Democracy Lab

Heroes of the Maidan

An on-the-ground look at Ukraine's continuing anti-government protests.

KIEV, Ukraine — In the past few weeks, massive protests have transformed Kiev's central square, the Maidan, into a military fortress guarded by disciplined volunteers-turned-soldiers. People from all over Ukraine came to the square for political reasons, yes, but they also came to support one other and bask in the protest's strong feeling of community. Every day, thousands of people camped out in tents, braving the bitter cold, or joined the protests after work to chant: "Glory to Ukraine! Glory to its heroes!" For every Ukrainian, these words held deep meaning. In defending the square, people defended their rights, their dreams for the future. A new Ukraine of pure values was born on the Maidan.

To understand what, exactly, these people wanted -- how they wanted their lives to change -- I met with five accomplished women at a vegetarian café in one of the alleys around the corner from the square. Early on Wednesday morning, their husbands, middle-class Kiev intellectuals, ran out of their homes to defend the Maidan from a police raid. Thousands of Berkut police and Interior Ministry forces surrounded the Maidan in an effort to kick out the protesters. The five women I interviewed stayed in and watched the news coverage online. It was too dangerous on the square.

That night has already become a storied part of Ukraine's modern history.

That night has already become a storied part of Ukraine's modern history. At 3 a.m., when the police first attacked, there were only a few hundred protesters under siege on the Maidan. I witnessed the clash: a crowd of protesters in orange helmets blocked the paths of thousands of police (now mockingly called "astronauts," after their bulbous helmets), who lined up in ranks behind their shields. A few dozen Afghan war veterans stood between protesters and police, protecting the perimeter of the square. Women and children sheltered by the protest's main stage.

Lesya Malskaya, an art photographer and one of the women I met in the café, was horrified by what she saw that night: "When I think of the unarmed men pushing back a wave of iron shields as heavy boots kick out at them, I cry."

Admiration of heroism, pride, and love for Ukraine inspired my new friends to take part in Kiev's many protest actions. "During the day, we go outside the court to protest for the human rights of the students who were arrested, and by night we come to the square," Natalya Isupova, a mother of four, said. This weekend, Isupova and dozens of other mothers are scheduled to participate in a Mothers and Children in Support of the Maidan march in Kiev.

The women agreed that they felt disappointed in the results of Orange Revolution of 2004. In the decade since that famous revolution, Ukraine gradually slipped back into injustice, corruption, and authoritarian rule, as Ukrainians forgot why the Orange Revolution protesters spent weeks demonstrating on the square in the first place. They originally returned to the Maidan last month in order to demand that President Viktor Yanukovych's sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. A week later, on Nov. 30, they rallied against those who ordered the police's formidable Berkut unit to violently beat students as they slept on the Maidan on Nov. 29.

As the weeks passed by, the Maidan took on a life of its own, as the activists added more and more issues to the Euromaidan agenda. The protesters -- who were mostly from Kiev or the western and central parts of Ukraine -- complained about economic issues, unemployment, injustice, and corruption. In the headquarters of the Maidan's military section, Lieutenant Alexander Baranovsky criticized the "shameful pennies" officers received for their military service: just $400 a month. And an engineer from Lviv region, Alexander Grishko, complained about the massive unemployment in western Ukraine. "These people on the square are my family," he said. "As long as we are here, we feel there is hope for a better future for our country."

"As long as we are here, we feel there is hope for a better future for our country."

Though the authorities have still not come up with a way to placate the Maidan protesters, the ruling Party of Regions is busy shoring up support. On Saturday, Dec. 14, pro-Yanukovych Ukrainians flooded into Kiev's European Square to take part in an anti-Maidan protest. According to a fast-spreading rumor, the party brought 50,000 Yanukovych supporters to Kiev by bus from the country's (generally pro-Russia) eastern regions to participate in the rally. Local news reported that the ruling party is paying each of the president's supporters 150 hryvnia (or $18.14) a day. On Saturday morning, Berkut officers lined up between the Maidan and anti-Maidan demonstrations to prevent violence between the two giant rallies of pro-Western and pro-Russian protesters.

Though the authorities seem to be moving from brutality to propaganda, the protesters have not ruled out another attack. (In the photo above, Ukrainians continue to convene on the Maidan on Dec. 13.) As Ruslana Lyzhychko, winner of Eurovision 2004, commented: "Authorities call us peaceful protestors 'provocateurs' -- but now, since the Maidan was attacked, we expect provocations from authorities any night." The pop star was particularly determined: She appeared on the Maidan's central stage every evening, staying at the microphone until morning to warm up the activists' hearts with her singing and dancing.

"Our main goal," Lyzhychko said, "is to preserve and defend the Maidan. The Maidan is a very important place right now for me, and I hope for Europe too."

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Ukrainian President's Big Broken Promise

Why the Ukrainian leader's decision to backtrack on Europe could cost him his political career.

Irina Kotsubinskaya, a first-year student at Kiev University, came to just in time to see squads of police unleash an attack on the young men and women lying next to her in Ukraine's Independence Square, clubbing and kicking their prone bodies. The activists had spent the night chatting and joking before hundreds of cops swarmed the square at 4 a.m., knocking Irina unconscious. When the first blows rained down on her, she couldn't quite believe that it was actually happening: it was "like a horror movie," she recalls. One of the cops grabbed her by her long scarf and dragged her weak, bruised body across the square, as if she were not a young, thin woman, but a sack of potatoes. Thankfully, Irina's scarf wasn't too tight; she did not asphyxiate.

Irina had been coming to Independence Square every day for the previous week for one reason: to support her dream of one day becoming a citizen of the European Union. For a while, at least, that was also the stated ambition of Ukraine's current president, Viktor Yanukovych. When I spoke to Yanukovych back in December 2008, he was determined: "We decided that our main goal will be integration in Europe at the first congress in 1997, and in all these years we not only never changed our program, we are even more convinced that Ukraine should be a part of Europe." He also assured me that, as long as he remained politically active, he would never allow Russia to treat Ukraine as a subordinate "little brother." When we spoke, he was still a leader of the opposition, but a little more than a year later, in January 2010, he was finally elected president.

Today, nearly half a million Ukrainians have taken to the streets of their capital to denounce Yanukovych for being too pro-Russian and anti-European. Last month, the president, backed by his ruling Party of the Regions, staged an abrupt about-face, declaring that Ukraine was no longer willing to sign agreements on closer political and economic cooperation with the European Union at a long-planned summit meeting in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. His decision has sparked a surprising tide of discontent among many ordinary Ukrainians. (Polls show that a majority of Ukrainians support closer ties with Europe.) Many observers surmise that Yanukovych's sudden decision to reverse course on policy towards Europe had a great deal to do with pressure from Russia, which has brought its considerable economic leverage to bear in its attempts to dissuade Ukraine from aligning itself with the West.

This isn't the first time that Yanukovych finds himself on the wrong side of the barricades. During the 2004 Orange Revolution, his long years in parliament, and his stint as prime minister of a largely pro-Western Ukrainian government in 2006-2007, Yanukovych confronted intense criticism from the opposition and the press. But through it all, he expressed pride about the pro-Western reforms implemented during his time as prime minister: "In terms of democracy, Ukraine has gone much further forward than Russia -- that has been noticed in Europe and a number of other countries," Yanukovych told me in 2008.

Considering that their president has made many statements like this over the years, it should come as no surprise that Ukrainians feel cheated. What happened to Yanukovych and his expressed desire "to bring Ukrainian living conditions closer to European standards and principles"? For years, he personally worked hard on making the Ukrainian integration possible, attending numerous forums and meetings with European leaders. But when the historical day came to sign the crucial pact with the EU, he reversed his position, quite suddenly. "It's all about power," Igor Bunin, director of the Center of Political Technologies in Moscow, said. If Yanukovych allows his power to weaken and lets his main rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, out of jail, as EU demands, Bunin says, "Tymoshenko will beat him at the next presidential election, 100 percent. As things stand now, though, he still has a slight chance of winning."

Moscow politicians say that both Europe and Russia are twisting Viktor Yanukovych's arms. "He has a difficult choice between public fury and political uprising now, and a hunger uprising a year down the road," Robert Schlegel, a member of parliament from the ruling United Russia Party, told me. Schlegel claimed that a civil war in Ukraine is an all too plausible scenario due to tensions between the country's ethnically Russian East and its pro-Western West. Would Russia ever cheer Ukraine's accession to the EU? Certainly not under the "enslaving conditions" of the EU's Association Agreement, Schlegel declared. "Yanukovych knows all too well that if our economy, our market, our factories are under a threat, we'll have to strike back just to defend ourselves."

Yanukovych tried to straddle these differences and keep power at the same time. It proved impossible. Images of bleeding faces destroyed by police stun grenades, of beaten teenagers and women, will now remain a part of Ukraine's history forever. "We'll do everything not to allow such violence take place again," the Ukrainian TV host Mustafa Nayyem told me. "We'll remember these images every time we meet with politicians who think they can just apologize and keep their political positions. They're just a dead part of our society," He was one of many dozens of journalists beaten by police last Sunday.

Will the Russian opposition come to a boiling point any time soon? "Only if the Kremlin humiliated Russian people over something truly dear and important," one of the key opposition leaders, Ilya Yashin, told me in an interview on Dec. 5. "That's what Yanukovych did. He broke the promises he had given his people for years."

JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images