John Fil had a front-row seat to watch his native Ukraine move from peaceful protest to open revolt.
For nearly three weeks in January, the 70-year-old retired real estate broker from Troy watched the demonstration against President Viktor Yanukovych gain momentum from his apartment overlooking Kiev’s Independence Square. And as the size of the crowd grew, so did the level of hostility from government forces.
On Jan. 19, police attempted to block access to the square with buses. Fil watched as the protestors lit them on fire with Molotov cocktails.
Then came tear gas and snipers. One morning when Fil opened his window, protesters were warning one another that he might be a gunman.
“They were pointing at me and calling out ‘Titushki,’ ” he recalled after a service at St. Nicholas Church in Watervliet on Sunday.
Of course, the moniker attributed to government-funded thugs couldn’t be any more inaccurate for describing Fil, who is a fierce advocate for the protesters. For him, joining the demonstration in Kiev was an obligation — to show his solidarity for the people calling for a new era of democracy.
“You have to do your part,” he said. “You have to participate so that you feel that you did something for them.”
Fil managed to escape Kiev on Jan. 29, just as the city was falling deeper into chaos. Last week, government snipers fired on protesters, killing more than 100 and sending a shock wave throughout the country.
On Sunday, Ukrainians from the Capital Region paid tribute to those killed in the protest with a candlelight memorial service at the church. The Rev. Michael Myschuck described the conflict as a battle between good and evil, a society striving for freedom but being brutally oppressed by a deceptive authoritarian government.
“They love their country, they love their people, they love their families,” he said of the protesters. “They were willing to lay their lives down to conquer that evil.”
Myschuck asked parishioners to pray for those who had given their lives in the struggle. He said the sacrifices made by young and old in Kiev must not be forgotten.
“We remember them today and we pray for them so that their memory with us will stay forever,” he said during the service.
The service came after protesters took control of the presidential administration building and Yanukovych fled office. The Ukrainian Parliament called for his removal and for elections on May 25, though Yanukovych has claimed the governing body is illegitimate and that he won’t abide by its decree.
The political crisis in the nation of 46 million is strategically important for Europe, Russia and the United States. Protesters are rankled over corruption in Ukraine, a lack of democratic rights and the country’s ailing economy, in addition to Yanukovych’s unwillingness to join the European Union.
Demonstrators had remained peacefully encamped in Kiev for roughly three months, many withstanding the harsh Ukrainian winter. But violent clashes between government forces and the protestors spiked this month, something that seemed to coincide with the Olympic games in Sochi.
Dr. Andrij Baran, the president of the Capital Region’s branch of the Ukrainian Congressional Committee, believes the timing is no coincidence. With the world media focused on Sochi, he believes Yanukovych saw an opportunity to crush the peaceful rebellion.
“The protests have been going on for three months,” said the first generation Ukrainian-American living in Saratoga Springs. “Why now?”
Baran, Fil and others are hoping the strife will ultimately bring democracy to Ukraine. Fil, who normally returns from visits to Ukraine with candies, brought back keepsakes from the battle for democracy he witnessed last month.
In his travels through the square, he found a Soviet-era gas mask, its lenses shattered and its rubber containing char marks. He also salvaged a piece of metal from the burned out bus.
“This is more important to me than candies,” he said.