By Phoebe Carter
In late November, Darya Tsymbalyuk ’13 made her first trip to Maidan Square to see the opposition protests that continue to grip her home country. She has been back almost every day since to support the demonstrations.
Tsymbalyuk never considered herself to be political, but when she returned home to Ukraine after graduating in May, she was greeted by an atmosphere of hopelessness in the country. Then, in early November, protests began in Maidan Square in the center of Kiev, the capital, over the government’s decision to reject a trade deal that would have brought the nation closer to the European Union (EU).
“It’s strange that I even went,” Tsymbalyuk said. “I wasn’t really political in my life ever before. As an artist, I was always really against political art.” At Kenyon, Tsymbalyuk studied studio art as well as German and Italian.
“I was working, I had a very normal life, and then … I just couldn’t stay home,” said Tsymbalyuk, who moved to Kiev from her hometown of Mykolaiv in September to be closer to the action. “My life is pretty much nonexistent except for [the protests]. I don’t sleep much these days, and sometimes only eat once a day, but I’m so energized by the spirit here.”
Demonstrations began in November 2013 in Maidan Square when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych broke his promise to sign a free trade agreement with the EU and accepted financial support from the Russian government. But Yanukovych’s government also faces criticism over alleged internal corruption and a failure to properly manage the Ukrainian economy.
After protesters were attacked by police forces at the end of November, over a million people came to the square and set up the tent camp of Maidan in order to devote their full attention to protesting the alleged violence and corruption of Yanukovych’s government.
“The people in the square are not there because they want to join the EU or whatever, but because of this life here in Ukraine,” Tsymbalyuk said. “The corruption is absolutely horrible.”
Tsymbalyuk decided to reach out to the Kenyon community when she started receiving letters from friends at Kenyon about what they were reading in the news. “I realized that Western media coverage is very skewed,” she said. The posters Tsymbalyuk sent to students to hang around campus to raise awareness of Ukrainian events were part of her effort to “tell people what was really going on.” She also reached out to the community to raise funds for medical care.
What turned the previously peaceful protests violent was the passing of anti-protest laws on Jan. 16 by the Ukrainian Parliament. They have restricted anti-government speech and made it more difficult to organize opposition. “The hospitals are not safe because [if you are identified as a protester], you will be kidnapped or taken to jail immediately by the police,” Tsymbalyuk said. She added that volunteer doctors have been providing medical care, supported entirely by donations.
Tsymbalyuk contacted Elena Anatchkova ’15, Adam Marjai ’16 and Anu Nael ’14 for help organizing a campaign at Kenyon. Together they raised over $1,500 in a week by collecting money in Peirce Hall. “It was incredible, it really was,” said Timothy Kotowski ’16, who joined the fundraising effort on campus. “So many people were really aware of what was going on … or were really interested to learn. We are really grateful.” Marjai said people who donated are “saving lives.”
Nael, Tsymbalyuk’s friend and roommate of two years, said she felt inspired by Tsymbalyuk’s work. “She’s a very beautiful human being,” Nael said. “She’s very inspiring.”
Tsymbalyuk insists that she is no hero. “One weekend I went [to Maidan] and peeled garlic for two days straight,” she said. “It’s nothing revolutionary.”
Recently, Tsymbalyuk was able to accompany a journalist to the front lines of the resistance, where women are not usually allowed. For this, in addition to the act of protesting, which is illegal, Tsymbalyuk could face years in jail. But “for some reason, I have no fear about it,” she said.
“I am very optimistic that we will win in the end,” she said, despite a lack of progress in recent days. “I see [the protest efforts] as a victory already because … it’s a big awakening of national consciousness.”
Tsymbalyuk described her involvement at Maidan as a turning point in her life. As she prepared to leave Kenyon last spring, she never imagined she could make such a marked difference in her country. Then the protests started and she realized that just being a presence in Maidan makes an impact.
And despite her previous distaste for political art, Tsymbalyuk recently made a piece about Maidan that features ribbons — which evoke the ubiquitous flags of the protests — on which people wrote their impressions of Maidan. The piece was related to a similar project she did while at Kenyon. “I view art as a dialect, and for me it is the most successful dialect I could make personally,” she said. “I wanted it to be a bridge with the people there.”
“These are probably the most beautiful times I have experienced in my life,” she said. “Because people have this big goal and there’s so much struggling and suffering, I feel like people unite and the best sides of people come out.”