What makes ‘an Activist’ in Ukraine? [1/2]

About a week ago I played a game with my students the required a bit of role play. This particular class was a group of about five men all over the age of thirty.  Before the game, I made sure to define the characters. First by their jobs, then by their personality traits.  

I went through the characters, “The Doctor”, “The Police officer”, “The Scientist,” etc. but one character stood out to my students. “The Activist.” And, to my surprise, it stood out because my students had nothing positive to say.

An activist,” one of my students explained, “is someone paid to start fights at an event.”

UNHCRPicture of me and Nigora of the UNHCR office in Dnipro

I remember feeling, a tinge of confusion, a touch of anxiety, but above all else, offense. It’s probably unfair, to have such a strong reaction.

It’s a cultural difference,” the same student went on to explain, “and activists in our country aren’t good people.” The other men nodded in agreement.

I fought a scowl. It was personal for both of us. I tried to explain, about the American culture of philanthropy, about how to be an advocate, doesn’t mean you’re unemployed (a point my students eagerly refuted), about how the volunteers, on the front lines assisting soldiers in the Donbass, could be defined as advocates. They continued to disagree.

In Ukraine, we have a word for these activists Titushki (Ukrainian: тітушки & Russian: титушки). During Madain, they dressed like normal people and then committed crimes. They were agents of Yanukovych.”

Picture of a google search titushki vs activist

I felt the pause. It’s one of those moments that have become all too common in my life.

Do I sit here and engage further? Work to express the difference? Or do I move on and continue the work I originally set out to do? Do I move on?

I scrapped the character. The activist was removed from our game of ‘Island Survivor’. The mood shifted. I felt the men perk up at the change of subject. I chose to move on in that moment.

But the concept stuck with me. To me, an “activist” is simple. It’s someone who supports a cause or policy shift and does so in a public manner. When I think of my friends, I would classify most of them, if not all of them, as activists for something. I ended up asking my friends in Dnipro, and the generational difference became clearer. 

Titushki,” one of my friends explained, “became a more popular word after Maidan. It’s a post-Soviet way of thinking.”

Hearing that, I began to question my role in Ukraine once again. Here I was volunteering in my free time. Trying to do something, but is that even culturally appropriate?

Since arriving I’ve heard numerous stories of brave volunteers. As I walk down the streets, I see colored murals, which are described as volunteer projects. I listen constantly, to people complain about corruption and to my eyes ‘advocate’ for a more transparent Ukraine. For a higher quality of life.

I began to question, when did the two generations (generally) split, in how they talk about advocacy? Of course, these mentalities don’t represent the whole of each generation, but how by how much? Is this problem unique to Ukraine and post-soviet countries? Or is it reflective of a more global divide among generations?

I may not be able to answer these questions in the global sense, but if there’s one thing I can do, is delve into the rise of volunteerism in Ukraine. And that rise, like many other changes in Ukraine, began on the streets of Kyiv, November 2013.

To read about the ‘The rise of volunteerism’ in Ukraine, click here and join me in part two.


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