The Story of Maidan: Part 8 — Walk of millions

Barricades on Maidan. Post office in the background

We follow the walk of (sort of) millions and the violence of December 11 and 12 while in the previous Chapter 7 — First clashes on Maidan we saw, how tensions rise in Kyiv.

A court ruling bans public meetings with more than three people. December 1st saw more than that. The guard of a Kyiv Hotel said that it took the procession of people more than 100 minutes to pass by. Yatseniuks Fatherland party claims 500.000 people on Maidan. The people walk up Institutskaya street to get to Bankova street where the cabinet of the president is located. First reports of tear gas use come in at around 2 pm. In the meantime European Parliament Vice President Jacek Saryusz-Wolski speaks on Maidan, also ignoring the ban of a foreign country.

On Bankova Street police and protesters clash. Berkut riot forces build lines, hold their arms, five lines deep and move forward, pushing the protesters back. It’s a melee, protesters use the stick of flags to reach the police, others try to disperse, the blue-black well guarded police swing batons and hit everything that moves. On the side of the protesters there are many cameras or cell phones held high. Bus loads of riot crew arrive. The situations gets inceasingly tense. A weird patterns emerges. Bankova street is maybe 30 feet wide, quite narrow for a stand off. There is the line of police, three or four rows of protesters throwing cobble stones and wielding sticks. Then a row of journalists holding their cameras over their heads to get a wide angle shot. And only then rows of regular protesters that shout and push but do nothing more violent.

Riot police (Bekrut), defending the Kiev city council building, and protesters clash at Bankova street. December 1. By Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe.

It is visible in videos that there are a few protesters in colored jackets with motorcycle helmets who both provoke the police but are so close to them and appear to be having conversations. There is one guy in a purple sweater who can be seen behind police lines and later attacking police from the side of protesters. „I saw hooded people, wearing very baggy overalls and clothes, breaking windows for absolutely no reason,“ says Oleksandr Aronets, activist and blogger. „Those who I heard were speaking Russian amongst themselves. Then they started shouting and encouraging other protesters to go fight the Berkut.“[1] Activist Taras Revunets adds:

„We asked these bizarre individuals to remove their masks, but they refused. Some protesters even tried to put themselves between these masked men and the security forces.“

The provocations work, a guy in a black jacket without facial cover throws a massive cobblestone from six feet distance on the helmet of a police officer who goes down.

Soldiers of Ukraine’s Internal Troops in riot gear and protesters clash at Bankova str, Kiev, Ukraine. December 1. By Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe.

A front loader appears, it is driven towards the police but doesn’t break the cordon, backs off, comes again, backs off again. Later millionaire and pro Maidaner Petro Poroshenko climbs the frontloader and adresses the protesters with a megaphone. „Don’t follow the provocations, don’t be violent,“ he shouts. „There are government sponsored provocateurs that try to give reason for bloodshed.“ Later some of those are identified by Maidan organizers.

Police answers with teargas, pepperspray and smoke grenades, red smoke, batons swing, stones fly, kicks are distributed, and always cameras pointed towards the action that is only happening on a stretch a few yards wide. This is something quite typical for demonstration violence. It’s not massive, it is not the people, just a handfull of agressors. One can see this tactics in Austria three times a year during demonstrations.

Poroshenkos words are not heard, there are several loud bangs, people hold cloths to their mouths, some wounded are transported off.

Meanwhile Maidan is packed with people, singing the national anthemn and shouting „bandu hetch — away with the criminals!“, a sea of flags are waved, protesters climb the half finished scaffold for the 100 feet tall christmas tree that will not be erected this year. There is a marching band and people follow without disguising their faces. This is their protest, they are not afraid.

Violent clashes erupt between protesters and police. By Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe.

After dark, protesters move away from Bankova street towards Maidan. Shots are heard, people run, then come back. Smoke and tear gas is everywhere. „I am a reporter,“ Denys Danko, award winning journalist from TV Station 1+1 shouts, holding up his press-ID. „I don’t give a fuck“ the officer shouts and beats him in the face with a baton. “Every officer running by me hit me with a club. I was hit 30 times all together. They kicked me in the head, chest, hands.“ Agence-France-Presse photographer Serhiy Supinskiy’s equipment was deliberately destroyed by an officer on Bankova Street; the phone of Dmytro Volkov from 1+1 was smashed while he filmed, having his press ID around the neck. Euronews cameraman Roman Kupriyanov is heard moaning on video when riot police kicked him on the ground. All in all 40 journalists report being injured.[2]

When the numbers don’t favor the protesters anymore, the Berkut charge and beat everybody they can get hold of. 27 years old IT specialist Yegor Previr from Lviv raises his arms infront of his head to no avail. Berkut keep on beating him. They shove his face on the ground and step on his body. He is put in dentention, his plea for emergency medical treatment is not answered. He has a head injury, concussion of his left eye, a broken nose and his jaw is dislocated. He is charged with organizing mass riots and sentenced to 60 days house arrest. Only then he is taken to hospital with an ambulance.[3]

But others fare worse. Kyiv teacher Irina Rabchenyuk is just walking down Institutskaya street with her family „when they began to use gas and grenades began exploding,“ she recalls. „My husband got sick so we moved away. Our children heard screaming of wounded people and turned back to help them. They ran toward the action, then saw Berkut running toward them with batons. They were frightened and tried to run away,” says the woman.

“All of a sudden, there were clouds of thick smoke and then I saw riot police running at people with their batons raised,” the daughter Larissa recalls. “And then the police were hitting everyone in sight. I’ve never seen such brutality.” Soon they were surrounded by panicking people, many covered in blood. The militaman catches up with the daughter and hits her twice on the back. As soon as mother Irina arrived he starts beating her. „This was 200 meters away from Bankova,“, her husband Peter recalls.

Irinas injuries are serious:

„With one stroke, the Berkut broke my face, eye and nose.“

In the following weeks she had to undergo three surgeries, developing a glaucoma and loses her right eye.[4]

An amateur video shows the utmost agression. Berkut officer charge the fleeing protesters. One stumbles, three officers beat him with Batons until he goes down. They alternatingly kick and beat the crouching body. 30, 40 blows. Then they run on to catch others. More officers come running, stop and kick the body, some hit him with the baton without even stopping. And on and on and on. When the video is over the poor guy was kicked and beat by a good twenty officers. They had to endure the stand off for two hours and now they beat with a vengeance.[5] [6]It is not clear if this video shows the aforementioned 1+1 journalist.

By half past seven on December 1st, 22 people are injured and seek medical care. Another scuffle breaks out at the Lenin monument. Protesters attack Berkut who guard the monument. Later that evening the police reports eight injured officers.

On the same day, protesters take two public buildings, one is city hall on Khreshatyk boulevard, 300 yards from Maidan and the labor union building directly on independence square. Swoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok claims that his men stormed city hall. [7]

They set up a fixed, defensive perimeter with barricades and settle for the night. Those who remain on the square are mainly young men, some prepare makeshift weapons, sticks and bottles.

Yury Lutsenko, the former interior minister who is always good for catchy quote announces:

„This is already not a meeting or an action. It is a revolution!“[8]

On the next day, the stand off is reproduced throughout the country. Western city Lviv announces a general strike. In the east, some towns hold emergency sessions to express support to Yanukovych’s government. On Maidan there are now about 50 military tents and their number keeps on growing.

Two days later 11 protesters are charged and indicted in a court without public access. Neither in custody nor looked for is the person identified as the organizer of the violent clashes. He is called Dmytro Korchynsky and leads a radical, Ukrainian Orthodox rooted religious and political organization called Bratstvo (Brotherhood) known for provocative acts in the previous ten years. As the Kyiv Post uncovers, law enforcement agencies established that 300 members of Bratstvo were involved in the violent action of December 1st. Korchynsky is said to have good ties with then interior minister Zakharchenko. [9]

Putting things in perspective: Human Rights Watch issues a statement condemning excessive police violence.[10]

“This level of violence by the police is shocking,” says Rachel Denber from HRW. “They needed to stop the violence and protect the presidential administration building, but that doesn’t justify beating people who weren’t violent and posed no threat.“

She further states that police should use force only when strictly necessary, in a manner proportionate to the threat and to minimize the injury they cause.

The official result of three days of unrest: 248 people seeking emergency medical assistance, 139 people hospitalized including 76 law enforcement personell and 3 journalists. At the time it is not entirely clear how many protesters got arrested. But of those whose names are known, none seem to fit into a category of violent criminals. There is 23 year old architecture student Nikolai Lazarev, Yuri Bolotov, former manager of rock band Okean Elzy, Alexander Ostaschenko, engineer and father of two and Valery Harahuts, journalists and founder of newspaper „ЛИЦА — Faces“. Nevertheless they are detained, harassed, beaten, prohibited to see relatives, denied counselling. There are actually videos that prove some of them present during the riots. But all are unarmed and severely beaten by police.

As every general in war has learned that targeting civilians only increases their resolution, the violence in Kyiv only makes the protesters more angry. Activist and singer Ruslana: „At the moment, we’re very outraged, very agitated and caught up by emotions because we see with our own eyes how audacious the government is acting. It can’t be described. They are criminals! You can’t imagine that these people are in power although their partly criminal past is known. I never imagined they would go this far. I remember the Orange Revolution, when not even President Leonid Kuchma called in security forces. He didn’t dare take action against his people like that. Nothing is sacred to the people who give the orders nowadays. There is no way back. We can only protect ourselves if we terrify them with our united protest. Then, they’ll run off. Or, they’ll imprison us and beat us up.“[11]

During the following week, Maidan gets further fortified but looses support. People go to work rather than to independence square. The EuroMaidan organization reports to have raised 600.000 Hrivnas (60.000 USD) since November 22nd. The money is spent with food, tents, medicine and some is kept to aid the victims of violence.[12] Activists start replacing broken windows from the seized buildings.

In the same time prime minister Azarov increases the divide in the country and openly threatens Western Ukraine to withdraw state budget: „I want to direct particular attention to those separate local communities in the west of the country, where some . . . regional governments have halted work to take part in the protests. Such amorality and irresponsibility by local officials could lead to a situation where at the central level money is disbursed, but will not reach the end receivers due to local government that is not working.”[13]

The days are calm, Yanukovych is away in China and later off to Sochi for a chat with Putin. The opposition calls for a March of Millions for the upcoming sunday but will the people still be coming? But Maidan just needs a little patience. Their opponent Yanukovych will not fail to display the perfect timing for a political bomb. It explodes on Friday 6th when the president comes back from Sochi. He had his talk with Putin and at the end he agreed to sign an agreement joining the Eurasian customs union with Russia. He sold his country for financial aid of up to 15 billion USD and a massively reduced gas price. The Kremlin later denied signing the agreement and called it only preliminary talks.

The next mass demonstration on December 8th, a Sunday, again brings more than 100.000 people to Maidan. A group of 800 volunteers guard Maidan against provocateurs. In the evening protesters lay steel ropes around the nearby Lenin statue, tear it down and decapitate the monument with sledge hammers.[14] As a foreigner I truly wonder why the monument had been guarded by the police previously and even more that it was still standing 21 years after the Soviet Union has ceased to be.

The storm before the calm / December 11,12

“When people are causing disorder, riot police officers should arrest them and take them away, but never beat them. Or even worse, do it in front of cameras,” former first president of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk on December 10.

With the benefit of knowing the past it is odd to see the spiralling escalation mostly done by the government forces. It is as if Yanukovych had a wish to go out with a grande gesture of a country in turmoil. His ignorance for the consequences of his ill adivsed actions mirrors those of other failed dictators of the past. Ceaucescu anyone? On Tuesday, December 10 he has a three and a half hour talk with Europes top diplomat Cathrine Ashton. She comes to Kyiv to urge the president to refrain from violence. He totally agrees and even states that his envoys to the EU are working on the cons of the EU agreement to be ready to sign by March 2014. As a sign of good faith the prosecutors office announces to release some of the protesters arrested on December 1st. Later that evening Cathrine Ashton mingles with the crowd on Maidan and visibly enjoys the people calling for Europe.

But Yanukovych has other plans. He cultures a habit that will overshadow every future negotiation: every offered compromise is followed by violence. Activists on Maidan are expecting it. Ultranationalist politician Oleh Tyahnybok shouts “Revolution! Revolution! Revolution!” from the stage while Oleh Medvedev coordinates activists in the trade union building. He explains that in the upcoming days there will be less people on Maidan. It will be impossible to defend all the places.

68-years-old doctor Alexander Kharchenko is in charge of 20 makeshift beds and all the patients that might come to see him. This night, he believes, there could be more than usual. But he will not leave.

“This city hall belongs to the people,”

he proclaims.[15]

Yanukovych will not disappoint in his predictability. Mere hours after he had peace discussion with his three presidential predecessors and Cathrine Asthon has left Maidan, police forces mobilize. It is 1:27am on December 11.[16] Hundreds of riot police move down from Institutskaya Street towards the main camps on Maidan. Popstar Ruslana is on the stage and urges the people to stay calm. At 1:58 police in riot gear start to trying to disassemble barricades at the trade union building. Many have already broken through and are on the square. Fifteen minutes later the police has divided the protesters at the union building and the main stage. Opposition leader Arseniy Yatseniuk runs towards the police with a loudspeaker and urges them to stop.

Maidan defender in hard hats wait on Institutskaya Street for the attack of riot police Berkut. By Wikipedia

Groups of protesters face a deployment of riot police. By Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe.

In this night 24-year old Ivan Sydor is sleeping in his room in the academy dormitory next to St. Michaels Cathedral when his mobile phone starts ringing. People have found the phone number of the Orthodox Theology Academy’s graduate from the Cathedrals website. Within an hour he receives 70 calls. “People were calling from U.S., Poland, Italy,” Ivan recalls. “They were crying and saying that EuroMaidan is going to be dispersed.” They all asked for the same: he shall ring the bells. He asked the prior for permission and then started the ringing.

„The last time such events took place there was in 1240, when the inhabitants of Kyiv found shelter in Michael’s monastery during an attack by the Mongolian army,“ recalls Serhiy Kvit, former president of Kyiv Mohyla Academy.[17] Ivan Sydor adds: „It was also a December, and the Mongols came to the Lyadski Gates, located in the place of modern Independence Square.”

When Ivans hands get sore, he is relieved.

“Usually the bells of St. Michael’s cannot be heard on Independence Square. I think it was a little miracle that people heard the bells that night,”

Sydor says.[18]

On the other side of Maidan riot police try to push protesters through a barricade on Institutskaya street. Protesters are pushing back. The police is working with method. Slowly they advance with pushing and shoving without the use of excessive force. They have learned from the unsuitable video footage. Officers shout: “don’t touch them”. The forces have to advance without open violence. At 2:30 the police has created a second perimeter outside Maidan to prevent protesters to get in. 20 Minutes later 1.000 additional police force arrive on Institutskaya Street. They now outnumber the defenders. It seems only a matter of time until the last barricade falls. While the song “I won’t give up without a fight” by cult rock band Okean Elzy is played from the stage, police uses tear gas on the barricades, they drag activists away.

In the same time 200 more police men surround Kyiv city hall, form a rectangle around the entrance and start tearing down these barricades. At 3:19 politician Olesiya Orobets posts on facebook: “Electricity is switched off in the Kyiv City Council building, people there are in complete darkness. Barricade near Zhovtnevy Palace still holds.”[19] Half an hour later the barricades on Institutskaya are down, there is still lots of shoving, police advances some 20 Meters every ten minutes. While the crowd shouts “shame!”, Olesiya Orobets is on the stage, she proclaims: “Europe, do you hear us? We are standing here for our rights! We don’t want to go back to Russia!”

Maidan is encircled. Police surround the trade union building on the square that is still guarded by about 300 activists. At the city hall on Kreschatyk Street, protesters spray water with fire hoses onto the steps at the entrance of the building to make them icy and slippery.

At around 5am Cathrine Ashton issues a statement:

“I’m still in Kyiv. I was among you on Maidan in the evening and was impressed by determination of Ukrainians demonstrating for european perspective of the country. Some hours later I observe with sadness that police uses force to remove peaceful people from the centre of Kyiv. The authorities didn’t need to act under the coverage of night to engage with the society by using police.”

They didn’t need to. It was their choice. The government is desperately trying to be still in charge. Berkut troops are replaced with fresh officers. In the same time, more protesters flood the square, 25.000 are estimated to be there in the early morning of December 11. There are wounded and activists urge people to bring bandages and medication.

A new day in a metropole is started with the first subway. Stations near Maidan remain closed. But taxi drivers and regular people going to Maidan massively tweet to offer free rides to the centre.

While the interior ministry issues a statement at 6 am warning people not to resist the police, 1.000 of them are trying to break barricades on another corner, Mykhailivska Street. There are several more attempts but by 10am, Maidan is still standing, US Asisstant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland is handing out bread to protesters and cookies to Berkut officers. By noon, the ground is reclaimed, the barricades rebuilt. There is a festive mood on Maidan. The opposition seem to feel that they have the upper hand, they reject Yanukovych’s call for roundtable talks until the government steps down. Petro Poroshenko is the one who had to speak the following words in the morning: “This is the birth of a nation.”[20]

Maidaners ice the police while defending city hall. By Smerus (David Conway)

29-year old musician Tolik Tkach is sweeping down snow from the stairs of city hall, the building protesters have successfully defended. He says: “I think the authorities will think before they try something like this again.”[21]

Since you have came so far, as a thank you here is a beautiful concert by Okean Elzy, given on Maidan in December 2013:























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