I wrote this for my column two weeks ago. As the situation in Ukraine grows more serious and as I prepare to head back to Istanbul, this topic has been on my mind a lot lately.
My mom jokes that I should stop traveling because wherever I go, a revolution follows.
It seems hyperbolic, but considering that the two countries I have spent the most time in, Ukraine and Turkey, have both experienced political turmoil in the past year, her observation might carry some weight.
Since May of last year, Turkey experienced weeks of intense protests interspersed with longer periods of relative calmness. I remember the day protests first broke out in Gezi Park, a large park located in the heart of Istanbul, last summer. I was glued to my computer for days, scouring Twitter and Turkish media sites for coverage of the protests. A live stream showed police open fire on crowds with rubber bullets and water cannons, while another site offered video footage of thousands crossing the Bosphorus Bridge as the sun rose in the distance.
The political situation in Turkey had calmed by late summer, but traces of the protests lingered. Although the protesters had left, taking with them their bright flags and barricades, Taksim Square, a major hub of the protests, was littered with empty gas canisters, soot-stained concrete, and even blood in some areas. These items served as visual reminders of the chaos that so recently wracked the streets of Istanbul.
By August 2013, when I visited, there was no trace of the upwards of 100,000 people who had descended on Taksim to protest the government. This place looked like the one I remembered from before—bustling, hot, loud. Only a few police officers standing off to the side of the square reminded me of the demonstrations that had occurred just weeks prior.
How can one city, one neighborhood—heck, one street—conjure so many disparate images? Which was the real Taksim? The calm one I captured in journals and photographs, or the turbulent one I watched on television screens and Twitter feeds?
That feeling of dissonance reared its head again in November, when massive protests broke out in Kiev. Scandal surrounding the country’s relationship with the European Union and Russia brought thousands into Kiev’s Independence Square. It seemed impossible that the pictures I saw really showed the same Independence Square I had photographed just one year prior.
This week marked a devastating turn of events in Ukraine—thousands have been injured and more than twenty have died as the government brutally cracked down on protesters. Fires rage all around Independence Square, Molotov cocktails fly through the air, and police shower protesters with rubber bullets and live ammunition. Seeing so much destruction in such a beautiful city turns my stomach in knots.
It’s en vogue as an SFS student to take a passing interest in the most current political uprising happening in the world. At Georgetown, I’m not alone in that I have studied East European politics. Statuses and articles about the protests pop up periodically on Facebook.
What do I care, though, really?
These images of fire, violence, and revolution in a city five thousand miles away should, theoretically, not affect me so much. After all, I spent only a few days wandering through the touristy parts of Kiev, and the extreme cold made it nearly impossible to be outside for more than 20 minutes at a time.
Tourists, including me, can only scratch the surface of a place. There’s something campy and inauthentic about being a tourist that makes it impossible to experience the “true” version of a city or country.
It’s my experience, though, that even tourists can make an authentic connection to a place. My conception of the places I visit is not derived from textbooks or newspapers—it’s gained from talking, tasting, seeing, and breathing.
Watching revolutions unfold makes it difficult to maintain an idyllic understanding of these cities. It’s been jarring to have my mental image of these places shattered.
As more and more images of bloody faces and flaming barricades stream in from Kiev, it seems impossible see an end to the violence. I remember feelings of fear and sadness while watching coverage of the Gezi Park protests. Somehow, though, the violence waned, and it eventually appeared as though protests hadn’t happened.
I can only hope that the violent crackdown of the Ukrainian government against its own people will end soon. Even though it’s disorienting to see such a different image of a city, I hope that when the demonstrations subside, visual reminders of the chaos and violence are not too quickly swept away.