Initially, I regarded the news that the Maidan was to be dispersed at one in the morning as another of the mobilizing rumors that inevitably accompany any large-scale protest action.
And yet, it was somehow not a surprise to receive, at precisely one o’clock, a Facebook link to a live internet feed showing the Bankova street barricade overrun by special forces. Not a surprise at all.
The first impression – a wave of fear and anger. Did they really dare to do this?
Then the thought – why go? What use will I be there? I’m already falling over from sleeplessness and fatigue.
Finally I grab my phone, call the taxi service. The return sms doesn’t come for a long time, turns out a second car had to be sent, finally: car will be waiting at 1:56. The screen of the monitor is filled by a distance shot of a flood of black helmets. The girl commentator has a tremor in her voice as she calls on everyone to come there immediately, because something terrible is being done.
On my way. On my way.
The first thing I see when I get downstairs is a cab. The second – a young guy, just a kid, running up to me: “Going to the Maidan? Let’s go together. We’ll split the fare.”
It turns out he lives in my building, one of the other entrances.
The cabbie drives slowly – ice-covered streets. We want to get to Europe Square and figure it out from there. No: on Postal Square, right by the funicular, the traffic police is turning all the cars around, telling them to go down Parkova. What do they hope to accomplish? We’re in Podil already! We dive into the maze of side streets, come out on the Uzviz. The cabbie stops just below St. Andrew’s church, refuses to go on to Mykhailivska Square: “If I stop there, they got me!”
All the bells of St. Michael’s of the Golden Domes are ringing. In the tent city there a solitary kid wrapped in a long coat is furiously, desperately banging on a pot with a stick. Some people are walking quickly in our direction. We run up to them: “What’s going on on the Maidan? Why are you leaving?”
“They’re breaking it up” they answer, getting into a car. “We’re going to go around to all the churches, ask them to ring their bells!”
“There’s a lot of titushky* (*government-paid thugs and provocateurs) there, if you’re by yourself they could provoke you and get you arrested. Watch out.”
The two of us stay together as we make our way down Mykhailivska Street. A couple more men walk along with us.
Maidan. Cops. Lots and lots of cops. Black, gray. Helmets, shields, buses. Behind these cordons- barricades filled with protesters in orange hard hats. I hang my Press card around my neck, although, remembering how the “Berkut” on Bankova took special pleasure in beating journalists, I understand it is more likely to hurt than help me.
People are standing right up against the police ranks. An older man is yelling at a major: “Why are you carrying out criminal orders? My daughter is there in the protester’s camp. Are you going to beat her too? How can you look your children in the eye after this?
The major pretends to be invisible.
The stage is still working, a woman’s voice keeps repeating, evenly and firmly: “This is a peaceful protest! This is a peaceful protest!”
I walk up to the barricade by the wall of the Trade Unions building. At the very edge it’s just possible to get over it. I glance around at the black-helmeted legions, remember those intellectuals pulled out of the crowd who were randomly pulled out of the crowd December 1, beaten half to death, and put away for two months. I hesitate. My neighbor helps me out: “What, did we come out here just to stand around?”
What is this, anyway? This is my city! These are my streets, damn it! My square! I’m the master here!
The defenders pull us across the barricade.
The first, unpleasant, impression: the gray and black are already inside the perimeter. They broke through from the side of Europe Square and cut off a part of the camp. They stand, not very thick, along the sidewalks near the turn onto Instytutska, but don’t advance any further. The entrances to the Trade Unions building are barricaded and defended by a few dozen of our grim-faced guards, who stand there with elbows linked. A kid in a mask with a stick is visible in the second floor windows. My mouth is dry from fear and excitement. I come up to the “Berkut” lines, show my Press pass. Strangely, they let me through. I’ve made it to the stage. Not a lot of people there, a couple of thousand, maybe a little more.
The main action is by the barricade on Instytutska. Activists packed into a great monolithic mass are pushing against an approximately equal number of uniformed troops. Steam is rising from the crowd. Dozens of people stand on the slope and by the October Palace observing and taking photographs. Shouts blend into a roar, almost a growl. Once in a while one or another defender is led out of the crowd, almost unconscious – the police are using gas. Groups of medics rush up. Someone is being carried off on a stretcher.
Ruslana continues to lead the stage, joined by a continuously growing company of politicians and rock stars. Under the stage, surrounded by a ring of defenders are the women from the tent city. Ruslana keeps them all moving, keeps talking, teaches dances. Every hour on the hour we sing the national anthem.
The night fuses into one solid band of tension. Andriy Parubij occasionally calls through the microphone to reinforce the defense either on Instytutska or by the Trade Unions. Oddly enough the barricade on Khreschatyk can be passed freely, there are no police there. They are handing out hard hats there. Not sure if it will help, but I take one. The number of friends and acquaintances I encounter is going off the scale. These meetings all follow the same scenario – we exchange greetings, carry on a fairly pointless conv ersation broken up by the rhythmic chants of the crowd, and go on our way.
They are shouting from the stage: just a little longer, just another four, three, two hours – and the metro will start running, and the sun will rise. All Kyiv is coming to our aid.
Don’t know that it was all Kyiv, but by three o’clock the number of people has noticeably increased. More are constantly arriving from the Khreschatyk side. Speeches and music, calls to man the barricades, constant calls for the medics, closer to four we begin to hear about the international reaction: Canada, the US State Department. There are still too few people, but fear is gone, it has given way to triumph, suddenly a huge burst of energy comes from some unknown source, I dance, shout, chant slogans like a lunatic, don’t notice the cold.
Memorable moments: Bohoslovska’s speech, which began to general boos and ended in an ovation. Dressed in white, but she makes a crappy Tymoshenko. Taras Chornovil’s repentance - he asked forgiveness, sincerely, I believe, from the people for his earlier cooperation with Yanukovych, and at the end of his speech surmised that according to what he has seen, the leader of the Regionals is likely suffering from sluggish schizophrenia.
Behind the “Berkut “ lines, beefy “sanitation workers” are dismantling the remnants of the tent city. The crushers in gray are clearly unsure of themselves. More and more protesters with opposition flags filter through their lines, and even manage to save some stuff from being carted away. Around five, Parubij announces that the police push on Instytutska has been turned back, and 20 “fighters” surrounded and captured but released. And also the cabbies have declared a strike. And also there are now more than 20,000 on Maidan. And I understand that we, it seems, have won.
It’s getting light. The central “Khreschatyk” and “Maidan Nezalezhnosti” metro stations are, of course, closed “due to bomb threats.” A friend and I go to warm up to a 24 hour cafe close by. We share a table with a Russophone demonstrator, he’s from Rostov, moved to Ukraine, hates Yanukovych with every fiber of his soul, and doesn’t like Poroshenko for some reason. That’s all I manage to hear before I fall asleep. In a half hour I manage to gather the will power to force myself off the couch and totter off to the “Lva Tolstoho” metro station. A steady stream of people is passing me going the other way. In the car, a woman gives me her seat with a joyful smile.
I’m going home and don’t know yet that soon the “Berkut” that moved up to storm the City Hall will turn from birds of prey to frightened chicks surrounded by thousands of enraged demonstrators; that the troops on Instytutska and by the Trade Unions building will retreat to their buses and get the hell out, that the courts will begin to release the political prisoners.
I’m going home and know one thing only: this is a very beautiful dawn, just a gorgeous, stunning, brilliant dawn.