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‘Cossack’ at the Heart of Kiev Protests Refuses to Give In

‘Cossack’ at the Heart of Kiev Protests Refuses to Give In

The video of Mykhailo Gavrylyuk has become an early symbol of the protests that have rewritten the political map of Ukraine. Stripped naked in the freezing winter, it shows him being berated by the Berkut, the country’s infamous riot police. He is made to hold an ice-axe and pose for photographs. His body bears clear marks of a recent beating.

But a day after he was beat up by the police, Gavrylyuk was back on the barricades of Independence Square, known as Maidan, in Kiev. On Friday, this rather amazing photograph showing him back in the square that has become the ground zero of protests circulated on Twitter:

Gavrylyuk was apprehended Thursday by the Berkut, the Ukrainian riot police behind the lion’s share of violence visited on protesters. According to Radio Svoboda, the Ukrainian-language edition of Radio Free Europe, he said that they threw him on the ground and beat him "for a very long time." They later stripped him and started kicking his head "like a football" — all while taking pictures. "They gave me an ice-axe and attempted to make me shout ‘I love Berkut!’ But how could I ever say something of the sort to these fiends? I would rather die! So, I refused," Gavrylyuk said at a press conference Friday in remarks that were translated for Foreign Policy by the Ukrainian citizen journalist Taras Denysenko.

The 34-year-old Gavrylyuk hails from a Ukrainian-speaking part of the country, where sentiment against the government and its backers in Russia is especially strong. The Berkut forces, on the other hand, largely hail from eastern and southern Ukraine, areas that are historically more pro-Russian. (The spread of protests around the country have strained somewhat these traditional geographic divisions.)

Moreover, Gavrylyuk sports a traditional hairstyle of the Cossacks from the Ukrainian region of Zaporozhia, a shaved head with a long forelock swept to the front or side along with a matching mustache. The Berkut were none too pleased to have a self-professed Cossack on their hands. "One of them took me from behind and held my hands, while the other bent my head, took his knife and started to cut a strand from my oseledets [the scalp lock].  It took several cuts, as the knife was apparently blunt. Then he took another strand and cut it off too," Gavrylyuk said.

The legacy of the Zaphorizhian Cossacks is an important part of Ukrainian national culture and today stands for a spirit of freedom. The Cossacks, who are best known for their roles as border guards for the Russian tsarist empire, have taken on a symbolism in Ukrainian lore somewhat analogous to the American cowboy — free, fierce, and independent. "I am a Cossack, I took an oath that I will defend the Ukrainian people," Gavrylyuk said at Friday’s press conference. "Every Cossack could always answer for another one. Revenge will be very tough." (Cossacks, of course, have a very mixed reputation in Eastern Europe. Elsewhere, they are better known as the hated dispensers of vigilante justice and perpetrators of pogroms.)

That sentiment of hardy defiance has become a defining feature of the Ukrainian protests, which escalated after parliament passed laws that would effectively ban anti-government demonstrations. On Saturday, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych declared that he would back an initiative to ease those laws and offered the posts of prime minister and deputy prime minister, respectively, to the opposition leaders Arseny Yatsenuk and Vitali Klitschko. They declined. "We’re finishing what we started. The people decide our leaders — not you," Yatsenuk said.

On Monday, that spirit of defiance appeared to pay off when Yanukovych agreed to scrap the anti-protest laws. The government also agreed to entertain a vote of no confidence before parliament but declined to agree to the opposition’s main demand, snap presidential elections.

Whether this marks the end of the Ukrainian protests remains an open question — whether the government’s partial retreat on the protesters’ demands will mollify the crowd is unknown. Like Gavrylyuk, the crowds in Maidan have shown remarkable resilience, stubbornness even, and the violence of the police response appears to have only solidified these feelings. On Sunday, thousands of protesters gathered in a Kiev cathedral to attend the funeral of Mikhail Zhiznevsky, a citizen of Belarus, who was shot to death during clashes with police. The Belarusian was one of at least four protesters who died last week. The dead also included Serhiy Nihoyan, who was also shot to death by the police during protests, and Yuriy Verbytsky, who was kidnapped along with journalist Ihor Lutsenko and was found dead in a forest several days later. Lutsenko managed to escape.

The revolution now has its martyrs. Both in the living, like Gavrylyuk, and the dead.