Organising Euromaidan. The biggest protest in Ukraine’s recent history

Two months ago, a few hundred intellectuals fed-up with Ukraine’s politics gathered to demand the country’s integration in the European Union. The President sent the special forces to beat them up. Hunted down, the students finally agreed to make an alliance with the parties in the opposition. The protesters had legitimacy, the parties had means for organizing.

This is how a small protest reached the proportion of a massive phenomenon. These days, Kiev’s downtown has turned into an open-battle front, it’s almost a civil war.

This is how they kept the movement alive all this time:                                                                                                          

Hundreds of people are running down a large boulevard, calling out for help. Behind them, riot policemen strike everything that moves with their clubs and shields. Women and men, young and old, journalists, photographers… First their cameras are smashed, next they’re trampled under the militia’s armoured feet. About a hundred of those chased down receive shelter in a monastery, where they are cared for by monks. The rest spread out on small alleys.

The second day, the people who were beaten down, returned on the street, next to other tens of thousands. In about a week, there were half a million in a sort of a paramilitary republic in the centre of Kiev: they had an army, hospital, church, television, and command centres in occupied buildings.

On November 30, 2013, the Ukrainian special-intervention forces pummeled a few hundred students, activists and politicians from the opposition. People protested because Ukraine’s President, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to bring the country closer to the European Union.

EuroMaidan was initiated by two distinct fronts: the intellectual elites, who are trying to free Ukraine from the Russian grasp, and the members of the opposition parties, who want the power.

After having been pounded by militia, both fronts united their forces: the intellectuals, supported by European political leaders, legitimized the movement as one with pro-European goals and vision; the  opposition, with help from the oligarchs, provided the resources for organizing hundreds of thousands of people, from across the country, to keep the protest in the Independence Square alive.

I spent ten days in Kiev to understand what Euromaidan is about.

I have seen fighters from paramilitary brigades, next to students and professors, who safeguarded the square. Hundreds of volunteers were preparing food for the tens of thousands of the Maidan’s permanent residents. Hundreds of buses paid by the politicians to bring people from all over the country to Kiev. Priests who held sermons on the same stage where punk, rock or pop bands were performing day-and-night. Politicians were throwing punches, shoulder-to-shoulder with voters, at  policemen trying to invade the square.

This is how the Ukrainians have organized the largest protest in the country’s recent history:

All the entrances in the Independence Square are barricaded. People have dismantled the metallic skeleton of a 20 meter high Christmas tree and used its cardboard and branches to block the access ways. Three weeks into the beginning of the protest, police have tried to evacuate the Square. They destroyed one of the sturdiest of all barricades.

Instead of the demolished barricade, the protesters have built a mountain out of sacks filled with ice and cement powder, have jabbed long iron poles in the exterior, then surrounded the place with barbed wire and spilled water everywhere, until the muddied pavement on the street leading to the government building turned into an ice rink.

To enter the square, one has to pass through some filters made of young men dressed like in the army. Khaki garments, tall leather boots, war helmets and police clubs.

About 3,000 people organized simliar to an army defend the Independence Square. Soldiers, lieutenants, commanders, captains. A general calls them up for debriefing each day. He is an opposition member of the parliament.

A young man with dark eyes, stands akimbo in front of a few dozen people with construction helmets on their heads and thin plywood shields in their hands. A few hundreds are watching, mouth wide open, as if they were at the funfair. The dark-eyed guy, wearing a bulletproof vest, orders the people with shields to crash into each other. They execute the order mechanically.

The young man’s name is Aleksander, he’s 27, and he is the commander of the brigade guarding the main barricade on the Maidan, built on the street that leads to the Government. He completed six years of training in the army, mastering the ways of military strategies.

He was elected as leader, after he put together a detailed plan on how to strengthen the square’s weak points. He taught the protesters how to keep their formation and build their shields, then he worked with them to strengthen the barricades. He also conducts trainings five times a day with volunteers who arrive from all over the country to defend Maidan from the government militia.

Aleksander is hiding his proud and slick smile when he speaks about the 200 people under his command. ”they are young, strong, and healthy.” Before he took command, the barricades were looked after by some gangs. ”Now we have an army!”

The veterans from the Afghan War contribute much to securing the Square. You can see them everywhere. On the barricades, at the entrance control points, patrolling in pairs, or in the front line, if there’s a new fight with riot police.

The majority are grey-haired, and they all wear cherry-colored vests, with the symbol of the organization drawn on: a man hunkered down, flanked on each of his two sides by two strong young men standing. The veterans stride proud, like rhinoes, and folks salute them with respect, staying out of their way.

The veterans hate Russians, even though they fought for them. In 1988, a year before the war in Afghanistan ended, they were abandoned by the Soviet allies on the battlefield. Three years later, in 1991, the veterans founded a political party, as a response to the political situation in Russia. At Moscow, KGB and a group of communist MPs were plotting a coup d’etat. Ukrainian People’s Self-Defense, the veterans’ party, is one of the most active anti-Russia political organizations in Ukraine.

In the ‘80s, Valentin Stanislavovich fought in the war of the Soviets in Afghanistan. Now he is the commander of the battle brigades in Maidan Square. He was there on November 30, when the police have brutally stormed the Square. The veteran left Maidan and he swore that he would return. But not alone.

A few days later, seven hundred members of the Association of the Ukrainian Veterans from Afghanistan arrived and installed their military tents in the middle of Maidan. They were led by Valentin Stanislavovich and Oleg Ivanovich, the head of the veterans’ organization. Soon after their arrival, they called the students, and the leaders of the paramilitary organizations in the opposition, forming a Military Counsel.

They instructed the students on patrolling, gathering information about the enemies who conduct pro-Yanukovych propaganda in the Square and send the agitators to police. They trained the military brigades to overcome police attacks.

The veterans live in a tent located in the middle of the Square. To reach it, you have to pass two check points, where they ask for IDs and search you for weapons.

In front of the tent, a few citizens in military uniforms, bought from hunting stores, circle the leader Oleg Ivanovich. They gesture a lot, with their eyes bulging. Oleg watches them with a bored look while leaning on a barrel. From time to time, random civilians interrupt their discussion, and ask Oleg to take pictures with them.

Oleg is a star in Maidan. He is always visited by all sorts of journalists, but only gives interviews in Ukrainian, although he is very good at English. A fancy Ukrainian lad, schooled in England, offers to help me with the translation.

We are welcomed in the veterans sherifs’ tent. The room is as big as a living room in a communist match box-apartment, and is warmed up by a barrel-shaped heater, with a brass pipe stuck in the middle. Some borscht in a white pot with chipped enamel and painted with yellow and blue pansies is kept worm next to the stove.

The walls are covered with thick coloured blankets. Some immitate leopard and tiger pelts. On the ground, there are plastic sacks filled with clothes or potatoes, boxes with frying oil, and five-litre water bottles.

In a corner, under a half-blind lamp, a few men in uniforms test some walkie-talkies neatly arranged on a plastic table. Amongst them, a blonde woman with red cheeks, peels potatoes and stirs the food with a frown.

Oleg argues that the role of the veterans in the Square is more a consultative one. They are there to offer logistic support to those who defend Maidan. Those 3,000 volunteer fighters had to be organized in a simple, but strict hierarchy.

Therefore, they divided them in ”Ten-ers,” responsible for the groups made up of ten people, ”Hundred-ers,” responsible for the groups of a hundred, lieutenants, commanders and the main boss, who brings in financial support, general Andiy Parubiy, an MP from the opposition party Batkivshchyna. Each day military meetings are held, the soldiers report to their superiors, and plans of actions are sketched out.

Commander Valentin rubs his synthetic fur beret and explodes: ”If in 2004 the Maidan protest was political, now we fight for Ukraine’s future! To live in normal conditions.” The veterans are asking for concrete actions from the opposition politicians: ”to name a president, a prime-minister and a spokesperson from the civil society.” None of the three leaders from the opposition parties is fit to be part of the new government. Vitali Klichko is not politician by trade, Arseniy Yatseniuk has his ways with public speaking, but that’s about it with him, and Oleh Tyahnybok’s nationalist sentiments are extreme, and can create dissensions within the country.

While pouring out their discontent with the entire political class, Oleg and Valentin cringe their faces with fury. If the opposition representatives will not name the members for the new government in two weeks, the vets will get on the stage in the Square and tell everyone that the three politicians are weak and not to be trusted. Then, they will take power in their hands. And if needed, even through a coup.

Oleg is sure that the Square’s soldiers have the means to put together a coup with the support of the Ukrainians. ”The people should trust the Afghan veterans more than the politicians. The soldiers will never fight against their own people.”

When the protests began, the three opposition parties decided that Svoboda, the fourth party in Ukraine, should control and keep under siege the occupied buildings in the Independence Square. One of the most important of the occupied buildings is Kiev’s town hall.

Svoboda (translated Freedom) trains its members for guerrilla actions. Each year, Freedom Party takes its people to the mountains, and, besides ultra-nationalist ideology courses, it teaches them how to fight or how to get beaten, how to occupy a building, and how to keep it occupied. ”We train here too, but mostly in the summer, in the Carpathian mountains. Everything I learned in the training camps helped me very much during police attacks,” says a 30-something year old lad, with small eyes and narrow forehead. His name is Artem Bondar, and he guards the town hall entrance.

The town hall doors are barricaded with pieces of massive furniture. The place vibrates like an anthill. Girls and boys run around the marble-adorned corridors, among sleeping bags, where people doze off. There is a strong scent of ammonia.

To get to the largest room in the building, that serves for holding speeches, as a sleeping quarter, food area, and for looking after the sick, you must pass about three check points. The guards have yoga mats wrapped around their forearms and calves held together with tape. They have combat helmets and wooden clubs.

The great hall smoulders with tension. All the hydrants are broken, and the hoses spread out towards all the building exit routes. They’ll be used against the militia, if they barge in.

In the back of the hall, a few people dressed in fatigue are guarding a desk. Behind it, a dark-haired and skinny young man fusses around a phone which he keeps tightly close to his right ear. He wears extreme sports kneecaps over his grey jeans.

His name is Yuriy Noievyi, he’s 28, and he’s a counsellor in the parliament for Kiev region. His party, Svoboda, assigned him as commander of the people who defend the town hall. He’s there since the beginning, and he says he will not evacuate the building until Yanukovych resigns.

The main reason why people from Svoboda party protest is ”the corruption in the system governed by the people now in power.” The young man, with smart beard and look, says that ”the people are afraid of politics and politicians. But, if Svoboda takes over the power, there will be changes. We have demonstrated that we don’t care about money or shady deals.”

The young commander doesn’t really agree with Ukraine’s integration in the EU. ”Only if Europe returns to its Christian roots, which are far away from today’s extreme moral and cultural liberalism.”

Hundreds of volunteers dressed up as if ready for surgery swarm the occupied buildings’ kitchens. They all have masks and medical gowns, sterile caps and gloves. Elders and youngsters gather around tables where they slice salami, ham, cheese and bread. When the kitchen tables are filled with stacks of spreads, volunteers load them on plastic trays, and then take them to the people outside.

In the town hall’s ground floor, ten youngsters surround a table in a kitchen improvised in the lobby. At one end, a lad with his cheeks stained with red, butters some slices of bread, then he passes them to his colleagues who throw pieces of salami and bologna over.

The boy responsible for buttering the bread is 19 years old, and studies English at the University of Kyiv. His name is Ivan, and got here with his mother, a university professor who volunteers in the same kitchen. By night he helps in the town hall’s kitchen; by day he goes home to sleep.

Ivan doesn’t care about the classes he is skipping. His professors told him that he will not receive penalties for helping the Maidan movement. He is happy that the uprising has united the higher and the middle classes of Ukraine. ”Those in the lower classes do not really bother with the EU, and they live by what Russia says, anyway.”

He believes that Ukraine’s integration in the EU is a necessary compromise. ”It is the only way we can get rid of Russians. Too many laws are not respected, and Russian language is too present everywhere. The same goes for history (r. n. taught in schools). Our minister is against Ukrainian heroes. I want an Ukrainian government, with Ukrainian ideas.”

Ivan accuses the opposition for playing too soft. ”It’s good that we have a pacifist movement, but we should also have stricter demands. We should occupy more buildings and use them as leverage at the negotiations.” But the young man sees the value of politicians in this whole equation. He says that, after November 30, people have understood that there is a need for political parties. Without their organizational tools, the movement would have been long-lost.

From dusk till dawn, large and small cars bring supplies for the residents in the Square. They are opposition supporters. Bags of potatoes, boxes with fish, meat cans and trucks filled with fire wood. Everything to keep the people into the Square.

Hot food is cooked outside. There are tens of mini-kitchens where volunteers from across the country chop sausages and vegetables and stir in pots frantically, with large wooden spoons. Among  hundreds of tents anchored in between cement slabs, pots filled with broth steam spread canteen aromas kilometres away. Hundreds of people, protesters, passers-by, cold-shiverers, line up in front of the pots for a hot meal.

Next to a gigantic kettle, with flames underneath, a guy with a techno hairstyle sits bandy-legged, with a wood plank between his feet, and peels some frozen potatoes. His name is Nazar and he came here when the protests began. ”Only because the European Union can give me a better future.” Now he is unemployed, but his last job was in a corporation. It suited him wonderfully, because he could get visas easily. He travelled to many music festivals in the West. Now he cannot leave the country. It is hard to get a visa if you don’t have a steady job.

Nazar feels determined to demonstrate to the Europeans that Ukraine is ready to join the Union. He defends the movement in the Square from those who bad-mouth it, and says that all Ukrainians should come to Maidan, to see the atmosphere, and then shape an opinion about the protest on their own. ”Most of the protesters are between 30 and 40, and have small children — and this is the best reason for them to come here. They protest against their past, and for the future of their children.”

He has nothing against the Russians, but thinks they are full of preconceptions, and have ”stupid imperialist ambitions.” For example, his brother who lives in Crimeea “listens to Russian music, is full of stereotypes, and does not even want to hear about the European Union.” Most of the people who are living in Crimeea are pro-Russians and supporters of president Yanukovich.”

Nazar doesn’t really like the opposition politicians, but he is willing to give them a chance. Anyway, if they act like the people in power now, he will return in the Square. ”I expect them to do more for the Ukrainian people and human rights than for the oligarchs.”

On a hill above the Independence Square there’s an imposing building. The main entrances are shut, and a thick smoke emerges from one of its sides. A few tens of people stand in line in front of a machinery that looks like a kettle on wheels. A cook stirs in the stew that boils above, while his assistant puts firewood inside the mobile oven. People receive plates with food, and then they go through the emergency entrance of the grandiose building.

This is the House of Arts and Culture. The building is not barricaded. A few years ago it was rented by Oleh Tyahnybok, the Svoboda Party leader. He pays one Euro per year. He organizes dancing courses and traditional dance performances for children. Now, he made the building available for the protesters.

You can get a press pass from the offices at the main level and sign up on the lists for free transportation.

Each day buses with protesters come to and go from Kiev. They are rented by politicians. You put your name and phone number on the list, then someone calls you and tells you from where and when the bus leaves. Throughout the country, there are places where you can sign up for a free ride to the protest in Kiev.

The Arts Palace hallways are cold and dark, and the pieces of imperial furniture are covered with plastic wrap, for protection. People sleep on the wooden floors in the large theatre-like halls. They get sleeping bags and pads at the entrance. On each of the rooms’ doors is written the name of the city, or the region where the protesters were brought from, and the phone number of those in charge with the transportation.

Next to the makeshift kitchen, students from the Lviv Theological Seminar transformed a corner of the hall into a chapel.

Tens of Orthodox priests, and Theology students guard the barricades and give blessings to the people. The Kiev Orthodox Patriarchy supports the EuroMaidan movement. During the first confrontations between protesters and police, priests have allowed people to find shelter in one of the monasteries near the Independence Square, so that they would not get caught and arrested.

Many of the priests volunteer in the kitchens, on the barricades, and at the control points. When there are fights between police and the protesters, they take out their golden crosses, and begin to pray and call for peace. Some priests have raised tents in the Square, where people can confess, be anointed, or receive spiritual advice.

Politicians have set up a large stage right in the middle of the Square. Behind the stage, musicians, politicians, the military, activists, and priests line up and wait. They want to get on stage and talk about whatever upsets them, or to sing the national anthem on the microphone. When the anthem is heard, Maidan stands still. People stop from whatever they are doing, put their hand where their heart is, and sing altogether.

In the midst of the chanting crowd, Pavlov the priest holds a cross tightly in his right hand, while he sings the anthem on his phone which he holds in his left hand to his ear. Once the chanting is over, he crosses with gestures as large as himself, and continues the phone conversation with his friend, and recaps his phone discussion with his friend. Pavlov is about 35 years old, and visits Maidan every day. From time to time, he builds up some courage, and gets on the big stage to shout once more another ”Slava Isusu Khrystu!” at the microphone.

Father Pavlov’s voice and features suggest he’s a good-tempered man. He does not frown his eyes even when criticizing the ”evil” president Yanukovych, who ”lies, and is the source of all evil in Ukraine.” He thinks that Satan stole the President’s mind and blinded his judgment. He does not think too well about the opposition either. He compares the leaders of the three parties with the characters from an old Soviet children’s story, ”The Crab, the Swan, and the Pike,” where all three animals try to move a wheat sack, but each pulls in a different direction.

The sack stands still, just like the revolution. ”The opposition is too passive. We could have made a true revolution so far, but nothing happened.” To him, the Church’s involvement with the Maidan movement seems absolutely natural. ”The Church is consciousness,” and consciousness cannot be separated from the human body. ”This is why it’s necessary for me to come here and pray, next to my people.”

Next to the soul healers, hundreds of doctors and students from medical universities, have come to support the movement. You can see them walking around in the Square, in twos or threes, from morning till night. They wear white nylon vests, with red crosses on their chests, and constructor helmets on their heads. Each one carries a toolbox full of all sorts of medicines. Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, cough syrups, anxiety pills, bandages, and balms for stopping the bleeding.

Every other ten meters you can find a first-aid area, and all the occupied buildings are equipped with a mini-hospital. In one of the buildings they even brought a surgery table.

Two women who look like Red Cross volunteers walk unstrained among the warriors who defend one of the barricades. They slowly drink tea from plastic cups, talk, and smile all the time. One of them carries a camera on her shoulder. Her name is Natalia, she is a laser therapist and has a private office in the Western part of Ukraine. Five days ago she decided to close the office and come on the Maidan. ”I couldn’t stand aside. My heart was already here.”

She travelled a lot through Western Europe and dreams about the lifestyle there. ”It’s about freedom. Ukraine if full of mafia, and the taxes are too high.” She doesn’t care too much about who comes to power, as long as Ukraine joins the Eurpean Union. But she would be happy, though, if Yulia Tymoshenko became president. ”Because she’s smart and strong.”

While the pro-Europeans and the opposition parties are organizing the largest protest in the last decade, a few streets away on Maidan, in front of the Government, president Ianukovici’s party brought about ten thousand people in a rally against the protests. He dressed them in blue vests, gave them flags with the hammer and the sickle on them, and built a stage twice the size of that of the opposition. Hundreds of militiamen protected the place where people were dancing to old Russian music and drinking cheap vodka secretly.

Unlike the people on Maidan, those brought in by the power seem morose. They look down, while on the stage some condemn the illegal protest of the opposing front. To reach and talk to the politicians who stroll in the back of the stage, you have to throw yourself about until your mouth gets cotton dry. No one speaks English at all.

I managed to get a pro-Government press pass, and talk to one of president Yanukovych’s MPs.

Lukyanov Vladislav Valentinovich is grey-haired, and his blue eyes seem to be seeking the right answers in all possible directions. He’s the only politician here who speaks English, but he doesn’t give up the help from the translator. He speaks fast. ”Maidan hurts Ukrainian economy. The leaders of the opposition are after the power. For them, the electoral campaign has already started. We care about Ukraine! The opposition leaders care about EU delegates!”

As for signing the treaty with the European Union, he says this isn’t in the national interest, even though EU is an important market. Ukraine’s interests are directed at the Union, but at the same time, over 30% of the country’s exports go to Russia. The country cannot afford to give them up.

The politician says that he did go to Maidan, and talked to the people there. ”In about 10-15 minutes of talking to them, they all said they’ll vote for our party,” says the pro-Russian while pulling up his collars with nimble gestures.

The barricades split Ukraine in two. The pro-European protest doesn’t bring anything good to the society. In any case, ”I respect those on Maidan, but we are a country of 46 million people, and they are too small of a part from Ukraine. And we, the politicians, are responsible for all!”

Since last week the peace in EuroMaidan has come to an end. After Russia lent Ukraine 15 billion dollars, and reduced the price for natural gas to half, the Ukrainian MPs voted a set of anti-protest laws that transform the country into a police state.

The new laws threaten with prison almost anyone with any initiative whatsoever for protesting against the government. There are daily clashes between the protesters and the police, which try to evacuate the Square. Several people have died and a few other hundreds have been badly wounded in the recent clashes with police.

Reporter: Radu Ciorniciuc

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