In Kiev, Ukraine, Daniel Kovzhun is a 37 year-old, remarried father of two, a partner in an IT firm, and a political rebel. He trusts only one news source: "I am either out there, on barricades, or I am in Facebook."
My name is Daniel. I was born in Kiev. I am 37, remarried, with two kids, aged 6 and almost 3. I lived abroad for almost eight years, but came back. My family, my parents and brother, they all live here. I’m a partner in IT firm.
Kiev is a nice place to live. Not easy, but OK. An easy, laid-back murky water in a democratic part of the ex-USSR.
Now I am a rebel. Work, family, books, computer games - everything has been relegated to the backfround background. My wife supports me. Sometimes I am ready to start crying, reading a post on Facebook, and sometimes I shake with rage. I am either out there, on barricades, or I am in Facebook. It is the only news outlet I can trust. Sometimes it is nervous, sometimes depressive, or paranoid, sometimes full of romanticism, optimism, beautiful and tender stuff. Today it is angry.
It is Day 29 of #euromaidan. Imagine a medieval military camp on central square of a modern European city. It is cold, there is a central stage, there are free sandwiches and hot tea everywhere. Firewood is burning in oil barrels. It is clean and organised. Everyone is set, quiet, and free. Maidan at night.
Maidan is a Ukrainian word for square, or plaza, usually meaning the central plaza. Independence Square, Maidan Nezalezhnoti, where people went to prevent VFU from coming to presidency in 2004. Where people went to demand constitutional elections in 2010, when they were just about to be cancelled. So everyone knows where to go. I went, too.
A few words on our government and country. Ukraine was the second largest part of USSR, and is now the largest country in Europe. Since the fall of the USSR in 1991, it has been independent. However, its main dependency is on Russian gas - natural gas - that is used for heating and industry. Ever since Independence, our governments received a share/cut/kickback from Russia for gas imports. And so the prices for gas have blown up to nearly double of the cost for the same gas in the rest of Europe.
This gave rise to the perfect environment for corruption. Not theoretical corruption, when you have heard about someone somewhere up on top bribing somebody else - but real, thorough corruption on all levels. You get stopped for speeding - bribe. You need to change registration - bribe. You just can’t buy or sell a car without bribes. Or get license plates. Oh, well, you can, if you are willing to spend three days on it full time, pay 15 little fees in different banks, plus you get one receipt only after you paid another, and so on. We have nearly 150 taxes that a business has to pay. And if you just pay them it is 150% of the profit you can make. So you make a deal.
Here is how it all started.
Four years ago we encountered an even bigger evil - the Party of Regions. Coming from outskirts of the country, from big industry cities, mining towns. They are outright gangsters. Remember the President beating the crap out of one of the ministers? Another minister committing suicide by shooting himself in the head, TWICE. That’s a suicide world record.
The first surfaced nine years ago, when the fixed elections and tried to make Yanukovich, who had three trials and two prison sentences, a president. You know what he was tried for? First, for stealing fur hats in public toilets. A person squats, Yanukovich reaches over the wall of the cabin, grabs the hat and runs. His second conviction was forrape, if I am not mistaken - or rape was the third, for which he didn’t do time. But you get the picture.
Even in corrupted country, this was too much. People went out to the streets, demanding third round of elections. Putin also heated things up, congratulating VFY (Viktor Fedorovich Yanukovich) a few hours before the results were announced. We won that time. It was the Orange Revolution of 2004. Third round made Yuschenko a president, and VFY kept his political ambitions and formed an opposition.
My father was born in ’39. He comes from a big Jewish family. He remembers the repressions, the occupation, ghettos, Stalin, repressions, dissidents, Solzhenitsyn, repressions, repressions. In Orange Revolution he voiced what we all were thinking - “In this country, you never vote for someone. I have always voted against someone else.” Lesser evil.
Yuschenko turned out to be a jerk, wasting his immense political credit on telling everybody how bad Yulia Timoshenko is. Yulia is not perfect. In totally corrupted country, nobody is. But she has more will, guts, smarts and balls than anyone else. She was the frontman on Orange, and she practically made Yuschenko a president.
As a result of all that, the next election was once again fixed by VFY. But Yuschenko had lost so much public confidence, and Yulia was so confident that she would win that she relaxed. She lost by about 3 percent. VFY was made president, and first thing he did, he put Yulia in jail. End of story.
There was a joke that went around: Two homeless bums are collecting empty beer bottles for recycling money. One is wrapping every bottle in newspaper and rags. When the other asks him, why?, he says: Yanukovich will hear the clinking of bottles, will take the business for himself.
In four years of presidency, VFY practically killed middle class. Tax raids, taking of servers, raider takeovers, unidentified people beating those who protested against the unlawful building in a historical part of town - that’s our reality. He even managed to take business from oligarchs who brought him to power. And all other oligarchs. His family has all the businesses now. He installed his people as commanders of every army, police and militia unit. Every court, every tax agency, every town municipality.
VFY comes from a region called Donetsk, where the vertical of power, and loyalty -- and gas dependancy -- to Russia is the strongest. There was a joke that people were being kidnapped on the streets in Donetsk - to be brought to Kiev and made managing directors of family businesses.
We have been in a state of state ever since. Working, doing our best, seeing education being privatised and corrupted -- and our courts, all that. And then, light appeared in the end of the tunnel.
Oh, and I must say, that during all that, opposition remained. With Yulia in jail, her closest supporters formed parties of their own, and even managed to form the United Opposition. The opposition combined Yatsenyuk; Tyagnibok (who'd been Yuliua's top man); Svoboda (an ultra-right nationalist party) and Vladimir Klichko (the absolute world champion in heavyweight boxing).
The oppos did blocked parliament, preventing the ruling party -- who formed a majority with the communists -- from passing the laws the ruling party wanted. What they failed to do was form of shadow government. They are united, but would be happy to poison each other.
So. The light. About half a year ago, VFY and ruling party passed the law on general direction on integration between Ukraine and EU. It was like, “I can’t believe that this shameful idiot will make the most important decision in history of Ukraine”. And suddenly, government and opposition were doing the same thing. Instead of being in deadlock, laws started to get passed in accordance with their Association agreement. Releasing Yulia from prison was one of EU demands, but it was quickly clear that this was out of question. Even she said, Don’t worry about me, get on with Association.
It was funny. Everyone understood that life, in the short run, will be much harder. That there will be less money for everyone. That we might face default. And that if we join CU, the Russian Customs Union, we will immediately get 20 percent richer. But nobody wanted “back to USSR”. We all know what happened to Pussy Riot, and this is impossible in Ukraine. We wanted to keep that.
The Vilnus Summit was to mark the signing of the Association agreement was about to be signed. About a week before then, the government made a U-turn. Sorry I can’t be specific. Dates are hard to recall now, there was so much, and I am writing this for the last tree days, and lots are happening, so sorry, I google only what I must. And tonight I am on Night Watch again, and police are gathering again. So, let’s say, a week or so.
Suddenly, EU was all about gay marriages. That association was impossible for our economy. And so on, and so on. Massive campaign. It became clear that there’d been months of preparation. EU association was a fake-out.
At that time, a meeting in support of EU integration had already been announced by oppos for the Sunday when VFY was in Vilnus. But the Association took place a week before that. Suddenly, people on Facebook, journalists mostly, started to call to people to come out to Maidan. This is how it started.
Phase 1 - EU integration.
First few days, while we thought it would be signed, it was all artists, poets, film and advertising crowd, all the intilligentia. Best place to be, Maidan. Some people carried EU flags, some - Ukrainian flags. Artists had lots of funny slogans, like, ANGRY SLOGAN, and “Welcome Home” written over upward facing pitchfork, “Nation for Lustration”. Really nice, oil on polyfoam, pity they are all lost.
Then it was all students and hipsters. It was like a club everyone came to. A friend I’ve met there asked me, “where are all the grown-ups?”. This lasted for a week, until police beat the kids, the students, to half death. And arrested them. And put them in special wards in hospitals, so no one knew where they were. Many were not treated.
My wife and me, we hang out at the place we call Bacteria. It is an underground art gallery, pub, a place to meet. It really is just a rented and refurbished flat in the centre, with a separate entry. It is totally unofficial, you can’t just walk in. Drinks are cash only or on tab. No taxes, no nothing. My wife does barkeeping a few days a week, along with rest of founders.
The night of beating we were at Maidan. It was already known that association agreement was not signed, and we knew municipal powers (that are not really municipal, we are the capital, so after our last mayor ran away with embezzled funds, VFY appointed a pet placeholder) will try to disperse us. The protest had been going on for about a week already, there were students from other towns, firewood was burning in few oil barrels, tea and food was cooked in military issue field kitchen. Locals, people from Kiev, were donating food and likes.
At midnight, sharp 00:00, police appeared. I know the time because the big digital clock is right there. This force -- the Berkut, or “Golden Eagle” -- is a much feared (possibly illegal, there are no documents on their registration in government archives) special assignment militia unit. If your office is in trouble, or you run illegal file sharing - they are the ones who would appear at your door with no warning, making people lie on the floor while tax or other militia take what they need. They are our government brutes.
They came running from seemingly nowhere, maybe two or three hundred of them, jumping over low decorative fences on the main street, Khreschatik. Two or three thick, their phalanxes surrounded the protesters on Maidan in seconds.
At that time there were many people on the square. Kids, hipsters, women, press. Just as we saw Berkut, and looked around, it was clear that running makes no sense and leaves people defenceless (and yeah, I’m a serious defence, skinny 64 kg and almost 180cm tall). And, with all Christian Cameron books recently read, I knew we would need another line to hold, if we had to retreat. So we ran forward, forming a line of our own, locking hands with each other. There were some people between our line and theirs, press, mostly, and others, who did not consider themselves protesters. Our lines were a few meters apart .
People around me started to pull scarves over their faces, against tear gas, I understood. I’ve read before that fabric of the masks works better when wet. I saw a woman holding a disposable tea cup, her hands shaking. I stepped away from the line to ask her to pour tea on my makeshift mask. She started to cry.
We stood like that for only a few minutes. It was my first encounter with Berkut. Then they stepped back, and after a few minutes, disappeared, I didn’t notice how. I was looking at the bloodied head of middle aged and bearded Reuters photographer.
This midnight raid, nobody talks about it now. Like it never happened. But it did.
We stayed at the square until 3:30, 3:40. The small stage, erected in the centre, was being dismantled, the LED screens taken off. The people who were supposed to be in charge -- a young member of parliament, and an ex-singer, Ruslana, who once won Eurovision with Wild Dances song and had been active during Orange Revolution -- and took the stage as main voice of protest this time. So, we came and asked if we can help somehow, with the police threatening and all that. We were told that EuroMaidan is over, we will meet again, on Sunday (it was Friday) in other place in the city. So we left, leaving behind a few people packing the cables and stuff, and a few dozen more sitting onthe makeshift benches, trying to keep warm. We left, because by the look of it, there was no sense to scatter the people away. The place was nearly empty, and more people were leaving every minute. It was 30th of November.
By the time we came to Bacteria and had a first sip of beer, someone called about police raiding again. Facebook was screaming and nearly bleeding. 30 people found shelter in a cathedral… 70 people missing… photo of a girls being dragged by her scarf to heap of bodies, all unconscious… Regular city police helping the students run away… Berkut chasing them, beating with truncheons, kicking, beating people already on the ground until they stop moving….
After Berkut took people away, cleaners came. Regular early morning municipal workers. They have swept everything clean, took away the barrels and benches and everything. This day, when we woke up, we heard an official announcement that protesters were preventing the municipal workers from installing the central Christmas Tree. The “Yalinka”, in Ukrainian. But VFY’s Ukrainian was poor at the beginning of his term, and two years ago he forgot the word, and congratulated everybody on their “Yolka,” instead of Yalinka. It is Yolka forever now.
The next day, a public prayer was held in front of the cathedral where students were sheltering. We went there, me and my wife, still stunned after last night events. Our friends were already there. I put on my ski helmet and goggles, took 4D-cell maglight. It was a upcoming trend - we started wearing ski helmets few days ago. +1 for defence. Hmm.
The square in front of the church was erratic. People were grim. Oppo politicians brought some portable sound and were firing rhetorics along the lines of “criminal government! We won’t allow! Must stand united!” And so on.
A word on our oppo. We have Klitchko - he has no idea of what’s going on in politics, but at least he is an absolute world champion in heavy weight boxing. And we have two others. Three of them call themselves “united opposition”, but they are as unites as spiders in a can. Useless, but thats what we have, after Timoshenko was jailed. And those three are supposed to be carrying on for her. Mm-hmmm.
Anyway, that’s what we had. Oppo was raging, people standing solemn and angry, and on the side of the square a very interesting thing was going on. Interesting, in retrospect.
About a hundred young kids, 18 years old or so, were training to attack in wedge formation. They had empty two-liter plastic bottles scotch-taped to left forearms, and plastic water pipes in their right hands. Smart, I thought. Empty bottle, half deflated and tightly closed, makes a nice buckler shield, in theory. it might, once, allow you to block a truncheon, if you were lucky. I took notice. I approached a guys who seemed to be in charge, asked him if we can be of help. He looked me up and down, noticed my grey hair under my ski helmet, I guess, and said that tomorrow we will meet to pry out a lot of cobblestones, and said to bring tools for that.
Kids were training not 50 meters away from where oppo leaders were raging. No way they didn’t see each other. It all gave the feeling of riot that blew in our face on the next day.
Do you know what a 1.6 million people on the street around you feels like?
Some say we didn’t gather that number of people on Maidan, but other sources say that 1.6M people were moving towards Maidan. Well, Moscow kept screaming that it was just “a few thousand protesters”… Moscow propaganda is not even funny anymore. Ask your Russian-speaking friends to translate some of Kiselev’s recent shows from Russian TV, it is all on YouTube. We are all just a few thousand gay people copulating with space invaders and American imperialists and european neo-Fascists… Ugh. I want to go wash my hands even remembering those “news breaks”.
Streets leading to Maidan were filled with people for kilometres away. Filled like in jammed. Moving rivers of people. Middle aged, mostly. Happy, because being with so many people who came out for the same reason you did makes you happy. But the occasion was was sombre. We went to see what our oppo leaders will say.
I drove there with my wife, following side streets, almost all the way to human rivers. Then we met with friends near a small fountain in a tiny park a step away from the crowds. I had four helmets, two ski and two motorcycle ones. Plus, I woke early that day, and did the chores. The trunk of my car held a 30 litre gerry can of gasoline, 10 litres of drying oil, two new small crowbars for picking cobbles, some Xmas sparklers, 10 small funnels - five yellow and five blue, very patriotic, that made me proud. But we decided to leave the Molotovs in the car and see how it goes. We are patriots, but not extremists.
Central square was packed so tight that it took us hours to get there. We joked with city police, who stood on guard around last remaining Lenin statue. Many people shouted obscenities at them, they were angry at the whole Internal Affairs for what happened. We moved on.
Maidan was totally filled with people. Oppo leaders where shooting same rhetorics as yesterday, only a little calmer, calling to block government buildings. It was clear they didn’t want a riot. When they began to sound like a broken record, we decided to look around the centre. We had transparents with funny slogans, and were in generally good mood. We pressed through the crowds and started our tour of government buildings.
The Cabinet of Ministers building had busses parked all around it. Through the windows we saw lines and lines of police, all in riot gear complete with gas masks. Some citizens where quietly talking to them, reminding their oath to serve the people, others shouting obscenities. We went on, crossed to parallel street through the alley.
The President’s Building is located deep within a dead-end side-street. It was almost empty when we get there. What we saw was a road grader, with masked people standing on top of it. Small crowd of rightwing thugs and football hooligans I recognised from yesterday’s training in front of the church surrounded it, more people stood by the side just watching. It was slowly moving towards tight phalanx of riot police, but not the real riot police - kids in their first year of service. They didn’t even have shields and truncheons. People on and around the truck were urging an attack on the police.
Behind those cadet:. Buses standing left and right of the street, leaving a narrow gap. Six rows like that. And all space behind the buses was filled with fully equipped riot police and Berkut. Hiding behind those kids.
Later, I figured we came to the second part of the show - before we came, tractor managed to disperse the first line of police, who fell back, abandoning crowd control fencing.
My friend, who is a doctor in children hospital in Lviv, just came a day before, was the first to realise that something is not right. A grader, in the middle of government quarters. Freshly drafted riot police cadets. It felt wrong. He went to stand in front of the tractor, trying to stop it. I went to talk to rioters. My wife stayed closer to the entrance to the street, after much asking.
Later that day, they called everyone there “provocateurs.” They will show video of police letting in two minivans of people dressed like us. But let me tell you something. I’m sure provocateurs, hired by government, were there. Or rather, by powers from Moscow. But it does not matter. One old woman, holding the photograph of a bloodied student girl, would have been enough to set the people off. Everyone were angry. Disaster was boiling.
While we were trying to hold the tractor and people surrounding it, more people arrived. There were a lot of press and bloggers. And regular people. Mostly, just citizens. It was a protest, remember. If there was to be a forceful taking of the building, then be it. Place was getting full, but… Half a mile down the street were over a million. Here, maybe a thousand. We needed some of the oppo leaders to either stop, or lead the fight. But there were none.
The cell network here was still working, down where more than a million people stood, but the cellular transmitters were overloaded. I called a friend, who I knew was in one of the oppo parties, Batkivschina. He was in charge of working with students. Neither of use could hear the other well. Told him there were lots of people. Told him what’s happening, told him to come. By that time, the first cobblestones started flying. Someone threw a homemade smoke grenade. The fight was starting. Cadets kept formation. In this sense, it was not a fight - it was a crowd of kids throwing stones at other kids.
There was a movement in the crowd, when one of Timoshenko ex-helpers, Poroshenko, a big businessmen, best chocolates - same level as Nestle and Craft foods, and sells better in Ukraine than those - came forward. He climbed up the blade of the grader and tried to soothe the crowd. “We need to block access to government buildings, not fight the police!” He had a small, loudspeaker, almost a toy. I was standing on the blade at that time, too, along with one musician and a guy who managed to pass me a business card. Quite an occasion for biz cards, I must say. Standing next to him was the only reason why I have heard him at all. Crowds around the truck were too noisy. People were yelling at him to fuck off and go eat candies, and calling for the fight. Those were the provocateurs, and those provoked. I am sorry to use this word so much, but it is said so often, it went into my vocabulary of most disliked words, along with luxury and… Guess my buffer only holds two hated words.
Shouting, screaming, and then the crowd started to drag Poroh from the truck. We tried to help, but the blade holds only 3 or 4 people, and around the truck there was not a single space. People were pressed tight. I caught a glimpse of my friend the doctor, he was wearing my motorcycle helmet. He was still trying to argue with people when he was attacked, faceplate torn off, hit on the head with piece of rebar. Helmets helped many that day.
We somehow helped Poroshenko back on the truck, I don’t remember exactly how. His koudspeaker was gone, but I worked 10 years on film set as 1st AD, and I can make my voice carry. We started speaking together, and crowd started to listen. That was when first gas grenade came in, just near us. I had time to put on ski goggles and mask, and it helps against pepper gas perfectly, but Poroshenko had none of that. Down he went, bent by half, and was taken away by his aides.
At the first grenade, the crowd surged back. I was on that stupid grader so I wasn’t carried away. But it was clear the police were aiming at it. I went sideways, checked on most of my friends - banners on sticks helped identify them in the crowd. Then I came back to check on my wife. Grenades were coming steadily.
I found her on a little fence near entrance to the street. She tried to cover her face with scarf, it didn’t help much, and wind was blowing our direction, so she had a good taste of pepper gas, twice. Good thing was, in the morning I bought a few packs of disposable construction masks, 5 each. I gave them around, girls, TV crews, friends, anyone. Then I went to find my party friend, who’d made it there by then.
“We must get Kitchko to come here!” I shouted over the noise. “This is going to turn into senseless slaughter!”
“I can’t help!” he said, “It is not like I have his phone number!”
I was desperate. “Go then! Go drag them off that bloody stage and get some leaders here!”
Off he went. I came back to where my friends where.
The rest was easy on us. We realised running was useless when grenades landed, so we just crouched when we heard a grenade launcher go off, waited for two or three grandees to blow, got up again, screamed obscenities at the police. Down again, wait for the smoke to disperse, shout again. The mask helped. I could endure gas for hours, if needed. We stood like that for two hours, maybe. It was hard to tell.
We needed a plan, and for the plan, we needed someone with a plan. Its not like I was going to lead the revolution on my own - the coordination of efforts is paramount, and I was ready to be just a soldier. But standing there was pointless.
So I decided to go and try to fetch oppo leaders myself. But who am I to be allpowedclose to the main stage, where oppo were enjoying the attention of the masses. I went to gather our artist friends. And all of us there on that street.
Again we were lucky. We left half an hour before Berkut broke out from behind the human shield, and went berserk on everybody who was left on the streets.
By the time we coordinated, the oppos on the main stage announced that everyone on Bankova was a provocateur. Klitchko came at least few hours too late, but he came, and saved some people there. We exhaled, watched the the oppo playing revolution leaders from the stage, and went to Bacteria.
In the morning, Maydan was surrounded by barricades, made from that Xmas tree, the yolka, from police crowd control stands, and wooden base of skating ring they planned to install by the yolka. Oh, and somehow, the Kiev Municipality was taken, too, and was turned into a hospital and sleeping space. People were afraid to go to state hospitals, because many were arrested, some doctors fired for diagnosing concussions and fractures… Just as we were going to Bacteria, my doctor friend got a phone call, excused himself and went there. For the next 10 days, he was there every night, from 8 to 8. And we were on Night Watch.
Phase 2 - rebooting the system
Tomorrow or day after I will write about police attack on Maidan at night. We weren’t there but we drove, parked nicely and went on the barricades. Over 10,000 people came by cars, picking each other up and communicating on the Facebook.
Published 6:51 am Mon, Dec 23, 2013
More at Boing Boing
Maggie Koerth-Baker answers a new Science Question from a Toddler.
Elly Blue is a bike activist, writer, and publisher, and has run more Kickstarter campaigns than nearly any other person or group.