The Day Kyiv Blew Up

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APTOPIX Ukraine Protest

Guest post by William Risch

On January 19, 2014, Kyiv exploded.  It started with a peaceful mass rally of over 100,000 people at Independence Square (commonly referred to as the Maidan).  Organizers had talked of this being a chance to protest laws limiting freedom of speech and assembly that had just been signed into law two days before.  As in other Sunday rallies, leaders of the political opposition to President Viktor Yanukovych – Vitaliy Klychko, Oleh Tiahnybok, and Arseniy Iatseniuk – laid out future plans for action, including forming a parallel state and parliament and a new constitution.  However, the mass rally soon turned sour.  The plans were vague.  The rhetoric resembled that of any other Sunday mass rally.  Then an activist from Automaidan – a protest group known for using their own cars to visit and protest government officials – proposed onstage that the Maidan field one leader to oppose the regime.  However, as soon as he started making this proposal onstage, opposition organizers cut off his microphone.  Later opposition leader Arseniy Iatseniuk declared that anyone who wanted a single leader from the political opposition was a provocateur.

I was there filming scenes of the Maidan when Iatseniuk spoke.  Admittedly, I was confused.  I heard two men near me arguing over the political opposition’s weaknesses.  I heard whistling and booing from the hill opposite the stage, and I was convinced that real provocateurs – the hired thugs, or “titushky” – had broken into the crowd and were starting a fight.  Then I heard people chanting, “Lidery!  Lidery!” (Leaders!  Leaders!).  Iatseniuk warned that there would be provocateurs interested in starting violence with the authorities.  Then I heard similar whistles and boos.  The crowds started leaving.  I saw hundreds of them file past me as they went up Instytuts’kyi Street, up the hill past the barricades.  Some tall, heavy-set man leaning on a cane interviewed people with a small video camera as they passed by.  “How do you feel about what you heard at the Meeting?” he asked, “Were you disappointed?”  While one woman affirmed that she wasn’t, the rest either complained about the empty phrases they had heard, or they sullenly turned away from the camera and said nothing.

As Liga Novosti reported the next day, thousands of such people drifted away from the Maidan and headed in the direction of the Supreme Rada, against opposition leaders’ warnings.  A crowd of people stopped at the foot of Hrushevs’kyi Street, just beyond European Square, where a cordon of riot police and police busses and trucks blocked the road.  Automaidan activists began a demonstration in front of the police barricade.  When Vitaly Klychko tried to turn the crowd back to the Maidan, members of the extremist group Right Sector (Pravyi Sektor) doused him with a fire extinguisher.  Then Right Sector members started a fight with the riot police.  They hurled pavement stones, sticks, Molotov cocktails, and petards.  The police responded by attacking them with tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets, and water from fire hoses. The protestors managed to burn down all of the busses blocking Hrushevs’kyi Street, yet police forces held firm.  After 11 hours of fighting, at least 100 people were injured.

The battle raged on.  By the early morning hours of January 22, Unity Day (celebrating the unification of western and eastern Ukraine in 1919), the police had shot dead two protestors.  A third victim, who along with other protestors had climed to the top of the entrance arch of the nearby Kyiv Dynamo soccer stadium to lob rocks and firebombs at police, fell off the arch and died.  The organization Civic Maidan reported on Facebook that in just two days, January 21-22, over 30 medical workers had been shot and beaten, over 70 journalists had been shot on purpose, over 500 protestors had been injured, over 50 activists kidnapped, and over 5 protestors killed.  Hrushevs’kyi Street had taken on all the features of an eerie, apocalyptic Hollywood movie:  flames leaping from burning tires scattered in front of columns of riot police standing beyond metal shields like phalanxes of Roman soldiers, billows of black smoke ascending into the air, and rhythmic pounding of metal by protestors and riot police, disrupted now and then by explosions and gunfire.  With the exception of occasional ceasefires and police charges, the battle for Hrushevs’kyi Street continues to the present.  Meanwhile, the revolution has spread to the provinces.  As of January 23, popular uprisings in up to seven regions of Ukraine have toppled the Yanukovych’s local administrative organs there.

I wound up missing Hrushevs’kyi Street’s Hollywood-style battle scenes.  Following the mass rally, I went to charge my camera batteries and warm up in the Hotel Ukraina overlooking the Maidan.  There, I ran into French and Russian TV journalists and even Klychko himself, surrounded by Maidan guards and admirers.  I then went in search of some anti-Maidan protestors who had been meeting in a park near the Supreme Rada.  On the way to the park, I passed by a series of barricades set up by riot police on Instytuts’kyi Street, around the district where many of the Ukrainian government’s offices are located.  Every barricade I passed had the same scene:  young men in their teens and twenties, shouting into policemen’s faces, accusing them of serving a crook (zek), berating them for beating innocent people, cursing now and then.  The police stood at attention behind their shields, behind barriers set up on the street, some of which included vans, busses, and small military transport vehicles.  Sometimes they smiled when their accusers made jokes about Yanukovych or other officials.  At times, they exchanged a brief phrase or two with the demonstrators.  But they largely remained silent.

A variety of people passed by.  Two demonstrators stood by with a banner that said, “Don’t Judge Kharkiv through Hepa and Dopa,” a reference to Kharkiv’s corrupt mayor and governor.  An elderly grandmother in a fur hat and coat, bag in hand, went from barricade to barricade, crying out like a holy fool, “Berkutivtsy!  Murderers!  Who gave birth to you!?  You’re worth nothing!!,” while everyone else looked on.  One student with his girlfriend stopped by a barricade to laugh at and mock the police.  “That stuff comes from my Grandma’s time!” he roared with laughter, referring to the bus and truck serving as a barricade.  Like the others, he started insulting the police, telling them they were fools defending the regime.  One of the onlookers dared to debate with him the merits of insulting the police.  She asked him why he wasn’t trying to speak with these police; why wasn’t he trying to win them over to his position, rather than heating up emotions.  “I tried that!” he protested.  “They ignored me! “  “It’s been two months,” his girlfriend said.  “And what have we gotten?”  Both students noted the government’s unwillingness to make changes (punishing the police who had beaten students on November 30, 2013, firing the Minister of Internal Affairs, and so on).  They both expressed their frustrations with the political opposition asking them to stand at the Maidan and keep up the protest.  When the woman arguing with them asked, “Do you really want to have a violent revolution?,” the girlfriend hesitated, then insisted that anything was better than the status quo.

The police guarding the barricades around the government office district were not from the Kyiv units of Berkut responsible for beating students on November 30.  Still, they were bearing the brunt of people’s anger.  “You’re serving a zek!” “Monsters!” “No one wants you!”  I could hear these remarks in Russian and Ukrainian as I went from one barricade to the next.  And the police stood still and bore the insults.

It turned out that there was no anti-Maidan demonstration in the park.  Instead, Hrushevs’kyi Street, which went past it, was blocked by a long cordon of metal barriers and police behind them that stretched all the way across the park, cutting it in two.  It looked like there were a few anti-Maidan activists allowed to leave through an open passage on Hrushevs’kyi Street.  One of them shouted to some police officers outside, “Glory to the police!  Glory to the defenders of Yanukovych!” (a play on the Maidan greeting, “Glory to Ukraine!  Glory to the heroes!”).  Otherwise, it was an empty park with some protestors, curious onlookers, and police milling about.

There was something very unsettling about this scene.  The long row of riot police was donning masks to protect them from teargas.  One or two firetrucks passed by.  It looked like they were getting ready for a confrontation with someone, but who?  A small throng of people clustered around the barrier across Hrushevs’kyi Street.  Someone carried a Ukrainian national flag.  Many started shouting the familiar insults at the police.  A family – a grandfather, mother, and small child – tried to get through the barrier to attend a play further down the street, but couldn’t.  However, as darkness set in, this small group dispersed after chanting “Glory to Ukraine!” and other Maidan slogans.  Small groups of 2-3 people who stopped by the long barrier to talk to people (to limited degrees of success) also left.  As freezing cold and night set in, I heard in the distance two loud booms and the roar of a crowd, as well as maybe 1-2 chants of “Glory to Ukraine!”  I thought it was coming from the Maidan.  Only a few hours later did I realize it was the battle for Hrushevs’kyi Street that would surface on the front pages of newspapers worldwide the next day.

As it turned out, a friend of mine in Donetsk some days before had made a fairly accurate prediction:  if anyone at the Maidan would use weapons, it would be the Right Sector.  The members of Right Sector constitute an amorphous group of young right-wing radical nationalists from Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian National Defense (UNA-UNSO), Ukrainian Patriot, Trident, White Hammer, and other organizations.  They are a confederation with no leader.  Right Sector activists have expressed their contempt for the “Maidan pacifists.”  They even reject any allegiance to the right-wing political party called Freedom (Svoboda) and its leader, Oleh Tiahnybok.  On their page at VKontakte, the Russian-language equivalent of Facebook, its members talked about gathering people and equipment for a mass protest for January 19.

Admittedly, Right Sector activists did a lot to turn a protest of thousands trying to get to the Supreme Rada into a war zone for the cameras.  But the anger in Kyiv on January 19 was real.  It was there along the other barricades blocking access to the government offices neighborhood.  The beating of students on November 30, attempts by Berkut to storm the Maidan on the early morning hours of December 11, the beating of journalist Tetiana Chornovol on December 24, and then the passage of laws on January 16 making even an assembly of five cars or more a criminal offense had greatly angered people in Kyiv.  Besides that, for over two months, the Maidan had produced not a single concession from the government nor any concrete action by the political opposition.  It was no surprise, then, that the Right Sector could start a fight on Hrushevs’kyi Street.  They had plenty of people to support them as they attacked the police barriers.  I would suspect that there were a lot of people along Instytuts’kyi Street who were not sad to see riot police, Berkut, and other security forces face Molotov cocktails and pavement stones during January 21-22.

Perhaps I, too, would have welcomed the assault on police forces attempted over the next few days.  However, something happened on the road to the anti-Maidan.  I managed to meet two riot policemen.  I cannot convey the exact context in which I met them, because I want to protect their identities.  However, I can tell you what they were like.  They were both Russian speakers in their mid-30s and from southern Ukraine’s industrial regions.  They had been stationed in Kyiv since November 25, when the troubles began.  They were friendly, intelligent, good people, not the demonic types beating students, journalists, and anyone in sight.  “I’m getting tired of people who say I serve a crook (zek),” said one of them. “I serve the law.” They complained that the media had demonized riot police. They claimed to have seen one 18 year-old policeman who lost both of his eyes when a protestor slammed his helmet’s glass visor into his face. That man is now disabled for life, they said. A national television station had filmed one of them carrying an injured policeman to an ambulance, but the scene never appeared in its news program. Both were very critical of the Euromaidan protest movement. They saw people from “Lvov” (Lviv) as dominating it. They were convinced that Maidan protestors had sparked the violence on December 1, when a mob attacked the Presidential Administration on Bankovyi Street. Both policemen voiced deep skepticism of the European Union and what it could do for cities like theirs, which had witnessed a number of industries closing. They admitted that the system was corrupt through-and-through, and that replacing Yanukovych as president with someone else from the opposition was not the solution. Finally, they described all the difficulties they had providing for their families with the mere salary of 1800 hryvnias (about 200 U.S. dollars) a month. As the cold set in and we paced around to keep warm, one of them said, “We just want it over, so that you can go home and we can go home,” referring to Maidan demonstrators.

It was a very cold night on January 19, the day Kyiv blew up. As I tried to get my aching legs moving, I thought of all those policemen – regular police, riot police, even Berkut – stuck out on the streets, standing in place, at times absolutely freezing, for two months. That evening, I got my last glimpse of the Maidan with a friend whom I later met for dinner that night. I filmed it as a crowd was watching a documentary on the rise of the Donetsk mafia (the group that helped bring people like Yanukovych to power). It was quiet. The war was going on past the hill overlooking us, out of sight, out of mind.

I only found out about the battle for Hrushevs’kyi Street back in my hotel, on the Internet, while the TV stations acted like nothing was wrong, and all my friends on Facebook were warning me not to go to the battle scene. The battle was literally three metro stops away. I decided it was better to stay at home and catch a very early morning flight. At the airport, it was like no war, and no revolution, were going on at all. The only trace of it was in casual conversations about politics among people about to board my plane. I checked my Facebook messages. A colleague wrote, “Bill, honestly, I’m glad you got out of there.” The day that Kyiv blew up was not to be my story, but someone else’s.