Democracy Lab

The Maidan's Fighters Stand Their Ground

The nationalist militias of Kiev are ready for a fight with Russia.

Thick fog mingled with the smoke from the open fires and wood stoves that dot the revolutionary camp in downtown Kiev. The iconic statue of Archangel Michael could barely be seen in the cloudy sky looming over the Maidan, the capital's central square, which has been ruined, charred, and turned into a memorial for the dead revolutionaries. Just by the Maidan's main stage, a few dozen haphazardly uniformed men lined up before their commanding officer. Many of these volunteer soldiers, the militiamen of the Maidan, could hardly sleep on Monday night after local TV stations reported that the Russian army had issued an ultimatum for Ukraine's new government: Either the Ukrainian military units in Crimea were to surrender by 5 a.m. on March 4, or Russian forces would strike. Nothing came of it in the end -- but Kiev took the warning seriously.

The Maidan has undergone several transformations since protesters first took to the square in late November. What started out as a pro-European Union student camp soon turned into the scene of impassioned riots against now-ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. After that the square became a battleground, scarred by violent clashes with riot police. After Yanukovych's flight from Kiev, the Maidan's defenders turned it into a space for collective mourning for the more than 90 men and women who died in last month's battles, now known as the "Sky Hundred."

But this week marked another transformation for the Maidan: Never before have they been as anti-Putin as they are now. From Monday night to Tuesday morning, after Russia's threat, hundreds of volunteer recruits arrived on the Maidan and at other militia headquarters throughout Kiev, determined to join the impending fight against Russian forces. These well-organized and well-trained armies are independent from the new leadership. The nationalist armies, including Right Sector and White Hammer, are seen as the heroes of the Maidan -- but they are critical of the new leadership. They told me they hate Yulia Tymoshenko and her allies who are now running the new government. But Putin's threat of invasion brought these groups closer together again. On the Maidan, demonstrators chanted "Putin het! Putin het!" (or "Putin Out!" in Ukrainian) in the capital's streets and squares. Signs reading "Putin, calm down!" and caricatures casting the Russian president as Adolf Hitler appeared all over the square: tacked onto piles of tires, on soot-covered barricades, on the nylon tents that have housed protesters for months.

On March 3, when the Ukrainian interim government responded to the Russian grab for Crimea by declaring a general mobilization, volunteers began signing up for military service. Others joined the unofficial, protester-led militias. The volunteers arriving at the former central post office in Khreshchatyk Street, now the headquarters of Right Sector (the Ukrainian nationalist militia that Russia simply calls "fascists"), were of all ages and came from all walks of life. One of the draftees, a 51-year-old former naval officer, Aleksei Tikonchyuk, was convinced he would be the oldest soldier at the mobilization -- until he found out that the man in front of him in line had beaten him out by a year. Tikonchyuk had rushed to join the "self-defense army" after he heard a report on a local TV channel that the commander-in-chief of the Russian Black Sea Fleet planned to launch an attack on Ukrainian military bases in Crimea.

"I had no other choice but to join the draft," he said. "Every man in Ukraine, from all backgrounds, is ready to fight to the last drop of blood for our independent borders." The man next to him, another draftee, demonstratively pulled a pistol out of his pocket.

On March 4, I spoke on the phone with the Kremlin's spokesman in Crimea, Sergei Markov, about Russia's reasons for intervening in Ukraine: "Vladimir Putin is clear: Our forces will be deployed as soon as citizens of Crimea or Ukraine's east ask us to protect them from the repression of Ukrainian fascists against Russian nationals."

The commander of Right Sector's militia, Ihor Mazur (nicknamed "topol," or "poplar tree," for his impressive height), was aware that the Kremlin saw him and his men as anti-Russian fascists. In 2008, he said, he swore to defend Georgia in its war against Russia, and Russian pro-Kremlin youth groups responded by putting him on a list of Russia's top 10 enemies -- a status that he's proud to cite.

But Markov also told me that Russian authorities had evidence that the U.S. government had conducted a "military coup" in Ukraine. "The leader of that state coup, John Kerry, arrived in Kiev today to guarantee financial aid for America's new colony and its junta," Markov said, referring to the new leadership of Ukraine, which Moscow refuses to recognize. "We'll support the legitimate president, Viktor Yanukovych, until Ukraine holds legitimate elections. Even if Yanukovych is a criminal, even if he were in a coma, he is the real president of Ukraine today." Back in Moscow, however, Putin pulled back from his aggressive rhetoric, subsequently saying that he had instructed his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, to call his counterpart in the new Ukrainian leadership, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

In Crimea, pro-Russian Ukrainians have held protests to support Russian intervention. During my trip to the area last week, I asked protesters in Simferopol and Sevastopol's main squares about why they wanted Russia "to bring them back home." Many said they were scared to live in a country run by Ukrainian nationalists, who they claimed attacked Russians all over Ukraine, basing their opinions on Russian news stories. Mazur, however, denied that the nationalist Right Sector ever deployed their units to eastern or southern Ukraine to attack Russians. "If our units were present in eastern Ukraine, they would have protected Ukrainian deputies in Kharkiv, for example, from the Russian attacks on the local parliament there," Mazur said. "Back in the 1990s, Russian secret services blew up buildings in Moscow, and now we expect Russian attacks on us, right here on the Maidan -- so of course Ukrainian families should have weapons to defend themselves, and our groups should organize their self-defense." (Last month, Mazur told an interviewer that Right Sector saw its ultimate mission as not only defending the country but also as shaping policy: "We need to do both -- to fight in defense of Ukraine and also to govern it.")

It is unclear how long post-revolutionary Ukraine will be able to stay stable. It still lacks both a well-equipped army to defend its borders as well as an organized police force to tamp down a rising crime wave in the eastern regions. During his visit to Kiev U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States will be sending an economic package and technical assistance to Ukraine's new government. Right Sector, for its part, saw this as a "manipulation," not as straightforward assistance. The nationalists are not just wary of Russian involvement in Ukraine, but of any and all forms of foreign intervention.

To everyone's relief in Kiev, Russian forces did not move into action with the passing of the rumored ultimatum. Putin declared an end to Russia's military maneuvers close to Ukraine's borders (although Russian troops remain in effective control of Crimea). But the Maidan militias are determined to stay on the scene. Back on the square, an unshaven young man in the front row of a self-drafted unit -- who reminded me more of a rock star than a combatant -- expressed intense devotion to the nationalist cause, and pledged to obey his commander when fighting inevitably breaks out. This time, the command was to march to the nearest church to pay tribute to yet another "hero of the Maidan," a 26-year-old protester who died of his wounds last Sunday.

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Kiev Envy

Pro-democracy protesters in Kiev are triumphant. In Moscow they're still taking it on the chin.

Moscow after the Olympics offers a study in contrasts. Unlike their counterparts in Sochi, where the security forces wore fun purple uniforms with a flowery pattern, the policemen in the Russian capital don't bother to put on disguises.

Outside the building that houses the Zamoskvoretsky district court in the center of Moscow, the OMON riot police, clad in green camouflage, formed a solid line, each with one hand on the next man's shoulder. Then they marched into the crowd. Groups of four or five officers seized individual protestors, then dragged them away to waiting police buses.

The news from inside the courtroom soon reached the people out on the street: the judge had just sentenced eight people to jail terms for allegedly attacking police during an anti-Putin rally in 2012. (One of eight received a suspended sentence.) "Shame!" the crowd chanted. "Freedom to political prisoners! Freedom of speech!" The police continued to load detainees into their buses. Those arrested included men and women of all ages; more than 200 were detained in less than one hour. Several times the crowd managed to push police away from Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Tolokonnikova's husband, Petr Verzilov. Eventually, though, all three were also dragged away into a police vehicle. Verzilov almost suffocated in a policeman's tight embrace.

Several women screamed as policemen beat them, sometimes hitting them in the face. Bystanders asked members of the security forces to stop the cruelty. "I don't understand why they're using such violence against women and even old people," said Irina Pavlova, a Moscow designer, her voice clearly revealing her shock. Sergei Badayev, an English teacher, knew the answer: "It's obvious. The authorities are afraid of the revolution in Kiev. But using this kind of violence and locking people in prisons will just provoke a bigger revolt." As we spoke, an old man climbed over a fence from a park on the other side of the road. He carried a sign that said "Maidan" -- the name of the now burnt-out central square in Kiev, the symbol of Ukraine's revolt. Several police officers grabbed the old man. He was still yelling something about peace and freedom as they pulled him away.

As the violence continued, I called Robert Schlegel, a parliamentary deputy for the ruling United Russia party, to see if legislators were aware of the law enforcement forces' aggressive actions on Tatarskaya Street. Schlegel didn't sound surprised: "The protesters must be detained for breaking the law, for their illegal actions," he assured me. "The Internet news that I read these days is boiling with aggression and even hate, and it's those aggressive moods that fill up the political space, while the rest of Russia is full of peaceful news."

Schlegel recently returned from Ukraine, where, he said, the pro-Russian part of society felt insulted by the pro-Western revolutionary victors demolishing Soviet monuments and voting to cancel the status of Russian as an official language of the country. Over the past few days, Ukraine has split even more radically into pro-Russian and anti-Russian positions. "We're disappointed with Yanukovych," Schlegel said. "Just a few days ago he still had the legitimate power, including the police and the army, to control the situation, but every decision he made was wrong. The Russian authorities don't want a civil war in Ukraine: if a real war begins, the victims will number in the thousands, not the dozens."

Over the past few days, I've seen the two different Russias that Schlegel was telling me about. The protesters outside the courthouse are part of the politicized, liberal part of society, consisting mostly of Moscow intellectuals and middle-class students and pensioners. Since the mass anti-Putin protests in 2011 and 2012, most of these people have become part of a solid liberal community seeking major change in Russia. They gather outside courthouses to demonstrate against "violence," "political repressions," "injustice," and "unfairness" -- the same motives that inspired the Ukrainian protestors I spoke with to stay in Kiev's central square despite freezing winter temperatures.

The night before coming back to Moscow, I took my last walk around the Olympic Park in Sochi, just a few hours before the closing ceremony. Crowds of happy and proud-looking Russian fans crowded into the park to celebrate Russia's long-desired victory. Traditional folk music mixed with the loud voice of Father Frost, Russia's Santa Claus (whose costume and singing of Christmas carols seemed out of place in the bright spring sunshine). A few children surrounded a big mascot bear in a puffy costume, while their parents snacked at a café or rested on benches as they watched the flame of the Olympic torch. Overwhelmed with emotion, one of the visitors couldn't sit still: Wrapped in a Russian flag, he jumped to his feet, chanting, "We won! We won! Russia! Russia!"

The fear of Islamist terror hanging over Sochi before Olympic opening was gone. Visitors felt safe inside what Putin called his "ring of steel." But the news from Ukraine echoed even in the Olympic Park. Retiree Svetlana Sergeyeva had come to Sochi from Rostov with her grandson. In order to bring him to the Olympics, which she described as one of the "best events ever," she had to spend months saving money from her $300 monthly pension. Sergeyeva didn't buy the storyline of democracy triumphing in Kiev: "Putin's leader Yanukovych robbed the poor and the new leader, America's leader, will keep them poor. I fear a revolution in Russia. It would be even bloodier than Ukraine's." Sergeyeva believed Russian state television reports that the power in Kiev was now in the hands of "terrorists" backed by the West.

The next afternoon, following the harsh sentences against their friends, Moscow activists were walking away from the courthouse with an aura of defeat. "Things are only getting worse," I heard one woman say, her voice breaking. Natalia Marenina was about the same age as Sergeyeva in Sochi. Moscow, she told me, isn't Kiev: The Russian opposition she knew wasn't ready to stand outside for months on end. The Russian government's brutal methods to contain the protests had worked. "Did you see how the police grabbed those protesters just now?" she said. "None of the Muscovites I know is ready to withstand that kind of violence -- especially when most other Russians are going to call us 'terrorists.'"