Occupy Kiev: What Should Ukraine Do Now With The Heroes of the Maidan?

The heroes of the Maidan forced a corrupt president to relinquish power even as snipers picked off their comrades—and now they're vowing to stay put in Kiev indefinitely.

The password to this fervent Ukrainian winter revolution has been ‘Slava Ukraina’—Glory to Ukraine —which when spoken to the tough protestors guarding Maidan elicits an immediate smile and a resounding cry of ‘Geroyem Slava’—Glory to the Heroes. For the first months of the heroic revolution, I understood this inspired verbal exchange with protestors as a ritual, rooted in the need to boost morale. At the time, ‘heroes’ were still a vague concept, characters from Hollywood films and Soviet propaganda, with no relation to real life.

These days, however, with the stunning triumph of the revolution after horrific struggle and bloodshed, there are no shortage of heroes. The entire Maidan has become a floral homage to the revolution’s fallen heroes as tens of thousands of Ukrainians have made the pilgrimage there in recent days to place flowers in their memory. There are spontaneous memorials all across Independence Square, flowers, candles, and notes for a fallen protestor, marking a spot where somebody had taken a fatal bullet. Sometimes they are against a building, other times garlanding a lone tree; most, however, decorate the road leading up to Parliament, where tens of protestors lost their lives to vicious sniper fire while preventing inroads from the riot police into the heart of the Maidan.

The fallen include a 21-year-old nurse working the medical tent who was shot in the heart by a sniper; Oleksandr Khrapachenko, a 26-year-old theater director from Western Ukraine; Dmitry Maskimov, a 19-year-old kid who lost an arm in a grenade explosion and died from blood loss hours later; and more than 60 others. For most Kievans, who watched the intense battle on the comforting glow of their television screens, these men and women who gave their lives for the struggle are the true heroes of the revolution.

When boxer-turned-opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, tried to sell his previous Friday’s historic agreement with ex-President Victor Yanukovyvch to Maidan, the crowd booed him, and forced him down on his knees in apology. In his place, an angry young man named Vladimir Poznyak grabbed the mike, and, pointing at the cortège for fallen protestors winding through the Square, declared that the protestors would never forgive Yanukovych for the spilt blood of their brothers. Instead, he gave the President until 10 a.m. the next day to resign from his post or face the personal vengeance of the demonstrators, many of whom were now armed with rifles.

The young man who grabbed the stage from Klitschko was immediately hailed a hero for his bravado, and social media sites buzzed with approving chatter. His words also proved chillingly prophetic: As guards deserted the presidential administration that night, and angry crowds surrounded his estate, a jittery Yanukovych heeded their words and decamped early the next morning by helicopter to the relative safety of Eastern Ukraine. The tyrant’s hasty retreat—which didn’t even leave him enough time to destroy incriminating documents—underscored his primal fear of the ‘heroes’ of the revolution. For the euphoric Ukrainians touring his flashy blood-money Versailles that day, there was newfound respect for the men in primitive army gear that had tamed the big bad wolf. They were not just protestors any more; they were warriors. When a truckload of ‘soldiers’ from the Maidan arrived at the palace, everyone broke out in cheers of ‘Geroyem Slava’! Glory to the Heroes!

The entire capital city has now been taken over by these semi-armed ‘heroes’ of the revolution. They’re mostly young men and “middle-aged men with hard eyes,” as a friend described it. When they walk down my street single file, they often sing the Ukrainian national anthem, and some residents cheer from the balconies. They’re welcomed like American soldiers in Europe after World War II. With their helmets, face masks, knee pads and bulletproof vests made from discarded nails, they’re also a bit like homegrown versions of Batman and Superman. Stories of them building a giant catapult for Molotov cocktails on Maidan, and setting fire to an armored military vehicle during the height of the protests, only adds to their superhero appeal. In this narrative, the disgraced former President with his gaudy taste for golden toilets and exotic zoos, is cast as the Joker. He’s the gangster with the goofy, insincere smile, who stole from the common people to build kitschy palaces of greed and excess. He’s eluded the people of Gotham for quite some time with his wily ways and corrupt friends, but now it’s time for his comeuppance. Let’s have the Joker’s head on a platter, cry the common people.

The revolution’s triumph has been awe-inspiring, and I mostly share others’ admiration for the brave grandsons of Ukraine’s Cossacks who were willing to brave Kalashnikov bullets for their beloved country. However, this deification of ‘heroes’ has tended to highlight their idealistic, nationalistic and uncompromising views over other moderate voices in the revolution. When former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko spoke on the Maidan Sunday evening, soon after her historic release from prisoin, many walked away from the Independence Square. The Maidan people constantly interrupted her speech on the pretext of ferreting out ‘provocateurs’ from the crowd. Yulia, who had spent the revolution in prison, hadn’t fought along with the protestors, and therefore wasn’t a hero. She was part of the corrupt ‘Old Guard’ and didn’t deserve their respect. Her large portrait on the iconic ‘Christmas Tree’ that faced the main stage on Independence Square was even torn to shreds by angry protestors on Monday.

“She didn’t stand on the barricades with us,” explained one of the activists who took part in the action. “There should be a picture instead of those who died fighting for the revolution.”

The ‘heroes’ have also shown the same disdain for other established politicians like Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenuk. They’re seen as having kowtowed to the former President, and compromised the ideals of the ‘pure’ revolution. They’ve also shown no qualms in antagonizing an already alarmed Russia. A recent law giving Russian the status of a second official language was immediately repealed on the weekend. That move would certainly alienate the country’s eastern regions—and residents of the Crimea—where there have already been mass demonstrations in favor of Russia, and against the EuroMaidan.

The ‘heroes’ also do not plan to pack up and head back to a cozy life with their Robins and Lois Lanes. There’s too much to be done still in Kiev’s Gotham. Instead, they plan to remain on Maidan to ensure that the elections are fair, and the ideas of the revolution are not compromised. With a standing army of protestors breathing down the embattled parliament’s necks, it’s unlikely that saner voices will prevail. Instead, the whims of the people on Maidan will become official policy.

It’s critical at this stage that the revolution’s victors work on unifying the fragmented nation, and toning down Russia’s bellicose mood. Vladimir Putin is only waiting on the sidelines for an excuse to take back the Crimean peninsula, which was part of the Russian Empire for over two hundred years. According to some news reports, Russian troops are already amassing on the border with Crimea.

As elections approach in May, and parties need to consider the larger concerns of the Ukrainian people—and not just the idealistic whims of the ‘heroes’—it’s hoped that realpolitikwill triumph over revolutionary fervor. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be in all those Hollywood blockbusters? The heroes ride off into the sunset, leaving the work of rebuilding the world to saner minds unscarred by the horrors of war.

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Hopefully, the Ukrainian people will rein in their ‘heroes’ for the cause of the greater good.