Nearly a month after the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s most famous central square remains full of tents and people. Distrustful of the political class, Euromaidan activists seek to stay at the forefront in shaping the country’s future. Anna Zamejc and Pawel Rybicki from Kyiv, Ukraine.
The (Un)Finished Revolution
After a few days at the Maidan, we realize it has become impossible to keep our hands clean. Dust permeates the air over the square and sneaks into every nook and cranny of our bodies. The pitch black ash, remnants of the flames that engulfed the square for several days last month carpets the entire area, leaving dark marks on the soles of our shoes.
But it would be a mistake to think that the Euromaidan activists staying here live in filth. Over the past few months, they have effectively turned Kyiv’s central square into a self-ruled mini state. Each organization and each Sotnia, a small unit of Maidan’s self-defence forces, keeps its tent, or little camp, clean and orderly.
The hardships of life at the Maidan are somewhat mitigated by those who support it from afar. The three field kitchens get a steady stream of supplies. They offer free meals and tea to the inhabitants of the square and anyone else in need.
When we enter the square, the uniforms visible everywhere capture our attention immediately. Each Sotnia has its own, sourced from military surplus stores across the world. Bundeswehr colours are most ubiquitous, but British, American and Polish ones are also in evidence. Though Russian battle fatigues are conspicuous in their absence.
The other thing that defines Maidan today is a sea of flowers.
Thousands of roses, tulips and carnations flood the square, commemorating deaths of nearly 100 protesters. There are so many of them, piled on top of each other and forming new, colourful, barricades.
However, the real barricades have not disappeared. They remain under the watchful eye of Maidan’s self-defence forces, ready to close the passages should there be an emergency. All barricades feature an ample supply of tires, ready to be burned and piles of broken grit stone, ready to be thrown. Here and there one can also see baskets of empty glass bottles that can turn into Molotov cocktails at a moment’s notice. The activists vow to remain in vigil at least until the presidential election slated for May.
Meanwhile, for many people living in Kyiv, the politicized square has become a part of everyday life. “When I meet up with my friends and we just want to hang out, Maidan is the place to go”, says Olga, a young TV journalist.
When Police Stay at Home
Despite the initial impression of disarray, calm and order prevail on the square. Hundreds of volunteers from Maidan’s security forces effectively take care of safety issues. In Kyiv alone, there are some 8,000 of them. In the entire country – nearly 40,000. And their role is not limited to maintaining security on the streets.
“Members of Sotnias have begun to take over key functions in the law enforcement sectors”, says Andrei Gabrov, a commander and vice-head of Maidan’s security forces. “We aim to replace up to 90% of old staff”. Asked whether they would have enough of qualified people, Gabrov admitted it’s a long-term goal. But the change is already taking place. While Maidan’s self-defence forces officially cooperate with the state police, they are slowly becoming its public face. Gabrov explains:
“When there’s an intervention request, police would often ask the self-defence forces do the job. Don’t be surprised – people do not trust the state police. How would you trust a person for whom, a couple of weeks before, you were a potential target?”
Before he joined the Euromaidan revolution, 33-year old Sergey worked as a marketing manager. He hails from Kyiv, but spent the last several years in Russian Sochi. We meet him guarding the entrance to Sotnia no. 38.
Located on a small elevation at the foot of the Independence Column, the Sotnia can lay claim to one of the most picturesque views here, offering a stunning vista of the Maidan. The campgrounds are additionally secured with a former balustrade, reinforced with trophy shields taken from the Berkut riot police. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the Maidan has been turned into a military camp. But, just like the majority of the Sotnia members, Sergey is not a professional soldier. We ask him what made him quit his job and join the Maidan’s ongoing revolution.
“I have a little daughter”, he smiles at us. “I simply want her to live in a better country than we have today”.
Sergey walks us into one of the camp’s tents. A little stove in the middle is giving out pleasant warmth. There are some dozen camp beds set out inside. One of them belongs to Sergey. Although he has a comfortable apartment in Kyiv, he never chooses to spend the night at home. And he has no complaints about the conditions they live in.
Soon, all the members of Sotnia 38. will have the luxury of taking a shower. The activists are retrofitting the famous burnt bus – the same that for many days was part of the Maidan’s barricade – to serve as a shower room.
Perhaps the biggest discomfort of living a camp life is a strict prohibition on alcohol. A young volunteer of Sotnia no. 38 named Vitaliy stresses that members of Maidan’s self-defence forces are never allowed to drink spirits.
And indeed, we soon witness how members of another Sotnia crack down on a drunken colleague. A troubled young man is being grabbed by the shoulder and taken away to the headquarters building. When he’s through the ‘disciplinary talk’, he will be kicked out from the Sotnia. And that’s the biggest shame.
While we chat with Vitaliy, one of Maidan’s commanders joins us. A portly man who has just turned 50, the commander looks like an archetype of experienced officer. He served in the Soviet army, spending four years with the armoured divisions stationed in Poland’s Swietoszow. He bemoans the crisis in the Ukrainian forces and doesn’t rule out that perhaps one day his boys will have to face the Russian aggressors. Asked what will happen if the crisis in Crimea turns into a war, he answers firmly: “God’s with us, and the West will help out“. “And what if that’s not enough?” we ask. The old soldier answers, his voice sounding steady and cool:
“If we lose against the tanks, we will go to the woods and carry out a guerilla war”.
Good Morning, My Name is Martin Bormann
Commander Gabrov emphasizes how important it is for civil forces to remain politically neutral. But for paramilitary groups in Kyiv political ideology is a defining feature. They are part of an ultranationalist alliance called Right Sector, which was formed during the Euromaidan protest and did not hesitate to resort to violence while fighting the regime forces.
Anastasia hasn’t yet turned twenty. Leaning against the wall of the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, she spits her words out through clenched teeth. She carries no weapons, but appears the most menacing of the Right Sector members who, since early morning, have been preventing deputies from sneaking out through the building’s rear exit. Unlike her paramilitary mates, Anastasia is not in camouflage.
“This is not a joke, the point is to make them leave through the main gate and look us in the eye. It’s high time to hold them accountable“,
Anastasia says, explaining that the aim of the blockade is to pressure the MPs to release all political prisoners, announce a general military mobilization against the Crimea invasion and make other legislative amendments that she declines to elaborate on. When they take off their masks, the Right Sector members could be taken for boy scouts.
But boy scouts have replaced their pocket-knives with chopping knives that stick out from their long black boots. They also carry clubs, thick metal chains and even hammers. But they are surprisingly eager to talk to journalists.
While we speak with one of them, others join the conversation, mocking those who warn about the dangers of their ideology. “You banderist, you fascist!”, “You sold out to the West and America! You occupant!” – one activist leaps at the other. They both laugh their heads off, but, just in case, they are quick to assure us it was meant as a joke.
One of the activists introduces himself as Krayan. Holding a club in his hand, he eyes us with a mistrustful look.
“You know what we hate the most about foreign journalists?” he asks. “When they call us fascists. What fascists? Is a patriot who is ready to sacrifice his life for this country a fascist? All those Azeris, Armenians and other Islamists, they are the real fascists because they come here and spread Islam!”
We point at a group of young Azeris waving their national flags a few meters away. They have come to the parliament to support the protest and we ask if they too are fascists.
“Those ones are the exception”, he mutters, “They’re here to help us”.
While we talk, the other Right Sector activists cordon off the door, forcefully pushing some people back inside the building. A lady in her forties, a local journalist, is the only one who manages to break through. She scrambles out of the building, swearing at the protesters.
“What do you need these clubs and hammers for?” we ask the activists gathered at the door.
“Are you going to beat the deputies?“
“If they don’t deliver on their promises, why not”.
“Shouldn’t you wait until the election?”
“Promises, promises”, answers a Right Sector activist in his early twenties who introduces himself as Martin Bormann. He sports a long leather coat. A black t-shirt sticking out underneath features a white inscription “Deutschland.”
It’s Wednesday night and the Maidan is almost empty. It has been two days since we last heard a political speech from the stage. A costume drama film is being shown on the big screen but hardly anyone on the square pays attention. We are standing by the Independence Column, awaiting a Polish journalist who has just returned from Crimea. When he arrives, he passes us without a word, heading straight to a nearby makeshift chapel.
For now, we wait for him to finish praying. We gaze in silence at the grey smoke from the stoves embracing the tents and floating up along the walls of nearby buildings. Surrounded by massive architecture of the city center, the tent city resembles a scene from a post-apocalyptic film.
“It is so sad”, sighs a European diplomat accompanying us. She points to the barricades, piles of tires and bottles that dot the Maidan. A few weeks before, she was a witness to the bloodiest clashes at the square.
“Just look at it. They have won, but the real victory is still such a long way off”.
The article was originally published in Polish by Gazeta Polska Codziennie (Wednesday issue, 19 March 2014) and by Liberte (online).