CREES doctoral researcher's first-hand impressions of the crisis in Ukraine, December 2013

Posted on Friday 20th December 2013

CREES Doctoral researcher Duncan Leitch writes about his experiences while in Kyiv, Ukraine during December 2013.

I have been in Kyiv since Wednesday and have been to Maidan everyday for a couple of hours or so. The first day was freezing and snowing and I got cold walking around, let alone standing listening to rallying speeches which is what a lot of people were doing. Each day the crowd has got bigger, building for the weekend.

I have been in plenty of demonstrations, including during the Orange Revolution, but I have never experienced anything approaching this level of emotional commitment. The mood is peaceful, festive, even joyous, but deadly serious, solemn and angry, at the same time - if that makes any sense. I saw a group of about 30 middle-aged men standing in front of the city hall (which is occupied by the demonstrators) in a kind of military parade but without uniforms, solemnly taking an oath of some kind. It seemed to be about defending Ukraine and their families. There was nothing violent or aggressive about them, just very determined. About 10 yards away, still on the street outside city hall, there was a sing-song of Ukrainian chansons around a piano, everyone laughing and clapping.

People of all ages are on the square in front of the temporary stage, all day every day; maybe a few thousand in the middle of the day and many more in the evening; plenty of women and children plainly feeling very safe in an atmosphere of extraordinary solidarity. No one minds being photographed, many even smiled for me when they saw me trying to take a discreet shot. Elsewhere on Kreshchatik there were groups of older people sitting around impromptu fires, some of the men in old uniforms with their medals proudly on display. Other groups were busy adding tyres, dustbins, metal pipes, plastic chairs etc to the barricades. The one at the bottom of Institutska street near Maidan is about 3 metres high! New barricades are appearing every day. Opposite Bessarabskiy Market a group of about 6 men with hammers and chisels are spending all day, every day, taking the one remaining statue of Lenin in Kyiv apart. It's all a wonder of self-organisation.

And all very clearly just ordinary Ukrainians whom you wouldn't expect to come out and demonstrate but who have come to the end of their tether with the way their country is being mis-governed. I was so moved the first time I stood there on Maidan I suddenly got all misty eyed and upset - I had just never experienced an atmosphere of such strong collective emotion and sense of purpose. I had the strong feeling that they would let nothing shift them and that they will stay until Yanukovich goes. Somehow, because there is no real political leadership this time, the sense of will coming from the people themselves seems all the stronger.

The tipping point as you know was the night of 30 November when the riot police attacked a group of students without warning at about 4am, mainly in Bankova street near the President's office. There is a film of young students being repeatedly truncheoned and kicked, without provocation and just for being there. Friends have told me that before that incident there was a smallish and probably containable protest about the Association Agreement which might have fizzled out eventually. But what happened to the students seemed to bring out all the latent anger and resentment of Yanukovich and his circle. It was followed a day or two later – during the visit of the EU’s Catherine Ashton - by a very heavy-handed and brutal attempt by an estimated 2000 riot police to clear Maidan itself, again in the small hours, which was successfully fought off. By the following weekend there were an estimated 1 million protestors on Maidan, Kreshchatik and all the surrounding streets.

The same numbers are expected this weekend, but the Mayors and Governors of cities and regions in the east have been laying on coaches and trains to bring pro-Yanukovich support to Kyiv. The same thing happened in the Orange Revolution, but there is real anxiety here today that there will be deliberate acts of provocation over the weekend. I was near Arsenalnaya metro station at lunchtime when some of the buses arrived - it was not a pretty sight, they looked like they meant business and were already well into the second or third can of Obolon lager. It is said that they have been given pocket money to come.

16 December

The weekend passed off more quietly than many expected. There was a big pro-Yanukovich rally on European Square (some irony there) for people who had been bussed in from the Donbas. I was with a friend from Zaporozhiye and we tried to get into the rally on European Square from Maidan. Coaches blocked our way and we were pushed back by riot police who said we needed passes! Azarov later spoke and in addition to saying that the Association Agreement would oblige Ukraine to legislate for gay marriage (a lie), he claimed that the barricades in Kyiv had been put up by radical elements who wanted to break up the country. A bit rich considering it was his barricades that we had just failed to get through. Later we spoke to one of the informal organisers of the Maidan protest who said that people have been given mobile numbers to call should they find themselves in trouble with the riot police, and squads of people have been assigned to go immediately to their assistance.

I was told today that most of the people who were brought in on Friday and Saturday were promised 500 Hrivna, about $60, but actually received less than a third of that. It seems that most went home on the Saturday and the trouble expected on Sunday never happened.

Most people I have spoken to are deeply unimpressed by the 3 politicians who regularly take the stage at Maidan and seem desperately to be trying to keep up - Yasenyuk, Klichko and the right wing Svoboda leader whose name I forget but has some gifts as an orator or rabble rouser depending on your view. There is some talk that Poroshenko is waiting in the wings and keeping his powder dry. People who want the news watch Poroshenko's channel 5. Meanwhile, Yanukovich seems frozen in inaction and people think he will just stay and stay. He has too much personally to lose.

Deeply irritatating to see American senators taking the stage in Maidan. Not helpful to anyone, except possibly Mr Putin.

I had a drink with a Ukrainian friend this evening who took me by surprise by vehemently presenting the nationalist case, which in brief says that Maidan is not about Europe or about corruption and misrule, but about Ukrainian independence and identichnost. He reminded me that most of the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine is populated by immigrants who were brought in from Russia after the genocide (his word) of the early 1930s, and among them there is still a question regarding loyalty to the idea of an independent Ukrainian state. I argued with him but only a little; what do I know after all? But I do have good friends of Russian parents in the east who regard themselves as Ukrainians above all. At least I think they do. Perhaps I should check! Anyway Viktor's view shows how many shades of opinion there are on Maidan and how difficult this is going to be to resolve peacefully. He reminded me that most of the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine is populated by immigrants who were brought in from Russia after the genocide (his word) of the early 1930s, and among them there is still a question regarding loyalty to the idea of an independent Ukrainian state. I argued with him but only a little; what do I know after all? But I do have good friends of Russian parents in the east who regard themselves as Ukrainians above all. At least I think they do. Perhaps I should check! Anyway Viktor's view shows how many shades of opinion there are on Maidan and how difficult this is going to be to resolve peacefully.

Patriotic Ukrainian singing this afternoon on Maidan and some very permanent looking tents have gone up on Kreshchatik. I am still surprised how many middle-aged and older people are standing out there in the cold, for hours on end it seems. I count myself as one of them of course!

18 December

Felt honoured today to be shown around the headquarters of the demonstration, which is in the Trade Union building on Maidan itself. The man who showed me round was a 'pomoshnik' to a Verkhovna Rada deputy, and explained that although the demonstrators are keeping their distance from politicians in his view it would be difficult to keep the background organisation going without the support of political parties. The organisers have made a point of paying rent and expenses to the owners of the trade union building, so as not to be open to the accusation of occupying the building illegally. Dmitri, the pomoshnik, showed me the stores of food that people have donated: they have a room with 10 tons of sugar, he said! People are bringing in jars of home-preserved mushrooms and they even have a qualified person checking that each jar is safe to eat.