Behind the lines in Ukraine

Inside Kyiv’s central square, assorted opposition groups are organized and, at least for now, united

(AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Sviatoslav Yurash, a second-year university student with side-swept blond hair and a white cable-knit sweater, cuts a figure quite different from those who dominate the television coverage of Ukraine’s uprising—the bruised and battle-weary heavies of the front line. But two months into the action, he is part of a growing number of Ukrainians for whom desperate revolution has become a daily occupation.

“People in Ukraine are very confused about how the West perceives us—as these violent, marauding gangs,” muses the 17-year-old Yurash, the head of a Kyiv-based volunteer group called Euromaidan PR. “Maidan” means “square,” and Euromaidan is the term used by Ukrainians to describe the anti-government protests that have racked the Ukrainian capital since mid-November. Yurash gestures toward a group of neatly dressed colleagues, bent over laptops, to stress his point.

Yurash and his group operate out of Kyiv’s vast, statue-studded Independence Square, which has been transformed in recent months into a highly organized encampment filled day and night with thousands—at key times hundreds of thousands—of anti-government demonstrators. Protesters first flooded into the square last November, after President Viktor Yanukovych made the last-minute decision to reject a historic co-operation deal with the European Union in favour of a $15-billion bailout from Russia. Deeper European integration is widely supported in Ukraine, and Yanukovych was seen to be buckling under pressure from Moscow. Today, the square’s perimeter is barricaded by shield-wielding guards and bags filled with bricks and snow; it is occupied territory in an otherwise normally functioning capital city. Its occupiers are diverse: political and apolitical, ideologically enflamed and those just along for the ride.

The headquarters of this sprawling movement, perched at the edge of the square, is the Trade Union building. Inside, on the second floor, a man named Marat sits at a large wooden desk, behind a placard reading “Lawyer.” Marat, from Lviv, says he has made himself available to protesters who need advice on Ukrainian criminal law, which has proven rather malleable of late. Many of his queries come from people whose family members have been arrested and “disappeared” by police.

A floor up, a makeshift clinic is half-filled with sleeping demonstrators. White-coated doctors speak quietly to patients, or mill about a supply room whose shelves are neatly stocked with medicines and latex gloves. A few days ago, those same doctors were removing bullets from battered body parts.

Things are louder upstairs. The building’s fifth floor is occupied by Pravyy Sektor (“Right Sector”), a hazy alliance of nationalist and sometimes far-right organizations that has played a starring role in the most violent of protester-police clashes. (While not pro-EU, it shares the opposition’s broader anti-government position.) The group’s president, Andrei Tarasenko, has recently warned that if the government attempts a bloody crackdown, “there will be a massacre.” Opinion on Right Sector is divided, but some activists say its ranks are swelling and that it threatens to throw a largely peaceful movement off-kilter. One sign, on the door into the fifth floor, reads “Nazis only.”

On Tuesday afternoon, a 21-year-old named Olya is hunkered down in the building, chatting with compatriots. At the start of the protests she quit her marketing job to devote herself to live-streaming the Maidan on an Internet station called “It creates new history,” she gushes. Coaxed by friends, Shatna describes how on Jan. 22—the night when police broke through the square’s barricades and when the demonstrations’ first protesters were killed—she was hit by a rubber bullet and then beaten by police.

Outside the building, volunteers dole out donated clothing and steaming bowls of buckwheat to chilly passersby. Catholics hand out white plastic rosaries—along with pamphlets explaining how to pray with them. On a stage, protest leaders lead square-wide cries of “Glory to Ukraine!” Despite the efforts of some protesters who wish the Maidan to be apolitical—or at least loosely pro-EU and anti-Russia—some party symbols are on display. In the centre of the square, a large image of the imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is half-obscured by EU flags. At the north end, a lone red and white flag with the Polish word Solidarnosc, sits high atop a pole. This is the decades-old flag of Solidarity, the Polish trade union and then social movement that helped wrestle Poland out from Soviet grips in the 1980s.

By Tuesday afternoon, after the government voted to repeal the draconian anti-protest laws passed on Jan. 16 and Ukraine’s PM resigned, an uneasy calm had settled over the square. The opposition had made critical gains, for now, but most people were waiting anxiously to see whether already-imprisoned protesters would be given amnesty.

On the front line, a group of helmet-clad men gather around Yuriy Lutsenko, a key opposition leader. “He might be president soon,” one of them whispers. Asked what he expects of the next several days, Lutsenko shakes his head. “People want a different political system. That means a new constitution.” Protesters will stay “at the barricades,” he tells Maclean’s, until they topple Ukraine’s “dictatorship.”

Back across the barricade, as a bone-wrenching chill sets in, burly men warm their hands around a metal barrel filled with blazing hunks of wood—and which gives off a noxious odour. “This,” gestures one seasoned protester, “is the smell of revolution.”

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