OBSERVER EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Darya Tsymbalyuk

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Darya Tsymbalyuk ’13 is an artist and activist involved with the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. She recently spoke with Julieanna Luo ’17 about her experience.

The day we had our first snow of the year, I wandered into Palme and stumbled on a postcard by a student named Darya outside of Professor Suggs’s office. The card reads:

“Dear Dave: There I find myself in a new culture, in Munich, Bavaria, experiencing all the cultural difference once again. I have been thinking a lot about the things I have learned in my life; and I have to tell you that your classes were truly life-changing for me. I think what Anthropology has given me – it is the sense of ultimate freedom. It truly proved to me that there is almost infinite number of ways to look at things and to understand things…”

I did not know who Darya was, but somehow her words encouraged me in a way I can’t describe. At the time, Ukraine, though facing rampant corruption and economic stagnation, was still at peace and this girl, Darya, was just a recent college graduate about to start her dream as an artist in her home country.

Everything was normal until November 21, 2013, when protests began on Maidan Square in the center of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, because then-President Viktor Yanukovych had backtracked on previous promises to sign a trade deal with the European Union (EU). In the weeks that followed, the protests morphed into a broader outcry against lack of political freedoms and governmental corruption. By the time Yanukovich fled the country on Feb. 22, his crackdown on the protests had killed more than 100 protesters, with 300 still missing.

The morning of March 2nd, the day I spoke with Darya, everything got much more complicated as the Russian Federation Council authored President Vladmir Putin to send troops to Crimean peninsula, sovereign Ukrainian territory. “It seems that the war is very possible” Darya’s message was filled with the worry that gripped the hearts of her countrymen.

“I work – not today, today is Sunday – but usually I work and I spend my free time helping out in the hospital now…I started supporting Maidan from its first days, before I mostly volunteered at the kitchen, but also giving out newspapers and doing other little things like that. I also spent time peeling garlic, for example, lots and lots of garlic in one of the tents that makes food for the activists. It was very cold outside…but honestly, on Maidan one does not notice the temperature.”

“I didn’t get to read the news either [today], my friends call me to tell me, I just came back…”

Now living by herself, Darya moved to Kyiv in September before the protests erupted. She was smiling even though she had just spent the last almost 15 hours volunteering at the hospital.

“I do all kinds of jobs [at Maidan] you know, whatever is needed, I do them… It’s funny because people might expect me to do something that might require my education, but I almost didn’t do anything intellectual here. There are art organizations but I did not join them, they often kept arguing, what it’s supposed to be [instead of making things]… For me, people are more valuable. I am here because I just see suffering and I can’t be indifferent. I see the people, see their needs, hopes, dreams, I feel with them, and I act with them.”

Maidan lit Darya with love for the people there, with admiration for their courage and spirit, and she wanted to make a gift in her own way. In being involved with the Euromaidan movement, Darya is having some the most beautiful times of her life, despite all the suffering and tragedy that she has experienced together with her countrymen.

“I mean I never really felt such great belonging to nation or to movement but here really it’s probably the most perfect community I’ve ever experienced.”

The day she wrote that, Maidan Square was only a shell, divided by barricades built from paving stones, wooden debris and tires. But soon after, it turned into a war zone for the first time since WWII. On her Facebook page, Darya wrote down and shared with other people what she saw and experienced in those day. This is the post from February 19 summarizing her day.

“We sort out piles and piles of meds inside of the St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral (700 meters away from Maidan) cathedral. Beautiful icons and frescoes. Monks. Piles of pills…Dozens of activists sleeping on the floor all over the place.

[Carrying] bags of food to Maidan. First time I see the apocalyptic images I was watching all night on hromadske.tv with my own eyes. Trade Union House in which I was just yesterday and said to mom – don’t worry, I am in Trade Unions, it’s the safest place – burned completely. Big black box with blind holes instead of windows and ripped cloth of a poster. We walk further – the barricades are right at the corner of Trade Union House – we lost half of Maidan. You enter and get to the front lines.

[People] dig out cobble stones all over the Square… We make several human chains across whole Maidan to pass the cobblestones to the front lines. It works very efficient. Yes, we fight with rocks against weapons…”

While Darya was consistently optimistic throughout our interview, she told me that the situation remains very complicated. In an especially troubling example, she described how during her time helping in the hospital, police and titushkas (government sponsored thugs) kidnapped activists, casting doubt as to who was a friend and who was an enemy in disguise. Darya also spoke of Russia making anti-Ukrainian propaganda, especially in pro-Russian areas like her hometown, Mykolaiv.

She talked about the history of Crimea and her worries about what Putin is planning, but, most of all, she talked about the people she met.

“Yesterday I was thinking about my experience here, I meet people from the ‘real’ crowd, people who are very different, sometimes even opposite from my Kenyon friends…Like this 16 year old boy, Valera, I met in the hospital. He was only 16 and he just had a plastic helmet [when he was fighting]…he was out there in the street, then got beaten up by six police guards. “He told me that there were not many people who were really experienced [with fighting]…I brought them soup a couple of days ago and Ivan, 19 years old, told me how he ran away from the orphanage, lived in the underground for years, he hardly read any books, he is naturally intelligent, but he does not have much education…back at Kenyon, my friends and I would talk about you know art, literature, very bohemian I would say, these people are so opposite…”

Darya spoke of Kenyon with nostalgia and love. As a Studio Art and MLL major, Darya was able to pursue art and languages with the support from school and she felt she was very fortunate to meet a lot of wonderful people. However, when thinking back to her Kenyon experience from her experience now, she is also critical of some things she used to be so fond of:

“[This] observation might be harsh, but most intellectual people, they doubt all the time, is this right, is this politically right, is this true or not, but these people [people on Maidan] don’t doubt, and this is why they are ready to give their lives [for a greater cause].”

“To be honest, I had two questions before I took part in this, long before when I was in Kenyon, I always had this question, probably because Ukraine always had this tradition of World War II movies, I thought about what if there was a war, would I go, would I take part, and who out of my Kenyon friends would go?”

Darya said she felt fortunate that she was there and had the chance to know the people and their reactions.

“Some people are more rational, and they would wait, but people who do act don’t think much, they believe, they believe very strongly, people who die, they believe Ukraine would be free, if they thought about this [too much]; they would never go for those bullets.”

In Kyiv, despite the real tragedy and sufferings happening every day, Darya has met so many people who live life fully – people who are able and ready to sacrifice. Protesters come from all social classes, including a lot of really progressive intellectuals – entrepreneurs, businessmen, artists – but also people like the 16 year old boy that she met when volunteering at the hospital who gave her probably the most to think about.

“People like him…They haven’t seen anything – Kyiv is like the center of the world [for them]. They come from villages, but to me they are so beautiful, like this 16 year old boy, to me he is so intelligent but in a pure way, and the fact that they went…, you are 16, you know you could die, to me is courageous, this innocence touched me. They don’t have good parents, they were beaten up, but they have so much light, so much hope, they joke. They know how to live, they understand life so deeply…when I think back on the problems that my friends and I were mostly concerned about such as ‘Am I good enough as an artist,’ the concerns most self-reflective intellectuals probably had. It was easy, even though unintentionally, to felt sometimes a quiet desperation for life, but these people here see things in such a different but profound way.”

When asking about her plans for the future, Darya said she would continue helping with the revolution, and her determination and positive made it hard not to feel empowered. She is also working on an art project about Maidan that features ribbons. In the coldest days Darya walked on the streets and asked people to write their impression for Maidan in one or two words.

“Many believe it is a protest for the Eurointegration of Ukraine, but it is really much more. It is a revolution of dignity and national consciousness.”

Darya hopes her art can promote conversation as it did in Kenyon, and she was impressed how seriously people took the project.

“I view art as a dialect, and for me it is the most successful dialect I could make personally…I wanted it to be a bridge with the people there.”

Darya insisted she was no hero, but for me, she is one of the most courageous people I have ever met. It’s fine to understand things, but it’s another thing to live what we understand, just as Professor Suggs said about Darya, “We meet a lot of people around here with good intelligence, with good social skills. To my mind, Darya has those, but the thing that stands out about Darya is that she is a good person. She put her value into practices…I know a lot of students have an academic interest in justice; there is just a difference between having an academic interest and being committed to it. Some people care about justice, but they also really care about money. They say ‘well I also really like my education.’ For Darya, she just really cares.”

These days, we talk a lot about the value for liberal arts education: “to give life its time-tested and true beliefs.” as Daniel Semelsberger says his article “An Apology for the Liberal Arts,” which appeared in the February 14th issue of the Observer; and I could not agree with him more. I treasure the great minds we read, and was grateful that liberal arts education prepare us for living a meaningful life, but somehow I ask myself after all the learning I receive, will I have the courage to sacrifice for what I believe in, what if what I have to sacrifice is life itself?

I think of Marco Saavedra ’11, an undocumented immigrant himself, he is now devoted in promoting the immigration reform in leading the movement of undocumented youth coming out of the shadows. Beaten up, detained in jail countless times for his civil disobedience, Marco had never for once thought of giving up. Last summer, he and eight other young undocumented immigrants self-deported to Mexico and walked across the border back into the US to protest the Obama administration’s deportation policies. The revolutionary power of love in people like Marco and Darya kept reminding what Kenyon has given me: to know life by experience and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

I think what I found in Darya, is human integrity, dignity and courage to live as she preaches. I know it is a cliché to talk about the lesson of how to live, but at a certain season of our life, we are accustomed to think about grand ideas and it is important to remember if we have built castles in the air, our work need not be lost. That’s where they should be; now put the foundation under them.

Darya’s postcard ends with this:

“…and by this reassuring that there is never the one and the only way to see I think this was the last drop that switched something in my consciousness and almost granted me this clarity and freedom to live the way I want and to think the way I do. Thank you so much for unfolding the greater diversity of universe for your students.

Sincerely, Darya.”

As I write, Crimea is being invaded and Russia is conducting war games on the Ukranian border. Tomorrow, Darya is still going wake up, make her way to the streets and do whatever she can for the freedom of Ukraine, as she has been doing since the first day of the Euromaidan protests. She deserves our solidarity and support for doing so.

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