on the scene

03.15.14

Kiev’s Protestors Put on Uniforms

Kiev's Independence Square is becoming a military recruitment center, with activists eagerly enlisting as volunteer soldiers. Anna Nemtsova reports from the scene.

Kiev’s Independence Square – the Maidan so immensely important to the new government here -- is changing all the time. And while most of the world’s attention has been focused on Crimea, some of the developments among the crowd in Kiev are decidedly ominous.

Broadly speaking, the Maidan is turning into a military recruiting center. In two weeks, the new Ukrainian government is determined to mobilize more than 20,000 volunteer soldiers, and the square is a magnet for enthusiastic enlistees.

The Ukraine mobilization was declared on the stage the Maidan on March 1st, the same day the Russian Parliament voted to authorize cross-border military action, giving president Vladimir Putin carte blanche for the possible invasion of Ukraine. Since then most former activists among the protestors, now turned volunteer soldiers, both male and female, have put on full camouflage uniforms and attend military training outside of Kiev.

But there are also men in black – precisely the kind of people Moscow gleefully brands as fascists to terrify the ethnic Russian populations of Crimea and in the east of the country. Members of the Right Sector nationalist paramilitary group  have occupied three buildings around the Maidan square over the last few days. New recruits for their forces lined up outside the former office of Kiev Star, a cell phone company and militia activists carried bags full of weapons into the guarded door. The Dnipro Hotel is with the Right Sector’s men dressed like down-market storm troopers.

The movement’s leader, Dmitro Yarosh, has also changed into black. A Russian court recently accused him of extremism and long-term involvement with the Chechen Islamist underground. Yarosh said in a recent interview he predicted “the nationalist revolution” many years ago. He defined his main enemies as the Russian Federation and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Many supporters of the Maidan disapprove of the Right Sector’s political game, as it was not just Right Sector, and the Sova Center of Information and Analyses, an independent organization monitoring racism and xenophobia, confirms their core complaint. "Right Sector members were involved in racist attacks and attacks on their opponent,” says Sova’s head, Aleksander Verkhovsky.

If you listen to Yarosh, you’d think that the scores of people killed in the Maidan uprising last month were all his men. In fact, most of the people slaughtered at Kiev’s barricades were ordinary citizens. But the violence and unrest have played into the Right Sector’s hands.  At this chaotic and perilous moment, Ukrainians are willing to accept such organized protection as they can find. “Yarosh and Right Sector provide my own security,” says Natalya Isupova, the mother of four children, who lives in an apartment near the square.

In the evening in the square, when the mainstream Ukrainian military recruits return from their training,  many of them sit around fires or visit the nearby shops to buy booze – drinking, not seen on the square before, is becoming more common, a new feature of the post-revolutionary Maidan. Living in a tent with Putin’s military on the figurative horizon is not so easy.

 On Friday night, a group of campers, members of Democracy Alliance party, gathered for a chat. The Russian army massing near Ukraine’s boarder meant that a war could become reality for each of the camp’s residents any day now, they said.

Mikhail Pavlenko, 25, a farmer known for his flamboyant sense of humor, fantasized loudly about what his death would mean for his little hometown of Vinitsy: “Just imagine, they already speak of me as ‘Ukraine’s Hero,’ and if I died in the war against the aggressor, my mother would feel even more proud – too bad I would not see that!” Pavlenko exclaimed, taking a swig of the Ukrainian vodka known as harilka.  

“Just imagine, they already speak of me as ‘Ukraine’s Hero,’ and if I died in the war against the aggressor, my mother would feel even more proud – too bad I would not see that!”

Pavlenko’s  friend, Nikolai Onufrenchuk, a skinny 26-year-old security guard at the Maidan, still wore a post-surgery corset around on his chest. Last month he stepped on a police stun grenade as it blew up, shredding his clothes and fracturing ribs. Onufrenchuk smoked cigarette after cigarette talking about the vision coming back to him every night -- a massive police truck loaded with water cannons running over a young activist’s head. He saw that happen, he said, right there in the Maidan on February 19th. “I wonder if I am going to see more terrifying nightmares soon,” he told The Daily Beast.

Violence has not left the Maidan altogether. On several occasions drunk or frustrated campers loosed a few rounds from their guns and blew up fireworks in the middle of the night. “Once, they wounded a suspicious character and another time there was a conflict between Right Sector and self-defense forces that led to shootings,” Pavlenko said.

But the campers consider those exchanges of gunfire “minor accidents” compared to the real challenges: the war threat and responsibility of trying to guide the new national leadership.

“In fact, there is no law enforcement organ today that could control life on the Maidan,” says retired Major General Petro Garashuk, now advising the parliament on military reforms. “The parliament cannot take control of the Maidan, it is the Maidan that controls our new leaders; in case they disappoint people, there will be a new revolution,” Garashuk said.

Just recently, most volunteer soldiers of the so-called Defense Army of the Maidan were immature street fighters armed with Molotov cocktails and plywood shields against Ukrainian state police forces. Since last November, when police beat the first pro-European Union protestors on the Maidan, the campers have survived bitter winds, rains, snow, freezing winter, police attacks and sniper bullets. They never really had time to celebrate what they considered their victory – the day president Victor Yanukovych fled the country. Bad news continued to rain down: earlier this week, one of the Maidan activists was killed by pro-Russian protesters in Donetsk, and several activists vanished or were arrested in Crimea.

Volunteer psychologists, aware of increasing depression on the Maidan, are trying to provide first aid for campers in the heart of Kiev, as well as for the first refugees arriving from Crimea. Instead of medicine, doctors prefer to treat their patients with a comforting chat in relaxing atmosphere. Specialists also encourage the Maidan’s defenders to have more romance, and that notion seems to be catching on. With spring coming to the Maidan, the crisis center at the Ukrainian House, a block away from the square, recently celebrated three weddings for the self-defense forces.

Yelena Fomina provides free psychological help at an improvised office occupying a former McDonalds ron the corner of the Maidan. This week was especially difficult emotionally, Fomina told The Daily Beast. Specialists had to deal with a new wave of psychological traumas linked to the Crimea referendum and Russian threats: the conflict has came to almost every family in Ukraine, splitting relatives into pro-Russian and anti-Russian camps. “Talking about their love for Ukraine, their devotion to this land, to their country, helps better than any medicine,” Fomina said.