(NOTE: Because the political climate has worsened since January 19, 2014, I have omitted a friend’s name here.)
Today was Saint Mykola Day (Saint Nicholas Day) in Ukraine, a time for gift giving. The Maidan celebrated the holiday in the evening with Saint Mykola himself paying a visit. Students formed a procession to celebrate the holiday and also protest the agreement between Putin and Yanukovych, parading through the Maidan. Around the same time, Klychko spoke to the Maidan, during the middle of which “provocateurs” were causing trouble at the bridge over Instytuts’ka Street. “Tell those provocateurs I’m coming over,” said Klychko. And indeed, when a friend and I went up to see what was going on over there, a crowd of dozens had clustered around Klychko as he answered questions from one TV journalist.
So far, this was the only scuffle I noticed at the Maidan since arriving here. When Klychko was giving his speech, someone on stage called on men to come deal with the provocateurs on Instytuts’ka Street. A few minutes later, as people on stage urged people not to provoke any trouble or panic, I saw a column of mostly me and some women link up, their hands over the next person’s shoulders, move its way up the hill and into the passageway for the barricade under the bridge on Instytuts’ka Street. In about 20 minutes, they all came back as a group through the barricade passageway. After Klychko had left, TV journalists stayed around to interview eyewitnesses. A man in his 70s, cursing, claimed that Donetskites (donetski) had tried to provoke violence. Later, when a friend and I visited the anti-Maidan, we heard one young man claiming that a group of them had gone down to the Maidan to give presents to children, thus sparking the incident.
In a way, I observed Saint Mykola Day with friend Oleksandr. Oleksandr gave me a copy of his book on Ukrainians and the Katyn Massacre, and I gave him a copy of my book on Lviv. The rest of the day, however, was more about finding out more about the Maidan and its opponents.
When I asked Oleksandr what he thinks about recent events in Ukraine, he saw something very positive taking place. Ukraine was like Poland on the eve of Solidarity taking power in 1989. People are speaking out, organizing, changing their consciousness. Yet unlike Poland, there are no leaders like Michnik, Kuron, or Walesa. There is no organization like the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) to serve as an organizational base for a broad movement. This Euromaidan movement can become a prelude to more profound changes in society and government once it acquires leaders and gets its message across to the east and south of Ukraine, not just the center and west. Oleksandr said that there are a number of organizations in Ukraine, such as the Nestorivs’ka Group, that have the potential to do this, and they are working on plans for Ukraine’s future. He said it might be a good idea to organize guest lectures to universities in eastern and southern Ukraine. By changing students’ consciousness there, this movement could broaden itself to these other regions.
I asked Oleksandr what he remembered of events connected with the Euromaidan. He said that he was at the Euromaidan the very first day, on November 21, when journalist Mustafa Nayyem summoned people to protest. There were about 30 people there, and Oleksandr stopped by on his way to catch a train in Lviv.
After meeting with Oleksandr, I went to the Maidan to see another friend, S., a scholar from Kyiv. As we watched from the Main Post Office people making speeches and performing music on the Maidan, S. shared her perspective on recent events. She saw the recent negotiations between Yanukovych and Putin in a more positive light. The Association Agreement with the EU would have led to austerity measures which would have produced mass unemployment and a significant number of premature deaths (which I imagine would be from things like suicides, alcoholism, and stress). Commercial ties with Russia are still vital to Ukraine’s economy because of the Soviet legacy of a centrally planned economic system. S. mentioned a number of such Russian firms important to Ukraine’s economy. Russian aid in fact would create jobs and move Ukraine further away from default. While she observed the positive features of the Euromaidan movement (the greater emphasis on human dignity, greater emphasis on community action, and so on), she pointed out that the opposition has not provided it with adequate leadership. Moreover, the Supreme Rada, as well as local legislatures, still have so many people connected to the old Soviet elite, the nomenklatura. Thus significant political change is still in the distant future (possibly 20 years still needed for such change to be realized).
After S. met with a colleague in the Main Post Office, we went on a tour of the Maidan. Klychko was speaking to the crowds as we took numerous photos. That was also when the “provocation” took place at the Instytutska Street bridge. I then told S. that I hadn’t seen Bankova Street, where the President’s main administrative building is, or the anti-Maidan demonstrations taking place in Mariinskyi Park. She offered to take me to both places, and I gladly agreed.
Up to this point, I had never seen a single unit of the riot police or Berkut forces, just regular policemen patrolling Kyiv’s streets. S. said that such forces indeed were gone from the Maidan area, but SBU people dressed in civilian clothes are out there observing the crowds. We passed by scenes from earlier demonstrations (“old war sites,” or “mistsia boevoi slavy,” as she called them) where, for example, S. and other women crouched behind concrete barriers as protestors ran into Berkut and riot police forces. It was all empty now, just a few passerby and about 1-2 intersections manned by Berkut or riot police.
We turned onto Bankova Street. This was where some of the more dramatic moments occurred in the Euromaidan protests. Here provocateurs somehow brought in a bulldozer and tried to storm the Presidential Administration building. It was on this street that Berkut and riot police stormed, and trashed, the Union of Writers buliding. It was empty and calm now, yet a row of Kyiv Berkut forces was stationed with barriers and shields in front of the Presidential Administration building. S. took photos of the Berkut forces. They stood calmly, yet probably exhausted from hours of standing in terrible cold (about zero degrees, not as bad as earlier, but bad enough). S. thought that we could go through the barrier and walk right past the Presidential Administration. She talked with the Berkut men manning the narrow passageway on the right end of the street. While they had a relaxed, cordial conversation, they told us we couldn’t go through. So we took some more photos. Then S. talked with a couple of the Berkut men standing in line.
As we left Bankova Street, I asked S. what she told the men. She said that she asked if she could give them oranges, because she realized that they were out in the cold for a long time. They said that they couldn’t. S. remarked that if I felt cold (which indeed I did, from the very time we’d met in front of the Main Post Office), “You can only imagine how they feel,” she said. These men have to stand in the cold for at least five hours, with no one to relieve them. S. added that these were Kyiv Berkut forces, and she’s been able to talk with them without problems. She’s not met any Berkut forces from places like Crimea.
Walking down the street, S. noticed a young couple letting their small dog poop right on the street. “That’s interesting,” she said. “You’re really going to get to Europe that way? Use a plastic bag. They’re in stores, they’re cheap.”
As we neared the neighborhood of Mariins’kyi Park, I saw roads blocked by Berkut and riot police forces. They blocked the roads with busses and maybe some smaller vehicles. Most of the Berkut and riot police stood behind the vehicles, while 2-3 stood in front of narrow passageways where they allowed people through (people in police uniforms, also people in civilian clothes). I imagine they were letting in people connected with the anti-Maidan. S. took pictures, and so I got brave enough to do the same. There was one scene where a young Berkut soldier or riot policeman’s head was framed by vehicles and the dome of the Supreme Rada. S. told him that his pose made for a great photo, and he thanked her for the complement.
Soon Mariins’kyi Park was ahead of us. For S., this was a part of her childhood. She had been born in a hospital just down the street, and she had grown up in this neighborhood, because her father was a doctor. Thus, the park for her brought back memories of childhood. For me, though, I kept thinking about all those frightening people called “hired thugs,” or “titushki,” named for one Vadim Titushko who, in the pay of the Party of Regions, performed martial arts on one Ukrainian journalist last summer, right as police looked on and did nothing. As we neared the park, we could see these young people, mostly men, only a few young women, in a small park or yard to the left. “Those are titushki,” said S.. Then I saw a group of such titushki right in front of us. There must have been about 50 of them. They all moved in one group, as if they were a group of soldiers or police, or an entire club of soccer fans, or a group of American frat boys, or a very large group of tourists (depending on how threatening they seemed to the observer). It was very strange, compared with the Maidan crowds that generally got together in small groups, unless they were part of some formal procession. S. said that they even have a “starshyna,” a group leader, who is in charge of them.
Soon we were right across the street from Mariins’kyi Park. The procession of titushki had already crossed the street and disappeared into the darkness of the park. S. spoke with the policemen manning the crossing. She asked them if the Kyiv city police were there in the park. They said yes, and they assured her, “They’re not aggressive there.” As we crossed the street and entered the park, S. said, “I asked about the Kyiv police just in case we get into any trouble.”
Mariins’kyi Park, the heart of the “anti-Maidan,” was not at all like its counterpart. It was already past 7 p.m. and pitch black, and the park was barely lit. It seemed so empty. Now and then we’d see a tent set up (maybe just 4-6 on the way to the Supreme Rada, no more). Like the tents on the Maidan, they had signs indicating where these people were from: Donetsk, Crimea, and so on. It didn’t seem like any had heating (no smokestacks, no gasoline engines running loudly like on the Maidan). We went past another group of titushki. Made up mostly of young men aged 20-30, but also a few women and some older people, it was headed by a woman in her 50s who was giving a head count in Russian (“8, 9, 10…. is that everybody? Everybody?”). Every group was watched by such starshyny, and the titushki had to show up in order to be paid.
S. and I took photos of tents we ran into along the way. We took photos of people – S. much more eagerly, I more or less if it looked like I wasn’t going to get into trouble. We passed through a square that probably was used for music performances, but it was empty. Then, as the Supreme Rada came into view, we ran into dozens of young men sitting on or around concrete barriers. S., then I, began taking photos of a group of them. That’s when I got to meet the titushki face-to-face.
“What right do you have taking photos of us!? (Po kakoi statti vy nas fotografiruiete!?)” said a young man leaning on one of the barriers with his friends. He and his friends met the typical description of a “titushek” (as he, usually he, is called in the singular): hair closely cropped, Nike or other nylon sweat pants and jackets, sometimes a knit cap over the head, with either a cigarette or a bottle of liquor in hand. In this case, this young man and his friends may or may not have been drinking, but S. could tell that they were smoking pot (another good reason to be with S. then, because I have absolutely no sense of smell). S. responded to these young men’s demands for permission to photograph by saying, “Well I don’t think you have the permission to be smoking pot in a public place. I know what it smells like. I lived in Seattle, in the United States, where it’s legal to smoke it. It’s not legal here to smoke it in public.” The men laughed, squirmed a little, and denied it was pot. They started asking questions about us: “What political party are you from?” “Why do you support that crap, the Maidan?” To me, one of them asked, “Why are you recording us?” S. explained that we were scholars interested in understanding what was going on in Ukraine. She said that I was only taking photos, not recording anything.
S. then started to ask questions of the young man who’d started the conversation: “How old are you? What kind of education do you have?” The guy said he was 18 years old. Regarding his education, he gave some kind of an evasive answer that sounded like he’d not finished high school or that he had only finished high school.
A friend of his also joined in the discussion (a discussion in Russian and peppered with swear words, some anger, and some ironic laughter). He seemed somewhat older, but not much more. He said that he, his friends, and others from his group were from Poltava, that they had come here with their trainer to the anti-Maidan.
As we discussed the Maidan, both young men claimed that they’d visited it, and that they thought it was awful. The older one referred to them as “besovye” (crazies), “nationalists” who tore down the Lenin monument, who want to make Bandera into a national hero, who constantly yell, “Slava Ukraini! Heroiam slava!” (greetings that Bandera and his Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) used in the interwar period and later). Both asked why Lenin should be disgraced. They wondered why Bandera, a Nazi collaborator, should be a hero. The younger friend claimed that during the war, the Ukrainians from there (Lvov) went into the SS “right away.”
The older friend said that if they joined the EU, then Ukraine would enter NATO. “Then my children will have to fight for NATO, and they were against the Soviet Union in the Cold War!” he exclaimed. He said that his family was part Polish, and that they remembered what happened in World War II, when the Germans were the occupiers and Ukrainians helped them. He said that recently, when he was in Lvov for a kick boxing championship tournament, he went into a store, asked for something in Russian, and the store clerk rudely told him to leave. He added that his family suffered in “1933,” an indication that they were victims of the man-made famine known as the “Holodomor” in Ukrainian.
S. tried to explain how the Maidan and the people who supported it were not the caricatures given by these young men. “I’ve gone to the Maidan, am I besovy?” she asked. She explained that a lot of people who went to the Maidan were not that interested in the ideology. She noted her own family history, which included relatives from western Ukraine (Drohobych) who had been victims of Bandera’s organization. The Lenin monument, she said, should not have been destroyed like it was, and that this was a provocation organized by the state to divide Ukrainians. Similarly, the violence that took place on Bankova Street was a provocation that the state had organized. How else, she said, could a bulldozer have made it in front of the Presidential Administration?
The two young men agreed to S.’s suggestion that we go somewhere to speak alone. We went to a nearby lane, and S. asked them questions about their own standard of living, about Ukraine’s economy, and about the oligarchs who have benefited from it. She asked them if they knew that Yanukovych’s party was officially for EU integration (they didn’t seem to know). She asked them if they knew that the Ukrainian state’s debts have doubled in the past two years, and that in the past three years, Ukraine has acquired something like 12 more new billionaires. They didn’t know.
Other friends came up. One of them (with a goatee and glasses, not exactly the “titushek” type) had a cell phone with an Internet connection, and S. had him google information about Ukraine’s debt. They agreed that the oligarchs had made their wealth unfairly (though one of them, who was supposedly a guard at the anti-Maidan, claimed that Akhmetov was a positive success story, having started out as a humble taxi driver). S. asked if they knew that families like the Azarovs and the Kliuievs had homes and families in Europe. They didn’t know. Over time, these young men and S. came to a consensus, that the system had produced great social inequalities, that there were oligarchs exploiting people, and that things needed to change. “That’s what people on the Maidan are saying, too,” stressed S..
At one point, our discussion turned to whether or not protestors were hired. “Tell me,” the older friend asked me. “Why is it that UDAR (Klychko’s political party) is paying people 600 hryvnia to go beat up people, and people get paid so much for taking photos?” S. stressed that people came to the Maidan voluntarily, that they were not getting paid for this. These young men did not tell us that they were being paid, but it seemed like their reference to UDAR people getting paid suggested that they were used to protests being organized for money. When S. and I asked what they thought of Klychko, these men said that Klychko was a boxer and that he should stay out of politics.
At this point in the conversation, one of these men mentioned that the Maidan people had tricked them this very evening, by claiming that they could give presents to children for Saint Mykola Day. They went as a group to the Maidan, only to be beaten back by protestors. Was this is “provocation” we had just witnessed about an hour ago?
It was too hard to tell how much these men were telling the truth. It was clear that this was a group of martial arts students from Poltava being sent in to cause trouble if needed. Their remarks about Lenin, Bandera, and “nationalists” may have been rehearsed answers that they were to give to people in Kyiv, but more likely, they reflected the impact of mainstream Ukrainian and Russian media. Personally, I wondered if this was like so many of my students back in Georgia who seem to have their ready-made, knee-jerk reactions to anything that wreaks of “liberalism,” “socialism,” “secularism,” and the like. Is a Tea Party activist, or a neo-Confederate (in the case of my Milledgeville, Georgia, neighbors), any more reflective than a so-called titushka?
We didn’t have much time to talk. Columns of titushki groups were marching past, and S. noticed that police were with them (My back was turned, so I couldn’t tell.). The “friends” of these two young men included people with emblems indicating they were guards for the anti-Maidan. At one point, S. decided it was time for us to go. We said our goodbyes, and we wished each other luck.
As S. and I left the park, our conversation gradually shifted from Russian back to Ukrainian. We continued to take photos whenever possible. As we neared the exit, we saw three men in their 30s or 40s goofing around and swearing as they took photos. S. went up to them and told them not to swear. As we left, I think one of them said sneeringly, “What uncultured language!,” but they left us alone, and they did stop swearing.
We took the Arsenal metro station to get home. Outside, we saw throngs of people drinking, smoking, standing around gossiping. Presumably they were from the anti-Maidan. What was really shocking was the inside of the metro station. We saw dozens of people sitting inside, leaning on the walls. A couple of guys, drunk, giddy with laughter, jumped over the turnstyles and didn’t pay for the metro fare, but those sitting in the metro seemed quiet, somber. S. went up to three of them leaning against the wall near the operator’s station. It was three people, all presumably from Kryvyi Rih, two men and one woman, aged 40-55. One man wouldn’t say where they were from. The woman did. The other man just muttered something that sounded like he was also from there. S. asked them if they’d received money. One, the woman, said she’d received 200 hryvnias. She said she was for European integration. All three, though, seemed confused when S. told them that Yanukovych was for European integration, too (the same goal as the Euromaidan people). Instead of saying “yes” or “no,” they gave these long, bewildered stares.
As we took the metro home, I thought of that woman, who was probably in her 40s, who looked tired, uncomfortable. Judging from what she’d asked her, S. concluded that this woman from Kryvyi Rih went just for the money, not for the ideas, and that most likely she supported the Euromaidan. It was hard for me to call her what I’ve translated as “hired thug.” There was nothing thuggish about her. The two young men we’d met in the park, as well as their friends, might be willing to beat people up, but we came to an agreement about a lot of things, including our resentment of oligarchs and their golden toilet seats. And I kept thinking about that 18 year-old and the future he might not have if things continue as they do.
Something tells me that the future of the Euromaidan movement is in Mariins’kyi Park. If Ukrainians are to form a mass political movement independent of oligarchs and effete opposition leaders, it needs to develop its own leadership with an articulate message and definite political aims. It needs a Polish-style KOR, as Oleksandr had suggested earlier that day. But the movement also needs to broaden its appeal to people like these young men in the park, to the people seeking warmth in the Arsenal metro station. The Workers’ Defense Committee was all about forming links between intelligentsia and ordinary citizens, regardless of what region they belonged to in Poland. The Euromaidan movement needs to overcome the stereotypes of it being a movement led by nationalists and residents of Lviv. To do so requires more than a few dramatic days staging events on the streets of Ukraine’s capital. It takes conversations with between ordinary people, like the one we had in Mariins’kyi Park. And that’s hard work.
Later, in comments on this chronicle, S. said the following:
“Well, wow, now I know – u have perfect memory! And it’s really interesting to read about myself in smn’s story))) One more revolution – ad i’ll became a national hero)))) Only one addition: my father was related to Army – that is why we lived in House of Military Officers (Будинок офіцерів) near Mariinka, when i was borned. It’s really cool – to make such reportings. Respect!))”
Later, S. said this:
“))) It was great experience – to be alone “in heart” of the anti-maidan and have long talk with all those people (it was their main “guard troop”, BTW))). Thank you for picture! Two researchers and full pool of “other position representatives”))) I still can’t believe that I was crazy enough for being discussing homosexuality with them, among all other “agenda””
(Actually, I’d forgotten about their discussion about homosexuality. Her response to that remark of mine: “))) I am not – since it was most sensible and risky))) ‘Cause of masculinity cult and specific perception of this “homo” topic in relation to some criminal-by-origin but embedded into everyday-life “rules of life””)