Heroes of the Maidan

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

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

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."

Anna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, covering Russia and the former Soviet states. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship and the 2015 IWMF Courage in Journalism award. Twitter: @annanemtsova