How the past six months changed Ukrainians, Ukraine and the Maidan
The first page of Ukraine’s new history was turned on the night of November 21, 2013. It was raining, an EU flag frozen on the big flat screen over the Trade Unions Building reflected in the puddles. A few hundred Kyivites gathered on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square. Mostly youth, journalists, civil activists and “lifelong revolutionaries”, they were people who had long been struggling against the Yanukovych regime. A few hours before, the Cabinet of Ministers had suddenly suspended preparations for the signing of an Association Agreement with the EU. Messages like “…well, here I am on the Maidan” went viral on social media. Only three days later, on November 24 opposition leaders called on the public to take to the streets.
“You can restore anything in the world from ruin, other than living blood, as we know already…”, a Kyiv Mohyla Academy student recited a line by contemporary poet Yuriy Andrukhovych from atop a van. Then the floor went to Yevhen Nyshchuk, the Culture Minister-to-be. His speech was filmed by Dmytro Prykhno, a cheerful guy who would be beaten by Berkut officers a week later. In February, he would say goodbye to his parents on the phone and film an entirely different Maidan – a fire and smoke-covered hell with whizzing bullets and the song “Ukrainian insurgent, don’t back down in the fight” floating over it.
It would be entirely different people. An entirely different country. And, probably, an entirely different world. But on November 21, 2013, nobody knew that yet.
“Do your best, big boss!”
Peaceful protest. November 21-30
In the first days of the “chaotic” Maidan, most supporters came to Independence Square in the evenings after work. The only infrastructure was hot tea, songs and umbrellas. Opposition leaders were forced to occasionally appear in front of the Kyivites who had taken a false start on their own. One night, politicians headed to the subway to distribute leaflets and ask people to come to the Sunday rally.
The rally needed to draw 50,000 people. The government would then have to listen to the people’s demands. Nobody knew that hundreds of thousands would pour to the streets, yet their voices remained unheard.
Clashes Began on November 24, the night after the first viche – an assembly – when activists were attacked near the Cabinet of Ministers by Berkut special police and hundreds of titushkas (paid thugs and athletes hired by the government to attack protesters and arrange provocations). The police were not yet using stun grenades or weapons, just tear gas and batons. Still, the ratio of those willing to attack the police and those preferring to stay away proved that no one wanted to spill blood.
An opposition MP announced the headquarters’ decision to leave the square in front of the Cabinet of Ministers in order to prevent the police from breaking into the protest-occupied European Square. It was there that the “political” part of the EuroMaidan, i.e. tens of thousands of protesters led by the opposition and flooded with the flags of opposition parties, would gather for the next few days. The Maidan would meanwhile host the apolitical EuroMaidan, mostly comprised of students singing, dancing and calling on protesters to avoid militant slogans like “Death to the enemy!”
On the night of November 26-27, the opposition decided to merge the two protests (whether it was to save money because, rumour had it, renting the stage equipment had been expensive until Ihor Kryvetsky bought the stage for Maidan; or because its leaders had grown discouraged by the lack of response to their speeches). People from the European Square went to the Maidan.
Many thought the Maidan would thus die down, eventually turning into a kind of “weird discotheque”. However, the unexpected decision of the then government to launch a police crackdown on protesters who would have soon left the square anyway revitalized it.
This decision was a mistake for the President, and, as many said, played into the hands of the opposition. Yet, it was also perfectly expected from the Yanukovych regime which had previously ended the Vradiyivka Maidan and dozens of other protests in that same manner.
“Too much, big boss!”
Holding the fort. November 30-January 19
“Five minutes to 2a.m., someplace between Rivne and Zhytomyr. The gas station is busy as if it were rush hour. Drivers come in, take sandwiches and drive on toward Kyiv. They are not students, but rather men in their forties. Most probably have no Twitter or Facebook accounts, yet they got up and left for Kyiv. Because they have something to lose—they have people to lose. Hundreds and thousands are going to the Maidan “You’re finished, Yanukovych! – and they are not students,” Yarema Dukh, one of many Ukrainians heading to the protest, wrote on Facebook that night. Kyiv had already risen and gone to Mykhailivska Square to protest against the “bloody Christmas tree” (the installation of the Christmas tree was used as an excuse for the violent crackdown on students at the end of November). It was these days that changed the social structure of the Maidan, bringing everybody to the streets.
Though many did not support the march against the government (including the December 1st clashes on Bankova Street where the Presidential Administration is located or the forcing of Berkut officers to take down their masks after clashes near Sviatoshyn Court on January 11), no one rejected the fact that the Maidan had real enemies and had to protect itself from them. This was how it began to mature, sparking a similar process throughout the nation.
“When we gathered on Mykhailivska Square after the crackdown on the students on November 30, it got really tense. It was obvious that Berkut was prepared to do something. The injured boys and girls only proved this,” Andriy Parubiy, current Head of the National Security and Defence Council and the commander of the Maidan Self-Defence, told The Ukrainian Week later in his interview. “So, when we returned to the Maidan with a march of one million, major organization work began. Everyone realized that we would stay here awhile, so we had to organize things well. Security was our priority.”
As a result, Independence Square saw the construction of the first barricades, self-defence units, and dozens of tents. Later, protesters would take over the Trade Unions Building – now a black burned-out carcass, the October Palace at the beginning of Instytutska Street where snipers would shoot dozens of unarmed protesters, and the Kyiv City Administration Building occupied on December 1.
During the next viche on December 8, later named the March of the Million, Oleksandr Turchynov announced the blocking of the government district. The protesters moved there to set up the “borders” of the revolution, i.e. tent towns near government buildings. The Lenin statue on Shevchenko Boulevard was toppled.
New checkpoints were toppled, too: protesters had to surrender them on December 9. “When we blocked the government district, we expected huge numbers of people there… But too few came,” Parubiy explained.
The night of December 10-11 when the police attempted to storm the Maidan was crucial. They broke the barricades and surrounded Independence Square. Kyiv heard St. Michael’s Church bells tolling in alarm. Then, thousands of Kyivites rushed to help the protesters. The Maidan survived the police storm.
On December 22, the All-Ukrainian Maidan Association was established. On December 29, the AutoMaidan visited Mezhyhiria, the mansion of ex-president Yanukovych. Despite ongoing clashes, bitter cold and repressions against dissenters, the protesters remained on the Maidan. Many thought this was not enough. “The Maidan has been here for a month, a million decisive people out in the streets. And the only result we have is ‘wild dances’. It’s not just me, it’s the entire million chanting: ‘We have to act!’,” Sashko Lirnyk, folk musician and storyteller, says.
Eventually, the Maidan generated an active resistance. It became obvious on January 16, 2014, the day when Ukrainians once again woke up to a “new country” of illegitimately passed draconian laws. Yet they did not scare or disperse the Maidan. The next day, people turned up wearing colanders instead of the helmets banned by the new laws, and the Maidan carried on—for three more days.
January 19. Yet another viche of people infuriated by the draconian laws escalated into a long heated resistance against the police on Hrushevskoho Street. The line between peaceful protesters and provocateurs was erased. Old grannies brought lemons and milk to the fire barricades to help the protesters deal with tear gas. Women dug up and distributed cobblestones and made Molotov cocktails. 17-year olds fought alongside 70-year olds, and ended up at emergency field hospitals together.
The first protesters were killed on January 22, Unity Day in Ukraine. One was Belarusian-born Mykhail Zhyznevsky. The other was Armenian-born Serhiy Nihoyan.
The murders did not stop the clashes on Hrushevskoho Street. The tires kept burning. The doctors were smoking by the emergency unit before it was smashed by the Berkut. New injured protesters arrived every 15 minutes. Most had eye injuries caused by bullets that had easily broken through the ski goggles worn by many protesters. At dawn of January 23, masked protesters hung a huge yellow and blue flag with “Freedom” written on the yellow part. “Or death”, the ending of the phrase, was missing, but everybody knew it.
The Maidan spilled over into the rest of the country. Oblast and city administrations were taken over throughout Ukraine. An active phase of negotiations between the opposition and the government began, yet it brought no results. It was clear that there was no way back. “If we lose, we lose everyting. […] We will de facto lose our independence. And we have nowhere to retreat to. We have crossed the point of no return. We have just one option: to win if we want to survive. If we want to live in a free country. Otherwise, we will all be thrown in jail, the active ones at least. And that’s the best-case scenario. In the worst-case scenario, we will be killed. Everyone knows this,” Ruslan Andriyko, commandant of the Kyiv City State Administration told The Ukrainian Week.
On February 18, the Maidan planned to peacefully march to the Verkhovna Rada where MPs were scheduled to consider amendments to the Constitution to curb the President’s powers. The thousands of protesters included opposition MPs, girls and women, boys in suits and ties who planned to go to their offices as soon as the march was over, grey-haired men, and Self-Defence members.
The march reached the Verkhovna Rada. Shortly after, clashes with the police broke out. They lasted for hours, quickly expanding to other downtown streets. The office of the Party of Regions and the trucks blocking the way to the government districts were set ablaze. The Maidan would burn that same night. People were dying—many more than were generally known: according to official data, 14 protesters were killed on the day of what was planned as a peaceful march. Yet 100 more are still missing to this day. Activists and MPs later said that they had seen the police taking away decapitated and deformed bodies. None of the known Heaven’s Hundred protesters (people killed during the Maidan) had such injuries.
On the night of February 18, the government announced a violent crackdown on the Maidan. Loudspeakers told women and children to leave the Maidan since an “anti-terrorist operation” would soon begin there. The authorities pledged to hold one all over Ukraine.
Kyiv’s subway was closed. Taxi drivers ripped off clients. Kiyivites who live on the Left Bank, a remote district of Kyiv, walked to the central square. People from other parts of Ukraine left for the capital and its main square. The authorities blocked the roads to Kyiv with sandbag barricades. The Trade Unions Building was set on fire. The Maidan continued to stand. “No fear, we’re immortal,” someone said from the stage. The second wave of protests rose in regions. People in Lviv and Ternopil stormed police headquarters. Kyivites united in their districts to hunt for titushkas around their homes. In many cities, people arranged checkpoints to prevent their local police, internal troops and Berkut from going to Kyiv. Civilians lay on the railway in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast to block a train carrying troops to Kyiv.
Still, Yanukovych did not take any concessions. The Maidan felt alarmed, with too few protesters staying there – just the ones who were ready to die. “There weren’t many protesters here during the first shootout,” Vitaliy Zaporozhets, a villager convicted for shooting a policeman that terrorized his village, then released thanks to the Maidan, noted. “The night passed. Then, the day. Here, I thought, Kyiv would rise! Two hundred thousand people would be enough to defeat the Berkut. Nobody came… Until people from Western Ukraine arrived.”
On February 20, dozens of protesters were shot dead. The Maidan turned into a cemetery littered with bodies draped with Ukrainian flags. The funeral service for them took place there later. Plyve Kacha, an old Lemko song performed by Pikkardiyska Tertsia, became the anthem of the Heaven’s Hundred. It the favourite song of Mykhail Zhyznevsky, one of the first protesters killed on the Maidan.
It was during this time that the system broke down. On February 21, opposition leaders signed an agreement to regulate the crisis in Ukraine with Yanukovych. Later at night, Volodymyr Parasiuk, a Self-Defence unit leader, announced that the Self-Defence would storm the Presidential Administration the next day if Yanukovych did not step down. Yanukovych fled.
On February 22, the Verkhovna Rada voted for his impeachment.
The government forms. The Maidan becomes a marginal movement
The Maidan was flooded with candles and flowers. It was also dealing with the current challenges, forming a new government and formally suggesting candidates for ministerial seats at yet another viche. Then, on February 26, the protesters were presented with finalized appointments decided by the new government.
A Self-Defence unit leader got on the stage and demanded bios of all the candidates and their proposed first 10 steps in office. He suggested going to the Verkhovna Rada the next day because the new government was betraying the Maidan.
“Nobody’s doing that,” another unit leader said. The Maidan that would host many more viches was slowly emptying. Paid activists replaced most actual protesters who left for home. Mykola Katerynchuk, a candidate for the mayor office in Kyiv, was among those who splurged on hiring activists. Supporters of Arsen Avakov, current Interior Minister unpopular with many, turned up, too.
Today, people still bring flowers to the Maidan. The burned carcass of the Trade Unions Building still towers over it. Yet, Kyivites no longer wake up in a cold sweat wondering whether the police are crashing the Maidan, whether it is still there, and whether they should rush to Independence Square. The revolution may be over in Ukraine, yet the war has only begun. In fact, however, the revolution never ends.
Very soon, flowers will only be brought to the Maidan once a year, to commemorate the Heaven’s Hundred. The Trade Unions Building will be demolished or repaired. The tents will go away.
But to those who had been on the Maidan and supported it, it will last forever. Regardless of the change of leaders, signing of agreements or wars and European integration processes. It will last forever because the simplest, yet the most important demands of those days will remain. It is not “against Russia”. It is not “for Europe”. It is for a Ukraine without bribery. It is to make sure that the deaths of dozens of people with whom we were lucky enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder were not in vain.