Markian Hawryluk has covered health for The Bulletin since 2004. Born in the United States of parents who emigrated from Ukraine, he grew up immersed in Ukrainian culture and is fluent in the language. This was his first visit to Kiev in 23 years.
Stepping onto Kiev’s Independence Square, known here as the Maidan, I get a sense of treading on hallowed ground. The oft-violent clashes that occurred here over the past four months began as protest, grew into an uprising and ended in revolution. In the process, the mettle of a people with a long, sorrowful history was tested, and — in the hot fires that raged through the city’s main square — proved to be strong and true.
Baptized with blood, purified by fire, its pavement stripped of cobblestones for use as weapons against a corrupt and ruthless government, the Maidan has seared itself in to the history and the hearts of the Ukrainian people — even those of us born and raised in far-off lands.
I was born in the United States, but I’ve always considered myself first and foremost a Ukrainian. My parents were born in western Ukraine, then a part of Poland. Unwilling to live under a communist regime, my grandparents and their children fled west when the Red Army pushed through toward Berlin during World War II, eventually annexing the region.
My mother’s family emigrated to Canada, my father’s to the United States, initially expecting they would soon return to their homeland. But as it became clear that Soviet control would continue, they settled into creating a Ukrainian life for themselves, preserving the language and the culture for their children and grandchildren.
And so my siblings and I, like my wife and her brother, were raised speaking only Ukrainian at home. Each week, our schedule revolved around Ukrainian activities — Ukrainian choir practice one night, Ukrainian scouts another. On Saturdays we attended Ukrainian school, on Sundays, Ukrainian church. There were dances and summer camps, festivals and jamborees, all firmly establishing a Ukrainian identity.
All the while we sang, we prayed, we hoped beyond hope for a day when Ukraine could cast off its shackles. We hoped not because we wanted to return to Ukraine, but simply because we were Ukrainians, and we believed in the right of all people to be free.
Through most of the Cold War, I’m not sure any of us believed that would ever happen. Yet at three times in my life, I’ve seen Ukraine attempt to reassert itself as a nation.
There was the vote for independence in 1991, which established Ukraine as a free and sovereign nation after the fall of the Soviet Union. In 2004, the people took to the streets in the Orange Revolution to overturn a presidential election marred by corruption and fraud. And then in November, Ukrainians filled the Maidan after President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a long-awaited accord with the European Union, further aligning the country with Russia instead.
Initially the protests were focused on the EU accord, but they soon evolved into a much more revolutionary movement. Ukrainians were tired of the political corruption that weighed down the nation, as the president and his cronies lined their pockets and filled their bank accounts. The more the regime cracked down on the protesters, the greater the numbers that flocked to the square.
The conflicts came to a head last month as riot police and snipers fired live ammunition at mostly unarmed protesters, setting off a fiery maelstrom whose images shocked the world. Eventually the president and many top officials fled, leaving the leaders of the populist movement to organize a working government before the economy and country collapsed.
Walking through the Maidan on Sunday, March 23, I was stunned to see the tools that had brought down a government. The barricades that protected the protesters’ encampments from the police were still standing, a conglomerate of anything with bulk and weight — park benches, cars, refrigerators, mattresses and hundreds — maybe thousands — of tires. The paved square and its arterial streets have been stripped clean of paving stones, used to fortify barricades and secure tents, or broken down into rocks small enough to be heaved by mortal men.
There are bottles and fuel cans, the ingredients of Molotov cocktails. Inside a pair of tires, I found a half-dozen fuel-filled bottles, with fuses ready to be lit, left over from the previous fight, or perhaps awaiting the next one. Metal shields — some homemade, some captured from riot police — now double as trophies of victories and tombstones for the casualties.
These are tools that befit a fight from a previous century, and I’m convinced the regime never expected this ragtag group could withstand a well-equipped force of riot police and their hired thugs. The weapons gap was overcome by sheer numbers. When the police advanced, the bells of the nearby St. Michael’s Church rang out and all of Kiev came running.
Within the Maidan encampments, the human cost of the fight is clear. Makeshift memorials honor the dead, usually with pictures of fallen warriors during happier times, along with the helmets that failed to protect them from the ultimate sacrifice.
There are plastic donation bins for burial costs, for food and drink, and for cigarettes. More than 100 people — now called the Heavenly Hundred — died in the clashes, and 200 more are still missing. Few have any hope they will be found alive.
I came with my wife and her parents to absorb this pivotal historic moment, arriving just in time for a rally commemorating the four-month anniversary of the Maidan movement. As the midday sun warmed the square, it raised the lingering scent of gunpowder in the air. One by one, religious and political dignitaries took turns exhorting the crowd to unity, solidarity and courage. The Maidan has become more than a mere place or a movement; it has become a de facto authority, as leaders come there for public support. Each new move, each new policy is vetted or vetoed by the collective voice of the masses. They’ve pledged to keep the Maidan intact until the May elections.
There’s a palpable sense that the country is waiting for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s other shoe to drop. Many expressed dismay that Crimea was given up without a fight, and few that I talked to hold out hope the annexation can be reversed.
People are living with profound uncertainty, and each day there are new rumors that the Russian invasion will happen tomorrow. It’s an uneasy existence, but life must go on.
Businesses are open, street vendors are hawking their wares, traffic is flowing again and order has been restored. Last week, the new Ukrainian government signed the EU accord that was the initial focus of the Maidan protests.
The task now facing the Maidan’s leaders and the Ukrainian people is much harder than it was four months ago. It was easy to band together against a common enemy. Finding common ground for the nation’s future is more difficult. Even at the rally, there were dissenting opinions over Crimea, the army, the impending elections. Several times, chants of “Transparency' rang out from the crowd.
The single moment of unity was the thunderous rendition of the national anthem. As I cleared the tears from my eyes, I saw men and women, young and old do the same.
Apart from rallies, the Maidan is mostly quiet now. People are still camped in the square, and the civil defense units that rose to protect it continue to line up and drill. They gather at field kitchens to eat soup, buckwheat porridge, whatever food can be found. But it’s a small fraction of the multitudes that were once here. Those who had jobs and families waiting for them have returned home. Perhaps those remaining don’t have anywhere to go.
The Maidan retains scars of the battle. The massive Trade Union building looms over the square, charred and gutted from the fires at the height of the protest. Just beyond Kiev’s founders statue, a street lamp is melted from the heat.
At one end of the Maidan, the caved-in carcass of a mobile water cannon used by the riot police to dispel protesters despite frigid winter temperatures is now covered with pro-Ukrainian and anti-Putin graffiti. Throughout the plaza, there are messages of dissent and hope. “Ukraine is not Russia.' “Together there is strength.' “Mother, I will return.'
And there are flowers, thousands and thousands of flowers, placed at this sacred site by grateful people, including one who couldn’t muster the courage to come in the middle of the fight, but won’t ever forget what he saw and felt in its wake.