Kiev's iconic Maidan square is now full of Cossacks, tourists, and the homeless. What happened to the protesters who wanted to reshape Ukraine's future?
- By Hanna KozlowskaHanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.
KIEV, Ukraine — A person dressed as a pink bunny prances up to tourists armed with multiple cameras, offering to take a picture with them. Others in zebra, cricket, and dog outfits approach their marks. Vendors sell flags, magnets, and tote bags. The 1995 pop hit “What if God Was One of Us?” plays in the background.
But it’s not a scene from your run-of-the-mill tourist spot. It’s Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the square that was the site of the massive “Euromaidan” protests that started in November 2013 in support of Ukraine’s association with the European Union and that rocked the country, eventually ousting then-President Viktor Yanukovych from power. Today, just months after hundreds of thousands of protesters filled the square, dozens of protesters live in dilapidated military tents scattered around the square. Some sit outside eating together; others rarely emerge from their encampments.
But today, a solitary man standing on a wall with the Ukrainian flag in his outstretched arms is the only protester in sight. In May, the Maidan council, the residents’ governing body, decided that they would stay on the square until the parliamentary elections — which have not yet been announced. On Sunday, May 25, the country will choose its president, with Petro Poroshenko, the chocolate oligarch, slated for a sweeping win.
What was once a bustling center of the revolution is now a sad and bizarre element of the city’s landscape — part cyberpunk campsite, part tourist attraction, and part shrine to the 100 people who died in clashes with police forces. The action has long moved outside the Maidan — it’s in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Lugansk, Slovyansk; it’s on the floor of the Ukrainian parliament; it’s with the activists who have moved on from the Maidan tents to NGOs, civic society groups, and political projects working to reform the country.
“The Maidan now is just a place. The energy is not the same,” said Oleg Matsekh, a businessman from Lviv who participated in the anti-government protests from the very beginning and is now part of a group of activists lobbying for reforms in Ukraine.
All popular revolts have a focal point, an ordinary public place whose name becomes shorthand for revolutions that try to drive ruling governments from power. Egypt had Tahrir Square; China had Tiananmen Square. But what happens to that landmark when the revolution is over — when it succeeds, when it fails, or when it is put down by force? Often its legacy, like that of the revolutions themselves, remains unknown for months, if not years.
At the Maidan, the expansive square in downtown Kiev, remnants of the revolution remain. The most prominent — and the most haunting — is the burned-down labor union building that towers over the square, which is eerily reminiscent of the scorched headquarters of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party that lines one side of Tahrir. But the Kiev building was covered in pink polka dots by an unknown guerrilla artist, perhaps as a small symbol of hope among the destruction.
Life on the Maidan today flows at a leisurely pace. Men sit around in chairs outside their tents, slouched, ignoring the gaping tourists. Some provide the onlookers with entertainment. Two Cossacks, members of the age-old warrior tribe, stand singing about a girl and about the sad fate of their people. The older man is dressed in full traditional garb, with balloon-style pants, an embroidered shirt, and a whip hanging over his shoulder. Both are sporting the traditional Cossack forelock hairstyle. After they are done with their song, a group of tourists comes up to take a picture. Many of the groups remaining on the Maidan ask for money to live on, collected in transparent boxes outside their encampments.
The Cossacks were one of the first groups to join the anti-government protest movement. What are they doing on the Maidan? “Building a new Ukraine. A free, strong, rich country.” Would they vote in the upcoming elections on May 25? “There is no one fit to be prince,” the younger man says, using an archaic term that perfectly suits his overall image, before abruptly cutting the conversation short, excusing himself with a gentlemanly bow and running off.
It’s difficult to assess who are most of the people still living on the Maidan. Some are drifters; some have lost their jobs; some have lost their sense of purpose. Many of the Maidan vagabonds would only reluctantly give their first names, perhaps due to lingering fear or distrust of authority. “These people lived there, slept there. It’s difficult for them to go back to normal life. There was a time when were needed, but that is no longer the case,” said Kristina Berdinskikh, journalist and author of Maidaners, a popular Facebook page where she documented individual stories from the Maidan.
Some members of the nationalist Right Sector group stand by their Maidan headquarters, located by Kiev’s central post office: “We’re just standing here, not really doing anything. Blowing up potatoes [with explosives],” they say. Nearby, a group of young people, all in military attire, is caught between righteousness and self-deprecation. Serhii, 20, says that only the “warriors” are left. “It’s only the freaks who stayed,” jokes Katerina, 25, who will return to her bookkeeping job in Kirovohrad in central Ukraine after she leaves the Maidan.
For some, however, going back won’t be easy. Oleh, a man in his 20s, stands with his legs apart and hands folded on his back in front of a tent that belongs to the Donetsk sotnia, a traditional military unit of 100 soldiers and a term used to describe the Maidan’s organization. He’s from Slovyansk, a city in the country’s east that has been taken over by pro-Russian separatists. Because of his stint on the Maidan, it is not safe for him to go back to his family. Oleh says he is part of the movement’s famed self-defense organization that defended the protesters during clashes with riot police in the winter.
Many who still live on the Maidan claim to be there for security purposes, to “protect” the Maidan. But, according to activists who had left the square, despite all the “protection,” the place is not the safe haven it used to be during the nonviolent protests. Berdinskikh said that while alcohol used to be prohibited on the Maidan, now it is abused frequently. There have been incidents of beatings and robbery, according to Iryna Koval, another activist. After her friend was recently attacked around the Maidan, the police told the two that their hands were tied, as the square is the symbol of the revolution. And that’s what it should remain, she said. “It has to live, but [only] as a symbol.”
And while some Kiev intellectuals share the view that the space should be cleared, even by force, Zbigniew Bujak, a Polish political scientist and a former leader of Solidarity, the labor union movement that was instrumental in overthrowing communism in Poland, hopes that the fate of the Maidan will be decided in a nonviolent manner. Bujak has spent a lot of time on the Maidan while he leads a comprehensive academic study of its people. “I talk to these people and I see that they were in the gutter, and the Maidan helped them get back their sense of self-worth, their dignity. This is a perfect moment to go out and help these people.”
Bujak wants the Maidan to stay in place, even if in a changed form. “The Maidan leaders want to transform the Maidan — make it a ‘living memorial.’ It will be cleaned up, but they are working on ways to institutionali
The Maidan has already become a “living memorial” of sorts, a shrine to those who died during the protests. The entire square, especially Instytutska Street, which climbs upward along its eastern side, is sprinkled with memorial sites to the victims of clashes with the police and sniper bullets.
People lay down fresh flowers and candles by photographs of the dead. Someone constructed symbolic tombstones out of engraved stone slabs placed on car tires, which were used as building blocks for barricades against the riot police.
The victims of the clashes, the revolution’s 100 martyrs, are referred to as the “Heavenly Sotnia,” or the “Heaven’s Hundred.” The trauma of the tragic events on the square could be another factor that prevents people from returning to their pre-Maidan lives, according to Olexiy Haran, a professor of political science at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. In fact, many Maidan activists have shown symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Olga Evlanova, a therapist who volunteered at the Maidan’s psychological aid point during the protests, said she has been holding sessions for patients who have had trouble sleeping and controlling their emotions and who were experiencing frequent flashbacks to the traumatic events.
Sashko Rybak, an older man who lives by Instytutska Street, calls himself a “painter and a warrior.” He showed me photos of Serhiy Nigoyan, an Armenian man who was the first person to be killed on the Maidan. Rybak wants the revolutionary Maidan to remain in place forever. “The people have to control the government!” he said.
Hanna Hopko, an energetic 32-year-old with a Ph.D. in social communications, agrees that the authorities should be kept in check. But Hopko, a highly visible activist during the anti-government protests and a member of Ukraine’s hopeful young generation profiled by the New York Times, has channeled both her grief and her energy into political action, taking the Maidan to the chambers of the Ukrainian parliament. She is one of the founders of an informal group that is pushing lawmakers to pass what they call a “reanimation reforms package,” an effort to root out corruption, introduce transparency in politics, modernize the country’s legal system and bring it to European Union standards.
Hopko was part of the Euromaidan Civic Sector, two of whose members — Ihor Lutsenko and Yuriy Verbytsky — were among the first victims of pro-Yanukovych thugs. There is a general sense of responsibility for those who lost their lives on the Maidan, according to Haran. “They sacrificed their lives for what? Not for the people who are in power,” he said in a phone interview.
Hopko said that the four months she spent on the Maidan felt like a decade. “On the Maidan they were united by an idea, but also united by how to survive.” Under physical threat, the activists matured rapidly, Hopko said. But along with the gray hairs on their heads and the weight lost, the activists gained something invaluable — a sense of political empowerment. They underline that now, if those in power transgress against the people, a Maidan can be called in 30 minutes, a perhaps dubious assertion given the ways that the protest movement has dissipated amid the chaos of the election season and the uncertainty over the future of eastern Ukraine.
Matsekh, 50, Hopko’s colleague from the Maidan and the current reform package initiative, says that the Maidan was a catalyzing force. “Normally, democracy develops over decades, and the Maidan changed people’s mentality very dynamically. It showed them that everything depends on the people.”
Today, they use their newfound empowerment to put pressure on the parliament and provisional government. Along with a core of activists from the Euromaidan Civic Sector, Hopko and Matsekh gathered a platform of 150 experts from different fields to design and monitor the implementation of a wide-sweeping packet of reforms. They want to avoid the mistakes of the 2004 Orange Revolution, when civil society failed to exercise its watchdog function and the corrupt system continued to thrive.
I met with Hopko and Matsekh in front of Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, whose session had just begun. The group meets regularly with 25 MPs who have committed to cooperation. They were armed with fliers with sleek logos representing the reforms they are trying to push, which include access to public information, anti-corruption laws, and new election rules. Hopko, who talks at lightning speed and uses corporate keywords such as “synergy,” enumerated their achievements and their goals. She pointed out that the politicians they are working with are not new actors on the political stage — they know how to work the system. The group plans to work with the old guard, but “establish new rules.”
Many of the laws the group is lobbying for are aimed at quickly dissolving the crony system of the previous era — an overhaul of the police system and the prosecutor’s office, an inquiry into Yanukovych-era courts. Because they are dealing with “the old,” who fear the Maidan’s watchful eye, some of the legislation is particularly difficult to get on the Verkhovna Rada’s floor — most notably, an effort to disclose politicians’ assets. Although the group has already failed once at pushing through the legislation, they are not giving up and are even adding a clause that requires a disclosure of land assets.
The platform’s other projects include the standardization of business regulations to bring them closer to the European Union’s benchmarks, said Matsekh, who, as an employer of 50 people, leads the business-focused working group. The activists are also working to monitor the way funds from international organizations are implemented in the country, to avoid the uncontrolled expenditure politicians had practiced in the past.
The key idea is not to allow them to “relax,” Hopko said.
Haran, a prominent political scientist, said the effort is working. Several of the laws the group has been advocating have passed in the parliament. Regretfully, Russian President Vladimir Putin shifted the Ukrainian politicians’ and international community’s attention from Kiev to the country’s east. “The focus is not on the Maidan agenda, but how to stop the Russian aggression,” he said, adding, however, that the best way to deal with Ukraine’s problems in the east is to reform the country.
The Maidan’s revolutionary impact has reached far beyond its core political activists. Hundreds of thousands of people went through the Maidan, which Matsekh calls a “sieve” of sorts. It planted a sense of social engagement and civic responsibility that is unprecedented in the country. “Ukrainians had no real experience in volunteer work before the Maidan,” said Berdinskikh, the journalist. “Now people count less on the state to provide them with what they need; they count on themselves.”
Some former Maidan activists even found a way to deal with the impact of the crisis in the east, where the government’s efforts have proved inadequate. Iryna Koval, 25, runs the “Employment Center of Free People,” an organization that provides what she calls “free recruitment services” to refugees from Crimea and the country’s east, who now number up to 14,000, according to unofficial statistics. Koval is a human
resources specialist who was laid off from a corporate job. During the revolution she was involved in the Maidan’s employment center.
Today, her organization assigns refugees to jobs that are appropriate for their skills and education, contrary to the government’s employment agency, which hands out low-paid blue-collar jobs regardless of the person’s qualifications. Koval coordinates 70 volunteers, a number that is astonishing even to herself. Many are human resources professionals like herself. After the Maidan, “people care for the first time; they are willing to engage,” she said. The Employment Center of Free People works with two types of companies — those that are looking for employees, which she calls a “win-win” situation, and those that come with the intention to help, to create jobs for the refugees. According to Koval, the Maidan engendered another positive conversation: Company owners started talking about social responsibility in business for the first time.
Ukraine’s situation is far from ideal. The country is involved in an undeclared war with its hugely powerful neighbor; its eastern regions are partially controlled by violent separatists; its economy is in shambles. But, there is an “atmosphere for change,” according to Haran. Going from a popular movement to a functioning democracy is a huge challenge. A lot will depend on how well Petro Poroshenko, the “Chocolate King,” can run his broken country, and the veterans of the Maidan will be watching closely. They took down one government. If Poroshenko stumbles, they could try to take down a second.