Surrounded by at least 1500 activists bearing placards written in Cyrillic, I feel a bit out of place. See, despite my basic Russian-language skills, a sign that transliterates to “System for soap” has a slightly confounding effect. I ask Ilya, a young member of the crowd, what on Earth it means.
“It’s an old saying. Soap used to be made from pig’s fat,” he tells me. “We are all calculating how much soap we could make from the people who run this country, and with that soap we can then lubricate the ropes from which we will hang the entire system.”
Spurred by the events of the Ukrainian “Euromaidan” revolution, where often over one-million protesters occupied Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) for four months throughout winter, these Kyivans remain in situ, unconvinced that the change they’ve bled for will eventuate.
This is not without good reason. The so-called “Orange Revolution” of 2004 raised the hopes of Ukrainians across the country, with then-President Viktor Yushchenko promising to usher in a new era of politics in Ukraine; one free of the corruption which has plagued the region since its independence after the fall of communism.
Fast-forward to 2010 when Ukrainians were so disillusioned with the performance of Yushchenko – who fulfilled few of his promises – that they re-elected previously-ousted President Viktor Yanukovich.
A perfect storm of factors lead to the Euromaidan protests: rampant corruption within governing structures; allegations of siphoning of state assets into private accounts owned by members of the Yanukovich family; and ultimately a critical mass was reached after the decision by Yanukovich to reject a European Union association agreement, instead choosing to accept a loan bailout from Russia to pay billions of dollars of overdue gas bills to Russia’s Gazprom.
The protest began in late-November and was initially peaceful, as activist Valerie Boyko recalls.
“I was so proud of my country at this time. I would come by train for 12 hours from my hometown in Donetsk when I could. Inside the barriers around Maidan, people were so happy: yes, we hated Yanukovich and his excesses, but we were part of something big.
“There was a whole functioning organism here. There was food for everyone; hot borsch soup, coffee – everything people needed for the cold winter nights. We had a peoples’ university where anyone could come and listen to highly-educated speakers. There were free concerts to help keep the people entertained through the cold.” She says.
In January the books and borsch were soon replaced with shields, helmets and Molotov cocktails after Yanukovich’s Party of Regions hastily passed a series of seemingly-authoritarian laws aimed at ending the protests. A deadline was then given to the protesters, the deadline was ignored, and the notorious Berkut riot police moved in with full force.
During the assault, much of the barricading was removed and several people were killed, but the police were ultimately repelled. Additional barriers were installed around the square and existing ones were strengthened with razor-wire, tank traps, tyres (to set on fire) and water was poured on the road, icing it so that Berkut officers couldn’t easily advance.
In a last-bid attempt to regain control of Ukraine’s capital, Yanukovich ordered a full-scale assault on the square. From February 18 to 21, over one-hundred people were killed, many in calculated attacks by snipers. Realising the gravity of the situation, Yanukovich fled to Russia, before being impeached by the parliament.
Since that day, though the media focus has shifted from Maidan to east Ukraine, where a war is being fought between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military, a contingent of Euromaidan protesters remain in Kyiv, manning the barricades.
These people, who now wear army fatigues to identify themselves as part of the “Maidan self-defence force”, come from all walks of life. Many are ex-military, some are mothers, others homeless and looking to be a part of something important. All are steadfast in their resolve to defend the square until the Ukrainian governing system has been reformed.
“For these guys, it’s not enough that Yanukovich is gone,” Anastasia Bezverkha, a journalist completing her PhD in Kyiv explains, “We’ve changed the face but the system remains. Poroshenko is an oligarch; he is a billionaire and has a monopoly on chocolate in Ukraine.”
The protesters believe that their presence is required to remind the new government why they’re in power, thus guaranteeing that a slide back to the corruption of times gone by is prevented. Despite being a proud supporter and participant of the Euromaidan movement before the revolution, Anastasia disagrees with this argument.
“These guys need to go. The time of Maidan is over. These guys have done their job and the people of Ukraine owe them a great personal debt, but many are just here now because of the amount of money they earn from donations.”
This view is not the exception. During my time on the square, I witnessed several people, often middle-aged women, voicing their opposition to the continued occupation. One was almost forcibly removed by one of the younger, more hot-headed self-defence men, before his superior reminded him that Maidan is a place for the people now.
You get the feeling that the occupiers take their role as some sort of democracy insurance policy seriously. They keep tabs on everyone in the square, questioning people if they believe there may be a threat to the very existence of the occupation.
For the majority of Kyiv’s three-million inhabitants however, the picture is not quite so clear. Many appear frustrated as pompous self-defence men and women divert their usual walk to work around the barricades, tents and monuments to the fallen. Some of the self-defence forces stumble around the square, intoxicated and without purpose.
I witnessed the fourth Maidan “viche” – an old Ukrainian term for a gathering of the people to discuss important matters facing the community. The participants, numbering about one-thousand, discussed matters of administration of the square – including perhaps removing some of the barriers – a proposition which was met with a resounding “no”.
After a Ukrainian-Orthodox service, one of the leaders of the occupation demanded an audience with members of Kyiv city council, whose recently-elected leader – the charismatic ex-boxer Vitali Klitschko – has been calling for the removal of the encampment altogether. Despite the city council building being located only about 500 metres from Maidan, Klitschko and the rest of the council were nowhere to be seen.
Such is the enormous shift in focus from Maidan to the east, that Klitschko has been actively involved at the negotiating table with President Poroshenko rather than dealing with the his fresh portfolio in Kyiv. While it appears that popular support for the occupation of Kyiv’s centre has run dry, there is plenty of activism continuing to occur in the city.
One morning, a large procession from parliament carried the body of Vladimir Martsishevskiy, a journalist and activist who disappeared from the square two days prior, before being found murdered in a forest on the outskirts of Kyiv. A solemn Orthodox funeral was given by priests on Maidan stage, and the tightknit group were able to farewell a comrade of over 9 months.
The mourners used the afternoon to vent their frustration that, like Vladimir, the “heroic hundred” who died defending the square in February still haven’t been avenged. Many of the Berkut riot police officers fled to Crimea and are now safely protected by Russia; others are now reportedly fighting against the Ukrainian army in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The distraction of war in the east has been an effective tool for Poroshenko, Klitschko and company, who, despite the ongoing occupation of Maidan Nezalezhnosti, are forgiven by most for not being entirely accountable. Poroshenko has not yet sold his businesses and major assets as he guaranteed he would when inaugurated as President, and has not yet enacted the sweeping reforms required to rid the government of the corruption that has plagued Ukraine since its independence in 1991. Many members of parliament accused of working against the country’s interests remain in their positions.
On my last morning in Kyiv, one unimpressed businesswoman was the focus of attention on the square, producing a sign demanding the self-defence forces “clean this mess” and suggesting to those protesting her presence that they take a train to the east and fight if they actually want to help. She pointed out the drunks, calling the wider group “freeloaders and morons,” before storming from the square, closely followed by a detachment of self-defence forces.
While no capital city with a long and proud history should look as littered as Kyiv does today, given Ukraine’s history of relapse after revolution, I’m lead to believe that perhaps the real battle hasn’t actually moved east and is as these men see it: right in the centre of Kyiv. Indeed, the old system is not yet hanging from that soapy rope.