My Life Behind Kiev’s Barricades

My street in downtown Kiev has gone from a shabby-chic address to an apocalyptic scene of Molotov cocktails, grenades, and injured protesters.

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

I live on Pushkinskaya Street, one of Kiev’s smartest addresses, known for its neo-classical buildings, elegant cafes, and shabby-chic vibe. With nearby Independence Square caught up in deadly fighting since Tuesday night, the street has gone from being a slice of Paris in Ukraine to an extension of the war zone.

My cozy flat was rocked by the sound of explosions for the entire night of February 18th, when Ukranian President Victor Yanukovych’s brutal Berkut militias attacked the protest camp with stun grenades laced with nails and rubber bullets. From my balcony, I also watched a group of protestors running down the corner of the street closest to Maidan, while riot police lobbed grenades at them. Later, I walked two blocks down to the Maidan that horrific night, and felt that I was among the trenches of World War I. Burly men in ancient helments broke up stones from the pavement to use as projectiles against the police, while others carried Molotov cocktails to the front lines. The entire inner circle of the Maidan encampment was surrounded by rings of fire created by the protestors to keep the police out. Stun grenades exploded on the edges making a sound like a building being detonated. Smoke billowed everywhere, while a few priests on stage chanted for peace. Witnessing the heroic struggle for the soul of Ukraine, I couldn’t help feeling that this night would decide everything. With Maidan, charred and burning, still standing in the morning, the protestors, despite the massive loss of life, had somehow emerged victorious.

When I got back to the flat late that evening, the smoke from the fires on Maidan had wafted through the windows, bringing to mind downtown New York in the aftermath of Sept 11th.

Since the take-no-prisoners crackdown has begun, the street feels like a set from The Day After. Almost all businesses are shut, and Pushkinskaya has a ghost-like feel, as a few locals and others en route to the Maidan walk past in masks, carrying rubber truncheons. This morning, I watch some women fish in the garbage cans on the street for empty glass bottles to use for Molotov cocktails, which the protestors have been hurling from the barricades. The only other activity is at the single, open minimarket, which is packed with panicked shoppers buying up everything on the shelves, including 3 kilos of salt. “Will you be getting more supplies soon?” a harried woman asks the salesgirl behind the meat counter.

“We’re not sure,” she says, shaking her head ominously. “It all depends on what happens out there.”

Meanwhile, weary men from the battle on the Maidan, their faces black with soot, rest on the stairs of the underpass down the block, which leads to the closed metro. Just this past weekend, pensioners had gathered for a Sunday evening waltz in the same underpass, as they’ve done for as long as I can remember.

Their gentle weekend dances seem like a distant memory, as the beautiful city I’ve called home for the last four years has been caught in the scary steel vice of the crackdown. The metro has been shut down, and so have the bridges leading into the heart of the city, as the government tries to prevent people joining the protestors on the Maidan. Meanwhile, government-sanctioned agent provocateurs—or titushki as they’re now called—roam the suburbs of the city, smashing windows and scaring residents into staying indoors, and away from the fighting. Many supermarkets are shut down, and most of the cash machines have stopped working. I walked for hours around the center of the city looking for a working cash machine this afternoon, and bumped into a VICE cameraman from Berlin, who was also searching for cash to pay his fixers. He had spent most of the night of the fighting out on the Maidan.

“It’s scary out there. There are snipers targeting innocent protestors on the square. There’s even talk of 500 armed fighters from Moscow supporting the crackdown, and Russian tanks massing at the border.”

My Ukrainian friends, who’ve lived in relative peace in the two decades since independence, are shocked—and more than a little panicked—by the hyper-violent turn of events, which has seen the death toll rise to 67, and is quite possibly in the hundreds, according to some. “It’s not Serbs killing Croatians, its Ukrainians shooting other Ukrainians,” lamented a friend over vodka the night before. “This is insane and unprecendented in our peaceful country. I feel like we’re in Baghdad or Damascus now.” He had come over with a friend to drink some vodka and pick up the courage to head to the Maidan later. However, even after a few shots of the strong brew, he decided against it.

“It’s just too dangerous out there. The Berkut have Kalashnikovs now and are firing at the demonstrators. It’s total war.”

When I told them that I’d spent an hour on the Maidan during the worst fighting on Tuesday night, they looked at me with new admiration.

Meanwhile, my girlfriend goes into total panic mode for hours at a time, refusing to leave the flat, and watching and talking about the news nonstop. Her mother tells her to tape up the windows and not answer the door if the titushki coming calling. Her father tells her never to leave the house, ever. She’s terrified that we’ll be attacked—or even worse—run out of food, and dragged me on a panicked shopping run this evening. When we finally found a fully-stocked supermarket on the outskirts of the center, she calmed down at last. When we tried to get a taxi home from the market, though, the driver asked, “Pushkinskaya, isn’t that in the war zone?” and then wanted 20 bucks for the ride. We ended up walking home, and when nearing our flat, a nice couple in a car stopped besides us and asked,

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“Would you like a ride to the Maidan?”

We felt guilty telling them that we were just walking home, and not taking supplies to the protestors as many Kievans are doing. We had seen them in the supermarket a bit earlier, buying provisions for the protestors, including logs of wood for the fires.

Like that couple, many regular people in Kiev are doing everything they can to help the embattled protestors on Independence Square. I have a friend who’s volunteering at a crisis hospital set up in the byzantine St. Micheal’s Church, where a stream of citizens are bringing free food, medicines, blankets and other supplies for the hundreds of injured from the Maidan. Some are donating blood for the injured, while others are banding into groups to keep the titushki away from their neighborhoods.

The most hardcore among them have stayed all night up on the square helping to keep the police from storming the focal point of this historic Ukrainian eurolution. A friend told me about a grandmother who had walked three hours from the distant eastern suburbs across the Dnieper river from downtown Kiev to defend the Maidan on the night of February 18th. She had supposedly thrown Molotov cocktails at the police, and been on the frontlines of the violent protest. With the metros closed, she had to dip into her savings to pay for the expensive taxi ride home that morning. Still, she planned to go back the next night and the night after.

It’s stories of everyday heroism like that, that fire up the imagination of Kievans living through these intensely disorienting and violent times. It’s the proud spirit of the Kievans that has kept this struggle alive despite the high price paid in lost lives. It’s a struggle that those who care about the future of an independent and free-spirited Ukraine cannot afford to lose. With a strong majority of people in the capital city strongly behind the protestors on the square, the President’s thuggish methods of repression are coming up against an unstoppable force. Already the head of the city administration has gone against the wishes of the President and opened some of the metros. He has also quit the ruling ‘Part of Regions’ party. Other deputies have also quit, and a momentum seems to be building.

With the city shut down, and residents panicking, the President is running out of time. Further violence and escalation of the events into a civil war would only alienate him from the bulk of the Ukrainian people. Kiev, the cradle of Russian civilization, where Orthodox Christianity first took its roots in the Slavic heartland, is still strong enough to resist the brutal tactics of the President, and the Kremlin strongman that stands behind him.