It started with protests against President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an Association Agreement with the EU. Yanukovych sent out his riot police, who beat peaceful protesters as the cameras rolled. Outraged and unafraid, thousands of people flocked to central Kyiv. The protesters built barricades using any materials available, occupying Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square. Without violence, they took over City Hall and the Trade Union House, which became the revolution’s headquarters. Since then, the protests have only continued to grow; the last attracted more than 200,000 people. Maidan has started to resemble a never-ending festival, with cauldrons of soup, open fires, a giant stage, and musical performances around the clock. The pop star Ruslana, a Eurovision winner and indefatigable patriot, sings the national anthem at the top of every hour:
Souls and bodies we’ll lay down, all for our freedom,
And we’ll show that we, brothers, are of the Cossack nation!
The Cossack nation, of course, has had its dark moments—pogroms, for example. When 200,000 people shout “Glory to the heroes!” in response to the call “Glory to Ukraine!,” one becomes a bit uneasy; these scenes rarely end well. Now and then someone shouts “Death to enemies!” as if they think they’re taking part in another, bloodier kind of revolution. A little while ago, people toppled the Lenin statue on Bessarabsky Square, hacking the old man to bits. The international media was delighted, mostly ignoring the fact that the topplers were far-right nationalists who hate not only Communists, but also Russians, Germans, and Jews. One of the opposition leaders, Oleh Tyahnybok, is the kind of person who tries to pacify his critics with statements like, “I’m not anti-Semitic—I’m pro-Ukrainian.” Meanwhile, John McCain has gotten involved; the cold warriors are lurching up out of their coffins, eager to yell about freedom, democracy, and the right side of history. But the crowds on Maidan have been overwhelmingly peaceful, and extreme nationalism seems to be only a small (though well-organized) current in the protest movement.
I lived in Ukraine for two years, a few blocks from Maidan. Every person I know in Kyiv has been taking part in the protest. As I watch footage and look at photos, every building, every stretch of sidewalk is familiar; but at the same time I don’t recognize them, because they have been transformed. When it was reported that Yanukovych would send out the riot police to clear the crowds from Maidan, I spent most of the night watching a live feed from the helmet camera of the Afghan-Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayyem. Together we climbed over barricades and ran down dark, snowy streets and through huge crowds. I listened as he talked on the phone, or asked for information, or bumped into people he knew. I slept for just a few hours, and woke up the next morning with the national anthem in my head. All was well; the riot police had been ordered not to attack. They cleared the barricades, but the protesters rebuilt them the next day, using bags full of snow. “Now our greatest fear is cops with hairdryers,” my friend Sasha joked. But Putin just offered to buy $15 billion of Ukrainian debt and provide a large discount on Russian gas; it remains to be seen whether the protesters can counter this huge bribe.
Here are a few of the stories I’ve heard over the last weeks.
Kostya, a doctor
One morning I get a call. We’re used to phone calls in the middle of the night. We’ve gotten used to remembering which of our friends are on night shift on Maidan and who’s going in the morning.
“Do you know the best way to clean blood from my camera—I mean, my blood, and other people’s?”
“Are you all right?”
“It’s OK, a stone a centimeter wide was taken from my cheek and my eye is wounded but it will be OK, so what about the camera?”
I’m a doctor, but I also used drugs for years. I’ve sterilized instruments in the surgery room and syringes in backyards and police departments. You might say I’m a professional. I meet my friend and we buy alcohol—95% medicinal alcohol, from a pharmacy. We clean his camera.
Alina, a creative director
All my old friends have been out on Maidan—all of them. In two weeks we’ve changed more than we have in the last twenty-two years. Vakhtang, who’s a philosophy professor, set up a headquarters and he’s there all the time, giving everybody instructions, making phone calls, collecting information, building barricades, guarding Maidan at night. They have to make sure there are enough bodies there so the police will be afraid to fight with them. His wife Marta is out all the time too, helping with food. For a while she was in the Trade Union House making hundreds and hundreds of sandwiches for the protesters. Every half hour, they sing the Ukrainian national anthem. It stinks in there. Now she’s making soup. So much soup! I decided to make soup too, but then I remembered I don’t know how. I can make other things, but I don’t know how to make soup. But yeah, it’s true—men fight, women cook. Yesterday they announced that women and children should stay away, because they thought the riot police would attack.
Julia, an economist
Twenty days of constant protests have made me question my ability to count. Or to estimate the number of people I see. Every day people ask each other: How many people were there today? How many were there on the biggest day (last Sunday)? I realized that it’s almost impossible to tell for sure. All most of us can imagine is a stadium. It’s about 70,000 people, right? But this crowd is much bigger than that. It’s cold and people are constantly walking and hiding in the underground crossings, in cafes and shops nearby. And when someone says there were about 100,000 people, it seems too little, because if you support the demonstrations, you want it to be at least a million, or better two. And the worst part is that I can’t help but want it to be more, want more than 2,000 people to spend a very cold Monday night in a camp in the middle of a country of 45 million, and I don’t want to wonder how many people are enough to make it matter.
I feel a bit like I’m in an Isherwood story, due to the revolution. One of my friends was on a huge speed binge in November; I was worried about him. Then the guy he was getting the speed from disappeared, and he re-directed his passion into revolution. Some of my friends used to be in an old funk-heavy metal band from the Kiev underground, so I call their patrols Phenomenological Funkshturm. As I am leftist and anti-globalist, I made the slogan “Fuck the EU, fuck the police.” I was working as part of my professional expertise against certain points in the EU Association Agreement—it would have extended patents and prevented us from registering generic drugs, which are much cheaper. But that’s all over. Now it’s about standing against the power that still considers us—left and right and liberal, Christian, Jewish, Tatar, Georgian—as its slaves.
I’m afraid that whatever I say will sound like one of the clichés I hear from almost every person who’s been to Maidan lately—something about being inspired, about the kind and shining eyes of the people there, about helpfulness and politeness, and how striking that is compared to any regular gathering of people in Ukraine—for example, a ride on the metro at rush hour. But I want to talk about how after being there your clothes, hair, and skin smell of fire, the smell you remember from childhood—just plain burning wood. It comes from dozens of metal barrels that protesters turned into makeshift furnaces right there in the square, to fight below zero temperatures. This smell is very hard to get rid of, and it follows you everywhere, and I can often tell by the smell whether a person elsewhere has been to Maidan, because even if you shower and change clothes, you’re not going to wash your hat and gloves every day.
We drove into Maidan with the big pots of borshch in the trunk of the car. We had to go through a cordon—they ask you why you’re coming, what you’re doing. On Maidan you can’t check anything, so everyone just has to trust each other. It’s beautiful, but you also think about how vulnerable it makes everybody.
We opened the trunk and started ladling out the soup. It was gone in ten minutes. There was one guy who had been on Maidan for a long time. He said he had been living in Italy already for thirteen years, but he’d never seen anything like that there. Tears were rolling down his face. Maidan smells like wood and food being cooked, like you’re in another century.
I work shifts in the Catholic cathedral where the medical emergency site is located. Today I have been invited to move to the Trade Union House, closer to Maidan. The wave of injuries is subsiding—now it’s just minor problems, small wounds.
I take a break and think about finishing the bottle of alcohol we used to sterilize the camera—but then I simply wash my hands. I’m three weeks sober. It’s unreal, Lou Reed is dead, Mandela is dead, I am in an emergency medical station in my hometown. Is there God? And where is his helmet?
I keep wondering—is this what a revolution feels like? Is this what it was like in 1917? The people took over the palace—the City Hall. There are so many people in the streets, they look like waterfalls. It’s strange. Surreal. In Maidan is the revolution, but then I go home to Poznyaki [a residential neighborhood across the river] and I see mothers pushing their strollers, people going to the store for bread. Just living their lives like usual, like nothing’s going on. At first I was a little afraid to participate. What will happen if we lose? Will they come after us? But then I realized—I don’t care. Fuck it. You have to be brave.