Protesters smash off chunks of Lenin's statue in Kiev. Photos by Konstantin Chernichkin.
Protests in Kiev on Sunday evening finished with a theatrical flourish, as the pro-EU, anti-Russia demonstrators toppled the statue of Lenin that stood on a broad avenue in the center of the city. The news spread quickly online and people rushed to the location. When they arrived, they found that a protester had clambered atop the pedestal and was waving the Ukrainian flag, as well as the red and black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).
As the crowd pressed closer, trying to get a glimpse, people issued a warning to Ukraine's current leader: “Yanukovych—you are next, you are next!” By Monday morning, the pedestal on which Vlad used to stand had been covered in graffiti.
Despite the crowd's elation, the incident has prompted concerns that the authorities could use it as a pretext for another crackdown, following the use of force seen the previous weekend. At the time of writing, police are closing in on the city's main protest site. There has also been condemnation from pro-European supporters, among them, Ukraine's Eurovision-conquering singer Ruslana, who has been actively involved in the protests. “We are supposed to act in a civilized way!!!!” she wrote in a blog post for Ukrainska Pravda, adding that the show of dissent should not be sidetracked by the felling of a statue.
There seems to remain a desire among the demonstrators to do things in as proper a way as possible, and protesters have repeatedly been warned to be wary of provocations. In the evenings, volunteers guard the entrances to the camp on Independence Square, where people huddle around fires and activists ladle out portions of soup and tea. Here and there, people wear helmets for protection. On Sunday, riot police were sighted in Kiev's Mariinski Park, where the pro-government Party of Regions was holding a rally. Apart from that, there was hardly a policeman in sight—odd, considering that last week Prime Minister Mykola Azarov was publicly readying himself for a coup.
Sunday's protest followed a meeting on Friday between Yanukovych and Russia's president Vladimir Putin in Sochi, on Russia's Black Sea coast. That night, there were rumors that Yanukovych had agreed to join the Russia-led Customs Union—a move that would sicken and enrage the pro-EU protesters. The information was not confirmed and Western media could only report that the two presidents had been discussing a “strategic partnership treaty.” Either way, it was enough to bring thousands of people back out onto the streets of Kiev.
But how many thousands? Opposition leaders claimed that they had met their target of a million marchers, but the Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior calculated that it would have been impossible to fit a million people on the streets surrounding Independence Square. Using an electronic map of Kiev, they estimated that a mere 100,000 people would have been able to cram themselves together in their scarves and puffy jackets. Most of the media reported figures somewhere in between the two estimates.
Several dozen people managed to climb on to the metal frame built on the Maidan for the annual Christmas tree, offering unparalleled views of the crowd below. The stage below featured the usual cast of opposition leaders and celebrities. The daughter of Yulia Tymoshenko—Ukraine's imprisoned former PM and leader of the Fatherland Party—Yevhenia, read a letter from her mother.
From the stage, some of the protesters were instructed to start occupying the city's government quarter. They built a barricade on the street leading up to the Cabinet headquarters—a massive white building shaped like a hemisphere. By nightfall, it had been joined by a handful of tents, looking strangely vulnerable on the road leading up to other government buildings, but Sunday night passed without any violent incident.
However, a cloud was cast over the peaceful day of demonstrations by the news that the Ukrainian security services, the SBU, has launched a criminal investigation into several opposition politicians accused of “activities aimed at overthrowing the government.” No names were given, but this could be bad news for opposition leaders Arseniy Yatseniuk, Vitali Klitschko, and Oleh Tyahnybok.
This morning, Kiev woke up to a layer of snow on the ground. Everything seemed calm, but as riot police gathered near the Maidan and word spread that the authorities might try to clear the occupied city hall, it seemed like it may just have been the calm before another storm.