After three days in Donetsk, it was time to see what was going on in Kharkiv, especially since Euromaidan protest leaders were planning a First All-Ukrainian Euromaidan Forum to meet there January 11-12. Already I had heard from friends that there was going to be trouble. Someone said that the forum’s organizers had been denied building space for their meetings, there was talk of provocations underway, and also Klychko was supposedly going to show up. This was something that I could not miss!
Ievhen, a local journalist and friend of a friend, picked me up at the train station. We took a taxi to his place, where I was to spend the night. Over breakfast, I asked Ievhen about events in Kharkiv, and how the Euromaidan protest movement was faring there. Ievhen stressed that the local administration’s control of the media had a considerable affect on the protest movement here. The city’s mayor, after his recent election, drove out much of the city’s independent media. Only one radio station and a couple of national TV stations give more-or-less objective news about the Euromaidan protest movement. Thus, ordinary people have little information about it. Kharkiv’s Euromaidan emerged at Constitution Square, not far from the Lenin Monument, but then police forced it to move, replacing it with a Christmas tree and some low concrete barriers. The Euromaidan then moved to the square where the Shevchenko Monument is. Here Maidan protestors have gathered every evening, around 150-200 people. Locals have not displayed any aggression against them. However, Kharkiv has seen activists assaulted. The local Prosvita office was destroyed by vandals. And reports from the previous day (January 10) suggested that anti-Maidan forces were going to take over the Maidan.
After I got some more rest, Ievhen and I went to see what exactly had happened near the Shevchenko Monument. Along the way, besides passing by a few historic monuments, we ran across the beginning off the anti-Maidan rally. A column of about 500 people had lined the main street with Ukrainian flags and Party of Regions flags. On average, they were probably aged 50 and above, public service employees (pratsivnyky iz budzhetnoi sfery) and municipal workers (komunal’nyky). A few were in their teens or early twenties; most likely, these were students of vocational schools (peteushnyky). As we were to find out, this column of demonstrators stretched all the way from here to the Shevchenko Monument and Constitution Square. They held posters with a variety of pro-government slogans: slogans about supporting President Yanukovych, about Yanukovych representing development (razvitie). There were slogans claiming that it was better to deal with the government’s budget than to go out to the Euromaidan, that peace and order were better than the Euromaidan. Placards told Euromaidan activists to stop loafing and go back to work. Many signs said, “Fascism will not pass!” There was one slogan, though, directed specifically at Kharkiv Euromaidan activists: “Whoever’s with the Euromaidan should leave Okruzhnaia!” (making reference to the highway around Kharkiv, suggesting that these people should leave town).
The Euromaidan forum was being held in conspiratorial fashion. Because they had been denied a central meeting place, the Euromaidan activists involved were going to meet in separate sections, about 4 to 6 in all. Ievhen knew that events were being coordinated at a café called “India.” We went up the street where the café was. I first saw guys waving a Ukrainian flag and a red-and-black OUN flag out on the street. To our right, this alley led to the café. About 20 people were gathered in the alley and in the parking lot behind it, smoking, on cell phones, or talking with one another. A very attractive woman in long dark hair was constantly on this cell phone, consulting her papers and people nearby now and then. She was apparently directing people were to go. Others were inside the café itself. Ievhen introduced me to Olha, a woman in her 50s or 60s who was a veteran activist in Kharkiv. She told me that Ukraine belonged in Europe, that her travels to Prague, Budapest, and other cities have convinced her that Ukraine needs to develop closer ties with the EU. She expressed her outrage over the beating of protestors, and she said that the protest movement needs to do much more than assemble at Kyiv’s Maidan, stand, and listen to music. There needs to be a change in tactics, as the regime has not changed at all (not one resignation, not one concession to the protestors). No one from outside is helping – not the EU, not the USA. All their talk about imposing sanctions was empty talk. She suggested that the virtues of non-violent protest had exhausted themselves. Something else needed to be done – working in groups, planning greater events for later, anything than what was going on now. She introduced me to someone from Ternopil’, a man in his 60s who had been beaten up in one protest.
It was strange to be here in an alley discussing the forum. It was even stranger that people in the alley didn’t really know what was going on, either. People weren’t sure where the alternative meeting sites were to be. As I found out later from other Kharkiv residents observing the anti-Maidan, it sounded like some journalists were being denied accreditation.
Ievhen and I decided to go on to the Shevchenko Monument, to see what was going on there. Indeed, the anti-Maidan forces had taken over the entire square. Anti-Maidan speakers were broadcasting speeches from the stage set up there. Hundreds were assembled around it and the Shevchenko Monument, at least at the time we were first there (which was about 12 p.m.). As late as 4 p.m., we saw people standing out in what turned out to be quite cold, windy weather. Unless some people took turns warming up, it must have been an unbearable experience being out there. Later, Ievhen said that two things could be going on in the minds of these demonstrators: 1.) they could become upset at the Yanukovych regime and the local government for making them stand out here, or 2.) they could become upset at the Euromaidan demonstrators for making them stand out here.
Ievhen asked if I wanted to talk to any of the people at the anti-Maidan demonstration. At first, I hesitated, because I feared someone would start making some outburst about the Euromaidan movement being the fault of the Americans. Then I realized that Ievhen would be there in case any trouble happened, so I agreed to do it. We spoke with a woman in her 50s or 60s. I explained that I was a historian who wanted to know what people in Ukraine thought of “recent events.” “You mean the Euromaidan?” she asked. I said yes. The woman said that she worked in the “budgetary sphere” (meaning that she was a state worker), and that there was a budget that paid for her salary. The Euromaidan movement was causing problems for the government’s budget, and people like her needed work from the state. The Euromaidan protests thus were preventing people like her from doing her work. She added that a lot of money was being spent on the Euromaidan protests. That money, she said, could have been used to help sick children, disabled children. When I asked her about what Ukraine would do with its debt problems (noting that “our” debt problem was probably even worse), she evaded a direct answer, preferring instead to talk about how a house, when not repaired in time, falls apart, and that Ukrainians needed to make sure that problems were solved before they got worse. When I asked her what solution see saw for Ukraine’s crisis, she said that the Euromaidan protestors should wait until the 2015 elections, and if they didn’t want Yanukovych, then they should vote for someone else. The woman seemed very nice, very polite, smiling, and saying, “It’s true, isn’t it?,” after every argument she presented. I thanked her for her responses, and I wished her luck. When Ievhen asked her if she wanted to be photographed with me, she smiled and said no.
The next day (January 12), Ievhen was back to take pictures early in the morning (in what became a second day for the anti-Maidan). This same woman was there, checking lists and making sure protestors were in line. In other worhen ds, she was one of the organizers.
Once we were across the street from the main stage at the Shevchenko Monument, we stopped to listen to the speakers. The two speeches we listened to didn’t have much to say. The first one stressed that Yanukovych’s government should not have signed the Association Agreement, and it praised the people of Kharkiv, while the second speech laid bare the evils of the fascism being practiced by people on the Maidan. Both speeches were in Russian. Ievhen knew one of the speakers from working at a television studio with him.
One of the speakers asked that everyone observe a moment of silence in memory of those killed in a major fire in Kharkiv this week. The speakers began booming the sound of a clock, to make everyone aware of it being a moment of silence. All I saw were people socializing with each other or walking in different directions. No one took off their hats, no one stood in silence.
No one, except for Ievhen and me. We were the only ones who took our hats off and paused to remember the dead.
After I saw people lacking any respect for the dead, the rest of the anti-Maidan seemed to lose any thread of sincerity for me. We went up to a group of teenage boys who were gathered together in one corner of the anti-Maidan square. I told them that I was a historian and a cultural studies scholar, and that I wanted to find out what young people like them thought of the Euromaidan protest movement. “We’re not interested in politics,” said one of them. “We’re into soccer.” A few minutes later, we went to a woman in her early twenties who was getting a smoke. Ievhen asked her if she wanted to talk with us about the Euromaidan protests. She said no.
It became quite clear that the whole event was staged. Besides the ignoring elementary rituals of decency, the demonstrators were following the commands of organizers who walked around with lists of names typed out on a computer, gathered together in clear plastic sheet covers. They were going from one group of people to another, seeing who was there to hold up placards or flags. I noticed that each placard had a number on the reverse side. The numbers ran in succession along the street. Everything was planned. As Ievhen noted, it was a repeat of an old Soviet ritual for May Day, October Revolution Day, and so on, where every factory had to be lined up for a state demonstration. People went to get warmed up, they hung out together and joked with each other or gossiped, but there was no enthusiasm for the event. The same could be seen here.
Ievhen then ran across some friends of his who were from “the Maidan.” They included a political scientist and a member of parliament. The political scientist said that the local government administration had organized this counter-demonstration out of pure desperation, trying to show that it could survive the Euromaidan protests. He then told a story about a phone call he had received that day, where someone said that at her school, 25 people were needed for today’s anti-Maidan, but they could only come up with 20. They were told to bring along the school janitor. That wasn’t enough. Then they were asked to bring along the chair of the school’s parents’ council.
One of Ievhen’s other friends asked what was going on with the Forum. She had heard that some journalists had been refused access to it. The member of parliament with us (who happened to be from a story I’d translated about a Euromaidan activist’s car being sabotaged) expressed his dismay with the Forum’s organizers. They had refused his offer of a building for the meeting. He said it made no sense to turn the activities of a public endeavor into a conspiracy. Later, he talked about his own adventures with the people who had tried to sabotage his car. He managed to track them down. They had been in a Moskvich whose registration had expired in 1988.
I was quite thrilled to meet Ievhen’s friends, so I did pass out my business card and tell them about my book project. I talked with one of them about Kharkiv, how it was different from Kyiv. The man said that one major difference with Kharkiv is all the industry here from the Soviet period (leading to major oligarchs here having quite a bit of power). He also noted that most people out demonstrating for the anti-Maidan have never been abroad, and they’ve never even seen places like Lviv. They know nothing of western Ukraine’s history.
After we made a group photo, Ievhen and I walked down to Constitution Square, the original site of the Euromaidan protests, now decorated for Christmas. While we talked about prominent buildings in the vicinity, a woman in her 40s or 50s, munching on a chocolate candy bar, came up to us and asked where the “Maidan” was going to meet. Ievhen said that they would be meeting later, at 6, but not at Shevchenko (where the anti-Maidan forces were). Ievhen asked me if I wanted to ask her some questions. So I told her about my book plans, and I asked her what she thought of the Euromaidan movement. Unlike all the others we’d spoken to and heard at the “anti-Maidan,” this woman spoke to us in Ukrainian. Most importantly, though, was what she said in response to my question. She said that the Euromaidan means a lot to her. She’s not been able to come to protests regularly because of her job, but she did go to the Maidan in Kyiv with her pregnant sister. She said that the protests had started over Ukraine not joining the EU (which of course was not what happened), but then they became directed against the regime after the students were brutally beaten. She said that these anti-regime protests were good. They were making people like her aware that they were citizens, that they had rights, and that the government was supposed to work for them. She said that she started to feel a sense of dignity as a person, as a citizen, that people like her mattered. And while there would always be people with opposite views (like the ones at the anti-Maidan), it was important for each one of us to take a position, to act. That was what democracies are all about.
It was so refreshing to here this woman’s speech after all those strange, vague explanations from the anti-Maidan organizer. They really were something. As we went to look for a place to warm up, Ievhen said, “And you know, those people (referring to the anti-Maidan people) would call her a fascist.”
Ievhen and I got some coffee and warmed up at a nearby café, then we went to look for one of the sections of the Forum that was meeting in conspiratorial circumstances.
While drinking coffee, we saw on Facebook that one of the sections had met in a church, and that “titushky” had broken in and thrown tear gas cans inside. As far as Ievhen could tell, no one was at that church anymore, so we went to another section meeting. It met at an institute that promoted local democracy in Kharkiv, run by the woman named Olha whom I’d met near the cafe India. The office was maybe on the seventh floor of a building not far away from the city council’s offices. When we arrived, Olha and some other man were the only ones there. They were waiting for members of a section dedicated to culture and education to show up. Olha was worried about provocations. When I asked her if she’d been beaten up by provocateurs or the police (she’d mentioned something like that near the café), she said that she’d been roughed up here, at her very own office. There had been a break-in. She was well aware of provocations going on today, including the one involving activists at the church.
Olha’s office consisted of several rooms along a long hallway. Ievhen and I were in her personal office at the end of the hallway. There, while watching the news (including news of Ariel Sharon’s death), we saw a YouTube broadcast of one section’s meeting that was taking place. The Internet was connecting various parts of this conspiracy together.
I was silly enough to bring Estonian flash cards for passing the time, but soon I drifted into a conversation with Olha about her institute. They have been around for about 10 years trying to promote better local government here in Kharkiv. The problem is not that their institute is being oppressed by the state, but the local government here in Kharkiv has been registering a number of loyal organizations that make it possible to say that local government here promotes “civil society,” when in fact it doesn’t. These officially-sponsored organizations wind up being better at writing grant proposals, so they get more outside help. As for her organization, it’s not been so lucky, and they are in danger of losing their offices.
Around 4 p.m. members of the section arrived. As activists got coffee and tea, Ievhen and I introduced ourselves as “observers” at the section’s meeting. There I met a very kind university professor who talked about what she did to organize the students in Kharkiv in the early days of the Euromaidan protest movement. She showed me a white ribbon that they had made for wearing around their heads, which said, “Government go!” (Uriad u vidstavku!) They also set up a “Hyde Park,” where students could speak their minds about the problems with the regime, writing those problems on pieces of paper and then placing them symbolically in an old suitcase (a symbol underscoring the need to get rid of the old). When all the complaints were collected, someone read them out for the audience. This woman happened to be co-chairs of this section with one of the Kapranov brothers (Vitaly).
We all went into a room where the section officially convened. Kapranov chaired it. He went through a number of points on the agenda, points that were going to be considered for the resolution that this section was to make for the final plenary session’s consideration. Some of the discussion was interesting. Groups from small towns in western Ukraine like Kalush talked about the fundraising they had accomplished, as well as local initiatives to establish open universities for the wider community. Kapranov stressed that this was going to be part of an organization that would be organized horizontally rather than vertically, to support Euromaidans in various parts of Ukraine as they tried to educate Ukrainians. But as the section began deliberating over the wording of their resolution, it started to resemble a faculty department meeting more and more. Speakers started to go off into tangents about things like people’s rights being violated (with one guy noting the Tetiana Chornovol case). I was starting to fall asleep.
But then one of the section’s members, after looking at a text message on his phone, announced to the section that another section meeting in a bookstore had been attacked by “titushky,” that a tear gas can had been thrown into the bookstore, and that one guard had been injured. I started to wonder if we were going to have titushky visit us. Luckily, we were high above the street, and the stairwell was locked. But when Olha told people that this section that had evacuated the bookstore was coming to our place, I got a little nervous.
Around 6 p.m., there was a commotion at the main door. Olha rushed out to meet about 20-25 people, mostly young men, as they filed into the hallway. They seemed okay physically, but they looked serious, subdued, frightened. A cameraman from UNIAN was there to take photos. Eventually writer Serhiy Zhadan, leader of the section, entered with his chart tablet he was using to conduct the meeting. He set up the section right in the hallway, calling out, “Is everyone ready to start?” And so their section resumed its work.
The hallway thus was extremely crowded. Ievhen and I had to force our way gently through it as we left for home. I was a little nervous about what would happen out on the street. Olha had us wait and go only accompanied by some men who would make sure no other unwelcome guest barged in. As we went out onto the street, everything was calm. It was just the usual pedestrians walking past the building, no titushky in sight.
We met Ievhen’s wife and returned home for dinner. Later in the evening, another Forum participant, Konstantin from Stryi, came by to spend the night. That evening we reflected over what the titushky had done. Ievhen’s wife talked about the spiritual uplift that the Euromaidan protest movement has given people, creating new values for people, and in that sense being as radical as the Russian revolutions of 1917, which had also produced new values. It was difficult not to agree with her, given what Ievhen and I had seen when people from the anti-Maidan didn’t even care to remember the dead of their own city.