Street fighting. Molotov cocktails. Gunfire. LiveJournal? A blogger writes from inside the Ukrainian uprising.
You’ve seen the pictures. Molotov cocktails. Barricaded streets. Trebuchets. In the heart of the Ukrainian capital, a battle is raging between police and protesters. But what exactly are they battling about?
While journalists have worked admirably to make the conflict comprehensible, the situation just isn’t conducive to a quick explanation. The divisions manifesting on the streets do not follow a simple narrative of EU vs. Russia, People vs. State, cultural/ethnic Ukranians vs. Russians, or leftists vs. the right wing. It is a confusing melange of all these things and more, sparked most recently by dissatisfaction with endemically corrupt government that has become increasingly repressive. Locating the roots of this protest is a search with no end, limited only by how far back in history one is willing to look. Late last year, the government violently cracked down on peaceful protesters; a regime that was supposed to steer the nation towards the EU instead took a sudden turn towards Putin’s Russia; an election in 2010 brought with it the imprisonment of the opposition leader; a pseudo-revolution in 2004 failed to deliver on its promise; post-Soviet independence was incomplete, a process characterized by economic shock, disappointing growth, and a rising oligarchy; Soviet rule was culturally repressive, violent; Western Ukraine collaborated with Nazis on the Eastern Front of WWII; Brest-Litvosk; and on and on, back into the depths of history.
This is a struggle that we have an incomplete understanding of, but what we are witnessing is a public protest that is massive, organized, and impassioned, and that alone makes it important and worth watching. One of the most enthralling, enlightening ways to watch has been through the LiveJournal of Ilya Varlamov. Varlamov’s writing and photos have provided a visceral account of what it’s like to be on both sides of the barricades in Kiev. Though he primarily writes in Russian, Varlamov has translated some of his posts into English and has been kind enough to offer blanket permission to journalistic outlets seeking to reprint his work.
We have excerpted and condensed Varlamov’s English language entries below.
From the 1/26 entry, “Revolution in Kiev, Ukraine” concerning the events of 1/22-23:
I came to Kiev. I came to see for myself what is happening here. Of course, an hour after arriving at Maidan [Nezalezhnosti, the city's central square and the focal point of the protests], you begin to understand that everything what you’ve read in dozens of articles, saw in TV news reports is total crap. In the upcoming reports I will try to, as objectively as possible, to sort out this new wave of Kiev revolution.
Usually reporters try to answer the question: “Who came out to Maidan and why.” Depending on the political leaning of MSM [mainstream media], the answers are different. Some say it’s “fascists who came out to lynch the Moscali (Ukranian derogatory for Moscovites and Russians in general).” Some say “they’re bums and slackers, who’ve got nothing better to do” and “instigators on the government payroll.” In reality, there is no answer. Those who came out are completely different. Remember, how a couple of years in Moscow there was a MSM buzzword “angry townspeople.” Here you see football fans, retirees, office plankton. And everyone is standing together. A sweet, ol’ grandmother is pouring Molotv cocktail in a nationalists’ bottles; and a manager of a large company is carrying ammunition to the student. And as it seems to me at this time, these people do not have a specific plan, nor idea of what to do next. Of course, individually, everyone has their own plan to “save Ukraine.” For some its “we need a couple of crates of AKs and grenades, we’ll sort things out here quickly.” Others “need to ask the world community for help and bring in the UN troops.” At this time there is no central idea of what to do, an idea that can unite and point in one direction the people at Maidan.
The only thing that is completely clear – people came out against [Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovich.
The burning barricades are visited by people who have come to let out anger and resentment that have accumulated over the years – for the excesses of cops; for the corruption; for the ‘golden toilet’; for the stupidity of the sell-out officials. An elderly man, 80 years of age, walks up to young guys in masks and asks them for a bottle of flaming liquid. They ask him:
- “Grandad, you wont be able to throw it far enough!”
- “Just give me one, I want to show these beasts that they cannot treat me like this”
Unfortunately, the Ukranians had bad luck with opposition. The street mob is not controlled by anyone. Klichko and his company met with Yanukovch yesterday. Later they came out to the people, began to say something, but no one believes them. And no one wants to follow them. The main mass of people are completely non-political. They come out to kick Yanukovich and his company’s ass. Everyone has their own grievances and vision of the future.
There are very real battles on the streets of Kiev right now. Unfortunately, Yanukovich is far, so the Berkut (Ukranian SWAT) and soldiers have to play the role of Yanukovich’ ass. The scenery in Kiev is scary. Black smoke, burning barricades and constant explosions. Berkut’s flashbangs and the protestors’ fireworks explode in the streets. Each side is shooting at the other and there are already first casualties (2 to 5 based on different sources).
Let’s go to the barricades?
I rented a room in the hotel “Dnepr”, the very center on the European square. I come up to the main entrance, all doors are locked, lights are out. A group of men in helmets and protection, hanging nearby, greet me “Welcome to Kiev, Mister.” – they’ve confused me with a foreign tourist. Everyone’s laughing. It turns out that the entrance to the hotel is through a local bar. The security guy opens the door and leads me through dark hallways to the lobby. The lights are off, so as not to attract attention. After all, the hotel is almost at the front line.[...] [The] main burning barricade … consists of hundreds of burning tires, which are brought here from all parts of the city. The demonstrators got lucky with the wind – it carries the black smoke directly at the squads of Berkut and national guard standing behind the fires. The smoke completely obscures the view and both sides are currently working blind. [...] Activists run up, bearing shields and toss stones. Nobody sees the enemy, but everyone knows how far Berkut can toss grenades. No one approaches the determined line without a shield. The grenades that land are flashbangs and tear gas. This does not have much effect on the seasoned protestor. The key is to avoid a direct hit or a nearby explosion, which can cause concussion. [...] The fire is constantly fed by more tires. The smoke screen must be dense!
There are special men on the field of battle, who watch the troop movements of the opponent. The man in the mask and shield will always tell you where it’s safe: “Stop! There’s a devil shooting from behind the column, don’t go father that line! We’re about to smoke him out of there!” [...] The scouts constantly refresh information about the enemy position and coordinate activists, who toss stones and Molotov cocktails.[...]
I would like to dispel the most common myths about Maidan.
1. “They destroyed the whole city”
Not true. All of the action you see in the pictures are happening on a small square near the entrance to a Dinamo stadium. This is a government sector, there is no intereference in peaceful life outside of this area. If you make an analogy with Moscow, imagine that the barricades are someone in the area of Ilinka or Varvarka, near the president’s administration. Sure, it’s the center, but regular Moscovites wouldn’t notice. There is dark smoke and fire on all pictures: those are mostly burning tires. There is not tangible damage to the buildings. Unfortunately one store burned down last night near the barricades, resulted from a poorly thrown molotov cocktail. Even the statue of Lobanovsky, located in the epicenter of fighting has been covered with cloth to prevent damage. Overall, the protesters are very careful regarding property. They’ve take apart fences and benches, but no windows are broken, noone is vandalizing, and all looters are caught and beaten. So the picture is pretty apocalyptic, but things are not so bad.
2. “This is not a revolution, nothing horrible is happening”
Also not true. This is a real revolution. Decide for yourselves: it’s been two months since the center of Kiev has been in the hands of the opposition. Several government buildings are seized. The work of many government offices is paralyzed. The opposition has created barricades, which the authorities have not be able to take. Despite the freezing temps, tens of thousands of people are on the streets for the last two months. The system of defense and supply chain are established. There is perfect order at the protestor HQ, people are fed, dressed, people are pooling money to gather supplies. The most important thing: the people in power are unable to restore order. The police has failed several times at try to storm the barricades. I’ll make a separate post about this, but trust me, the only way to dismantle this is with heavy artillery, or drop in commandos. Every day the opposition is securing more territories. What is this if not a revolution?
3. “The entire Kiev is paralyzed, there is no peaceful life for the regular people.”
Kiev is living its own life. All stores and cafes are working, people are going to work, study in universities, get married, divorce and even die their own death. Most of the Kiev populace are not inconvenienced. Imagine if Navalny took over the Red Square and set up his camp there. What would change for you, Moscovites? Nothing. So the only people who are inconvenienced are toruists. A few stores and cafes had to close down in the very center. Also, those living in the center have troubles with logistics. But the entire Kiev is not paralyzed.[...]
People get warm next to campfire. Is revolution possible without a bicycle? I say no!
Look at the people. I said it already, but will repeat: all social classes are present on the squares – from students to pensioners.
From the 1/27 entry, “The Other Side of Maidan” :
Today’s blog post probably won’t be much appreciated by those who spent two months at Maidan. If right here and now the revolution means everything to you and you are living by it, it’s best to stop reading now. Today we’ll be covering the other side of the barricades. Because we’re not here to collect Likes, but to show an objective picture of the events.
When at Maidan, one is driven by the euphoria, similar to the one you get at a concert or a sports stadium during a match: even a stranger gets caught in the wave of cheering and supporting the common cause. Kiev’s Maidan is hosting thousands of people, truly and genuinely united by one common idea. This is really cool, and I sincerely envy Ukrainians who have managed to make this happen. But let’s try and leave Maidan to have a look at what’s going on the other side.
On the opposite side of the barricades there are people with faith in a different truth. Unfortunately, communication with Berkut troops [face masks and light blue camouflage uniform] is practically impossible. As soon as you try to come closer, you find yourself at a gun point immediately. Nevertheless, we hear comments from the commanders every now and again. The troops of National Guard [dark blue uniform] are more sociable. Yesterday while the truce was in force, I visited the other side and spoke to the militia, who has been guarding the government quarter for the past five days.[...]
“I do not understand, why do they throw all this at us? We are simple soldiers. There are a lot of guys of the 2013 draft. They are 18-year olds, only six months ago, they went to the same movie theaters and cafes with those students who now want to kill them. And why? Is it because of the politicians? Here they tell us, ‘switch to the people’s side’. But where is that side? I have relatives in the Crimea and they fear that Russia will introduce visas if Maidan wins. I have a friend, he’s a taxi driver, and he hates all these demonstrators: there are traffic jams everywhere. Where is the side of the people? Who to choose? We gave oath to protect public buildings from being captured, and we’re keeping it. We are not politicians. ”
“They call themselves the people, eh? Quite some people they are! Just look at them. They seized and destroyed the city center, equipment is being burned, people are being injured. In only a week almost 100 of us ended up in hospitals. I have a family, kids, and I’m standing here for them. I’m not interested in politics. Life for us, the common people, will not get any better if Maidan wins. We already had their Yuschenko, so what? They stole then, they steal now, and they will keep stealing. The oligarchs are playing their games there, while we’re dying here for them. I’m standing here for my children, and they (the elite) are all criminals there. If only we had an order, we would disperse them all in two hours.”[...]
From the 1/28 entry, “Maidan Inside Out” :
It is time to look into Maidan more carefully, as it has become a bit quieter in Kiev. Almost everybody has heard the word “Maidan” but still hardly knows what Maidan looks like. The centre of Kiev, which is Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti), the main street (Khreshchatyk), European Square and neighboring streets are occupied by all the protesters. They have occupied several buildings of the administration block where now people can get warm, receive medical help and clothes at special stations. The streets are covered in tents that shelter protesters from all over the country.
Everything on Maidan is perfectly organized. It reminds of a small state with its own army, armory which consists of bottles, sticks and stones, food stock, mass media, shops and, of course, well-functioning border control. The approach lane is blocked with massive barricades. Maidan with its watchtowers, barbed wire and numerous guards looks like a maximum security penal colony. It is protected by fighters whose effective weapon consists of sticks, thick metallic chains and Molotov cocktails. The fighters keep to the military discipline: they march and study the basics of street battle in their free time. They are divided into troops, each with its own commanding officer, aid man and even banner-bearer.
There is everything for living on Maidan. One can get food, all the necessary clothes, defence and medical aid in case one gets wounded. Some people cam here two months ago and stayed. The living conditions are obviously rather poor, since people are using street toilets, getting warmed by fires and sleeping in unheated tents.[...]
One of the main barricades in Institutskaya Street. The barricade has been stormed several times and it is now the most stable. You see its exterior. Note that at the front this 5-meter-high barricade is stabilized with ropes, hedgehogs and barrels.
Another entrance to Independence Square. Note the donation box. People give money for Maidan and it is collected in such boxes which are situated at every entrance.
Stones and paving are piled up at the foot of each barricade to use in case of attack.
The tent camp basically reminds of a deprived area but clean and with lots of banners.
People are cooking porridge.
“Maidan is all day long and for a long time.”