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Kiev's Ice-Hardened Few

Tuesday's clashes in front of the Ukrainian parliament punctuated a weeks-long standoff between anti-government protesters and security forces in Kiev's sprawling tent city, known as the EuroMaidan.

by Giles Clarke
Feb 18 2014, 4:05pm

Anatoly and other EuroMaidan warriors. All photos by Giles Clarke

The EuroMaidan camp is a sprawling tent city in central Kiev that winds its way up Khreschatyk Street through Independence Square and onward to the former entrance to the Dynamo Kiev football stadium. “Maidan” is an arcane English word that means parade ground or square. For weeks, at the burnt-out entrance of the stadium, violence between the anti-government protestors and national security forces has been the most intense—and deadly. Tuesday’s clashes outside the Ukrainian parliament building punctuated the weeks-long standoff between anti-government protesters and security forces. At least three people have been killed by security forces, and some reports indicate as many as seven people are dead, some by government-paid thugs. At this moment, eyewitnesses report that EuroMaidan is under assault—police are trying to clear the camp out with snipers and grenades. Kiev is on fire again.

Volatile demonstrations in Ukraine’s capital first began on the night of November 21, 2013, after the Ukrainian government signaled that it would not sign an Association Agreement and a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. Instead, the country’s political leadership would forge closer economic ties to Russia. That night, huge crowds gathered in Independence Square and took over government buildings that have been occupied ever since. Occupiers created an elaborate communication network and a string of action groups responsible for the day-to-day operations of the occupation.

In the ten weeks since, people have arrived from all over the country and erected scores of large ex-military tents, many of them complete with fire stoves and kitchens. This closed-off portion of the city, housing an army of men and women who provide support and numbers, is now globally recognized as the EuroMaidan.

I went to Kiev in early February, weeks after the world’s attention had strayed from Ukraine’s protests to Thailand’s elections and the folly that led up to the beginning of the Sochi Winter Olympics. As I walked from the busy Independence Square toward the frontline for the very first time, I was greeted by a landscape of destruction. Protestors have faced off against a static police line for more than two months now at this wreckage-strewn ice field, demanding the resignation of President Yanukovych and closer economic ties to the European Union. Although protestors won much publicity for their remarkably calculated and efficient takeovers of government buildings in early January, the frontline that I witnessed—hardened by the frigid Ukrainian winter—was the most visually compelling resistance to encroaching authoritarian power I’ve seen in years.

It was a brutal and scarred-looking vista—at a chilly negative four degrees, it seemed like a miniature modern-day Battle of Stalingrad, the World War II clash between Soviet and Axis forces that lasted more than five months. As I walked around this still-smoldering battlefield, I caught glimpses of the civil soldiers (called the "warriors" by other EuroMaidan protestors) all caked in soot and dirt and dressed in various makeshift suits of body armor. Many huddled and talked quietly among themselves while sipping hot tea or standing by the tire walls that face the enemy. About 75 yards away waits a line of police officers in riot gear. They stand by smoldering fires holding shields and batons; behind them are the Berkut—Ukraine's Special Police forces—the legendarily nasty motherfuckers who have already killed four protestors and injured many hundreds more since the uprising began.

As I stood behind these frontline warriors in the piercing late-afternoon cold, I was dumbstruck by it all. This is 2014, yet it feels like another era.

When the protesters built these crude but very effective 15-foot-high barricades, they filled sandbags with snow and piled them on twisted cars and mangled buses, along with other riot debris, to form their lines of resistance.

Many of the men at this frontline hail from places all over Kiev and aren't paid in any way to be there. They come from the dozens of Ukrainian towns that were choked and overrun for decades by badly-corrupted governance.

“We will not move till the president goes—and we will fight with our lives if they attack again,” said a man named Anatoly, who was born in Kiev but had lived for ten years in Lithuania. "I left ten years ago to be a merchant seaman—I couldn’t stand it here, but now I want to come back and live with my young family. This is why I'm here fighting in this place. I will die here If I have to."

There’s a steely look to these men. A few days before, special police snipers took out two of their own. Tension was high here at this final point of resistance.

In the meantime, to keep the police from getting bored, the protestors have placed a huge flat-screen TV on top of one barricade wall and are playing them cartoons and independent news programs.

As I stood between the imposing barricade walls in this smoke-filled junkyard encampment, I thought of the other protest hotspots I had visited over the past few years and realized that I had never seen anything resembling what I was witnessing here. This was truly a protest war zone. I felt uneasy knowing that, at any moment, things could get even worse.

One night, I spoke to a large man who called himself Roman. He was a commander of the Splina, a security group in a tent inside the barricades. Over hot tea and energy bars, we talked about the role and presence of the Splina. He told me that the Splina guards the EuroMaidan resistance with a volunteer force numbering 3,000, who are based in and around Kiev. Rumors swirl about their origins and political ties, but for the time being they have only one thing in mind.

The commander was frank in explaining his mission: “We are here to protect people from the government forces. It was the Bertuk who were responsible for the deaths of our people last week—if they try that again, they will pay. Yes, we are armed. Yes, we have the numbers. And yes, we are prepared to die.” I asked him about reports of attacks on other protestors. “They are lies—created and spread by our corrupt government press.”

"We are really only interested in fighting against Bertuk, and they number about 4,000 here in Kiev and another 1,000 scattered in outlying areas. The civil police are not a problem for us, and it’s Bertuk that will be targeted if we are told to mobilize."

While the Bertuk might lead an official crackdown on the EuroMaidan, government-paid thugs known as titushkis were the first to strike protesters early in the occupation. The titushki are paid on sliding scales. To simply turn up at a pro-govenrment protest they receive about ten dollars, but, for staging and taking part in violence, they are reputed to earn around $90 a day. But Roman almost shrugs them off. “Some are dangerous, but we believe they are falling apart—the government cannot sustain paying the police and Berkut overtime as well as fund a large civilian army,” the leader of the Splina told me.

I also asked about oligarchs who might consider stepping in to help finance opposition against the protestors. To this he replied, “The big businesses are now beginning to understand that this government cannot live much longer, and they are not going to back a losing horse. The longer this unrest goes on, the more difficult it is for business to grow.”

Ukraine’s financial system has begun to feel the effects of this turmoil and political uncertainty. In the first week of February,the country’s currency, the hryvnia, plunged to a five-year low against the US dollar, and the Fitch credit agency downgraded the nation’s credit worthiness amid “weakening confidence.”

Anatoly, my new frontline friend, didn’t think that economic pressure alone would cast Ukraine’s future in the protesters’ favor. “It depends now on what the US and Russia decide,” he said. “It’s not about Ukraine anymore, but more about the superpower struggle. We're just pawns in their games.”

On my way to the airport on my last day in Kiev, my taxi sped by 15 buses, filled with men, parked on the side of the highway near the outskirts of town. My cab driver pointed to the buses and the men and fatalistically said, "Tituskhis.”

Whether they were coming, going, or just waiting—it was impossible to tell from the speeding taxi—I thought of Roman, his Splina group, and the rest of the protesters I had met. So much of the EuroMaidan occupation is about waiting through the frigid winter. Would the spring thaw bring government concessions or more violence?

I wasn't going to hang around to find out.