Maidan Chronicle – December 19, 2013 – Part Two: Night Watch on the Barricades

Keeping Watch at the Barricades at the Maidan, Early Morning Hours of December 20, 2013

Keeping Watch at the Barricades at the Maidan, Early Morning Hours of December 20, 2013

After visiting the anti-Maidan, I wanted to write about my experiences so badly, but by the time I got home, it was time to head out to the Night Watch (Nichna varta). The Night Watch at the Maidan lasts from about 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day. Volunteers, all male, keep watch over the barricades surrounding the Euromaidan so that no provocateurs (the infamous “titushki” here) do not break in and cause trouble. Men serve in the Night Watch, while women man the kitchens during the day. I’d first gotten interested in the idea after Ihor, my friend and fellow historian, told me about it Tuesday night. I was too weak to do it on Wednesday, but today I was ready.

I was very worried about the cold, because that evening I was absolutely freezing when Svitlana and I ever stopped to talk about something. Thus, I donned something like five layers of clothing for my legs and two or three for the rest of my body.

I arrived at 11 p.m. and met Ihor a few minutes later in front of the Main Post Office. It was definitely below zero degrees celsius and damp. The wind had started to pick up, blowing smoke from tent stoves in my direction. As with previous nights, the loudspeakers boomed speeches and either folk, rock, or pop music. Veterans dressed in red jackets marked, “Veterans for the Maidan,” Cossacks, students, Night Watch guards in orange plastic helmets, and onlookers from a variety of ages passed by.

Ihor took me to where his sector’s Night Watch was stationed. It was a couple of buildings down from the Main Post Office, not far from one of the entrances to the Globus underground shopping mall. Ihor later observed that it was probably the easiest place to do the Night Watch on the Maidan: the streets leading downhill to this side of the Maidan were too narrow for Berkut units to conduct a major storming operation. The only thing we had to watch out for were the “titushki” trying to climb over the barricades.

Around midnight, as the loudspeakers played Plach Ieremii’s rock band version of the UPA song, “Lenta za lentoiu,” our section closed up the sidewalk with a barrier and reinforced it with additional materials on top. The sidewalk thus was blocked off until 6:30, when we moved the barrier away.

Ihor acquainted me with other members of the sector gathered around a bonfire blazing away in an empty metal barrel. It seemed like the men ranged in age from college-age students to senior citizens. One was from Poltava (Serhiy), one was from Crimea (Mykola), while the rest were from western Ukraine. The guards gave me warm tea right away, and over the night, I got to find out much more about them all, as we spent the whole night gathered around our bonfire, eating sandwiches and drinking tea and coffee given out by volunteers.

The first person I was introduced to was Iuriy, a man approximately my age who was from Ivano-Frankivs’k. Like the others, he was very interested in America, and he asked me several questions about it. He asked where Georgia was, what Americans think about events in Ukraine, and what Americans think about Obama. I told him that Americans did not know much at all about Ukraine, but Iuriy noted that there is a sizeable Ukrainian diaspora in cities like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia talking about events. Iuriy himself has relatives over in Chicago whom he’s in contact with. Like others from the group, Iuriy asked me how I had gotten interested in Ukraine, how I learned Ukrainian (as on previous occasions, my answer was, “from Lviv”), and why I had come here.

I was surprised by all the questions all members of the group – from pensioners who made meals for the camp, to men in their 20s – asked about the United States. One of the older men asked about the Civil War, how long it lasted, and how many were killed. He most likely had in mind what would happen if there was a civil war in Ukraine. When someone else brought up the question about whether or not there would be civil war here, Ihor and I, and some others, said no.

Ihor and another guy, probably a university student, talked about recent events, including what the US and the EU could do to help Ukraine. The student-aged guard was especially interested in the issue of sanctions. He strongly believed that freezing the bank accounts and assets of Ukrainian officials is something that the US government must do. He believed that all of Ukraine’s officials should face such sanctions right away, rather than waiting until state leaders used violence again.

We took turns watching our part of the barricade, which was a set of barbed wire stretched over the underpass for vehicles entering the underground mall. To our left, another group had to watch the barricade set up across the sidewalk for the night. At one point, one guy with his girlfriend were there laying back, taking photos, and listening to music, and sometimes keeping watch.

At one point, as we sat near the fire, I decided to ask people how and why they had come to the Maidan. One man, probably in his early 50s, just came yesterday. A farmer from western Ukraine, he had heard the news about the Maidan on television, but because of family circumstances, he couldn’t go right away. During the Orange Revolution of 2004, he was out of the country, working in Italy. The man next to him, who was probably in his late 50s or his 60s, was also from western Ukraine, and he, too, had found out about the Maidan through television. He told his wife that he was going, and that there was nothing she could do to stop him. “Shut up!” he told her. He went to his mother to tell her that he was going to Kyiv. She asked him if he had a good coat, and then she gave him hers. He was here on the Maidan already on November 23. On November 30, when Berkut broke up the Maidan and beat protestors, he was one of the older victims. Pointing to the back of his neck that had been beaten, he said, “Those scars will never leave me. They’ll be with me for the rest of my life!” This man vowed to stay at the Maidan to the end. “To the very end!” he exclaimed, raising two fingers in the air together, as if blessing his small audience.

A woman came by at one point in the discussion to deliver us some Saint Mykola Day presents: small candy bars and oranges. “Everyone gets it for Saint Mykola (Day),” said one of the older men.

Our conversations about the Maidan quickly turned into debates over politics. When I suggested that the problem with the Maidan was the lack of an effective leadership among the opposition, Ihor disagreed, noting that the problem was in their leaders not cooperating enough. However, he did admit that Tiahnybok has many weaknesses as a leader, including taking bribes and kickbacks, as recently was documented by Ukrains’ka Pravda in a series of articles. “You know what they call him in Lviv?” he asked me. “Tiahnybucks!”

One of the guards, Serhiy, was eager to know what the US was going to do about this. His suggestion, though, was couched in irony: “Send in the troops now!” he laughed. Unemployed, 38 years old, Serhiy came to Kyiv from Poltava. He had found work here as a welder (svarshchyk). “That’s good!” said Ihor. “What do you mean, good!?” exclaimed Serhiy. “The boss fucking laid us all off after two weeks, because he took off somewhere!” Before Yanukovych became president, Serhiy owned a small store near Poltava. As the economy deteriorated, he quickly went into debt to as many as three banks. Within three months, he said, he’d lost 150,000 hryvnias, the whole store. His wife left him. (“It means she didn’t love you,” said one of the older men with a smile.) He was left with an eight year-old son. As Serhiy talked about his problems, I could hear some sniffling. At first I thought he’d gotten a cold from being out here, but it turned out he was crying. Ihor tried to console him: “Get some lawyers! They can get you out of this mess!” Serhiy said he’d been to the lawyer, and he took a lot of money for nothing. “Go to America!” Ihor said.

Serhiy exploded: “What the fuck do I need to go to America for!? Can’t I stay here? I’m almost forty, no job, why the fuck do I have to leave? What job can I get?”

Ihor then said, “Look, it’s tough everywhere!” We then debated the merits of going to America for work, the job market in Ukraine, and what Serhiy could do to get legal help. Arguments flew back and forth, between Serhiy and Ihor, between Serhiy and others, between others and Ihor.

And then the Ukrainian national anthem began booming from the stage.

Suddenly everyone around the fire went silent. They stood up. They took off their hats. Some had their hands on their hearts. Others from a group near us also rose up from their seats near their bonfire and joined us.

The makeshift barricades, resembling some scene from 1848, were silent, marked by a Ukrainian flag flying in the wind. It was so cold, so dark, yet so beautiful all at once.

There was nothing I could say to Serhiy. I knew that there was nothing I could do. The only thing I could do was stay here and support the Maidan. No one represented Serhiy. There was no opposition leader to promise social justice and deliver it. There was no head of state interested in ordinary people’s concerns. There was no international community of state leaders interested in bailing out ordinary people in Ukraine.

There were just all of us standing there on the Maidan to pay tribute to the Ukrainian national anthem: “Ukraine Has Not Perished.”

Around 4 a.m. came my turn to man our part of the barricade. I’d been hanging around the barricade for some time, but only then did I get to use an official orange helmet and officially serve as a guard (some guy from another group or section came by, complaining that not all of us had our helmets on). I made sure Ihor took photos for posterity. The guy who looked like he was of university age stood next to me to look at what was going on past a set of barbed wire. Our barricade overlooked a ramp for vehicles entering the underground mall and the set of streets that converged onto Independence Square (the Maidan for short). There was not a whole lot going on. A boyfriend and girlfriend passed by with a small dog they were walking. One or two people showed up at kiosks that were still open. Sometimes a couple of young men, drunk, would stumble down the ramp. We would gather at the barbed wire and yell, “It’s closed! Where are you going? Hello, it’s closed!” Sure enough, the drunks stumbled back. I saw a small cat coming out of the barricade. What could we do? Cats will be cats.

Later, one guy with two cans of beer entered the ramp. We told him to turn back, but one of us heard him say that he worked for the mall (working at McDonalds). So we said nothing. Two more young men showed up, and they said the same thing.

A few minutes later, this man with a special arm band came up and said that he’d heard that some people had penetrated our part of the barricade. We swore we had seen no one go through. The guy started swearing. “I have to spend the night walking in the fucking metro station!” he fumed. Then he walked back.

At one point, the university-aged student left. Volodya, also from western Ukraine, replaced him. We talked about the cold, which sometimes became very bad despite all my layers of clothing. He told a story about his grandfather, born in 1930, who after World War II had to cut trees in Arkhangel’s’k. He and other Ukrainians had to work there alongside prisoners. They faced temperatures of minus 50 degrees, and they had to flout the rules in order to keep warm. His grandfather otherwise wouldn’t have made it, claimed Volodya.

Our moment of excitement was when this tall guy, with a shaved head, wearing a long black coat, tried to climb over the barricade. He had the Ukrainian national colors on. We all got together and told him to come down, that the sidewalk was closed. Oddly enough, our intruder took off his hat and saluted the Ukrainian national anthem at 5 a.m. We did the same. Luckily for us, the guy crawled down from the barricade and left the Maidan.

As the time neared 5:30, we started to move back the barrier, opening up our sidewalk for the Maidan. Yet again Plach Ieremii’s “Lenta za lentoiu” blasted over the loudspeakers, the electric guitar chords giving us energy to take down parts of the barrier and then shove the base to the side. A really tall, lanky guy took apart some of the top pieces with a hammer. He apparently was in charge of one of the groups, or the entire section, as he later started communicating with a guy with a walkie talkie (or something like that) who started giving us orders about how to deal with security at our entrance (telling us to link arms with one another and form a chain of defense, demonstrating this with me and two other people) and who also complained about intruders coming through our barricades.

It was too bad that I had to stand in line and act like I was part of a security team. After the 5 a.m. singing of the national anthem and the brief prayer service, the Maidan had become a real disco, with real house, trance, and electronic music. Judging from the cameras, even the elderly were joining in. The guy with the walkie talkie made Ihor suspicious, and Ihor at one point said I should go spy on him, acting like I only knew English. Then the guy in charge of our section (the guy who’d taken down parts of the barricade with a hammer) told him that everything was all right, that we were doing what we were supposed to do. We stood in two rows, along both sides of the entrance, and we waited for people to come through. One woman who came through greeted us with “Slava Ukrainy!” There were groups of women helping the Maidan (or heading to early shifts at work) who then passed by. There was this small man in his 50s or 60s who came by, speaking Russian with this strange accent, who seemed either crazy or drunk. Two of the guards took him away from the passage. I asked what happened. “A Chechen, who was celebrating his grandchild’s birth,” said one of the guards. There were a couple of big guys who swore at us, and Ihor tried to stop them, but they went on anyway. They later turned around and left the Maidan.

Then 6:00 a.m. arrived. We all sang the Ukrainian national anthem together one last time. We were took tired to react to the chant,

“Slava Ukraini!” Ihor said to me, “Go home and sleep.”

I shook all the guards’ hands, wishing them luck, and then I left.

My night defending the Maidan had ended.

COMMENTS AND CORRECTIONS BY IHOR (One of the participants in this story)

“The man next to him, who was probably in his late 50s or his 60s, was also from western Ukraine…” Volodіa is from Kirovohrad oblast, not from The West. 

There was also a man from Vinnycia. The rest were from Stryj and Ivano-Frankovska oblast.

“A Chechen, who was celebrating his grandchild’s birth,” said one of the guards”. This man was not a Chechen. Heavily drunk, five minutes later he also called himself a member of the Union of the Ukrainian military officers. After he had denied the suggestion to present any document, guard made him to leave.

“There were a couple of big guys who swore at us, and Ihor tried to stop them, but they went on anyway”. This pair didn’t swear, just answered that their destination was metro station.

“Ihor disagreed, noting that the problem was in their leaders not cooperating enough”. No, I’m not. As a matter of fact, they cooperate and support each other. Probably, it is their main merit.

“Express, not UP pablished a series on Tahnybok connections with mafia.  (Ihor also provided me with some press materials on Tiahnybok.) 

“The guy with the walkie talkie made Ihor suspicious, and Ihor at one point said I should go spy on him, acting like I only knew English. Then the guy in charge of our section (the guy who’d taken down parts of the barricade with a hammer) told him that everything was all right, that we were doing what we were supposed to do”.A courier from Maidan headquarter warned about 6 drunk and aggressive SBU officers in adjacent caffe. While William was the only one whose appearance did not resemble a night guardian, he was suggested to look at them. After a while the decision was canceled because the neighbors sent two scouts, first, generally this was not a good choice to use an US citizen and professor as a spy, second. 10 minutes later the scouts turned back. One of them asked a suspicious group about a cigarette, talked a while, and found out that this group came there for relax, not provocation.

Generally very impressive. Thank you. 

POSTSCRIPT – Here was my Facebook posting immediately after I had returned from Night Watch:

If anyone’s worried, I made it back from Night Watch. Somebody complained to our unit that people were getting through the barricade, but the only things I saw getting through were a dump truck, three McDonalds employees headed for work (though one of them was carrying two cans of beer with him), and possibly a little kitty.

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