The first impression one gets upon arriving in Kyiv is just how normal things seem to be. The Podil region around my hotel is peaceful, belying reports in the Russian media of fascist mobs, looting, and “hooliganism” throughout the city. Instead I saw ordinary people in business or smart casual attire going in and out of shops, offices and otherwise behaving as if nothing unusual was happening. Of course, I hadn’t yet been in Maidan Square, the center of the protest movement that ultimately forced former President Viktor Yanukovich to abandon Kyiv and seek protection in Russia.
Approaching Maidan Square from the heights on which the city’s main cathedral is located, the first indications of abnormality are the impromptu shrines to the victims of the sniper attacks on February 18 and 20. One of them occupies a space under a gazebo-like structure on the grounds of the Mikhailovski Church. Photographs and testimonials to the victims are arrayed along with hard hats, gas masks, various other artifacts and hundreds of devotional candles.
Next come the small encampments on the periphery of the Maidan: tents festooned with Ukrainian flags as well as those of other countries (including the U.S.) in gratitude for the support given by visitors or volunteers. Then come the barricades, of which there are several rings leading from the access streets to Maidan Square, culminating in a final ring within the square itself. They are remarkably well-constructed out of tires, pavement stones, sandbags, and construction materials scavenged from nearby building sites. More blue and yellow Ukrainian flags poke up from the barbed wire-topped parapets.
Once inside, one finds a veritable city made of tents and shacks, each protected by its own wall of bricks and barbed wire. Kitchens serve food and hot beverages to one and all. Crowds of people throng the narrow passageways, some evidently defenders of the Maidan dressed in camouflage uniforms. Others are visitors, expressing support, taking photographs, or just gazing in amazement at the surroundings. The eye is drawn to the shell of an office building set afire during the worst of the violence between the defenders and the Berkut – Yanukovich’s riot police.
The atmosphere is tense but calm. Politicians and cultural figures address the crowd from a podium in the center of the square, expressing support and commitment to the cause. If there are “fascist” elements, as alleged by Moscow-based media, I did not see them. One certainly notices the determination and hardness in the faces of the defenders, mostly young men but a fair number of older ones too, and even some tough-looking young women. However, there was nothing sinister in their demeanor. Shops and restaurants around the square functioned normally and there was surprisingly little damage to nearby buildings, despite the hail of bricks, bullets and Molotov cocktails that flew between the Berkut and the Maidan defenders during the worst of the violence.
Hanging over it all was a sense of grim resignation. The Russian occupation of the Crimea seems irreversible for now, something that several of the Maidan defenders that I spoke with reluctantly admitted. What worried them was the possibility of an imminent invasion of Eastern Ukraine, rumors of which are circulating both here and in Moscow. Some expressed confidence that NATO would come to their aid. I felt it necessary to explain that such a wishful outcome was unlikely.
Not just in Maidan but elsewhere in Kyiv there is a general expectation that the West – NATO, the EU, the U.S. – will come to their aid. At the same time, those Ukrainians I spoke with acknowledged that the country’s future is in the hands of its people. They continue to put their faith in the West’s efforts to dissuade Russia from taking more aggressive action, but they’re ready for a fight if it comes to it. A sign at one of the entry points to the Maidan pretty much summed up the attitude: “PUTIN, you can lie to your own people, stomp on my dignity, break my bones, even kill me. But you can’t take away my FREEDOM.”
Edward S. Verona is the former President and CEO of the Washington-based U.S.-Russia Business Council, currently visiting Kyiv.