Editor’s note: This article was originally published 19th December 2013 on the Sixth Sense and in a shorter version with our partners New Eastern Europe. We have included it here with a new one page introduction from the author to reflect the developments in Kiev over the last two weeks and, in particular, the violence committed against journalist and activist Tatiana Chornovol, who E&M interviewed for the original article.
Ample protests have taken over Kiev and other cities all over Ukraine since late November, when president Viktor Yanukovych backed out from signing the Association Agreement with the EU. The protesters were initially set on showing the leadership of the country – and the whole world – that they were and wanted to be European.
However, after Yanukovych’s regime tried to silence the peaceful gatherings using force against protesters, activists and independent journalists, there was a shift in the movement’s purpose. Ukrainians now want the government and president to resign, and they want to have a justice system that will actually punish those responsible for the brutal, authoritarian approach towards the participants to the protests. They want such practices to disappear.
According to the Washington Post, 2013 saw more than 100 assaults against journalists in Ukraine.
According to the Washington Post, 2013 saw more than 100 assaults against journalists in Ukraine, and nearly half of these occurred in December, during a wave of violence carried out by riot police. The most recent name to join the list is journalist and activist Tatiana Chornovol, whom E&M interviewed earlier in December, a day after she marched in protest towards Yanukovych’s residence outside Kiev.
Then, on Christmas Eve night, Tatiana was involved in a car chase with her aggressors, who eventually pulled her out of the vehicle and savagely attacked her on the side of a highway. She was hospitalised with severe traumas and will need several reconstructive surgeries. At least five suspects have been arrested in connection to the assault, but what people want to know is who ordered the brutal attack on Chornovol who specialised in revealing the luxurious lifestyles of high ranking Ukrainian officials – including Yanukovych.
As a result, after a period of relative calm and concerns that the protests are slowly dying down, the spirit of Euromaidan was resurrected and people took the streets again, waving Ukrainian flags and, this time, holding up pictures of their new symbol, Tatiana Chornovol.
The escalator at Maidan Nezalezhnosti metro station in Kiev is the longest I’ve ever seen. It takes a few good minutes to reach the top, which leaves plenty of time to form expectations about what lies at the end of the climb. Yet nothing you read in the news or see in pictures truly prepares you for what happens after you come out of the underground. The Independence Square (or Euromaidan) is a kind of Hemingwayesque resistance city. It smells like burnt wood and rusty iron and improvised kitchens. Here and there fires lit in old trash cans give rise to grey columns of smoke.
A few hundred people are already on the Maidan at 9 am in the morning, most of them holding tall Ukrainian flags.In the centre of the main boulevard, a festival-like stage hosts speeches from opposition leaders and public figures, as well as live performances by popular Ukrainian artists. On the left hand side, there is a large banner of Yulia Timoshenko’s elegant portrait looking towards the sky. People are silent and still, listening to the words coming from the stage. I can’t understand a word of Ukrainian except when they say “Slava Ukraini!” (Glory to Ukraine), to which people reply unwaveringly, in perfect sync “Heroyam Slava!” (Glory to our heroes).
Next to the stage, on the Trade Unions House – now a bastion of the “revolution” – a huge screen displays a pixelated livestream of those speaking into the microphones. On the other side of the boulevard, a tall metal Christmas tree is now covered in Ukrainian flags, posters made by protesters and cartoons of Ukrainian politicians and Vladimir Putin. No sign of police or the feared Berkut officers anywhere. No sign of traffic or anything that doesn’t serve the purpose of the protest. The Maidan belongs to the resistance.
No sign of anything that doesn’t serve the purpose of the protest. The Maidan belongs to the resistance.
“THIS IS REVOLUTION, GIRLS!”
On my first day in Kiev, I decide to talk to as many protesters and journalists as possible, to understand what the “spirit of the Maidan” – one of the grand expressions that invaded the international media – is all about, and who are the people on the streets, how they organise themselves.
Protesters have been gathering in the Independence Square since November 21st, in anticipation of president Yanukovych’s widely-contested decision not to sign the Association Agreement with the EU at the Vilnius summit a week later. The greatest disappointment of Ukrainians was the realisation that Yanukovych and his political allies were not even willing to negotiate the terms of the agreement in good faith in order to reach a consensus. What they did instead was ask for exorbitant amounts of money from the EU to cover the country’s significant budget deficit before agreeing to sign anything. At the same time, Yanukovych kept his options open – and tested European officials’ patience – by continuing talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin on joining the Customs Union of Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan.
In addition to his greedy, unethical foreign policy, president Yanukovych also lost the support of his people due to his unpopular decisions in relation to internal affairs. As many protesters say, he made sure all the state power was in his hands by appointing members of his infamous “family” (a circle of his closest friends and relatives) to key positions. Having the upper hand, his political regime elevated levels of corruption, weakened the economy and limited freedom of expression and the media, proving utterly intolerant of criticism. This was most obvious during the violent dispersion of Euromaidan protesters and the assaults on journalists covering the events on November 30th and December 1st. However, he managed to do one thing right – he got people so furious that they’re not willing to back down anymore.
I start my research at noon when my Ukrainian friend Anna takes me on a tour of Independence Square, showing me the main attractions: the little hill facing the stage where TV crews have been filming panoramas, the road barricades made of window frames, old wooden doors, metal bars and tree trunks installed by protesters to protect themselves from a potential attack of the police soldiers, and the high terrace facing the main stage where people can get the best view of the whole square. A loud Ukrainian rock band was performing for the growing numbers of protesters – “This is the Euromaidan anthem,” Anna tells me. “Well, there are several anthems, but this is the most recent one.”
Next, we go to the Trade Unions House, the headquarters of Euromaidan. A massive, grey, building with sharp edges and big windows, the TUH is guarded by volunteers who only allow access after you explain your purpose or, in the case of journalists, present your press badge. There is always pushing, yelling and a general feeling of no-problem-walking-over-dead-bodies at the entrance
The hallway is a wormhole with raised voices coming from everywhere and streams of people pushing the indecisive from one corner to the other if they don’t know exactly where they’re going. “Mojna, mojna!” volunteers constantly warn, which I learn is a polite way of saying “Get out of the way.” We want to visit the famous Euromaidan kitchen, where volunteers stash food supplies and prepare snacks and drinks for the protesters outside, but before we can take a step further a mob coming from upstairs throws us in the opposite direction.
The Euromaidan kitchen is a pretty sweet place to be stuck in.
For a fraction of a second, I spot former Moldovan prime minister Vlad Filat and former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili accompanied by guards and reporters, heading outside toward the stage. Flanked by an enthusiastic crowd, they disappear into the mass of protesters before anyone can get a word out of them. They’re both here in a show of support for the protesters and their European goal, as Moldova and Georgia just initialled their own Association Agreements in Vilnius.
Meanwhile, back on our path, we reach the kitchen – a large enough room with a few chairs and long tables -, but a middle-aged man frowns and denies us entry. First he needs to clear the way (meaning push us against a wall) for volunteers taking fresh supplies outside. Second, we need to take off our coats and put on masks – it may be an improvised kitchen, but they’re big on hygiene. “This is revolution, girls!” Anna shrugs, offering clothes to me and my Moldovan colleague. We will hear that several times during the next few hours.
In case of a nuclear disaster or major earthquake the Euromaidan kitchen is a pretty sweet place to be stuck in. Along most of the walls there are ceiling-high piles of jars and cans which end up feeding the crowd, the journalists and the volunteers who work 24/7 for the sake of resistance. All across the room, men and women in surgical masks and bathing caps look like preoccupied surgeons amputating large reels of cheese and inserting pickles into sandwiches – they’re fast, precise and chatty, though less so with journalists.
As I lean closer to the work stations to take pictures, two fleshy women slicing ham shy away, avoiding eye contact with me. Every time I ask someone if they speak English, they wave me away with a “niet, mojna!” In the back of the room, two young men with badges around their necks (which makes them organisers, not just regular Joes) ask me – through sign language, of course – to take a picture of them next to the mountains of pickles and canned meat.
What they don’t have is time to spare or to be polite… this is a revolution, after all.
Then, everyone stops what they were doing. They sit up and, placing their right hands on their hearts, sing the national anthem. For a moment, they finally stand still and I can take a look at their faces. There are people of all ages here, from teenagers in sparkly jeans and Uggs to grown up men who mostly do the heavy lifting, middle-aged women and grandmothers making sandwiches and tall girls with neat make-up and hair who act as PR people and speak in front of TV crews – in Ukrainian or Russian. They seem to have everything covered; every possible scenario has been thought of. They have a desk with medical supplies – and they keep receiving more and more donations from protesters -, they have cleaners making sure nothing contaminates the area and people waiting by the door to take the trays outside. What they don’t have is time to spare or to be polite, and they won’t make any apologies for that. This is revolution, after all.
WE ARE EUROPE
Outside the kitchen again, I notice many handwritten signs and arrows pointing in different directions. Anna explains – on the left side of the hallways there’s the Red Cross, then on the right a team of therapists; in the main hall they have a volunteers’ information desk where anyone can offer their services and a lawyer’s office where protesters can get legal support. The level of micro-management and the number of people getting involved are perplexing. What’s even more bewildering is that many of them started volunteering after November 30th, when the brutal intervention of Berkut officers left dozens injured or arrested.
“I started volunteering from this bloody night of November 30th”
“I started volunteering from this bloody night of November 30th,” a young woman wearing a black woollen headpiece accessorised with metal spikes tells me. Her English is shaky, but she’s not willing to let that get in the way of her expressing what she thinks. She spends her days at the volunteers’ desk, organising the newcomers and assigning them tasks. I ask her why she wanted to get involved in a movement that proved to be so dangerous for its participants. “We do everything to show we are peaceful, purposeful people; we are here for our victory, to get rid of the president and government because they are cruel people, they do very bad things,” she explains with a frown on her innocent face. There are other bad people among the crowd too, she says: men who stir up the protesters to get them into trouble; men who got people beaten on “this bloody night”, because of whom some protesters have disappeared and haven’t been found since. “We think bad things,” the girl confesses leaning in. “Many, many blood.”
She tells me that, after seeing all the violence that took place, she couldn’t stay away. “From this bloody night, first I came and listened. After two days, I understand I can’t just listen, I should do something.” Her great consolation is seeing people around her work tirelessly to keep the protests going and to attract others out on the streets. The point is to show Ukrainians that they’re peaceful, extremely well-organised, and ready to support each other in any way possible. Failure is not an option and Europe is the endgame. “Of course we will win. If you lived in Ukraine, you would understand: we want to go to Europe. We want to be in Europe. We are Europe!”
In search of coffee and more people to talk to, I wind up at the first floor, which is the ad hoc press centre – a spacious foyer with a few desks and chairs, dozens of TV cameras and a desk stand surrounded by Ukrainian, EU and opposition party flags, where press conferences are held. After registering at the front desk and receiving a paper press pass and a phosphorescent orange vest with the inscription “прес” (Press), I choose a spot on the floor, next to a trash can and take a few minutes to observe the fauna.
There is constant chatter and equipment-moving in the room, as some journalists come in and others go out again to report from the crowd. All the tables are covered in laptops, phones, cameras and wires. Most of the reporters are Ukrainian; they know each other and chat away about very important affairs, sometimes glancing in distrust towards newcomers – you never know who might be working for a state-friendly media outlet. Every now and then, you can spot a lonely soul next to a socket, looking ever so slightly lost and taking stock of the room in resignation. That’s either a foreign journalist who doesn’t speak Ukrainian or a young cub who is not yet cool enough to socialise with the big guns. And always, if you listen carefully to a far away corner, you will hear the imperturbable snore of a fallen colleague.
In this room I meet Zhanna, a Ukrainian radio journalist who’s a “friend of a friend of a friend” and offers to get me some contacts and translate conversations. She takes me to a nearby desk where two young girls – a blonde and a redhead – are working on their laptops. They’re all speaking Ukrainian, but I can tell their enthusiasm at Zhanna’s request to let me interview them is comparable to the thought of sharing an elevator with a Berkut officer. Finally, after fierce negotiations, Blondie gives me a compassionate, yet reticent smile and confesses ,”It’s not that we don’t want to talk to you, it’s just that we don’t know why we’re here exactly and you’ll probably ask us that,” she explains. “Yes, we didn’t have time to think,” adds the expressionless redhead. “Well, then we’ll start with something simple,” I say.
It’s not that we don’t want to talk to you… it’s just that we don’t know why we’re here exactly
As we ease into the conversation, I find out that the girls, both fresh out of university and working, are part of a team of three people handling public requests from protesters. These propositions range from organisational issues to the very abstract “Ukrainian-future-building” field. “We get a lot of requests for stage performances, mostly patriotic or inspiring songs; also some famous indie bands – well, famous in Ukraine, not like superstars,” Red explains, maintaining her serious face. When I ask them how they receive these requests, they smile and point to a large stack of hand-written papers on their desk. “The old-fashioned way,” Blondie says.
After a while, when we make it to the scary question (“Why get involved?”), the girls keep it simple – it’s just the desire to contribute, to make a difference, they say. Red believes the movement is especially worthwhile because the organisers aren’t working for any political party, which is something I’ve heard often while covering these protests. The three main opposition parties in Ukraine support the cause and keep in touch with the protesters, but their popularity is not that high. They’re tolerated as long as they don’t hurt the movement, but any ordinary protester will make it crystal clear this is not a political protest. As Red pointed out, it’s more about welcoming some favourable changes brought by association with the EU. “I don’t really want to change the mentality radically, because we were raised differently – we’re a Slavic nation. We have a different history,” Red explains. “But some mentality and economical changes would be welcome. The European Union isn’t about, like, changing ourselves completely and becoming like the Germans or French. Signing the Agreement means we are ready to work together, just that.”
Next, Zhanna takes me to meet Yurie from Lviv, one of the organisers of the protest activities. A young, plain-looking man, he doesn’t speak English (except for a few words) so Zhanna translates. I find out he goes to an engineering university and is a member of the youth organisations of Lviv – self-governed student bodies which aim create greater participation for students in city administration.
Lviv is a very active town in the Euromaidan protests, organising the largest rallies in the country outside Kiev. Yurie and his team are a big part of that, as they help mobilise people and even arrange group visits to the capital. “They provide them with accommodation and everything they need. They especially recruit people with good organisational skills who can contribute here, who can work in the kitchen downstairs, who are young medical workers, law students, social media experts. People don’t come here as tourists, there is always an activity plan,” Zhanna explains. The volunteers spend a few days in Kiev, after which they rotate with another group coming from Lviv.
Adding to what Yurie is telling me, Zhanna points out that it is very important to look at the regions of Ukraine from which protesters come to Kiev. “It’s not just Western Ukraine. A lot of people come from the Eastern part – Donetsk, Kherson and so on” – regions which have been traditionally pro-Russian. “You should understand that the conditions are different for them. The authorities pressure them and restrict them,” Zhanna details the severe state control in the East. Students from Kherson who wanted to join the protest have been told by their teachers and the administration they risk being expelled. “So they made a huge banner and hung it on the university building at night. It read ‘Ukraine, we are with you, we want to be in the EU.’ It was the only way to protest for them,” Zhanna says.
“We all want to be in Europe, we want to live better,” Yurie manages to say in his poor English. “It will be better for young people, for our future, for our children. We will have better education, more work…more money.” He says the night of November 30th was “a Rubicon the authorities crossed,” so no one is willing to keep them in power anymore.
CROSSING THE RUBICON
After parting with the volunteers, I meet Alexandr Kulakovski, a journalist and Svoboda (Freedom) Party member – a tiny contradiction that doesn’t elude me. “You have to talk to him, he was just detained by the police the other day,” Zhanna whispers, knowing this is a convincing argument. “Just take what he says with a little scepticism.”
We whisk him away to the theatre room, where Alexandr speaks in Russian while Zhanna continues to translate for me. As he starts his story, I can’t take my eyes off a ring on his little finger – golden, with a row of what might have been rubies placed vertically in the middle and flanked by two rows of minuscule crystals. I can’t tell if it’s real or not, but it looks like something you’d find at a gypsy flea market. Alexandr’s lower lip is bruised, but when he talks about his recent problems he seems quite bored and unimpressed.
He tells us that he was detained two days earlier for a few hours, along with Andriy Dzyndzya, a famous Ukrainian investigation journalist who launched Road Inspection – a website dedicated to uncovering the corruption of traffic police. The two of them were helping activists from other cities who wanted to join Euromaidan, arranging safe transport for them – Zhanna tells me traffic police sometimes stops the buses with protesters and forbid them to continue their journey. During such an operation, they were detained by unknown persons and beaten. They were taken to a police station in Kiev, but no one would tell them why they were being held.
Once a certain line has been crossed, though, people lose their fear
“They were beaten again for every question asked,” Zhanna translates. Finally, they realised they were at the Department to Fight Organised Crime and Alexandr was told that he was being interrogated as a witness in relation to the events of November 21st, when the protests started, and December 1st, when the bloodiest incidents occurred near the presidential administration. The investigator, who Alexandr describes as a paranoid man who kept looking out of the window, afraid the protesters in front of the police station would attack, eventually told the journalist they had nothing on him and he was free to go. “But then why was I beaten?” Alexandr asks with a confused smile. He believes it was all psychological pressure aimed at scaring activists.
“Once a certain line has been crossed, though, people lose their fear,” the opposition party member explains. Zhanna tells me Ukrainians refer to this as “crossing the Rubicon” (the river in Italy which Caesar’s armies crossed in 49 BC, starting a civil war that would end in his becoming ruler of the Roman Empire). Alexandr believes this led to the creation of two different Euromaidans. One was a student movement, a peaceful protest that started on November 21st in support of the country’s European path. The other Euromaidan appeared after the bloody dispersion of protesters by police soldiers, when people finally understood that the regime had no problem staining its hands with blood.
Tania Chornovol, one of the most well-known investigative journalists in Ukraine, specialising in matters of corruption, found a unique way of fighting this violence. I meet her in the press centre, after Zhanna introduces us. I have noticed her around during the day, always chatting loudly with someone, always with a big smile on her face. She amusingly confesses that after Yanukovych’s victory in the 2010 elections she decided to become a “professional revolutionary”. Zhanna giggles and tells me Tania is famous for jumping over the fence of Yanukovych’s private, mysterious residence outside Kiev, which very few people have actually seen. Therefore, in the days of Euromaidan, Tania decided to start the movement Mezhyhirya – the name of president’s mansion.
Mezhyhirya was a state property some time ago, but Yanukovych privatised it illegally and renovated it in the most opulent way. “Arab sheikhs would be jealous,” Tania says. She tells me this residence is Yanukovych’s big weakness, as he already has many inferiority complexes. Tania believes if people blocked his access to the residence, he would feel truly threatened and less confident.
The intrepid journalist thus organised a small march to the residence, to get an idea of whether hundreds of thousands of people could walk there from the closest metro station – 10 kilometres. Twenty-five people joined her. When they came as close as one kilometre, the road was blocked by police trucks. “But we passed by anyway,” Tania laughs. Another 500 metres further on, they were greeted by the infamous Berkut – one hundred of them. Also, since the residence is located near a village whose mayor is a friend of Yanuvokych, a mob came out and told the activists that any kind of protests were illegal on those grounds. “I told them this is not a protest, it’s a tourist walk. We wanted to check if it’s possible for 100 000 people to walk there on foot. And we left,” Tania giggles in satisfaction.
The Orange Revolution was confined to central Kiev.. this protest… People are occupying buildings, organising field trips, creating diversions.
The day before our talk, Tania organised a larger event – a road trip including 50 cars driving up to Mezhyhirya. In order to avoid problems, she called the event a “pilgrimage”, since there is a sacred stream in the “presidential” village which according to Orthodox beliefs can cure diseases. Since many journalists joined the trip, the guards near Mezhyhirya hid from them. They reached the stream, located near the presidential property, in a forest, at night. No sign of police whatsoever. They were shocked. Then, the darkness revealed its secrets – the wacky racers squinted more carefully and noticed that behind every single tree there was a policeman, silent and discreet, watching them.
Tania doesn’t hide the pleasure she takes in pulling off these tricks and she declares cheerfully that this is just the beginning. Despite the fact that she heard from unofficial sources that there is a warrant to search her apartment – the first step to arrest – she will continue to organise such events. The Rubicon is definitely far behind her.
The next day, Independence Square is invaded by hundreds of thousands of people for the big weekend protest – “big” is a useless concept these days, because there are always plenty of people in Euromaidan. At midday, the official count is 200 000, which really makes it at least double. I’m done talking. Most people aren’t here to talk either. They are here to raise their flags and listen to the organisers on stage, shout revolutionary slogans, march and occupy.
As well-coordinated as ever, the protest goes smoothly, with the silent masses either politely listening to the speakers on stage who recite inspiring messages, or everyone joining a dramatic chorus and shouting something about ‘Yeuropa”, “Yanukovych” or “Ukrayna”. As I leave the square in the evening and glide into the underground using the long escalator, people enthusiastically shout “Slava Ukraini!”, while others on a different escalator reply “Heroyam Slava!”
At midday, the official count in 200,000, which really makes it at least double.
There are many analogies with the Orange Revolution of 2004 that took place in Ukraine. However, as Dr Andrew Wilson of University College London (UCL) pointed out during a recent conference, there are clear differences between the two movements. They mostly have to do with the greatest criticisms surrounding Euromaidan: the idea that the Orange Revolution happened in an election year and had a clear endgame, people knew they wanted a certain result at the ballot. They had leaders and they had a very popular political opposition. They had Viktor Yushchenko who became president, and Yulia Tymoshenko who was named prime minister and who is still an icon for the protesters.
Nowadays, people have the advantage of organising quickly on social media, which, as Wilson stated, is a great tool to spread the news fast and get people out into the streets, but it’s faulty when it comes to deciding what to do next. “That kind of thing – you can’t discuss via SMS between thousands of people,” he said.
In addition, the solution to the Orange Revolution was obvious and even though it took longer to implement (several months) people knew from the start how they wanted to do things. Back then, security forces were split, but now Yanukovych controls everything and there are no easy or obvious legal options to create an outcome the protesters could agree with.
However, right now people are clearly fed up with their leaders, so they are holding the line with fierce determination. Wilson recalls that the Orange Revolution was confined to central Kiev and was more static. In contrast, this protest – or revolution, as many call it, not without reasonable grounds – is a lot more proactive. People are occupying buildings, organising field trips, creating diversions, et cetera. Many other cities are participating. Ukrainians have learned from the past and have become better at this.
The truth remains that there is very little they can do to actually shift the country’s course, in practical terms. They are the misfortunate “narod” (people) of a leader who has shown no interest in dialogue or compromise. Yanukovych may promise to sign the Association Agreement “soon”, but everyone knows better than to trust him. So they try to regain control over the country in any small way they can. They want to prove that they are not going to stop or bend even though the odds are against them. There is no foreseeable conclusion for now – people keep showing up, volunteers keep working on a wartime schedule and, every now and then, everyone unites to shout “Slava Ukraini! Heroyam Slava!”
Cover Photo: Ioana Burtea