after my visit to the Kherson Region’s tent on the Maidan. He happened to be right around the corner, behind the small wooden buildings in front of the Independence Column (nicknamed the Stella). He was with 4-5 people, all in their 20s or early 30s, who were putting on these signs announcing a protest against terror for Sunday, January 19, at 12:00 p.m. Nazar and a younger women heir age were passing around bunches of leaflets and giving instructions. I agreed to go along.
Agreeing to go along meant that I was to distribute leaflets along Kyiv’s metro route. Leaflets against the regime’s laws just passed the previous Thursday. Suddenly, I remembered researching young people in 1960s-1970s Lviv who passed around leaflets and eventually got into trouble with the KGB. One woman recalled the sense of dread she felt when she agreed to go along with her classmates and spread anti-Soviet literature, yet also the sense of obligation, since she had made a promise to the group. Here I was, making a promise to Nazar and his friends to spread protest leaflets in city metro stations. I told Nazar that I couldn’t do it alone, and he assured me that we’d be working in groups. So I donned my protest placard, and the woman coordinating events put a Euromaidan ribbon on my coat.
Nazar said we were only supposed to give the leaflets out to people in the metro, but already, one old man asked for one as our group set off. I didn’t refuse his request. We entered the Khreshchatyk metro station, and as we descended down the escalator, a group of young guys, noticing our signs and Ukrainian flags (most had them over their backs), yelled triumphantly, “Slava Ukraini!” We responded with an amused “Heroiam slava!”
Our group was to cover the metro stations on the Green Line. I was with Nazar, another guy from Lviv, and I think yet one more guy from western Ukraine. We distributed some of our leaflets in the car we rode.
At one point, we got off at a station, Lukianivs’ka, I think, and we began our work. We all stood at the top of the escalator that went down to the platform. Two of us covered the people coming up, two of us covered the people coming down. We were greeted by a woman in her 40s or 50s, well-rounded, solid, with a very strong voice. She already had been passing out a number of leaflets, leaning on her cane, broadcasting in a booming voice, “Chytaite pro nashi zakony! Chytaite pro nashi zakony!” (Read about our laws! Read about our laws!)
I must have had about 500 leaflets in my hands. Suddenly, my memories turned not to research of Soviet dissidents, but to my days selling newspapers in my neighborhood in the Third Grade. It was one of the worst jobs of my life – trying to sell people a product and deal with the profound sense of depression that comes with being ignored, turned down rudely, or just plain scoffed at.
So at first, I just stood there with the leaflets, while the woman who greeted us broadcast the news: “Read about our laws! Read about our laws!”
For a while, it seemed like no one was interested in my leaflets. One, two, then dozens of passerby ignoring me. But then, here and there, people of all ages, women and men, boys and girls, started to take leaflets from me. Some of them wanted more than one. Sometimes they even tugged at me asking for one from the opposite lane.
Over our time passing out leaflets, people generally said nothing to us, but there were some noticeable exceptions. Some people said, “I know it already!” One young woman in her 20s said, “It’s on the Internet already!” One man in his early 20s asked me where these laws were documented, and I had to admit that it was a “secret” though I should have told him about Parliament’s official bulletin, whose name escapes me). However, we also were greeted with criticism and derision. They seemed to come from older people. One elderly woman laughed and said, hobbling, “You and that Maidan, that Maidan! Give us some peace!” The woman broadcasting the leaflets tried to argue with her: “I want peace, too! But not with this.” There was an older guy (in his 60s) who claimed we were getting paid to do this. The woman leading us in passing out leaflets started an argument with him over who was getting paid at the Maidan, insisting that she was getting absolutely nothing for this. I remember later two women in their 50s, tugging along these large plastic bags, laughing, saying to us, “You sit there, sit there on the Maidan!” (Vy sidite, sidite na Maidane!) (I was tempted to say, “Da khorosho posidim!,” a reference to a Soviet comedy film.)
Then there was this pudgy young cop from the Metropolitan Police. He came up to Nazar, and in Russian, he asked him for his documents, then for the permit form he needed to distribute leaflets in the metro.
At that point, I thought my career as a dissident was over, and that soon we would be seeing a neighborhood police station. I started to distribute more and more leaflets. I started joining the woman in calling out, “Read about our laws! Read about our laws!”
By that time, a young man, maybe high school age, maybe a little older, decided to help us out in the other lane. “read about our laws! read about our laws!” he called out at full voice, thundering through the tunnel.
In the meantime, Nazar was arguing with the cop, and he was losing his temper. Nazar later told me that the cop claimed we were breaking the rules of the metro, and Nazar said, “And why are you speaking in Russian?” (hinting at a rule that the cop himself was breaking) “Russian’s the second official language,” he said, a little defensive, but probably a little confused (He seemed like a very simple, nonthreatening guy, but annoying nonetheless.). “But the law passed (in 2012) is for regions where Russian is spoken as a native language in a large concentration, and Kyiv isn’t one of those regions.” Meanwhile, I saw about 2-3 elderly women go up to the metal fence dividing the two lanes, and, leaning on the fence, began berating the cop. On the other hand, an elderly man, too, decided to lean on the metal fence and ask Nazar how much he was getting paid for spreading these leaflets. A woman selling flowers (friend of a drunk with a red cut across his head) tried to defend the cop, either saying it was his job, or that Nazar and the rest of us needed to get jobs (a funny thing to say, since she probably was soliciting flowers without a license).
With the metro cop present, I started to call out more and more loudly, “Read about our laws! Read about our laws!” I wanted to get rid of those leaflets. And people kept taking them, one passerby after another. Soon I needed more of them. The elderly, the middle-aged, the young…. They all wanted a copy, or even several of them. In the background, a skinny man in his late teens or early twenties was strumming his guitar, singing various songs from Plach Ieremii, Taras Chubai, as well as Russian songs, including one that made references, I think, to freedom. The woman with the cane, amid her announcements about the new laws that people needed to read, said, “I don’t want to live in a country that has this!” Suddenly, my voice got louder, bolder. “CHYTAITE PRO NASHI ZAKONY! CHYTAITE O NASHYKH ZAKONACH!” I started yelling, alternating between Ukrainian and Russian. “Proshe,” I said in Polish sometimes as I gave them out to people. I got louder and louder, because the laws, being so ridiculous, were a return to the early 1970s, the days when that young Lviv student feared for her career because she spread leaflets (and in fact, she was expelled from the university and had to retrain for an entirely new profession, only returning to work as a historian some 20 years later). And then I added some lines of my own, the new lines being sometimes in Russian, but mostly in Ukrainian. “CHYTAITE PRO NOVI ZAKONI V UKRAINI! MAIBUTNIE NA DVOKH STORINKAKH!” (“READ ABOUT UKRAINE’S NEW LAWS! THE FUTURE IN TWO PAGES!”), „CHYTAITE PRO NOVI ZAKONI V UKRAINI! VASHE MAIBUTNIE NA DVOKH STORINKAKH!” (“READ ABOUT UKRAINE’S NEW LAWS! YOUR FUTURE IN TWO PAGES!”) Sometimes I added, “CHYTAITE PRO NOVI ZAKONI V UKRAINI! VASHE MAIBUTNIE NA DVOKH STORINKAKH! TUT!” (READ ABOUT UKRAINE’S NEW LAWS! YOUR FUTURE IN TWO PAGES! HERE!” More rarely, when I slipped over words: “CHYTAITE PRO NOVI STORINKI Z ISTORII UKRAINY! TUT!” Once I burst out with, “CHYTAITE PRO NOVI ZAKONI UKRAINY, ZROBLENI IDIOTAMY!” I felt a little too awkward uttering that one, but it was close to the truth. I also remember yelling, “NOVI ZAKONY V UKRAINI DLA VSEKH!” (NEW LAWS IN UKRAINE FOR ALL!), adding “kromie odnogo” (except for one) with a murmur.
And so the young man and I both rang out our announcements about the new laws, the young man simply calling out, “NEW LAWS OF UKRAINE!” (NOVI ZAKONY UKRAINY!) Our neighboring musician strummed his guitar louder and louder. I got bolder and bolder. Eventually our younger helper had to go. As he got together with some friends on the metro, he wished me “success (udachi)” in Russian.
I think at one point the young man’s friends were even helping us. It could be that either they or some other young guys told Nazar, “Can we come (to the meeting) with automatic rifles?” Maybe they were joking, but people were in a very militant, happy mood.
The metro cop came back. I saw him enter my lane. He was on his cell phone. I rushed over to Nazar for help. One of our other activists, a man in his 30s with glasses, also from Lviv, came up to the cop and tried to reason with him. “Sir (pane),” the activist began in Ukrainian. “We have no pany here,” said the cop. “Okay, tovarysh officer (comrade officer)…” the activist replied, beginning some short conversation where he asked for the cop’s name and phone number and entered both in his cell phone. Then the cop went to take away a drunk guy, and we never saw him again.
We then went to change stations. We went down one more stop, to a location that had less people, yet was less hectic. We gave out more leaflets. It was just Nazar and I at that point. We were able to give away a few leaflets. One elderly woman then told me, “Give me all of them.” “Seriously?” I said. She nodded, and I gave her probably 50-60 leaflets. She was apparently going to take them to friends and neighbors. An elderly man told Nazar that he already had taken quite a few and scattered them on seats of trams. “Try it! It’s a good method!” he said. We distributed more leaflets, then Nazar said we needed to go down one more station. He entered the metro car just as it closed, and he gave me a signal to go on. Or at least that’s what I thought he said.
So I took the metro alone. I walked up and down the car with my poster. Sometimes people took a leaflet from me. Then I got off at the next stop, what looked like the next-to-last stop on the Green Line.
There was no sign of Nazar.
I went out of the metro station, thinking he was out on the street. He wasn’t. Instead, I ran into a drunk guy in his 60s who said, in Russian, that he wanted to talk to me about something. I think he was going to ask me something about nationalism, so I told him “no” and left. After not getting an answer from Nazar, I decided to go back to the Maidan. Meanwhile, I gave away a few more leaflets, this time just quietly saying, “Read Ukraine’s new laws…”
Nazar then called. I was to go to the Zolotye Vorota stop, where everyone had reassembled. There, we distributed more leaflets, then we went back to the Maidan. One young woman took the rest of my leaflets (about 50-60 left) for distributing elsewhere. Nazar asked if I wanted to keep my protest sign. I said yes.
We went our separate ways in the Maidan, as some music or speech resounded from the stage. I decided to get some dinner and coffee at a coffee house near the barricades on Khreshchatyk. The waitress recognized me from last month: “Go ahead and have a seat anywhere!,” she said in Russian. “You’re familiar here.” I carried my protest sign and bag up to the second floor. As I tried to write about the day’s events, I overheard these Americans in their late 20s or early 30s at a nearby table. I was so tempted to show off my protest sign, but then I changed my mind. Exhausted, I went home to my hotel.
Yet again, I had gotten “involved.” Should I have told Nazar no?
Here again, I thought back to my days doing research on dissent in Soviet Lviv. I remembered one literary critic trying to explain why such loyal Soviet writers decided to sign a petition protecting a dissident arrested by the KGB in 1965. He said that some people just couldn’t take what the system was doing. They had to say no. They had to speak out, no matter how guarded their protests at the time were.
The laws I read in he leaflet sounded like only idiots could have made them. No country should live under them. What more can I say?