On the 21st of November 2013, citizens begin to gather in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kiev, Ukraine. In the freezing winter wind they take up places under the shadow of the square’s iconic Independence Monument, a towering ivory edifice built soon after the country won its freedom from Soviet Russia in 1991. Over the coming four months this square will become an epicenter of struggle, bloodshed, and courage. The square itself would become known simply as “the Maidan”.
Earlier on the 21st the Ukrainian parliament announces that a proposed trade agreement with the European Union has fallen through. Supporters of the agreement claim that the collapse of negotiations was orchestrated personally by Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych, who harbors close personal ties with Russia. He is also rumored to have benefitted personally from these ties in the past, possibly even at the expense of his own country’s welfare.
Over the next three days the number of protestors swells, reaching one hundred thousand by the evening of the 24th. It’s at this point that Ukraine’s special riot police, a structural holdover from the Soviet era known as the Berkut, launch their first raids against the protesters. They arrest thirty five people, and injure many others. The photos from these raids would later kindle the first sparks of international interest in the events taking place in the Maidan.
On the first of December, tens days after the collapse of the trade agreement, protesters push back the police lines using a bulldozer, successfully occupying Kiev’s city hall, turning the Maidan into a tent city, and constructing barricades and bunkers from sandbags, scrap lumber, and the burnt out husks of vehicles. This barricading is what will later allow the protesters to make serious headway, forcing the Ukrainian parliament and president Yanukovych to respond as traffic in the city’s center is significantly impeded. Over the next week the protests swell to over 800,000 participants in the city of Kiev alone. Relative to the population, this would be comparable to the population of the entire state of Colorado protesting all at once in the United States
Positioning to reinforce Ukraine’s besieged government, Russian president Vladimir Putin puts together an offer to buy 15 billion dollars worth of Ukraine’s debt in the form of bonds, as well as offering to reduce the very prices on Russian natural gas that are blamed for a large portion of Ukraine’s economic struggles. Rumors also abound that the European Union is involved, paying protesters and offering logistical support. Over the next month protesters hold their ground as the Ukrainian parliament deliberates, announcing new anti-protest laws on the 16th of January as parliament maneuvers to accept Putin’s offer.
Provisions of the law include criminalizing “extremist activity,” extending amnesty to Ukrainian Berkut special police for death or injury among now illegal protesters, decreeing a prison sentence of up to one year for defamation of the government in press or social media, anti-mask laws with provisions for up to fifteen days in jail for wearing a mask or similar means of concealing one’s face or head, mandatory government issued licenses for internet providers, and provisions for governmental control of internet access across the whole nation of Ukraine. Furthermore, the law also added provisions for any violators of these laws to be tried in absentia (without the accused being present) even in cases where a guilty verdict could result in prison.
Fifty six days after the start of the protest, citizens in the Maidan and throughout the rest of the city begin to prepare. They construct makeshift armor from scrap metal and plastic, duct taping pieces to their clothing. Mimicking the Berkut’s phalanxes of battered metal riot shields the protestors make their own from street signs and scrap sheet metal, in many cases painting the fronts with personal mottos, slogans, crosses, and the brilliant blue and gold of the Ukrainian flag. The distinctive beating of these shields against barricades and each other will become a constant presence in the coming weeks, known by some groups on the internet simply as “The Clank.” To the rear of the barricades a makeshift catapult is being built to hurl smoke grenades, firecrackers, and homemade firebombs. Reports trickle in that the Berkut are arresting injured protesters who seek treatment at local hospitals. There are rumors that Yanukovych has called in Ukrainian military support for the Berkut.
A week later the Maidan protesters mourn when two protesters are shot dead during a clash with the Berkut. The corpse of Yuriy Verbytsky, a fifty year old seismologist and well known activist involved in the Kiev protests, is found in a forest outside Kiev after he and companion Ihor Lutsenko were abducted from a hospital where Verbytsky was seeking treatment. The next day protesters across western Ukraine begin to storm regional government offices. Certain buildings are taken as politics statements, while others are occupied simply to keep warm as the temperature approaches zero degrees Fahrenheit.
The response to the first wave of protester deaths is dramatic. Under intense pressure from emergent protests across the western part of Ukraine in addition to the Maidan protesters in Kiev, Ukrainian prime minister Mykola Azarov resigns his position, and the Ukrainian parliament annuls the anti-protest law. The Ukrainian government finally begins negotiations with leaders of the protest, offering to release all protestors arrested since the start of the conflict (but refusing them amnesty), in exchange for being allowed to regain control of government buildings. The protesters initially resist a compromise, some already calling for Yanukovych to resign on grounds of corruption, but eighteen days later all 234 protesters are released, Kiev’s city hall is evacuated, and two days afterwards all released protesters are also pardoned by the government.
Slowly the tone of the protest begins to shift. Many now call for Yanukovych to step down, citing government corruption and holding the president responsible for the dead and injured. Four days after the release of the protestors the negotiations stall, and the truce collapses into flames. It has now been ninety days since the protesters first entered the Maiden, and the Berkut redouble their efforts to displace the protesters, attempting to repel them with water cannons despite the below freezing temperatures. The Berkut hurl flash grenades, and even adopt the practice of using fireworks to break up Maidan shield walls. The Maidan protesters hold firm, calling their makeshift arms in to service, pelting the Berkut phalanxes with firebombs and rocks, fireworks streaking across the smoky night sky. Berkut loudspeakers belt out a warning to women and children to leave the streets, announcing that an “anti-terror” operation is now underway. Building in Independence Square burn as protest leader Vitali Klitschko takes a stand beneath the Maidan’s Independence Monument, that ivory symbol of Ukrainian pride, proclaiming, “This is an island of freedom and we will defend it.”
The protesters hold, even managing to repel two military armored personnel carriers that attempt to push back the barricades by dousing them with tremendous barrages of hurled firebombs. On the 20th of February, the ninety second day of the protests, seventy seven protesters and police die in the city of Kiev, hundreds more wounded, when uniformed snipers open fire on the barricades. Videos from the city streets show protesters desperately trying to rescue their fallen comrades with nothing more than sheet metal shields for cover. Local hotels and churches become triage centers as Ukrainian doctors try desperately to save every life they can.
The next day President Yanukovych relents, signing a compromise agreements brokered by representatives from Russia and the European Union. The agreement promises to restore Ukraine to its 2004 constitution, dramatically reducing the power of the presidency and returning it to parliament, as well as promising early elections. Mediating representatives from France, Germany, and Poland co-sign the agreement. The representative from Russia, however, refuses to do so. The protest leadership returns to boos and jeers from the protesters themselves, decrying Yanukovych’s corrupt government and alleged status as a Russian puppet. Many call for the president’s immediate resignation and demand that he should be held accountable for the deaths of protesters at the hands of Ukrainian military and police.
The day after the signing of the agreement, protesters seize the presidential administration building, encountering no resistance from the Berkut. Yanukovych is nowhere to be found. It is later revealed that the president has fled to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, claiming to be the victim of a coup-de-tat. The Ukrainian parliament votes to remove Yanukovych from power, and two days after the vote a warrant is issued for his arrest. Yankovych vanishes again, reappearing a week later in Russia to claim to be the victim of a “bandit coup” led by “pro-fascist” forces. When asked during a press conference why he fled the country, Yanukovych replied, “I didn’t flee anywhere…I was exposed to gunfire from automatic weapons.” After which he insists that it was his security detail that forced him to leave the country. One hundred days have passed since the 21st of November, when a handful of bold citizens took their stand in Independence Square.
In the days after Yanukovych left Ukraine an interim government was formed, comprised of members from the old government’s opposition parties mixed with representatives from among the Maidan leadership. The new prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, would later reveal that $37 billion of government backed loans had been issued to unknown parties by Yanukovych’s government. Additionally another $70 billion was directly removed from the country’s financial system and sent to anonymous offshore banking accounts. Citizens of Ukraine gazed in awe at the palatial homes that Yanukovych and other high ranking members of their government had enjoyed, the opulence made all the more astounding by the fact that the former president had contracted an additional, even larger residence on the coast of the Black Sea that was left unfinished. All the more depressing when the average yearly salary in Ukraine rests at less than $5000 a year.
There are many people who hold the opinion that instability on the scale of Ukraine cannot come to the United States. It’s true that the United States is a very large country, and even the largest of recent protests in our major cities involve only very small fractions of our national population. However citizens of the United States do face challenges very similar to those of the Ukrainian people. Our own government is no stranger to corruption. The income rift between the wealthy and the poor continues to grow. The combination of our large economy and significant national debt leaves us vulnerable to economic pressures from around the world in the form of trade inequities; as well as price manipulation on needful commodities such as oil, electronic equipment, and machinery that are no longer manufactured domestically. Potentially similar to the way in which Ukraine found itself at the mercy of either European or Russian natural gas supplies.
How we face these challenges, and ways in which we choose to prepare for the possibility of future instability, is what will define our character both individually and nationally. In terms of courage, unity, ingenuity, and patience; we would do well to learn from protesters of the Maidan.