A Manxman has been joining in with the protests in troubled Ukraine.
Drew Boyd, who is 42 and fluent in Russian, went to Ashley Hill, Onchan, Ballakermeen and St Ninian’s schools before leaving the island in 1998 and now lives in Kiev in Ukraine, working as an English teacher and examiner.
Drew, who is from Onchan originally, said: ‘I went on a demonstration for foreigners in support of Ukraine. Despite what some media report, the protests are really about anti-corruption and anti-police brutality.
‘We all had to bring our national flags and marched through the protest camp, past the places where protesters had been shot and up to the parliament. Tens of thousands of locals lined the route and applauded us. It was very emotional, many were in tears.’
Asked about the current situation in the country, Drew said: ‘This was a genuine people’s uprising against a corrupt regime. Bribery and corruption in the authorities was endemic. Since the new government took power locals have been refusing to give bribes. I hope it lasts!
‘Last time I left Ukraine the police locked me in a room and said if I didn’t give them 100 dollars they’d keep me there till after my flight left.
‘Before going to the barricades the protesters would write the name and phone number of a next of kin on their forearms in indelible marker pen.
‘The riot police were taking captured demonstrators to the forests around Kiev, stripping them naked and leaving them there. It was January and the temperature was -15 to -20C. Some managed to get home, some didn’t.
‘A friend’s son was arrested by the police. Ninety minutes later he was dead. They tied him up and beat him to death.
‘One of the saddest things is that if I were to tell this to someone in the Isle of Man they would react with disbelief, whereas Ukrainians react with sympathy. These things aren’t uncommon here.
‘The protests might have looked chaotic on TV but in fact there was an enormous amount of discipline. For example there was strictly no alcohol allowed in the centre. The men were organised into “hundreds” and fought the police on the barricades facing parliament building in shifts. You could stand on the hill and watch one group assemble while the other group retreated. Behind them there was always a crowd of a few thousand shouting support.
‘Orthodox priests chanted prayers, leaders gave speeches, students gave out hot drinks and pasties, and pensioners and women dug up cobble stones for others to break up into stones suitable for throwing. Middle class locals brought in supplies of food, medicine and clothes.
‘Once I was walking through and they were building a huge catapult. While this was going on shops and businesses worked as normal. It was surreal.
‘Men were walking around in home-made suits of armour while people were doing their weekly shop.’
Talking about the former president, Drew told of the lavish lifestyle he and those in power led.
‘The president’s residence is not far from my home,’ he said. ‘People are stunned at the level of luxury.
‘It was one thing to hear stories, but quite another to be able to go and see it. Normal people are determined not to let those in power get away with this kind of thing again.
‘Just one example of what it was like under Yanukovich [the former president], there is a four-lane motorway leading north out of the city centre. Every evening during rush hour it was closed for the president’s cortege. When people complained, he bought a fifteen million dollar helicopter and built a helipad on a park next to parliament.
‘Yet pensioners live on £100 a month.’
Drew, who worked as a scaffolder and for the Isle of Man Creamery while in the island, went on to describe the dangers people have faced in Ukraine.
‘Behind the police lines there was a camp of what local people called “titushki”. These were poor young men bussed in from martial arts clubs in the areas that still supported the president. The police armed them with sticks, baseball bats and helmets.
‘At night they roamed areas near the barricades in large groups of up to several hundred looking for protesters. A lot of people are said to have disappeared.
‘A journalist was murdered, people were beaten and cars belonging to suspected protesters were burned.
‘I live further out in the suburbs so I was OK but friends who lived nearer were terrified. Those who could sent their children to the country.’
Since leaving the island Drew has worked at a school and for the British Council before going freelance. He says that the situation has stabilised in Kiev now.
‘There was a meeting for British nationals at the embassy a few days ago,’ he said. ‘The embassy security officer, a former policeman in the UK, described Kiev as being “a lot safer than Ipswich on a Friday night”.’
Despite the troubles, Drew said he would not be leaving Ukraine, although he missed a lot about the Isle of Man.
‘If you told me last year Russia would invade the Crimea, I would never ever have believed you.
‘In the West people often confuse the word Soviet with Russian and ignore Ukraine. The next time you have a good history book to hand, look at the First World War, the Russian Civil War and the Second World War. All of these wars were fought in Ukraine. Between the wars, in 1932 and 1933, the communist party in Moscow confiscated harvests causing a man-made famine known as the Holodomore. In each of these events Ukraine lost untold millions of people, it lost around six million people in the Holodomor alone.
‘I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, in the 20th century, they suffered more than any other nationality. In the island we sometimes take our freedom for granted. That’s not the case here in Ukraine, it’s a wonderful thing and I feel privileged to have witnessed it.
‘I miss plenty about the island – the sea, a proper cup of hot tea, Manx cheese, the TT, mountain biking, a pint of ruby mild down the Rovers. One thing I really miss is the sense of belonging. If you think the island’s boring, then make yourself a flask of coffee and some butties and get yourself down to Port St Mary, walk up past the Chasms, over Spanish Head and down to the Sound. Have a look at the seals on the rocks and then tell me there’s nothing to do.’
Asked if there is much knowledge of the island in Ukraine, he said: ‘A lot of people recognise the name if you say it in Russian. They just smile and say “offshore”.
‘I’m afraid they just think of it as one of the places where their oligarchs keep their money.
‘Of course all my students past and present know all about the island. One of them even knitted me a Three Legs of Man for my birthday last year.’