Maidan Chronicle – January 18, 2014 – Part One: Back to Kyiv

The Protest Tent for the Kherson Region at the Kyiv Maidan, December 21, 2013

The Protest Tent for the Kherson Region at the Kyiv Maidan, December 21, 2013

I left Donetsk the evening of January 17 with a slight feeling of dread.  Over the afternoon I had gotten over the shock of the new laws implemented by the Ukrainian government against protests, but my friend Dmytro reported that his friends, at least the ones he talked with on Facebook or over the phone, were in a “depressed” (pryhnichenyi) state.  After boarding my train at the last minute and settling down to sleep, I wondered if there would be disturbing news from Kyiv overnight.  I even asked a friend to send me a text message in case I was in danger of walking into serious trouble.  Was an armed conflict on the horizon?  My mind kept going back to those films Dmytro had shown of the Russian civil war and the Soviet-Polish war. 

Judging from the people I was traveling with to Kyiv, it didn’t seem so.  There was a young businessman who seemed more interested in an upcoming meeting with a firm than with a revolution.  No one on the train talked politics.  The only excitement came in the middle of the night, when I almost rolled out of my top bunk bed. 

I arrived to a city that was grey, cloudy, and raining, dissolving away the snow that had accumulated over the night.  The railroad station seemed just as I had left it.  The hotel was also just like it was when I’d left for Donetsk on January 7.  

I went to the Maidan around 11 a.m.  When I got there, the atmosphere was very different from my last visit.  When I rode the metro to Khreshchatyk Boulevard, I saw no one wearing Euromaidan ribbons or Ukrainian flags.  I saw no one at the barricades wearing helmets.  At the Maidan itself, it seemed so deserted.  For the first time ever, I could freely walk around the column in front of the Post Office and down the lane running past rows of tents, leading to the barricade I helped guard last month.  It was all bare, lifeless.  Just a few people from the tents coming and going.  It seemed like there were very few people in front of the main stage listening to a woman singing Christmas carols. 

I did not have a good feeling about this weekend.  A friend on Facebook had reposted one Kyiv academic’s summary, in English, over what the Yanukovych regime had managed to change in a matter of hours.  Not only had they passed sweeping restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, but they also removed more cautious members of the administration (placing police chief Zakharchenko as head of the Presidential Administration), and Kyiv area hospitals were making “extra room” for patients.  

I came to the Maidan, all jittery, to meet Nazar, one of my friends from Lviv, who was the exact opposite of jittery.  Outraged by the new laws passed, he had come for the weekend to support the Maidan.  An academic in his 40s, he remembered the 1990 Granite Revolution as well as the 2004 Orange Revolution.  He compared these days to when Soviet hardliners imposed a state of emergency in Moscow in 1991 (an event that triggered the Soviet Union’s collapse).  He had just attended a meeting of the Civic Sector (Hromads’kyi Sektor) where tense discussions about the new laws took place.  He was regularly on the phone with other Maidan activists, so I suddenly found myself in the middle of its activities.  Someone had told Nazar that there was an attempt to storm one of the barricades.  “Do you want to go?” he asked.  I said yes. 

We went to the barricades on the south side of Khreshchatyk.  On our way, we passed dozens of men, Svoboda activists holding up their party banners and Ukrainian flags, in front of the Kyiv City Council, where a   video screen was playing a film about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the sound track booming Taras Chubai’s rock-and-roll version of the UPA song, “Lenta za lentoiu…”  In front of the barricade stood a row of war veterans (Afghan war veterans), stretched across Khreshchatyk, staring ahead with a sense of gloom.  There were Maidan guards in plastic helmets lined up along the hill on the left side of the street and a mob of onlookers, activists, and a handful of policeman on the street below.  Some guy on a microphone was leading the crowd in singing carols (It was the evening before the anniversary of Christ’s baptism, the end of the long Christmas holiday in Ukraine).  There was also a mob of people on the sidewalk above, near some department stores.  The first sign of trouble was a wave of screaming or whistling that came from the sidewalk.  People were rushing to the sidewalk.  I couldn’t see any police.  I didn’t know what was going on.  But I did fear that I’d wind up in the middle of a brawl, so I tried to keep to the side.  However, Nazar, who knew more about what was going on, encouraged me to move into the crowd.  Nazar said that the Maidan self-defense forces thought that there were provocateurs near the barricades, and they were chasing them out.  I saw all kinds of young men running back and forth.  I told Nazar that I couldn’t tell if they were titushky or not (thus my anxieties about entering a crowd).  I asked him what was the difference between a titushek and a member of the Maidan self-defense forces.  “Look at the way they dress,” he said.  They wear Aididas pants and jackets.  Instead of hats, they wear what is called “kepki” in Russian.  “Their look,” he said.  “They look very serious, concentrated on themselves.”  Nazar then pointed out young men belonging to the Maidan.  Their shoes, he said, were “more European,” as were their pants and jackets.  “It’s hard to explain clothes,” he said, “but you can tell there are differences.”  Indeed, it seemed like the Maidan people had more military-looking jackets and pants on, as well as shoes that were not exactly sports shoes, but something more like dress shoes.  Nazar stressed that the titushki could not be distinguished by the language they spoke.  It was more about their style of clothing, which was more connected to the Soviet past, as well as their grim mannerisms. 

As we were talking about the titushki and the non-titushki, suddenly a crowd of males started shouting, and Maidan activists (all young men, as well as a few older ones) started running.  We went running, too.  A crowd had assembled around a bald man who was yelling at some people in the crowd in Russian.  Nazar explained later that this man was in charge of a group of Kyivan volunteers who were supposed to come in and remove the Maidan barricades today.  Journalists, as well as amateur photographers like myself, crowded around the man, trying to capture the confrontation on film.  It sounded like he was challenging Maidan defense forces, saying that he had the right to clean up Kyiv.  The Maidan defense forces, and ordinary people from the street, yelled that the man was nothing more than a Yanukovych hireling (but expressing this with lots of Russian curse words).  The confrontation between the man in charge of cleaning up the Maidan and he Maidan activists and people on the street went on for some time.  Then about 6-10 people wearing armbands with the flag of the city gathered around the man.  Nazar explained that these were “titushki,” and that they were there to get rid of the barricades.  To me, they didn’t look very harmless, and there were young women as well as young men in the group.  However, their presence got the crowd worked up into a chorus of shouting.  The man in charge of the cleanup got pelted with an egg.  Then he and his volunteers left the scene, followed by insults, swearing, and curious photographers.  Later a man speaking in Russian, who had been standing near a man with a “Member of Parliament” vest, spoke with reporters about the incident.  Here and there, on the street, as well as on the sidewalk above, debates went on between Kyiv residents and Maidan activists, some friendly, some quite hostile.  One elderly woman was lecturing some young men about the Maidan, and it presumably was not very good, because tempers momentarily flared (though both sides left peacefully).  On the street, I saw one or more small groups of men debating, yelling, sometimes laughing.  At one point I saw this tall, well-built Maidan guard ranting in Russian about how they were spending too much time on this small group of provocateurs when the real threat was security forces trying to take back the city council building. 

Nazar and I went further down Khreshchatyk to an underground café, and there I interviewed him about his role in the Euromaidan protest movements.  It was especially interesting because Nazar talked about these events from the perspective of a Lvivian.  He recalled protests taking place in front of the Lviv regional state administration building, strike actions by the national university, and late-night trips from Lviv to Kyiv to help the protests there.  I got a strong sense that even in Lviv, people at academic institutions were initially hesitant about participating and a little skeptical about the political opposition.  Most importantly, I heard how police actions in Kyiv – the beating of students on November 30, the attempt to storm the Maidan on December 11 – catalyzed resistance.  Nazar during those events realized he couldn’t just be on the sidelines anymore.  Nazar also gave interesting stories about December 1, when hundreds of thousands of people were on the Maidan.  As Nazar had to help with a demonstration planned, we had to cut the interview short.   On the way back to the Maidan, he gave an interesting story about the Lenin monument falling down on December 8.  It was at night, after the meeting on the Maidan was pretty much over.  He was in a café near the Bessarabka market getting some coffee and warming up.  Someone rushed in and said that they’d taken down the Lenin monument.  Everyone in the café instantly got up and ran out of the building.  Nazar and others were convinced that this was a pure provocation.  The police had been guarding this monument for days, then suddenly they disappeared from it on December 8.  It was a provocation aimed at drawing crowds away from the Maidan so that they could move forces in to crush it.  So people got on megaphones and called on people to “go back to the Maidan,” because this was a “pure provocation.”  

Originally, I had planned to interview Mustafa Nayyem, the journalist credited with starting these protests, but alas, I had heard nothing from him on Facebook, so my entire day was free.  I decided to go to the Maidan, to the protest tent for the Kherson Region.  The Kherson Region is in the south of Ukraine, and despite it being in the supposedly pro-Yanukovych south, election results from 2004 and 2006 suggested that Party of Regions had far less a hold over the electorate than in places like Donetsk or Luhansk.  Moreover, there was at least one Euromaidan activist on Facebook who pointed out that the Kherson Region was something like the third most activist contributor to the Maidan protests in Kyiv.  Since I had no time to visit the south, I decided to see what the Kherson people here had to say about the protest movement going on in their region. 

I walked up to the Kherson Region tent.  On one side, it displayed the map of the region, as well as a white sheet where people had written all kinds of anti-Yanukovych and anti-regime graffiti.  Two men in their 60s were in front of the tent’s entrance, seated on red plastic chairs.  A generator was roaring at full power, so I had to shout my greetings to them, and I told them I was a historian from the United States writing a history of the Euromaidan movement.  “Who are you?” said one of them, looking a little suspiciously, or curiously, at me, from under his fur hat.  I gave him my business card.  He and his friend looked at the card for a while.  “Romania, Hungary?” one of them asked in Ukrainian.  They slowly made out the word “Georgia.”  One of them went inside to look for someone to talk to me.  “Have a seat,” said the other old man. As we sat and observed the crowds passing the main post office across from us, I said that I was from “the State of Georgia, the United States.”  “Ahh, America?” he said.  I asked him how long the tent was here.  He said it had already been up for a long time, since early December.  Another man came outside.  I thought this would be a Euromaidan activist, but instead it was an older man, aged 60-70, the “commandant” of the tent.  After I introduced myself, and told him that I wanted to know the history of the Euromaidan movement in the Kherson Region, he went back into the tent.  Then there emerged this man in his 40s, hair graying, with glasses, looking and speaking like an educated professional or a politician.  He spoke with me in Russian, welcoming me inside the tent, on the condition that I not tape record anything.  (I went ahead and took notes immediately after leaving the tent.)

So I finally got to enter the tent that had intrigued me ever since I’d been at the Maidan.  I saw a long table with food, with tent residents seated for lunch.  It was mostly men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.  Two women in their 50s or 60s were getting the table ready, serving food.  One woman, a local from Kyiv, stopped by to drop off some cookies; my host said that she’s done this before, without saying anything about herself, and many people have come by to donate things to the tent.  Later on, two men in their early 20s stopped by to eat lunch and take a nap. 

I remarked to my host that it was interesting that the Kherson Region was so active in the Euromaidan protest movement, and I wanted to know why.  My host emphasized that most Kherson Region residents are politically passive, but its opposition leaders have been very active, in both the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan protest movement.  He noted that in 2004, he was hosted by a U.S.-Ukraine foundation in Washington, DC, to learn about how to conduct and monitor elections.  He was in charge of something like 30 units or groups in his region.  He had taken part in the Orange Revolution.  In Kherson, they have set up a Euromaidan that has drawn a crowd of about 100 people on weekdays and about 300 people on weekends.  They assemble at 5 p.m., setting up two small tents, and then after their meeting ends, they pack up their things and go home.  With the help of their member of parliament, they set up this tent in Kyiv.  At first they had a tent set up on the Maidan itself (pointing in the direction of the column in front of the post office), but security forces ripped it up.  People come to the tent in Kyiv in shifts.  Some stay for 1 or 2 weeks, others have stayed as long as a month.  They come from all different walks of life…. businessmen, the unemployed, blue collar workers, and so on.  Sometimes the tent has hosted people from Lviv (who chose this tent rather than the Lviv tent because they wanted to find out what the people in Kherson are like).  Because they have been so active in the region, Euromaidan protest leaders have faced aggressive attacks from Party of Regions.  Unknown assailants broke the glass of two busses; one of the men in the tent had suffered injuries to his arms (ruki) because of one of these attacks.  Recently a third bus was damaged.  Three activists in the Kherson Region have been assaulted.  My host said that security forces are listening in on all of their telephone conversations; thus, they had found out about one bus making a trip, leading to an assault on it (when the only news about the bus trip had been made over the phone).  When the residents put up Belarusian national flags (white-red-white) on their tent walls, someone from Belarus’s KGB complained, and they had to take them down. 

On a number of occasions, I asked my host what made he Kherson Region different from, say, the Donetsk or Odessa regions, or the Lviv Region.  He said that the Kherson Region, while mostly Russian speaking, is primarily made up of settlers (“pereselentsy” in Russian), roughly half from western Ukraine, the other half from Russia.  This diversity has affected politics to some degree.  There are “Orange villages,” villages who voted for Viktor Yushchenko for president in 2004, who come from western Ukraine.  There are “Russian villages,” ones that have supported Yanukovych and Party of Regions.  My host talked about the local industries that had brought people from Russia to settle here.  He also described what he saw as major differences between the Kherson Region and the Donbass (the Ukrainians in Kherson, he said, strive to educate their children, while in places like Donetsk, they just let them go work in the mines).  He drew differences between Ukrainians and Russians.  The Ukrainians, like Americans, he said, are more independent and responsible, while the Russians care about “getting free vodka and pickles” and philosophize about “fate (sud’ba)” deciding everything.  Of course, some of these comparisons to me were silly; I can remember, for instance, in 2007 one Galician Ukrainian in Lviv getting drunk on lots of vodka and telling me that if he couldn’t get me an interview with a senior historian, “to ne sud’ba” (“it’s not fate”).  I can only imagine what my friend Dmytro would say in response to the remark about family values in Donetsk.  Still, my host did point to a region where Yanukovych’s support, which had been quite strong since 2004, was slipping.  While about 65% would have supported Yanukovych in the past, argued my host, only 35% would now. 

But aside from these silly generalizations, my host did suggest that the Kherson Region’s diversity, and the presence of migrants from western Ukraine, did make this region at least less favorable to Yanukovych.  More importantly, he stressed that this Euromaidan movement stands for a political nation that is not divided by ethnicity, language, or regional identity.  My host said he had no illusions about the European Union.  He said that Ukraine would not join the European Union in their lifetime (referring to himself and the group at the table, aged 40s-60s).  Closer ties with the European Union would not solve Ukraine’s economic problems.  However, the EU would lead to the introduction of “European standards” (evropeiskie standarty) in Ukraine:  the rule of law, a less corrupt government, the guarantee of human rights, and greater freedoms for conducting business. 

Our lunch conversation drifted to the United States and its actions (or lack of actions) toward Ukraine.  My host and his older friends complained that the United States has done nothing to impose sanctions on Ukrainian officials.  They just talk about it or make promises to do so should officials in the future use violence against protestors.  The EU similarly hasn’t done much, I said.  “But the EU listens to Washington!” was the response.  I stressed that the US could only do so much after the Iraq War; its position in the world has weakened considerably.  There were jokes about how the US needs to make Ukraine a fifty-first state.  The members of the tent readily let me know that they would have to rely on themselves.  The “commandant” said, “The US isn’t helping, the EU isn’t helping, the opposition isn’t helping… So you know what?  We have to do it ourselves!  The Maidan!  And then when we do it, we’ll put sanctions on you!” he laughed.  Someone then speculated on what would happen if the Ukrainian army invaded the US; they’d all scatter.  The commandant lit up at this.  “What are you talking about, invading?  Look at our tanks!  Those things probably went to Berlin!  Look at our guns.  Look at how we drive those tanks (making this confused zigzagging gesture).”  “How dare you give all these state secrets!” laughed one of the women in the tent.  “To a foreign agent!” chimed in a bunch of the men.  Amid the laughter, the tent’s residents pointed out that the government under Yanukovych has cut down the army considerably, turning it into a poorly-equipped, volunteer force, while more and more funds have gone to Berkut, to the riot police, to the regular police, to the SBU, and to the Prosecutor’s Office.  The government is doing more to wage a war against its own people. 

Residents of the tent joked about the number of years I could get in prison for talking to them right now, since I was taking part in an illegal meeting (the Maidan).  They laughed at the chart which gave a question mark for those prosecuted as “foreign agents”… “They’ll give you more years!” said one of them.  One of the guards made up an official Maidan volunteer badge for me as a souvenir.  My host invited me to serve in the night watch for their tent (check-in at 8:45 p.m., with night watch from 3 to 7 a.m.).  I was tempted to do it.  The company here was so welcoming.  One of the women talked about her relative from Belarus who was so jealous that people here could at least protest.  Next to me was a man in his 50s who moved to Ukraine from Estonia when he was 4 (I tried out Estonian on him, and he responded much better than I did; also, as an aside, the tent residents included as one of their important questions to me, “Your nationality?”  I said, “Latvian, English, German.”).  But amid all the joking, and the good food (the salo and potatoes, the home-grown apples, the pickles, and the warm sweet tea), I could not get out of my mind all the news from the previous day suggesting a violent crackdown on the Maidan.  I needed to come home Monday, and I already had collected plenty of material on the movement and its opponents. 

But I only made my final decision on the night watch that evening.  Nazar in the meantime got me involved in an event that was much more thrilling, and perhaps even more foolhardy, than that. 

 

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