Finally, an Explanation of the Ukraine Protests That's Easy to Understand

One protester's message goes viral.
Feb 27, 2014·
Stephanie Mercado is a journalism student at Cal State-Fullerton and formerly worked at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

As images of violence and protest fill cable news broadcasts covering clashes in Ukraine, there have been few voices of everyday Ukrainians explaining what they're fighting for—until now.

A young woman named Yulia's viral video, titled "I Am a Ukrainian"—it has been viewed more than 7 million times over the past two weeks—captures the emotion and motivation of the protesters in a few minutes of film.

“We are civilized people, but our government are barbarians,” she tells viewers. “I know that maybe tomorrow we’ll have no phone, no Internet connection, and we will be alone here.”

Los Angeles–based filmmaker Ben Moses met Yulia while working on his latest documentary, A Whisper to a Roar, which follows five countries in their fight for democracy: Egypt, Malaysia, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and Ukraine.

“We wanted to include a post-Communist country,” Moses said, referring to Ukraine's declaration of independence from Mother Russia in 1991, months before the collapse of the Soviet Union—ties that are still unraveling in the modern conflict.

Protests first broke out in November when President Viktor Yanukovich rejected a trade deal with the European Union that many Ukrainians believed would help hold the country's corrupt leadership to account while developing the economy in a more Western, open style.

Instead, Ukraine's leadership accepted a $15 billion bailout from Russia—which has been paying into the recession-ridden country's cronyistic leadership for years. Yanukovich’s close ties with former Soviet masters—who have an interest in the gas pipelines running through Ukraine into Europe—proved to be the final stroke for Ukrainians, who took to the streets to demand fresh leadership.

Protesters, who are calling their movement the Euromaidan, occupied Independent Square in Kiev in freezing temperatures, enduring beatings and violence that has left at least 75 people dead and hundreds more injured.

Yulia contacted Moses to share Ukrainians’ plight through a short film she made. He told her it needed to be done in English. “I want to reach out to the rest of the world,” she said.

Last Saturday, after three months of demonstrations, Yanukovich left the capital and protesters seized the city center. The Ukrainian parliament then voted to remove him from office and scheduled early elections for May 25. Yanukovich vows to stay in power.

With the video's popularity, critics have come out of the woodwork, noting Yulia’s untouched hair and clean makeup—some are even calling it propaganda.

“People will say whatever they want online,” Moses said. "Yulia is a beautiful and passionate girl—I thought if she was going to be the face of Ukraine, people would listen.”