The Day Kiev Exploded

Ukraine: former Soviet Republic, victim of Stalin’s 1932 terror famine, ethno-religious-linguistic hodgepodge nation-state. This year, tilting toward civil war or perhaps partition, as the country’s ‘russophilic East’ and ‘europhilic West’ clash in Kiev’s Maidan square and elsewhere around the country.

Much or most of the country speaks Russian in everyday life, although many Russian speakers consider Ukrainian their native language: try to sort that one out. The Russian speaking East and a bare plurality of the country voted in President Viktor Yanukovych in 2010. Yanukovych had been previously prevented from taking office in the ‘Orange Revolution’ of 2004, when Ukrainian nationalist street protests overturned a disputed election. His second victory in 2010 was however not really in dispute, until this year, when Yanukovych first pulled out of a plan to integrate the economy with the European Union, then pushed through laws which would have restricted protest.

A month-old excerpt from the blog of William Risch, a history professor at Georgia College, a scholar of Russian history who is sympathetic to the anti-Yanukovych protestors. He here gives a sense of how the competing factions uncertain leadership of the ‘Euromaidan’ protests blurred into the fighting that is now consuming the country:

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.

William Risch