I arrived on Saturday, December 14. I was worried that there would be problems getting into Ukraine, because I couldn’t exactly tell Passport Control, “I’m coming here for the barricades!” I’d come up with a story about a “research trip” in case I had to say something: youth in 1970s Ukraine, a continuation of my book on Lviv, with investigation of Soviet press materials at the national library and some interviews (hence the tape recorder and videeo camera). I came up with the story while driving my car to the airport shuttle in Macon, then on various phases of the flight. Luckily, the only thing I was asked was, “Where are you coming from?”
My first sight of Ukraine began strangely: as we passed through the corridor that went from our plane, I saw SenatorJohn McCain right in front of me, with a group of politicians, talking about something. Everyone ignored the scene except for me and two other Americans. Luckily McCain was too busy with his fellow politicians to see the look on my face as I walked past.
It later turned out that McCain might well have been on my flight, as he had just arrived in Ukraine for meetings with Ukrainian opposition leaders and President Yanukovych. For me, McCain’s presence wasn’t a good sign. Not long ago he’d talked about an “Arab Spring” coming to “Vlad’s” neighborhood. What happened to that?
I took the shuttle bus to downtown Kyiv. It was not the kind of shuttle bus in the States. The driver filled the bus to maximum, then collected money for tickets, then started grumbling that somebody new on board hadn’t paid yet. I was packed in a seat with a man in his upper 50s or early 60s who had an iPad. Again, the Ukrainians are ahead of me in technology.
There were some women in their 20s seated behind me who had just come back from some trip to Europe. They joked about Berkut holding up the bus, thus our late start. They spoke of “revolution,” but in positive, not ironic terms. They were planning to go to the “revolution” later that day. One of them speculated that there would be a crackdown, but later, when people were away for the weekend, and not so many people were at the Maidan. “It could be just like what happened in Egypt,” she said.
My colleague Valerii was waiting for me at the South Railroad Station, where our bus stopped. We passed through the Main Railroad Station, where I saw all these people of different ages carrying Ukrainian flags, or wearing them across their backs, or wearing the Ukrainian flag as face paint.
As we left the station and went outside, the cold hit me. “I can feel it!” I told Valerii. “The revolution?” he asked. “No, the cold!” I said.
I joked with Valerii. “So who are the titushki here?” I asked. He pointed out various young men walking past us in front of the train station. The only things distinguishing them were short-cropped or shaved hair, black jackets, and grim-looking faces.
On the metro, I noticed that there were many people of university age, but also older people,wearing ribbons with the Ukrainian national flag with the seal of the EU on them. They may have been returning from the Maidan.
We arrived at Valerii’s dorm in one of the western suburbs of Kyiv. After some dinner, I had to take a nap. I was utterly exhausted from 24 hours of grading final exams and then an overnight flight from Atlanta.
At 8, we went to the Maidan. Okean El’zy was performing. It was my first time at the Euromaidan, and so there was no question of going, no matter how tired I was.
We got off at the Khreshchatyk station. Out on Khreshchatyk, it seemed more like people were at a festival than at a protest. Crowds walked past refreshment stands and even a merry-go-round. Then as we neared the Maidan (Independence Square), I could see the infamous New Year’s Tree, the tree whose erection became the excuse for the bloody crackdown on the Euromaidan on the night of November 30. The tree was decorated with flags with the names of different cities and towns of Ukraine. There were unflattering remarks about Yanukovych (including something about him being a kind of disease) and calls to join the EU. On one side was a giant portrait of jailed opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko, with the slogan, “Freedom for Ukraine! No to political repressions!” Ukraine’s Mandela? Based on her past as an oligarch, hardly, but the portrait that night was so striking. It was like she was looking on events on the Maidan from somewhere afar, from the “Other World.” That’s how I remember the way portraits of Mandela looked at various protests on behalf of his freedom in the 1980s.
The Maidan was densely packed for the Okean El’zy concert. I didn’t know their new songs, but I could sing along with the older ones. The older ones brought me back to 1998, while drinking coffee at a cafe near the Lviv State Regional Archives, during my first days researching there, overhearing Okean El’zy over the radio. Back then, I assumed that Ukraine’s membership in the EU was just a matter of time.
Okean El’zy gave an incredible performance. At one point, the group had everyone raise their cell phones and flash their lights in unison. The whole Maidan turned into a sea of Midsummer Night wreaths with lit candles floating on the water, another scene I associate with my first year in Ukraine (Midsummer Night’s Eve near the Carpathian Mountains, as guest of a young man who’s now a journalist and activist in Ukraine; that night I imagined what he and his university classmates would be doing in 15-30 years).
After the concert ended, the Maidan quickly cleared of the dense crowds. The show was “over.” Disappointing. Is the Maidan all about bread and circuses? But after the crowds had cleared, Valerii and I had the chance to come closer to the stage area and see some of the tent city still standing. The cold was affecting my face, to some degree my legs, and so I was glad we could stand near some bonfires that the protestors had set up. The concert went on, with other acts that I remembered from the 90s. Behind me I could see a group of young protestors standing on some trailer that had been covered in graffiti. They were waving flags to the beat of the music onstage. One of the flags had the town name of “Sokil,” which is in western Ukraine.
I wondered what it took to stand out in this cold, to camp out in this cold, for weeks. How many of us could stand it?
Valerii and I walked over to a set of barricades that he had helped build. It was made up mostly of snow, but there were also branches, wire, various objects to lend it a defensive character. There were some Afghan veterans and younger people standing guard there. They were part of the night guard, ready in case another storming of the Maidan would take place.
Valerii and I went to a cafe to get some tea and warm up. It took forever to get service,so we could catch up on news. I asked Valerii if there were plans by the opposition to march on Mezhyhyria, the President’s home in the countryside. He said that there were, but that there have been problems with law enforcement. I told him that I definitely would go along if something is organized.
We left for home around 11. On the way to the metro, we passed by about 20-30 men ranged in ages from 20 to 60. “Titushki?” we wondered. Then Valerii figured out that these were members of a self-defense unit for protecting the Maidan from hired thugs (titushki).
I was so tired that I fell asleep while standing in the metro. When we got home, I was glad to get a lot of sleep.
This was my initial comment to this first installment of my chronicle on Facebook.
William Risch With all the Ukrainian experts in Kyiv nowadays, these observations may sound primitive, but I’ll just tell it like it is. It might be worth reading.
December 16, 2013 at 2:50am • Like • 5