I have been to some harrowing places. I have worked in conflict zones, and worked with both refugees and those who preyed on them. But it was at a Pride Parade that I was truly afraid. The setting: Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. The time: June 2018. The cause: sexual minority rights, which remain a contentious and divisive topic in Ukraine. Participating in the parade was the right thing to do, politically and morally. Nevertheless, attending put me in a precarious situation: not only did I put my personal safety at risk, but more importantly, my future research was also jeopardised. My case shows how entwined the personal and the professional can become in qualitative research, and how there is no easy way out of the moral and ethical dilemmas involved.
I research civil society activism after the Maidan revolution of February 2014. What had started as a protest against president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to backtrack from an association agreement with the European Union and in favour of a customs union with Russia soon escalated into violence, and raised fundamental questions of civic and human rights. The subsequent Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and and the support given to separatists in the east soon divided the civil society activism into two distinct struggles: a reformist one in the capital, and a military one in Donbas. The two issues were initially intertwined as the state struggled to take control of rapidly developing events, but as the state has strengthened, they have become more distinct. In 2014 the threat of an imminent Russian invasion privileged the military struggle, and many joined the so-called volunteer battalions. Yet within a year a military intervention by Russian regulars largely fixed the frontlines, and the main civil society struggle shifted to the political arena.
During my research, I have moved between military and political pro-Ukrainian activists, who seek the best for their country. Many share similar attitudes towards mainstream politics (“corrupt”), national minorities (especially the Roma – “criminals”) and leftists (“Russian stooges”). The catalyst for my writing in this blog post was the outrage amongst these activists that was provoked by a sign at Pride 2017 which proclaimed, “make love not civil war.” This was deemed to be not only unpatriotic to the mother country Ukraine, but the sign also denied the Russian responsibility in the woes of Ukraine.
Despite this widespread outrage, attitudes towards sexual minorities divide these activists. While the revolution seemingly opened up political space for reforms and new ideas, not all of these ideas have been progressive. In 2015 the pride parade – only the second of its kind in Ukraine – was attacked and marchers were beaten. Security has been beefed up since, not least because of the participation of foreign ambassadors and embassy staff. Unlike in many other countries where these events have become carnivals, in Kiev everyone I spoke to was wary of the risks involved. While carnival-like Pride marches in places like London too require security, in Kiev Pride participants were advised to refrain from showing any intent of participating before reaching the police-protected Pride area. One scholar known to the far right had to refrain from participation altogether due to concerns for their personal security.
The march was a topic that was brought up by my interlocutors during the prior days. Some of the military volunteers saw it as degenerate and immoral, and felt very strongly that it should not be allowed. Others appeared indifferent. Virtually all of the civil society actors (the reformers) said that it was important for the future of their country and encouraged me to join the march with them. This posed a dilemma that I had not prepared for. When prompted by one ultra-nationalist who belonged to the group accused of attacking the parade three years earlier on my view on gay rights, I explained that I saw them as forming a part of a wider human rights agenda, central to democracy. I doubt that these arguments were well received (I remain uncertain whether he supports democracy, while freedom of expression is always restricted during war). I expected to find some of these veterans among those opposing the march.
On the morning of the march none of the reformers who had emphasized how important the event was showed up. I was standing in front of one metro station, uncertain where the march would start or how to get there. I joined a group of students and went to look for a way inside the area blockaded by the security forces who could not, (or would not) tell us how to enter. It took an hour to find the correct entrance and to queue to the security check, with everyone passing a few dozen vocal opponents of the march. While they appeared fringe, I found the comments from passers-by more worrying. A recommendation to visit a shrink was the nicest.
The parade itself lacked most of the carnivalesque atmosphere of its equivalent events in Berlin and London. There were at least as many officers from the various state security services as marchers. Twice the number of marchers than the year before, participants reportedly numbered around 3,500. Most were dressed in ordinary clothing, with rainbow flags joined by the occasional blue-and-yellow bicolour flag of Ukraine. Unaccustomed to seeing so many uniforms at one time, the visible security presence did not make me feel safer. This was especially the case after I looked at some of the young officers and found myself doubting whether they would stop someone from hitting me, or hit me themselves (despite the fact that they acted very professionally).
But it was not only for these reasons I found the whole affair nerve-wracking. Even after I found some friends among the happy crowd, I felt isolated. My focus was not on the march, but on any familiar faces behind the wall of uniforms. While I am sure some of the more militant activists suspected that I held more liberal views than they, my presence would confirm this. How would this change our relationship? Would this mean that I was a traitor siding with “internal enemies”? Would they ever speak to me again?
In the end there were very few onlookers, and no things were thrown at us during the march. When the march ended abruptly, we immediately began to look for a way to leave the area in a low-key manner. One metro station had been closed for this purpose, but a group of riot police lifted a portion of a fence for us, allowing us to squeeze through. None of us was wearing anything extravagant, so we assumed it was easy to blend in. When we later said goodbyes, I was warned about using underpasses, as these were the prime locations of assaults.
Towards the afternoon and the evening people who knew I had participated in Pride sent messages and emails to ask whether I had made it home. I also learnt that the security forces had boxed in and arrested 56 of the around 150 far-right activists who had tried to stop the march before it started. Having experienced perhaps two hours of anxiety, I could not stop thinking how awful it must be for people who need to deal with these issues every single day of their lives.
I was departing next day, when the ultranationalist mentioned above called me, and insisted that we meet. I was alarmed that he had seen me in the parade. What would he do? Dependent on people like him for research, I told him that we could meet in the city centre – a public place – before I left for the airport. In the end the topic never came up, but my caution underlined how uncomfortable I was with the situation. I had known that I would never be able to work on both sides of the frontlines, but the parade epitomized the dividing lines within the Ukrainian society. Transgressing such lines became a dangerous undertaking, which I sought to avoid as I knew this would endanger my research relationships, if not my personal safety.
Yet simultaneously, these are issues that I feel strongly about. As one liberal leaning veteran told me, proving that Ukraine is not Russia is the only way to victory in the ongoing war. Ultimately, the Ukraine he fought and risked his life for is one where everyone – not just those who identify themselves as white heterosexual Ukrainians – can live a good life. For him the fact that Russia has banned similar marches and “gay propaganda” was enough to prove that Ukraine should do the opposite. While change is slow, it is also tangible. Aside from the doubled number of participants in pride of 2018, the year before had seen seven attacks against it, and it seems that social attitudes towards sexual minorities has turned more positive in recent years.
That said, there is no way I can write this post with my own name as long as I continue to work with people whose vision of the future of Ukraine is exclusive. The reasons for this concern is not only my future research that requires spending time with such people, but even my own personal safety. While I professionally need to be empathetic, even to views that I personally consider abhorrent, it becomes difficult – and at times impossible – to isolate the professional and the personal from each other. Activism is clearly not an option. And while I believe it to be important to understand even those who hold repugnant views, how much of my personal morals can I sacrifice for the sake of gazing into an abyss, and when does the abyss start to gaze into me? There appears no easy way out from such situations. Like some of those we marched for in June, even a part of me is forced to remain in the closet.
About the Author: The author is researching the aftermath of the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, focusing especially on civil society activism.