Clashes in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov via Wikimedia Commons

People Alive

"Lisa wanted a new Ukraine, and wherever she goes, one thing is certain: 'For us, the victory is already in the fact that we have woken up.'" A look into the Revolution in Ukraine.
Luca Fiore

Russian soldiers left their barracks in Crimea and, without military insignia or flags, invaded the southern region of the Ukraine, raising the Moscow flag over the local parliament. After less than three weeks, on March 16th, the citizens of Crimea, who are mostly Russian speakers, voted in a referendum to break from Kiev. The choice was between instantaneous membership in the Russian federation or independence, with a future that in either case is Russian. After the fall of President Victor Yanukovych, few in the West expected such a resolute response from the Kremlin, not even the new Ukrainian authorities. Today, the tension in the country is very high and the fear of a civil war between the pro-Westerns and the pro-Russians has escalated into the nightmare prospect of a war with Russia.

Vladimir Putin explained the intervention in Crimea saying that it was necessary to defend the safety of the Russian population, the majority on the peninsula on the Black Sea. Moscow holds that the new Ukrainian authorities are illegitimate and, according to the Russian media, the new government is dominated by ultranationalist fascists. Kiev rejects these accusations. Oleksandr Turcynov, the interim President, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the new Prime Minister, have the political and economic support of the United States and the European Union. The telephone calls between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin are being followed by meetings between foreign ministers. But other than the threat of sanctions against Russia, the international community has sparce means to convince the Kremlin to reverse its course. In the meantime, the people of Maidan Square look on helplessly. Although the historical outcome is uncertain, the heart of the Ukrainian revolt, as reported on the following pages, remains a testimony for the world.

Flames, blood on the pavement, corpses… The images of violence portray the revolution in the Ukraine, but they are not the only photos that tell the story. Two other photos open another window onto these events. The first, dated February 18th, shows a big man walking with lowered eyes, and a priest wearing a fur hat and a white stole, who is leading him by the hand and carrying a crucifix in his other hand, as if to open their path with it. The big man was at the head of a line of Berkut, special unit police officers, taken prisoner during the clashes in the center of Kiev. While Viktor Yanukovych’s snipers were shooting the rebels a few hundred yards away, this line of prisoners passed through a cordon of volunteers who sought to protect these enemy prisoners from possible lynching. The second image is from the next day. Yanukovych had just withdrawn the police from the streets of the capital and come to an agreement with the opposition for elections in November (although later he backed out of this agreement). Ukranian television reporters were interviewing young people of the Square to ask what they thought of the compromise, among them two girls cleaning the floors of the International Conference Center in Europe Square, one of the buildings just cleared out by the police. The country was in chaos, but young people were cleaning the floors. Why?

Prayer or Revenge
In the last months in the Ukraine, history has begun speeding by. The demonstrations that were catalyzed in November when the President reversed his decision to sign economic agreements with the European Union morphed into protests against the police’s use of force and the dictatorial direction the country was taking. After the November 11th attempt to clear the streets, after the construction of barricades around Maidan Square, the January 20th clashes and the battle of February 18th and 19th, the Ukraine has an interim President, a new government, and new elections scheduled for May 25th. Over 100 people lost their lives on the front line, most of them protesters, but also some police officers. The fighting started with tear gas and stones and escalated to bullets and Molotov cocktails. The shock of the war bulletin accelerated events, but the people of Maidan Square have not taken down their tents. They do not trust the leaders of the opposition, not even Yulia Tymoshenko, freed after the fall of Yanukovych, because the objective was never just to change the top political figures, but to renew their society from its roots. Today, the country is living in uncertainty.

We were in Maidan Square in the middle of February. Kiev was experiencing a calm that, looking back, seems unreal. We arrived with a suitcase full of concerns and questions. Would we find that initial enthusiasm? Where will the protest bring the Ukraine? Will it all end in nothing, like the Orange Revolution?

In Kiev, we saw the helmets and clubs, the barricades of sacks of snow and the barbed wire. But we also saw a great deal more, which at the time could not be seen on the news. We received the answers to some of our questions, but others were only intensified. We saw men of the Church helping the needy and working for peace. We saw a society struggling to be born again out of nothing. The line of Berkut prisoners and the girls cleaning the floors were not random images. They explain a lot about what was happening in Kiev.

Alex Sigov had spent days attending the trials of the protesters who had been arrested. The 29-year-old doctoral student in Philosophy with a job in a publishing house went on with his life during the day but, in his free time, instead of resting, he participated in the revolution. In the Square, he had seen one man next to him lose an eye, and another hit by a bullet and die. He accompanied the body of his University of Leopoli colleague to the mortuary. He tried to convince the Berkuts to disobey their orders, passed the night looking for friends who had disappeared, and visited the deposed President’s “Versailles of the Ukraine.”

He struggles to gather his ideas and focus on what happened in the battle. “We are in mourning. Today prayer is the only way to avoid revenge. It is the only thing that unites us in our pain.”

In order to enter Maidan Square, the center of the city, we had to pass the roadblocks guarded by rebels in camouflage fatigues and ski-masks. The ring of barricades that closed the center of Kiev was a semi-permeable membrane that everyone could traverse, except the infamous Berkuts when they still guarded the buildings of power. They were the symbol of the violence of the post-Soviet state. In the center of the little town there is a huge stage, where at any hour of the day there was someone speaking or performing traditional or patriotic songs. All around was an expanse of military green tents, with wood-stove chimneys poking out of them. Winter in Kiev is no joke, and the revolution continued even at 60 degrees below zero. Some prepared food, some offered clothes, some strolled about. The camp seemed occupied by old and middle-aged people. The young people were not there, because they had other things to do at Maidan.

The Fire
We entered some occupied buildings, the Municipal Building, the Trade Unions Building, and the International Convention Center, each teeming with young people under 30. The International Convention Center had been renamed the “Ukraine House.” We were accompanied by Yulia, a 25-year-old woman wearing camouflage clothes, with blue eyes, red braids, the face of a child, and the expression of a Doberman. When she was not in Maidan she worked as an art director. We visited the library, infirmary, cafeteria, dormitories, and cloakroom. The “Ukraine House” hosts, among other things, the Free University of Maidan, where the most important professors of the Ukraine teach. The impression was of a post-apocalyptic city, a bit of Mad Max, a bit of The Road, but everything seemed to “carry the fire,” to borrow Cormac McCarthy’s words.

That something strange was happening in the tent city was confirmed by the presence of a number of bearded priests. In the shadow of the statue of independence, after which the Square is named, a tent-chapel had been set up spontaneously in early December by the Greek Catholics, but it served all the people, and a number of ecumenical liturgies had been celebrated there. At all hours, people could be found praying in this place. The plywood iconostasis held two icons that were almost 6 feet tall. In the opposite corner, below a photo of Pope Francis, there was a cot where someone was often resting. On February 18th, the tent-chapel was burned in the blaze that broke out when the Berkut advanced. Someone was able to save the icon of Christ. The chapel had been set up once again in a tent, and every day a priest said Mass. In Maidan Square, marriages and Baptisms had been celebrated, because some people living in the camp or shaken by the clashes ended up discovering the faith. Fr. Mychajlo wrote a homily every morning from the Square and published it on Facebook, often warning, “Evil is also inside us. We have to pray and stay humble.”

Society Reloaded
For the Catholic priests, it was easier to stay alongside the protesters, because their faithful were above all Ukrainians from the West, where pro-European sentiment has flourished for centuries. Together with them were priests of the Patriarchate of Kiev and those of the autocephalous Church that follows the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Patriarchate of Moscow, instead, found itself in difficulty because its people were on both sides. But when it was necessary, they contributed to peace in a decisive way. Fr. Gheorgij Kobalenko, spokesman for the Patriarchate of Moscow, was woken at dawn on January 20th by journalists asking about the three monks who were putting themselves between the Berkuts and the protesters on Grushevski Street. “They were Frs. Gabriel, Melkisedek, and Efrem who, on their own initiative, armed with icons and crosses, went to stop the violence at 60 degrees below zero,” recounted Fr. Nicolaij Danilevic: “At a certain point, Fr. Gheorgij and I took their place because they were at risk of freezing to death.” At that moment, with those shivering men, the Church became a presence. They could have been swept away in a moment, but instead they opened their eyes to a broader prospect, to a greater outlook, there in the midst of the barricades, and, for 22 hours, the truce held. Fr. Nicolaij, were you afraid? “No, there I felt I was an instrument of God. That is the place ofthe Church: in the midst of the battle to bring peace.” The same thing happened later, when the Cathedral of Saint Michael hosted a field hospital, and when Fr. Mychajlo found himself listening to a young man’s confession, in the middle of a raging battle.

In Maidan, one thing was clear: the new Ukraine is not made up of proclamations of the political leaders who took the place of those of the Yanukovych regime. We read it in the faces of the common people, of young men and of babushkas. They had already undergone a change before the fall of the regime. Masha, a 23-year-old woman with short blond hair and inquisitive eyes, had been waiting for us in the center of Maidan Square. “Isn’t it marvelous?” What? “All this. It is a city that lives by itself. Here you can feel a reciprocal trust that is new to me.” Veronika was studying at the Business School of the Catholic University of Leopoli, and as a sociologist observed that in the Square there were also managers– like, for example, a Microsoft administrator who had taken vacation leave to participate in the revolution, and that the desire was to “re-load society,” to start again from there, from their experience of community as they worked as volunteers in these months. For Constantin Sigov, a Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Duch i Litera publishing house, the Ukraine of tomorrow will no longer be as it was: “In Maidan, the civil society that never existed is coming into existence. The professionals who offer their services here in the Square, such as the doctors, are rediscovering the authentic ethos of their profession. When they return home they will remember this new way of living. Here is the seed for a new society.”

Alex introduced us to 27-year-old Lisa, whom many consider one of the symbols of the revolt. She was born with her wrists locked at a 90° angle. Since the first days of the revolt she had lived 24 hours a day in the Square. She spent two months cutting lemons for tea. “Here, I discovered that I love my country, and want it to be free. If you love something, you can even spend your days cutting lemons,” she said. She had dropped out of high school and in these months decided she wanted to take charge of her life and resume her studies, but she lacked the money to pay for night school. A pharmaceutical company read about her in the newspapers and offered her a job. “They told her she could start right away,” recounts Alex, “but she answered, ‘No, I’m staying here until the end.’” Lisa lost all her belongings in the fire of the Trade Unions House the evening of February 18th. Alex and his friends collected money to buy her clothes and personal items. Encouraged to leave the Square, she promised she would begin work after the new elections. Lisa wanted a new Ukraine, and wherever she goes, one thing is certain: “For us, the victory is already in the fact that we have woken up.”

Born in Maidan
Looking at Lisa in her camouflage clothes and boots and listening to her speak, it seemed that, at times, she talked in slogans. Her answers came out in spurts of authenticity, but if you dug a bit, you wondered how much she was just playing a role. “If it were anyone else, I would say you were right,” explained Alex, “but this is the way she is. She was reborn in Maidan–before, she was nothing. Her identity blossomed here. This is why she is our symbol.”

During our visit, we saw that the young people of Maidan Square were bowled over by what had happened. They had constantly before their eyes their dead companions and in their ears the promises of politicians they distrusted. Those who had been living in the Square for three months viewed this as the strongest experience of their lives, and saw it coming to an end. What is next? They had cast off the dictator, but had yet to obtain what they wanted.

The new Ukraine, however it will be governed, will no longer be built in a Square. The vices of post-Soviet society will be overcome only by bringing Maidan Square into Ukrainian homes, and continuing to live in a different way. The heart of Kiev was covered with an expanse of flowers, homage to the “heroes.” “We are only at the beginning of a long process. We don’t know how long it will take,” said Alex. “But it is our duty. We owe it to those who died.”