Nimbus-like, black ravens scudded across the skies of Kiev last weekend. Dusk was falling as the vast flock flew about in a spectacular swirling dance, seeking shelter for the fast-approaching night. Finally they settled silently atop the bare trees in the courtyard of Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, the oldest of the city’s churches. The cathedral has seen much during its millennium of existence, but probably nothing to match what this long-suffering city, which has known wars and revolutions, is now enduring.
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As darkness descended, it covered the snow that blankets the cathedral square and imposed a grave-like silence upon it. Not far away, a maintenance man at the national opera scattered salt across the plaza leading to the hall’s entrance, so the audience would not slip on the hard-packed snow, now turned to ice. This evening: Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Yesterday: Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Ticket prices start at 20 hryvnia – about 20 shekels, or $5.70 – and many culture-loving Ukrainians turn out for the event, dressed to the nines, Kiev style, old-fashioned and touching. Kiev is now split and torn. In one part of the city people go to the opera, but in another part, theater of a very different kind is being played out.
At the bottom of the scarred street that leads to Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Independence Square – not far from the opera house and the cathedral, black smoke rises into the lowering sky. This evening: revolution. In fact, not just this evening, but for almost three months now. Thousands of people have braved the bitter cold to live in huge tents, which have been erected behind makeshift barriers of sacks of snow, barbed wire, skeletons of burned buses, street benches and tires.
Many of these people, masked and wearing camouflage gear, are armed with weapons in the form of knives, clubs, spikes and steel chains. Others – young people, but also quite a few who are elderly – wear tattered civilian clothing. Homeless or hopeless. All of them are struggling in these inhuman conditions for the future of their vast country, which is now teetering between West and East, between Europe (and America) and Russia, and between democracy and tyranny.
There has been something of an armistice in the square over the past few weeks. Police forces besiege it from the nearby hill, site of Yevropeyska Square (European Square, ironically enough) but do not dare enter. The rebels’ militia controls the churches and the exits to the immense camp, which extends as far as Khreschatyk, the city’s broad main thoroughfare. The brand-name stores are locked or empty, the whole center of the city is blocked and occupied, as are some government buildings, where revolutionary guards behind improvised fences check those who want to enter.
It’s an odd coalition of liberal circles, devotees of freedom, justice and the West; paired with extremist anti-Russian nationalists under the leadership of Svoboda, the Ukrainian Freedom Party, whose genesis dates back to the pro-Nazi nationalist militias that fought against the Soviets in World War II.
This revolutionary odd couple is protesting against the government’s refusal to sign an agreement with the European Union, and its surrender to the Russian dictate; against the regime and President Viktor Yanukovych; and against the country’s intolerable living conditions. Nationalists and liberals – they share only rage, but it is boiling hot, even in this Ukraine winter with the temperature at minus-17 degrees Celsius in the shade.
It all started some months ago when a few hundred students demonstrated against the government’s failure to sign the agreement with the EU. A brutal reaction by the security forces, who tried to remove the protesters from the square by force in the middle of the night, brought the masses into the square and sparked the still-burning blaze. The demonstrators have been here ever since, day and night, through the freezing winter, trying to warm themselves by way of burning barrels and makeshift heaters, sleeping in military tents or in the open, taking refuge behind the snow-sack barricades, eating murky soup and potatoes brought by good citizens, and waiting for better times.
According to Dr. Gershon Biloritsky, an ultra-Orthodox lawyer, businessman and activist in the Jewish community, the protesters might stay where they are for another year, until the next presidential election. The police are concerned about more possible clashes. The spirit of the demonstrators is firm – they have little to lose – and a wide gulf separates their demands from the president’s stance.
The biggest picture in the square is of Yulia Tymoshenko, the blonde-braided leader of the opposition, who has been in prison for more than two years, after being convicted on corruption charges. Her image, along with that of Jesus and the flag of the European Union, blue with gold stars, looks down on the square.
Also shimmering above the humble folk in Maidan are huge ads for the prestige Swiss watch brand Ulysse Nardin. The office building of the international auditing firm Ernst & Young adds another layer of unsubtle irony to the scene. The rebels want Europe, they want brand-name Swiss watches and they want freedom; some of them want Ukrainian nationalism. With blood and fire we’ll make Yanukovych retire.
A visit to the immense square leaves one reeling. Amid the barricades and the massive monuments, the demonstrators’ suffering, sacrifice and grit are palpable, accompanied by an ominously looming atmosphere of pent-up violence. There are heartrending moments, too: Someone plays a street piano painted in the national colors, blue and yellow, in the numbing cold; young people play table tennis to pass the time; an old man shivers from the cold; an old woman, hunched over, peels potatoes from a sack; a group of elderly women wear T-shirts inscribed with the word “Mama”; a sea of Ukrainian flags and icons of Christian saints adorn the square.
The meagerness is appalling: soup and potatoes are almost the only food; considerate citizens bring warm clothes, which are heaped up in piles. Along the side of the square an emergency clinic has been set up, because the demonstrators who have been wounded (and presumably those who have yet be wounded) or have fallen ill from the brutal cold are afraid to go to a regular hospital for fear of being arrested.
The logistics are efficient: field kitchens, thousands of snow-filled sacks to build five-meter-high barricades, barbed wire, chemical toilets and guards wherever one turns. Order is generally maintained, and the site is relatively clean. Some of the demonstrators are cordial, others are tough and terrifying. They have come here from across Ukraine. Every so often, another procession of people in camouflage enters the square, its members armed with truncheons, shields, helmets and iron chains.
“There will be a war here,” I am told by Dima Chasnakov, one of the marchers, who asks for money and makes do with an American cigarette. The smoke that rises from the heaters and the barrels sticks to one’s clothes and won’t let go – like the powerful impression created by this protest. There’s a cartoon of Vladimir Putin with horns, as the Great Satan, and graffiti: “Yanukovych – murderer.” Another image of the president shows him behind bars. Portraits of the five martyrs of the protest hang on the barbed wire.
My hands are numb from the cold and charred from climbing the barricades. Not far away, in an outlet of the Coffee Time chain of cafes, it’s almost business as usual and the chocolate milk is especially thick. But there is only a trickle of customers at Besarabsky, the city’s covered food market, and the sellers almost beg you to buy black caviar or slices of lard. A group of tourists from Moscow who, despite everything, have come for the weekend, is visiting the home – now a museum – of the physician and writer Mikhail Bulgakov, a native son. The titles of his works resonate potently here: “The White Guard,” “Black Snow,” “Heart of a Dog.”
A leaden cloud of uncertainty about the future hangs heavy over this beautiful city on the Dnieper. The restaurants offer marvelous food, but most of them are empty, a combination, probably, of the grinding winter and the grim protest. The waiter in the hotel is worried about the destruction of the center of his city. No one knows how it will all end. Whether Yanukovych will be forced to resign or whether the protest will die a lingering death.
A few small tent bastions of protest have also appeared in other parts of the city, such as the one next to the Mikhailovsky Cathedral, far from the madding crowd. A few protesters have gathered outside the British Embassy, holding signs that say “Ukraine is not a British colony.” They are encircled by police. The protesters say that tomorrow they will demonstrate outside the Russian Embassy with the same message, this time aimed at the former Great Mother, which now wants to take this hard, pitiable land back into its steely fold.