Terror and Wonder in Kiev: This Is What Real Protest Feels Like

Ukrainians aren't protesting over the price of cottage cheese. A visit to Kiev shows the risks they're willing to take in order to change the political status quo.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

KIEV – Dima walked around Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) last Friday, cradling an injured white dove. The temperature in the square was way below zero and a freezing wind whipped his face.

Dima has been living in the square for two and a half months. His face is sooty, his clothes tattered and filthy, and his body covered with cold burns. The dove he carries was hurt in the riots, he says.

Thousands of masked men mill around him, armed with truncheons and shields, brass knuckles and iron chains, wearing the camouflage uniforms of the people’s militia that was established out of the protest. They scrutinize people entering the square. Iron barricades, walls made of bags full of snow, burning tires and barbed wire enclose the square from all sides.

No televised report or photo can prepare you for the shock when you enter Maidan. First, there’s the thick smell of fire and smoke that rises from a distance. Then the Ukrainian music and the excited speeches pouring out of giant speakers.

Then comes the biggest shock of all: The fearsome square, surrounded by huge, Communist-era buildings (Khreshchatyk, Kiev’s main street, broader than the Champs-Élysées; and Yevropeyska Square in the north) – the beating heart of the Ukrainian capital, a gigantic metropolis with nearly 3 million people – is closed off, scorched and conquered.

War. At the end of last week, the Ukrainian Tahrir Square looked like a battlefield at temporary rest. That’s the way a revolution looks.

A huge tent city, hundreds of army tents, white smoke rising from the chimneys of makeshift stoves, installed to try and mitigate against the Ukrainian cold. Not everyone has a tent. Many huddle around fires burning in sooty barrels, warming up thin soup – almost the only food here.

Many people, mostly men, quite a few of whom are elderly, have been living here for over two months under these cruel conditions. You need an incredible amount of rage and grit to stand it.

This is a temporary truce. Near the philharmonic auditorium in Yevropeyska Square, the forces face off. This is the most impressive sight of all. I climbed up on the barricades, sinking into the snow and ash.

On the hill across the way were hundreds of police, protected by iron shields. Opposite them stand the rebels, armed with weapons. In between is a terrible no-man’s-land: barricades consisting of burnt-out buses and trucks, fences, metal street benches that have been ripped out of their places, the protesters’ makeshift guard posts – and high walls of sacks of snow, walls that will not melt until spring.

The Orange Revolution that began at Maidan 10 years ago has now turned into the snow rebellion – the blazing rebel energy is at least as powerful, painted black with soot and white with snow.

From time to time, more protest marches – thousands strong – arrive at the square. Most of the participants wear uniforms, helmets, and even body armor and gas masks. Some are masked and wield truncheons, spikes and iron chains. An Israeli who happens onto this scene cannot help but feel terror and wonder.

Terror, because this square is frighteningly volatile – one incendiary device could ignite everything all over again; five people have already been killed and hundreds injured. Wonder, because this is the way real protest looks.

From here, Israel’s social protests on Rothschild Boulevard look like a caricature, demonstrations of the Israeli left look like a Saturday picnic: a bit of mingling in the square, Eyal Golan and Shlomo Artzi on the speakers, depending on the weather, and home. The essential component of any protest – rage, which is exploding at Maidan – is missing in Tel Aviv.

You don’t come to Maidan to feel good, but to change things. For this, you are willing to sacrifice everything – warm house, job and even life itself.

The protest, which began over Ukraine’s decision to refrain from signing an Association Agreement with the European Union last November, has become a mighty protest of rage and freedom against a corrupt regime. Israel’s 2011 social protests began because of the price of cottage cheese, but gave up the ghost, as if nothing had ever happened.

KievCredit: Reuters
Protesters clash with police in central Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014.Credit: AP
KievCredit: Reuters