I spent the morning at Valerii’s place while he went to French class. It was a dreary morning, cloudy, cold, and very sobering posts from friends on Facebook… articles shared suggesting Ukraine’s economic collapse was immanent whatever the outcome of the Euromaidan protest movement, a post suggesting that nothing yet had been done to change the system here (a system dominated by oligarchs) and that the current situation was more like a “calm before the storm,” and another post suggesting more student friends were being summoned to the Prosecutor’s Office for questioning. By noon, I was wondering if this trip to Kyiv made any sense.
This afternoon, I went to the Maidan, not so much to engage in politics, but to do some shopping (batteries and a cable for my university video camera). As odd as it seems, there is business to be done during a revolution. Beneath Independence Square, where demonstrations occur every day, around the clock, there is an underground mall called “Globus.” Here I was overwhelmed by all the fashion boutiques, but there were no electronic stores. The one electronic store I last went to in Kyiv, El Dorado, was closed. The entire building it was in, the Central Universal Shopping Center (TsUM) was being rebuilt, covered in a canvas that resembled a real building. Along the wooden parkan fence was an entirely beautiful gallery of graffiti and poster art dedicated to Yanukovych… “Impeach Yanukovych!” “Get lost, Zek (a Zek is slang for “ex-con”)!” There were these computer-printed memes of movie posters, for gangster films, featuring the whole Yanukovych family and their friends.
Alas, there was no El Dorado in sight. When I went back to Globus and asked someone in a cell phone shop where one was, the young man said in Russian, “I have no idea. Honestly, I’m not from here originally.” He said that there was an electronics store nearby, but it was closed “because of the Maidan.”
In the meantime, I got a view of the Maidan during the work week. On the metro, there were far fewer people with protest ribbons and flags than on Saturday and Sunday. Still, there were sizable crowds on the Maidan and the area around it. Lots of Afghan veterans, Cossacks, and university-aged men guarding the barricades, two of which cross Khreshchatyk on both ends (on one end, near the Trade Unions Building, the other where TsUM is being rebuilt). It’s a little strange. You have to walk past these guards with no weapons, just guys wearing national symbols. I did see two such guards dragging away an old guy who was drunk or crazy, but otherwise, it was quite normal. Sometimes the guards greeted acquaintances with “Slava Ukraini!” Onstage, some poet aged 50-60 was reading his poems and trying to stir up the crowd of onlookers. Among his poems was one written “for December 8,” when thousands, if not millions, marched on Kyiv. There were two field kitchens, one run by the Maltese order that I’d mentioned before, and the other was on the other side of Khreshchatyk, across from what used to be a bookstore. Men were keeping bonfires going to warm up. The cold steadily set in as I passed through the Maidan and the Khreshchatyk, so those fires were needed.
At one point, I got coffee at a coffee shop near the former bookstore so that I could get an Internet connection and make shopping plans. As I relaxed on the second floor of a fashionable cafe playing smooth electronic dance music, I could look out onto Khreshchatyk and see homemade barricades and groups of people of various ages carrying around Ukrainian flags with names of their hometowns.
I made one last attempt to get equipment for my video camera, with no success (“Nyet,” said the store clerk once he saw my Panasonic, before I could even ask a question!). Then I decided to take part in a protest march that was aimed at parliamentary district special elections held yesterday.
There were special elections held yesterday in something like 5 “problem districts.” They were “problem districts” because, during last year’s parliamentary elections, they had witnessed massive election fraud. I remember one Internet clip showing a local protest of one of these disputed elections broken up violently by local police. The police literally stormed the local election center and stole the results. Today, it looked like 4 of 5 of the elections were won by Party of Regions people through fraud. Maidan forces planned to march on the Central Elections Commission (TsVK) on Lesia Ukrainka Boulevard at 18:00. Valerii said he’d also be there, so I decided to go.
The marchers were to assemble in front of TsUM, the building where I’d hoped to find El Dorado and a solution to my own life’s immediate problems. I was a little nervous at first. The marchers’ banners consisted of mostly Ukrainian national flags, but also red-and-black banners from OUN. Knowing my friends from Poland and Russia are on Facebook with me, I didn’t know if I should go. Then I realized that I at least needed to see what was going on.
About 500 people assembled for the march, which was a little behind schedule. They ranged in ages, but most were probably in their forties and above. A lot more men in their 60s and 70s than, say, one of the early Euromaidan demonstrations. We marched all the way down the Khreshchatyk, then turned left, then right, going up a hill of apartment buildings and offices. We mostly chanted, “Slava Ukraini!” “Heroiam Slava!” “Ukraina – ponad use!” “Kyiv – pryiednuisia do nas!” “Razom – syla!” and “Bandu het’!” (one old guy got brave and yelled “Zeka het’!” which some people in our rear section of the march picked up).
Because of all the problems with my video camera, I tried out my iPhone camera. I imagine I am not holding the camera right, because I only get reflections of myself, and I have to point it away from me and hope I get the image. I a similar manner, I found out that there was a video option, and I started to use it more and more during the march and later at the meeting in front of TsVK.
I didn’t think we had that many people at first, but I think our column stretched as long as 100-200 meters. I was in the rear, from which I could see all these flags from the first rows slowly ascending the hill that led to TsVK. Cars honked in solidarity. There were people poking their heads out of office windows and apartment windows, waving. One frail, ill, possibly elderly figure was waving to us wildly from his or her bedroom. While marching, I heard 3 women talking about recent events, including the attempted storming of the Maidan on December 10-11. One of them was there, and she said it was an utter nightmare.
I was worried about any problems from law enforcement or hired thugs. One truck passed by that looked like one used to transfer Berkut men. “That’s a strange vehicle,” noted one of the women who had been discussing recent events. Luckily we didn’t see it at the meeting in front of TsVK.
Finally, I saw the column reach TsVK. It was a little scary being there. I remembered in October 2004, when a crowd of protestors was brutally beaten at this very spot. The weather was cold, very cold. It had already gone dark before the march even began.
We began with a singing of the Ukrainian national anthem. We took our hats off and sang. I sang with them. By this time, I realized that I probably knew the Ukrainian national anthem as well as the American one. Then a number of speeches by political activists followed. Most of them were connected with the districts in dispute. One guy was from Ivano-Frankivsk. He said that he took part in tearing down the Lenin statue there in 1990, that he took part in free elections there. He said that they’d gotten beaten up by police there, yet they survived. People would survive the police in our times as well, he suggested.
Among the speakers was Andriy Tiahnybok, one of the key leaders of the opposition. (They had promised that Klytchko would come, but he didn’t.) Tiahnybok is a member of the far right-wing party Svoboda (Freedom). He was kicked out of the Our Ukraine party in 2004 after making a number of anti-Semitic and anti-Russian remarks on a campaign stop on behalf of Yushchenko. I have to admit that Tiahnybok gave a masterful, though lengthy, speech. He mentioned nothing about ethnic or cultural groups in Ukraine. Instead, he focused on elementary things that would appeal to most voters. He pointed out all the brazen acts of fraud that took place in these districts, first in 2012, and now in 2013. He talked about the fact that the regime does not treat citizens like people, but like animals. Tiahnybok noted that the only weapon they had was the people standing on the Maidan, and that had it not been for all the protests on the Maidan, there would not be the splitting in ranks that is starting to take place within Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. The regime had to be completely replaced, from the village council chair on up. Court judges needed to be elected locally, directly by the people. Tiahnybok also noted that there are two kinds of people, those who eat, and those who live. “Do you want to be the second kind of people?” he asked us. “Yes!” we thundered, almost in unison (I was trying to manage the camera at that point, so I wasn’t yelling with the rest).
Honestly, had it not been for Tiahnybok’s controversial views on ethnicity, he sounded like a politician advocating a normal democratic state where the rule of law and the power of the people came first. Perhaps that’s what makes today’s right wing politics in Ukraine so alluring?
One more speaker followed Tiahnybok, uttering similar messages. It was for me at least very extraordinary. People were taking power for themselves, saying that they were sovereign subjects, that they had rights under the law, and that the government had to respect those rights, because the government’s sovereignty rested with them.
I had been getting very excited at the news that Klytchko was coming to speak. Thus, I desperately tried to figure out how to use the iPhone video camera the right way. But it turned out he wasn’t going to be there.
After we all took our hats off again to sing the national anthem, we were to march back to the Maidan, but Valerii and I decided to go to the nearest metro station and head home. We were tired, and it was cold outside.
The Euromaidan movement has had an amazing ability to bring people together and convince them that they are citizens who should be treated with dignity. Yet the only leader out to rally the crowd in front of TsVK had a checkered past, as well as nationalist views that alienate most Ukrainianians. Klytchko, the political outsider who appeals to people of all kinds of backgrounds, even Berkut men, didn’t show up. Meanwhile, as I found out from the meeting in front of TsVK, students are being investigated, not just in Kyiv, but also in places like Lviv. They are being questioned by prosecutors. Thus, the state is going after the people who started this Euromaidan revolution in the first place.
As we headed home tonight, I thought of those students, and also the older protestors who, in front of TsVK, testified about having left behind families, homes to camp out on the Maidan for as long as a month (according to one of them, he had expected to be there only for 2-3 days).
As the Euromaidan revolution begins calming down, I fear for all of them, no matter what views they may share about Ukrainian nationalism.
Later, I found out from another U.S. scholar that the crowd was much smaller than I’d estimated (though my friend Valerii even put it at 1,000 people). So I added this remark on Facebook:
- William Risch I should note that the crowd was probably 150-200. I had made my estimate when the march began. I should have made a final head count when we were in front of the building.