Kiev’s luxury Intercontinental Hotel seemed an anomalous place to meet a firebrand who has inadvertently contributed to triggering the most dangerous standoff between the great powers since the Cold War—but then Ukraine’s Maidan uprising has been turning the country upside down and defying conventions since it erupted at the end of last year.
There seems little risk of pony-tailed artist Sergey Poyarkov, one of nine members of the Euromaidan’s revolutionary inner Circle of Trust, being tamed by the plush surroundings of the Intercontinental. Wearing a scruffy blue cap, jeans and T-shirt, he stands out from the dark suits smoking cigars or flitting between restaurant and lobby lounge with younger, willowy, frozen-faced women in tow.
And he is louder than the others—much louder than Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian oil tycoon and onetime jailed foe of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Petro Poroshenko, the trade minister and frontrunner in Ukraine’s scheduled presidential elections in May. The former prisoner and Chocolate King—Poroshenko is a confectionary billionaire—are huddled together in the corner of the ground-floor restaurant, discreetly discussing the Crimea crisis. Khodorkovsky declines a Daily Beast request for an interview.
Poyarkov has ventured into the hotel to meet with some foreign businessmen to deliver the message that there could be a “new Maidan” if Ukraine’s embattled interim government doesn’t start “changing the system” in earnest. He and the others in the Circle of Trust want crooked judges ditched and the notoriously corrupt police reformed. They also want the speedy introduction of a lustration law, blocking officials from the kleptocracy of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych from occupying government posts and public office. Such a law would offer also a process to deal with past human-rights abuses and injustices.
The 48-year-old father of two young children sees the uprising as a back-to-the-future event. He views it as a picking up where the 2004 Orange Revolution left off, an uprising that failed to break the power of Yanukovych’s henchmen and to shake up for good the power structures enriching the country’s oligarchs. A revolution that failed to pull Ukraine out of a murky, deadening Soviet past where the people are the servants of a government that pillages them. Poyarkov’s message is simple: the Maidan protest isn’t over; the revolution is incomplete and has a long way to go—Putin and his land-grab of Crimea notwithstanding.
“We won’t repeat the mistake of 2005 and go back home,” he says. And slapping his hands together for emphasis adds, “There is no time to go back home.” He and others in the Circle of Trust don’t describe themselves as leaders. “No one can control Maidan,” he says. “There are people who can influence it, but we can never give it orders. Maidan is like a little kid: he can feel something but he can’t verbalize it. Our job is to formulate what Maidan feels,” he says.
“Putin and Yanukovych don’t understand that nobody financed us, nobody organized us and we were driven by no one. There was just movement from the bottom up,” he says. Like others at Maidan, he believes there are differences with the Orange Revolution, though: for one thing it was driven by a clear eagerness to steer Ukraine firmly along a European path; and for another he identifies the Maidan uprising as a start in the shaping of a post-Soviet Ukrainian national identity that cuts across ethnic Ukrainian, Russian, Jewish and Tatar lines. The fear among some Maidan protesters and independent observers is that Russia’s seizing of Crimea and Moscow’s efforts to foment ethnic Russian disaffection risk killing the emergence of a new national pan-Ukrainian identity.
The Circle of Trust, which meets most days, reaches decisions by consensus, he says. No votes are taken. Poyarkov represents the AutoMaidan faction, a group of motorists that countered police assaults against demonstrators. AutoMaidan mounted rallies-on-wheels and a rapid-response network to rescue protesters from police; it also managed to launch blockades of government buildings, entrapping for Yanukovych’s ministers for hours on at least one occasion.
Others in the circle include Olga Bogomolets, a medical doctor who was nicknamed during the protests the “white angel” and is now considering running for the presidency; Dmitry Yarosh, the fiery leader of the Right Sector, who has announced he will be a presidential candidate; Orthodox priest Friar Stefan from the Maidan’s Spiritual Rada; Oleh Mikhnyuk from Afghan War Veterans; and Volodymyr Viatrovych from the Civil Sector of Maidan. They meet generally in the Kiev Conservatory, an imposing 1890s-era building overlooking Independence Square. Sniper fire erupted from the conservatory roof on February 20—police say it targeted them but protesters insist the shooting from the conservatory also felled demonstrators.
Now the conservatory, like many other buildings surrounding the Maidan, has been turned into makeshift revolutionary quarters, complete with rudimentary medical facilities and an information desk that generally has no idea what is happening or how to get in touch with people. There is much purposeful hustle and bustle but tasks go uncompleted; confusion reigns. The motley factions once had all their headquarters in the trade union building in the Maidan but it now stands burnt-out, blackened and deserted, a testimony to the viciousness of the fight that ousted Yanukovych. Now the various groups occupy different neighboring buildings in the square and along Khreshchatyk Street.
Poyarkov has come to the Intercontinental meeting from Independence Square, where tens of thousands have turned out to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the renowned Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. In Soviet times Shevchenko’s Ukrainian nationalism was downplayed with the emphasis placed instead on his anti-Tsarist legacy but on Sunday the serf-turned-poet was embraced openly by the flag-waving, patriotic crowd as the definitive symbol of Ukrainian statehood, as an icon brandished to defy Putin and to keep the Russians at bay.
These are heady, anxious days in Ukraine’s capital. There is relief at the ousting of Yanukovych but it is mixed with foreboding about what is to come. “I am so scared that there will be war,” says Natalia, a triage doctor from the western town of Lviv who treated dozens of the nearly thousand, she says, who were wounded during bloody clashes on the Maidan in January and February. More than 500 of the injured remain in hospitals in Kiev and in Germany and neighboring Poland.
“I am worried for me, my husband, my family and friends.” She seems on the brink tears, her face flushing. She is drinking with friends, celebrating International Women’s Day in a hole-in the-wall bar called the Tin Drum off Khreshchatyk Street. Outside, camouflaged protesters chop wood for braziers to keep their canvas tents warm in the evening chill. Young women clutching flowers—red roses, orange tulips, sometimes even potted plants—walk along hand-in-hand with their beaux as though Ukraine is not on the brink of war and immersed in an unfinished revolution.
The Russian seizure of Crimea has complicated the country’s already tense and complex politics, potentially disrupting an opportunity to accomplish the revolutionaries’ objectives. War or civil war, of course, would undermine the revolution by possibly reviving old historical racial divisions that the young see as throwbacks to an alien past and by routing the uprising along new unforeseen trajectories that could transform nationalism into ultra-nationalism and goad and boost shadowy far-right groups such as the Right Sector.
The mere threat of war is already potentially distorting the revolution. The idealistic revolutionaries seem ill-equipped and lacking in the political experience or even interest in the mechanics of politics to cope with the complexities now involved. Several in the Circle of Trust were offered jobs in the interim government and they declined. Poyarkov was offered the task of running the country’s roads. He roars with laughter at the thought.
The Circle of Trust doesn’t include now the politicians who joined the revolution and helped with its strategy. The flame-haired 31-year-old Lesya Orobets, a rights campaigner and lawmaker whose politician father died in a mysterious car accident a decade ago, is focused now on launching an election campaign to become Kiev’s mayor. Lawmaker and leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, Vitali Klitschko, the first professional boxing champion to hold a PhD, has also stepped aside to concentrate on the upcoming presidential race.
Poyarkov doesn’t criticize them for their political ambitions.
Orobets tells The Daily Beast that Ukraine is faced with three major immediate tasks: “to stabilize the economy, resolve the Crimea issue and to get back to order.” But it isn’t clear that the hard core protesters at the Maidan are ready for the return of order and more predictable politics and nuts-and-bolts procedures. They don’t trust most politicians and the only reason they are not demanding quick parliamentary elections is because they recognize the need for parliament to remain while the Crimea emergency is unresolved.
They want a state of revolutionary fervor to continue, to ensure that—unlike the Orange Revolution—EuroMaidan reaches its goals. “Why does the Maidan stay until now? Because people don’t trust this interim government and these politicians,” says Poyarkov. “The politicians should come to Maidan. This Maidan deserves to make decisions. Come to us first. They should listen to what we want. Nine women can’t give birth in a month. It has to be one woman giving birth in nine months.”
He adds: “People don’t have illusions and are coming to understand they can’t just stop and go back home and that they should be ready at all times to go to the Maidan and to organize smaller Maidans across the country. We are doomed to some mistakes, we will have successes. Change will take time.”
But they may not have time with Putin challenging, Crimea invaded and an economy in tatters. And there is a risk that revolutionary fervor can turn into social disorder—there are already reports of self-defense groups claiming Maidan authority springing up across the country throwing their weight around. The unity of the revolutionaries relied on having a common foe—Viktor Yanukovych—with him gone the next stage of revolution is getting much more complicated.