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In Ukraine, the shift towards urbane European life has been savagely halted by war, and the gravitational pull of their Soviet history. By Charles McPhedran.

Ukraine’s divided state

There is a moment, when you wake up to a war, where you realise all your choices are tragic. If you are lucky, you can leave and put your own happiness above your duty to the country in which you were born. You will feel guilty. But your soul will remain unstained with the blood and muck of conflict.

Or you can stay, and go to the front. If you do, you may destroy your body or lose your sanity. You can depart a pacifist cameraman and come back disturbed – someone who tells their friends in a bar that everyone should keep weapons at home and that being at war clears your head. All the same, you will be able to cling on to your sense of honour and shove it in your friends’ faces.

A month ago, I sat in a Kiev bar as two individuals who have made two opposing decisions faced each other across the table. The bar is wood panelled and nearly empty. There is a stack of classic Russian literature on a shelf on the wall. The barmaid is sweet, her hair dyed black.

The two guys are both named Maxim and both are cameramen. One has been filming on the front for months now. The other has been in the Ukrainian capital working on a television series. Soon he will leave for Germany.

“I didn’t just want to be like all my friends, to stay here in Kiev and just post things about the war on Facebook,” says the warrior. He’s scrawny and tall, a lock of hair protrudes from the back of his head. He looks like a punk Cossack. Sometimes when he talks, he doesn’t notice he is yelling.

“War is the best yoga,” he tells me at the start of the evening. “When you are there, the commentary you always have in your head stops. You just react.”

What scares Maxim is not his memories of bodies, or of a war in which he says few are respecting the Geneva Convention rules. It is the thought of seeing Luhansk, once a city of half a million people, nearly deserted at night. “Can you imagine how dark that is?” he asks.

Tonight, he admits that a psychologist has told him he needs rest. But he has refused to stop. This weekend, he will head back to Luhansk.

Maxim the peacenik has remained far from the front. Unlike his friend, the filmmaker is soft and gentle. He is better at talking about history than living it, better at observing than participating. This year he has donated hundreds of dollars to the army which, like the country itself, is basically broke. And he protested last winter against the old government. But now, that doesn’t seem enough.

“There have been some times this summer where I have laid awake at night and thought about giving up my job and becoming a medical worker in the East,” he tells me. “But the problem is I’m not a fighter.”

Kiev's urbane millennials

Maxim’s dilemma that night is typical of his generation. Ukraine’s first post-Soviet crop of youth is now deciding between war and peace.

They were lucky to sprout at all. When they grew up in the early 1990s, the state had effectively collapsed. Rogues with guns and power took what they liked. And all that dubiously acquired new money and property meant yet more influence and even more weapons.

Back then, you could never be sure if someone would drop by one day, threaten your parents, take your possessions and leave you in destitution. In the 1990s, many rural Ukrainian families had a garden plot to keep them from starving.

“You needed to be sure that your family could provide you with food, at least you could grow something,” wrote Maryana, a former journalist who lives near Kharkiv, in north-eastern Ukraine, in an online chat. “Still some families have those gardens.”

In Kiev, millennials grew up cynical. They became inured to videos of politicians conniving, to allegations of political hits and to their leaders going to jail. They read Machiavelli rather than moral philosophy.

The country was poor but there was still money around, from the cultural foundation of some rich man or from god knows where. So Kiev’s hipsters took holidays in St Petersburg and South America. They stepped out of Berlin clubs, blinking, amid the grey light at dawn. They got used to speaking English and started to feel every bit as European as Italians or Spaniards do.

And one morning, they got up and decided they wanted to live in Europe. It was the students who first went out onto the city’s central Independence Square last November, after then-president Viktor Yanukovych cancelled a planned association deal with Europe. Folks from the culture industries and urban liberals followed soon after.

Anti-government protests

“About 1000 people were there, mostly intellectuals,” an art critic, Asia, says in relation to the first protest on November 21. “It was the happiest day for them. Their shining faces expressed one word: ‘Finally!’ ”

These people are not bellicose nationalists dressed in camouflage. Kiev’s protesting classes are meritocrats, people who started with very little and eventually succeeded in their lives. Many speak Russian, a language of culture and status, as their first tongue.

But when the president decided that their future wasn’t in Berlin or Paris after all, and when he seemed to them like one of the thugs who had terrorised their childhoods, these people reacted with anger.

It became a winter of protests and of violence. A city mobilised: many volunteered for jobs, according to their abilities. Film types became battlefront cameramen. PR execs organised the delivery of medical supplies in hospitals. Logistics folks sourced those supplies from pharmacies.

“We were overwhelmed; so many people wanted to help,” says Olga, a PR manager at a university who, along with a friend, organised medical procurement for a central hospital during the clashes. “But it wasn’t very well co-ordinated. We didn’t have the experience – Ukraine isn’t a country where there are earthquakes and hurricanes.”

And few in Kiev predicted the geopolitical tremor that was coming, either. Each time the violence intensified, people were shocked. They had grown up in a corrupt and squalid democracy but it was largely peaceful. Now they were confronting riot squads, snatch brigades and eventually bullets.

The protests became more about police violence and government corruption than Europe, in the end. And when they won and the president fled, no one could believe it. Few celebrated. The centre of the city had been blackened. There were bloodstains on the ground.

Days later, Russia occupied a part of their country. For urbanites, Crimea had been a region of respite: a place where you would go surfing or rock-climbing in the summer. Suddenly it was gone.

“Russia has stolen a part of my youth – with all my memories, all my favourite spots,” wrote Serge, an indie rock musician, in an email. “Before the annexation, I even wanted my wedding to happen at Kutlak Bay [on the Crimean Peninsula]. I guess I’ll now have to find somewhere else.”

There were rumours that Russian soldiers were stealing holiday-makers’ cars at checkpoints on the new “border”.

Violence erupts

Still, few thought it would come to outright war. A friend told me on Facebook that conflict in the digital age, here in Europe, was impossible. Information would prevent atrocities. Many of my acquaintances had relatives in Russia. Talk would prevail over weapons.

But then in the springtime more violence began, this time far away in the country’s east. Guys with guns stormed town halls and secret police headquarters. Friends of friends were taken and held in the basement of those buildings, mostly for money.

Pavel is a theatre director in Kiev. In April, while travelling through Slovyansk, he was denounced for pro-Ukrainian views by mainly pro-Russian locals. He and a friend, Denis, the director of an art gallery in Kiev, spent three months being held hostage, first in a cellar and then in a police cell. The separatists wanted humanitarian aid and $100,000 for their captives.

“I don’t have one attitude to my captors. Those that fought in battles should be in jail. But there are others who were alcoholics, or psychologically disturbed,” Pavel says. “During the first week they beat us hardcore. They would come in every 15 to 20 minutes to hit us so that we could not sleep.”

Soon the violence became a conflagration involving tanks and piles of dead people. In Kiev, the strained normality of the springtime gave way to an existential summer. Draft letters started arriving in the mail. Everyone knew the army lacked equipment and could not properly train its recruits. Still, there was no easy answer to a simple question: To stay or to go?

This is a history of young, well-educated and privileged people who see themselves as the cultural vanguard of a country. They have not suffered more than other Ukrainians, and the miners of the Donbass valley and the Crimean Tatars have already faced much worse.

In this moment, everything apart from war has become irrelevant to Ukraine’s millennials. Few expect the tentative ceasefire between pro-Russians and Ukrainians to last.

Ukraine’s young are already preparing for the next battle. Fate and history have put them on the wrong side of Europe.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 11, 2014 as "Divided state". Subscribe here.

Charles McPhedran
is a reporter based in Berlin.