In November, when the Maidan, or central square of Kyiv, filled with protesters, no one knew what to expect: was it another Orange Revolution, signifying major changes for Ukraine? Or was it a brief paroxysm of outrage that would pass?
So far, it’s been neither. But in the midst of seemingly permanent rallies, a new initiative has taken hold: the Open Maidan University. Started by the faculty and staff at the Kyiv School of Economics (which was co-founded by a consortium led by Eurasia Foundation), Open Maidan University is offering free, graduate-level lectures to the Ukrainian public on the square.
“This grew out of a very humble idea: providing an information center for the protesters,” Yuliya Kocherhan, a business development leader at the school says. “There were a lot of initiatives going on, a lot of programs and challenges to learn about, but no one knew how to address them.”
Yuliya and her colleagues set up a booth on the Maidan to help people volunteer: to cook, help pick up trash, offer medical help, or even (for the lawyers who came by) to offer pro bono legal advice. The booth also printed a newsletter three times a day, self-printed and filled with stories and pictures. Internet connections are very slow on the Maidan, and using a smart phone is too expensive for many people. So the protesters were, ironically, among the least informed about what was happening in Ukraine and how the world was reacting to it. The booth’s newszines educated hundreds of protesters who would never have known what else was going on outside of the square.
The information booth was so popular it sparked a bigger idea. “I knew a lot of people who were thinking about how they could do more than just protest,” Yuliya says. “There are lots of interesting people at the Maidan, but they have nothing intellectual to keep them going.”
The booth organizers thought: why not offer some public lectures from the Kyiv School? So they set up an informal stage in a corner of the Maidan. Yelling into a megaphone – they had no sound system at first – Pavlo Sheremeta, the president of KSE, spoke about Ukraine’s economy.
Maybe thirty or forty people attended, but Yuliya knew they were onto a good idea. “There is a great hunger for knowledge in the Maidan,” she says. “We are working on beginning a civil society movement, people working with each other to build connections.”
In the month since Open Maidan University (OMU) began, thinkers, business leaders, and academics have delivered a hundred lectures on everything ranging from how to reform the constitution to how legislation works, how economies function, and the power of free speech in society.
Though OMU’s audiences remain small, its fan club is growing: the Facebook page for the university is growing daily, and as the organizers post more of the 90-minute lectures online, interest grows further still. “The first day only 50 people showed up, but we had a thousand shares on Facebook,” Yuliya says.
Offline, interest in OMU is surprising as well: around a fifth of the people who are listening to the lectures in the square are from rural villages that have very little or no internet access. That surprised the organizers – OMU began as an outreach project for students. But defining their lectures by a single demographic quickly proved inadequate: after the first day, they saw most of the attendees weren’t students at all.
The representatives from Ukraine’s business community have been some of OMU’s most enthusiastic supporters. The director of Microsoft Ukraine has given several lectures at the podium. Economic and business issues seem to obsess the protesters.
The competing trade agreements with the EU and Russian are a key driving force for the protests. They began in opposition to President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to abandon an Association Agreement with the EU in favor of a favorable customs union with Russia. Yet few understand the economic stakes of either agreement; most lack even basic economic knowledge. As an economics school, KSE has been uniquely positioned to help ordinary people on the street understand the sometimes-complicated economic issues that are sparking debate.
Looking ahead, Yuliya says that Open Maidan University is focused on developing a curriculum. “Reaching people outside the cities is hard,” Yuliya says. “Long term, we want to reach people in the eastern regions too.”
Differences between two regions of Ukraine – eastern and western – can partly explain why the protests are taking place to begin with. The eastern districts tend to be more pro-Russian than the European-leaning western provinces. That split, never resolved in Ukraine’s national politics, has given the protests, which seem so vivid and clearly popular in Kyiv, less support in the eastern regions of the country.
The east-west split does not explain everything, however.
“The protesters and the political opposition to Yanukovich are not the same,” Yuliya explains. OMU started with the idea not to be populist.
“We are not standing for [Yuliya] Timoshenko,” Yuliya says, referring to one of Ukraine’s opposition leaders. “The protest is not about a politically ambitious figurehead. We are standing for human rights.”