KHARKIV, Ukraine—Viktor Marynchak, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, urged those amassed around the monument to Ukraine’s revered national poet Taras Shevchenko in the eastern city of Kharkiv to not give up on their struggle for the country’s future.
“We cannot stop,” he said to the several hundred who gathered during the freezing late-autumn evening in this city just 20 miles from the Russian border. “We must do everything we can to find the will to win.”
As people across Ukraine marked five years since the beginning of the wave of protests that ousted Russian-supported President Viktor Yanukovych and sparked a deadly confrontation with Moscow, activists, soldiers, religious leaders, and regular citizens gathered in Kharkiv to reflect on the events that unfolded and to remember the thousands who died in the country’s conflict-torn southeast.
The uprising, then called the Euromaidan protests, is now known among Ukrainians as the Revolution of Dignity. It remains a powerful symbol of struggle, especially here in the east, where soldiers in uniform lunching in the city’s cafes and strolling through the city’s parks during breaks from training serve as daily reminders that a violent conflict continues not far away.
The heavily Russian-speaking city, Ukraine’s second largest, became a flashpoint in the chaotic months that followed the protests, when worries spread that it could end up a breakaway region in the mold of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, two enclaves in Ukraine’s southeast that have been under the de facto control of Moscow since spring 2014.
But Kharkiv has emerged as a place of relative calm and as an important base of support for the Ukrainian military and those displaced by violence in the years that followed. Military personnel use the city as a transit hub and a major supply route on the way to and from the conflict zone in the southeast.
Ihor Filimonov, a military police officer who volunteered with Ukraine’s National Guard following the Euromaidan protests, said Kharkiv residents showed that they wanted to remain part of an independent Ukraine by taking to the streets.
“For me, the revolution has not finished,” Filimonov said. “We must win three wars—the military war, the political war, and the war on corruption. There are a lot of old politicians who are trying to sell our country to Russia who are still in our parliament.”
Volodymyr Chystylin, one of the organizers of the 2013 protests in Kharkiv, said the main legacy of the uprising is its influence on society rather than its political effect.
“The politics didn’t change, but the people changed,” Chystylin said. “That was the most important result of Euromaidan. Everyone is on the front line in some way, whether as soldiers, volunteers, or activists.”
The uprising began in November 2013, when students and activists gathered in the central square of the capital, Kiev, to protest the president’s decision to walk away from an economic and political deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow. A violent crackdown on activists at the end of the month sparked mass demonstrations that continued throughout the winter, escalating into street battles with riot police in early 2014 that left nearly 100 dead.
Kiev saw by far the largest demonstrations, although crowds gathered in Kharkiv and other cities throughout the winter to protest government corruption and violence against activists.
After the ouster of Yanukovych, a group calling itself “Anti-Maidan” took to Kharkiv’s streets in opposition to the Euromaidan protests and seized a regional administrative building. Early that spring, members of Ukraine’s Security Service supported by local activists quashed efforts to establish a breakaway region in the style of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
Since then, Kharkiv has welcomed a surge of people displaced by the conflict in the nearby Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. Government figures show that more than 1.5 million Ukrainians were registered as internally displaced in November. Last year, nearly 200,000 of those were registered in Kharkiv oblast, according to a local NGO.
More than 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict that has engulfed the southeast regions, where sporadic fighting continues on a near-daily basis.
Despite the high costs, those who gathered to mark the anniversary of the revolution say they are looking forward.
“If I could go back five years, I would do the same thing that I did then,” Filimonov said. “For me, this was the revolution when Ukraine really became Ukrainian. Now we are gaining our independence.”