A century ago, Ukrainian refugees fleeing the devastation of World War I were drawn to the Midwestern boomtown of Chicago. Today, the city is home to a Ukrainian National Museum, a neighborhood dubbed Ukrainian Village, and a population of Ukrainians that some believe to be three times larger than the official figure of 50,000 — which would give Chicago America's largest Ukrainian population.
The city's Ukrainians vocally supported the Orange Revolution of 2004. And in recent weeks, the Illinois division of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA-IL) has helped the pro-Westerners among them focus their rage against Viktor Yanukovych and channel its grief for the Euromaidan protesters killed during last week's fighting.
On a cold Sunday afternoon last weekend, about 200 people gathered outside the Consulate General of the Ukraine to mourn fallen protesters in Kiev, shout down the people they see as villains, sing songs, and fly the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag. Protesters knew Yanukovych had formally been removed from office and flown the coop — leaving behind a lavish estate outfitted with a private zoo, galleon-themed restaurant, and vintage car collection — but this was not a celebration.
Instead, when we checked in with Chicago's Ukrainians, cautious optimism ruled.
Are you pleased that Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev?
Sure I am pleased, but this is only a first step to gaining true independence that Ukraine has been trying to achieve for 22 years. There's a lot of oligarchs and businessmen that serve on the side of Russia. So its still an ongoing process. I believe the next step will be to reform the political system of Ukraine, and definitely the second step is to be part of the European Union. They should definitely ban communist party and Party of Regions — that's the party of Yanaukovych.
Should there be justice for the officials who ordered the firing on the protesters?
It's hard for me to believe that Ukrainian people, Ukrainian police would shoot at unarmed protesters. My heart was broken for my brothers in the Ukraine. Everyone here is broken hearted. We mourn dead bodies. Today is a very sad day.
Are you optimistic about the May 25 elections?
You have to be. After 2004, we had the first revolution, the Orange Revolution, when [Viktor] Yushchenko became our president. That was the only thing, the political system was never refined. I really hope this is a chance to completely reform the Ukrainian system.
Do you have friends and family who were involved in the protests?
All my family, including my mother and my brother and all of them, live in Kiev, and all tried to help as much as possible the people who are staying in Maidan, trying to give them medicine.
What should happen to those responsible for the shootings?
Of course it will depend on our parliament. The next right things would be to start the process and hopefully they will end up in jail because of the corruption. I think it's going to be a good example for the future politicians. Hopefully, we will see them in jail.
What do you think about the May 25 elections?
I think it will be challenging because of course the country will be divided, I'm not even talking about east and west, I'm talking about different politicians from the opposition. I don't think we have one good leader. No matter who we chose for president it cannot be worse than Yanukovych.
Would you ever return to Kiev to live there?
I go back about once a year, but I have my business here. My family is still there. I have opportunity to take them in so they live here, but they don't want to live here.
LISA, 28; ULANA, 27; LUBA, 27
Are you pleased that Yanukovych fled Kiev?
Ulana: We are pleased, however, we'd like for him to be apprehended and at least tried for what he's done, for all his crimes.
Lisa: There's a long road ahead.
How do you feel about the May 25 elections?
Lisa: As optimistic as we could be.
Luba: You hope things are moving in the right direction and you want to keep it going. The parliament is doing the right thing right now.
Ulana: It's being portrayed accurately. Whereas in the past, it was not being portrayed accurately at all. East and west in Ukraine are pretty divided.
Do you expect there will be some kind of justice for the officials who ordered the live fire on the protesters?
Ulana: We'd hope that there would be justice, but you know, the way things have gone before….
Lisa: History will say, but history hasn't been good to the Ukrainian people.
Have you or your friends been involved with the protests?
"We've been involved in social and community work for some time. We're actually pleased so much mass media arrived to cover the story, although we're a little disappointed that it happened just now, not two months ago. We feel if the coverage were wider two months ago, it could have prevented deaths of people.
Are you pleased that Yanukovych has left Kiev and the presidential palace?
Absolutely, that was a relief. That was the original reason why people got on the streets. It started in November due to the fact that he decided not to join the agreement with the EU. Later on, it turned into the fact that people wanted him out as he was turning into the dictator and he went crazy with his regime and oppression.
How do you feel about Ukraine's future?
There's a huge task ahead of us. Ukraine will still need the support of the West, and probably first thing, financially, because the money is gone. Pretty much all the money was stolen or used to pay off the police or buy off the media. So the banks pretty much are empty. But right now there's a very important thing for the opposition — not to eat each other, but to work toward a common goal and get some help from the western world through this transitional period.
What's going to happen to the people responsible for killing protesters?
Many of those people that actually did the crimes left the country. I really hope they'll be brought to justice — not lynch-type justice, but to regular democratic procedure with a public court and public hearings. And I hope that they are going to be serving a long time in jail for their crimes. Crime left unpunished tends to grow.
Do you have any friends or family involved in the protests?
My dad lives in Kiev, he has been participating in the protests on his end. When I was there in December for about one week, I would go out as well. Everything was much better than it is right now. There were still some fights, but not as bad as this past week when there were shootings. I still can't wrap my brain around what happened in Ukraine this past week.
Are you pleased that Yanukovych has left Kiev?
I am pleased that he is no longer president. I hope that they will be able to track him down and find him and hold him accountable. One of our biggest mistakes of all of our years of independence after we broke off from the Soviet Union was that, whenever the government changed, the new government would never hold anybody accountable for what they did in the past. I hope that won't be the case today.
Are you optimistic about the process leading up to the elections?
The circumstances are very delicate, you have to be careful and very quick to act. There are still Russian influences in the region and they will try to destabilize the situation. So we need good people to manage the situation.
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