KIEV — “Dude, are you drunk? Get out of here!” says Evgeni Dudchenko, a pro-EU protester who works security for the so-called Euromaidan movement, named for the square where the dissidents gather.
He checks out everyone who wants to enter the demonstration area. “If someone is drunk, he’s out of here. Alcohol is forbidden here, and we don’t need any hooligans.”
When I spoke with Dudchenko, there hadn’t yet been all the excitement and violence at the Euromaidan demonstrations. Though two protestors have since been killed and hundreds injured, the government at the time almost seemed to have forgotten that the protests existed. So Dudchenko, a 20-year-old from from the industrial town of Shostka who formerly worked as a salesperson, had time to talk.
“It’s the kind of job you’re not sorry to leave,” he says of the position he abandoned after hearing that protesting students had been chased out of the square in November. “I immediately volunteered to help with security and bought myself a camouflage bullet-proof vest,” he says. “They gave me combat boots. I finally feel like I am doing something worthwhile.” His shift is from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and he sleeps either on the square or in the protest headquarters at the International Center for Culture and the Arts.
“I wouldn’t say that everything is calm today,” interjects Nikolai Kovalenko, another long-time security ‘officer.’ Kovalenko, like almost all of the residents at the Euromaidan camp, speaks Ukrainian, in contrast to the rest of Russian-speaking Kiev. He is very happy that I speak fluent Ukrainian. “That’s good, because a lot of the journalists here don’t speak Ukrainian, so they write a bunch of nonsense,” he says.
Kovalenko is a careful viewer of Russian television, constantly yelling at the TV during newscasts. “What crap! They say we are here for money! What money? I’m an electrician. I make an honest living. I’m here for my kids, for my grandkids. For their future, so that at least they will have a good life.”
Kovalenko hasn’t really thought about how much longer he’ll continue protesting. Like all of his colleagues, he just says he’ll stay until they win.
But not everyone agrees about what would constitute a victory. Some say that victory would mean Ukraine signing an agreement with the European Union. Others say it would be a victory if those who beat up the original student protesters were sentenced to jail. Still others say it would mean getting rid of President Viktor Yanukovych, who started all this when he suspended a free-trade agreement with the European Union that had been in negotiations for years. To the chagrin of many Ukrainians, Yanukovych has sought closer relations with Russia instead of strengthening ties with Europe.
Trying to be heard in Kiev (Oxlaey)
There are many demands, enumerated in one of the tents with colorful stickers. “Roads without potholes!” “An honest police force!” “No more bribes in preschools!” “Free medical care!”
“That’s right,” says Kovalenko. “As soon as they do all that, we’ll all go home. But until then, we’re going to stay here as long as necessary.”
“Fourth division, to battle"
Mikhail Gavriluk is the manager of the fourth division, and he goes around giving security officers cigarettes, bringing them food, and collecting their clothes to be washed. But his most important task is procuring firewood. There are dozens of field tents around the square, and they have to be heated 24 hours a day. Gavriluk doesn’t heat his own tent, though. “I don’t need many creature comforts. I just cover myself with a blanket, and that’s it.”
Gavriluk says he doesn’t mind “maidaning” until the summer, or until the 2015 presidential elections. “I love this life. We have everything, my heart is content,” he says. “I walk around, say hello to everyone, everyone is cheerful and brotherly, united. This morning we woke up to, ‘fourth division, to battle.’ I ran with everyone else, I didn’t even know where we were going. It turned out that some enemies had come early in the morning to take down our barricades. We pounced on them, and they took off. Victory! Happiness! I don’t know how I’ll live if this all ends.”
“I’m so tired of them!”
Sasha is a student who, until the protests began, made extra money by frequenting Maidan Square in a bear costume and charging people $2 to have their photo taken with him. “They’ve been protesting for 50 days,” he says. “They’ve scared off all the tourists, and I don’t have any business. I don’t care about their politics. I have to pay for my apartment, for food, for tuition. I thought I’d make some money over the New Years holidays. Didn’t happen.”
I agreed to have my photo taken with Sasha, to support his business. Santa Claus, also a student, also offers a photo opportunity. “Families used to come here to relax,” the Santa says. “Who’s going to bring kids here now?” But, in contrast to Sasha, Santa has made his peace with the inconvenience. “Maybe it will actually change something. I’d like to live better.”
In the cafes and stores around Maidan, many people share the protesters’ demands, although shop sales have dropped sharply since the demonstrations began in the square in early December. The souvenir stores adjusted to the new reality quickly, stocking EU flags and other items meant to appeal to the protesters, but the sales people say revenues are still down.
Residents in Kiev definitely help the dissidents. They bring groceries, money, warm food, and invite protesters into their homes to wash up. Although the demonstration seems to be declining in numbers, people in Kiev still come to Maidan regularly, after work and on the weekends.
“This is idiotic”
“I don’t know what will come,” says Aleksei Parakhin, as he sits in a tent labeled “Kharkovsky Region” looking at the fire. “In 2004, we had a concrete goal. But what are we doing now? A month ago, when there were a million people in the square, we might have been able to change something if the whole country had supported us. But now most people who have jobs have left Maidan,” he says. “I don’t think anything will come of it. Look, we are sitting in front of the fire and dreaming about changing the government. It’s idiotic.”
Protests have turned violent this past week (Mstyslav Chernov)
But Yuri, a private taxi driver who left his wife and four children at home to join the protest, says he’s “still proud of Aleksei” and all of his colleagues. “We’re building a civil society here, and in a year or two it will be able to change the country,” Yuri says. “Everyone here has his or her own point of view, but we are learning to compromise and to work out a plan for Ukraine.”
Yuri has been working on a plan — not just for Ukraine, but for the whole world — for a long time. He’s been writing it out on sheets of paper and promises to send me a copy as soon as he types it out on a computer.
Maidan seems to be full of rough, unshaven guys on weekdays — and hipsters. I also met very respectable, bourgeois people, who told me that their biggest problem was finding a parking spot when they came to the protest. But Maidan isn’t a story of hipsters or bourgeoisie. It’s about an electrician and others like him who can’t earn enough for his children and protests “for their future” so that he can feel like a better parent.
But none of them can clearly define what they hope to achieve. They all want life to be better. They want better-paying jobs. They want doctors and the police to stop asking for bribes. They want smooth roads. They want their children to respect them, like the whole country respects them now. They want to somehow reach those goals, even if that means changing the government again.
All around me are men and boys who aren’t considered particularly successful on the other side of the barricades. But here, they’re heroes. They feel powerful and important. Until there is another opportunity to feel like that, they will probably stay. Protecting their pride, their Maidan.