Thirty years ago this month, Ukraine witnessed a wave of protest that many in the country had never seen before.
At the heart of it all were a group of students in the Ukrainian capital, who occupied what was then called October Revolution Square, later known as Independence Square or Maidan Nezalezhnosti.
They pitched tents on the central Kyiv plaza on October 2, 1990, and began a hunger strike, which they said would not end until the authorities fulfilled a list of demands they had issued.
The students’ demands were openly defiant of the Soviet establishment and included calls for early parliamentary elections, the nationalization of Communist Party property, and the resignation of Prime Minister Vitaliy Masol.
The burgeoning resurgence in Ukrainian nationalism at the time was also reflected in the protesters’ demands that a proposed Union Treaty with Moscow be scrapped and for all local conscripts to do their service on Ukrainian soil.
The Revolution On Granite (named after the paving stones on which the tents were pitched) caught the imagination of the wider public. People came out onto the streets in droves to show their support.
Several large marches, whose participants numbered in the tens of thousands, were held in solidarity with the students, and many workers’ organizations also rallied to the cause by calling nationwide strikes.
Mykola Bohoslavets, then still a teenager at Lviv Polytechnic when he joined the protest with scores of other students, admits he was surprised by the outpouring of support their actions received.
“We had been prepared to be beaten up, but every day more people were on the square,” he told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. “Kyivans came, telegrams were sent to us, there was a warm atmosphere. I was 19 years old, and I was afraid of nothing with my friends.”
As the days passed, another camp was set up in front of the Ukrainian parliament. Many deputies sided with the students, whose leaders were even able to present their demands to the assembly.
Eventually, the protest came to an end on October 17, 1990, when Masol resigned, marking the first time in many decades that Ukrainian demonstrators had so openly defied the communist government and come out on top.
Overshadowed By Other Maidans?
In the decades since it happened, the Revolution On Granite has attained a symbolic significance in Ukraine, and it’s certainly no accident that many subsequent outpourings of protest — so-called Maidans — have also been centered on Kyiv’s Independence Square.
Even so, 30 years after this seminal event, there are some who suggest the historical importance of the Revolution On Granite is sometimes overshadowed by subsequent periods of mass upheaval, most notably the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Euromaidan of 2013-14.
Olga Onuch, an associate professor in politics at the University of Manchester, who has written extensively about this period in Ukrainian history, believes the circumstances surrounding the protest and its wider impact deserve further study.
‘A Highly Activated Place’
One interesting aspect about October 1990 was that it caught both the Soviet authorities and many Western observers by surprise, something Onuch attributes to the fact that there was “a different lens on Ukraine,” which had been seen as an integral part of the Soviet Union at the time.
Unlike in neighboring Poland and Czechoslovakia, which had well-established underground opposition movements, Ukrainian dissent had been heavily suppressed until the perestroika era, even though it had been around for quite a while.
“Ukraine had more dissidents per capita than any other Soviet republic; it was a highly activated place,” says Onuch. “The big difference was that there were several waves of repressions, including sending people away to camps and psychiatric hospitals.”
According to Onuch, when many of these dissidents, such as Vyacheslav Chornovil, were released after long periods of captivity in the mid- to late 1980s, this had an energizing effect on Ukrainian civil society and students, in particular.
Many of these dissidents “actively went into universities, specifically in Kharkiv, Lviv, and Kyiv, but also elsewhere. So they made these connections with students…. It’s not like the students came out of nowhere,” says Onuch.
Dissent was also brewing outside of the country’s universities. Chornovil and other like-minded dissidents had founded the Popular Movement of Ukraine (Rukh), which pushed for more sovereignty and democratic reforms. The movement held mass rallies and protests, including organizing a human chain that joined as many as 3 million people hand in hand from Lviv to Kyiv in a show of national unity.
‘Everyone Was Ready For Action’
With change already in the air, it’s perhaps inevitable that there were some who wanted to take things a bit further.
Mykola Bohoslavets says he “couldn’t even imagine not going to Kyiv” when the decision was taken by two students’ unions to stage a hunger strike in the Ukrainian capital.
“We all understood that we needed to change the country. In reality, despite the lofty words, everyone was ready for action,” he said.
During the weeks of protest, prominent cultural figures and opposition politicians visited the students to show their support. Many of the older generation of dissidents paid their respects, too.
“These older guys, who had just come back from the camps, visited the students on the square,” says Onuch. “They would come to their tents, they would sit with them, and they would talk about philosophy and poetry and so on. So, there was this intense collaboration between the generations, and I think that’s sadly unknown.”
Those from the new generation of dissidents who cut their teeth as activists during the 1990 protest included Markiyan Ivashchyshyn, Mykhaylo Svystovych, Oles Doniy, and current Deputy Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, all of whom went on to become prominent cultural and political figures.
‘Aesthetic Of Protest’
Another legacy that the Revolution On Granite bequeathed to Ukrainian civil society was what Onuch calls the “aesthetic of protest.”
“Every single protest event [in Ukraine] since then was occupying the square with tents. And that’s very different from what you see if you think about places like Belarus [for example]…,” she says.
“That occupation with tents, bringing a stage for the first time; they brought guitars and some musicians…There were poetry recitals. There were all those other things that we later see in other future protest events.”
‘Legacy Of Activism’
Although the Revolution On Granite will perhaps best be remembered as the “first Maidan,” Onuch suggests that one of its most important successes was that it also left behind a “legacy of activism” that became a reference point for future currents of dissent.
“Its legacy for all the protest events that happened thereafter is really underestimated…,” she says. “That moment really did reignite all these networks and influenced younger people to want to be part of different social-movement organizations of various kinds throughout the country.”
For Mykola Bohoslavets, the spirit of activism that inspired him and his fellow students to camp out on the Maidan three decades ago is still alive and well in Ukraine. If anything, he says, Ukrainians’ thirst for change has grown even stronger in the intervening years.
“We have our own country, and society is gradually being reformed…,” he says. “Of the groups of people who were ready for action 30 years ago, there are now hundreds and thousands and millions. That’s a lot.”
Written by Coilin O’Connor with reporting by Halyna Tereshchuk, a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service
Coilin O’Connor is a web producer in the Central Newsroom of RFE/RL in Prague.