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The territory of volition

For a long time I could not understand what associations I had with the Maidan. This is not a revolution, not unrest, and – for sure – not Bolotnaya. Not ‘occupation’. This is not a war. And this is not a protest as such, in its pure form. And not even a confrontation with the government, despite the barricades and blockage of the square by military trucks. Yes, protest and revolution are present here, but everything that is going on considered together, is a sort of a ‘mixture’ of social and political phenomena, a little of each. None of which, is prevalent or could possibly fully characterise the Maidan.

Author: Аrkadiy Babchenko

But today, as I was watching the concert, the crowd of thousands standing here at three o’clock in the morning, with no intention of dispersing, watches and shifts at the barricades, paramilitary organisation, army tents daubed with lettering ‘first hundred’, ‘second hundred’, the barricade, blocking Khreshchatyk, now called ‘the Cossack’s redoubt’ – I understood.

The Maidan is a Sich. The same Zaporizhian Sich, about which, we all read in Gogol’s works.

The same half-marching, half-military, half-civil lifestyle which everyone associates with Cossacks.

The Maidan is a territory of volition. Not of freedom and wild revels, but of volition. ‘Volya’ (volition) – this Ukrainian word best describes what is happening here.

And barricades with which ‘protesters’ fenced their area, protect not this particular piece of land, but their very autonomy, their right to live as they want to themselves, and not as the authority orders. And there is no authority as such here.

The Maidan is a community of free people who do not recognise any authority over themselves other than that which they are willing to recognise. “For there is no authority except for the Maidan”.

The three opposition leaders: Klitschko, Tyakhnibok and Yatsenyuk – are not commanders here. They cannot force the Maidan to do what it does not want to do and cannot force it to abandon what it has purpose to do. And even for the recent roundtable with President Yanukovich the leaders asked authorisation from the Maidan. And the Maidan gave them the authorisation. It was the Maidan which allowed them to talk with the enemy on behalf of the people, making them ambassadors of their will, and not vice versa. There can be no collusion with the authorities here by definition. It simply won’t be accepted.

The Maidan is a separate phenomenon. This is a separate organism, a separate institution of society, which is able to organise and regulate itself. Pure democracy.

Gathered together: a Popular Assembly; a group of people with violins and something similar to kurin [basic combat unit of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army] in the City Council, which these people are protecting. And at the entrance to the City Council they make everyone remove their hats – out of respect for the people gathered there.

And many people in the Cossack hats, baggy trousers, colonel uniforms and other national costumes of the last century, with oseledets on shaved heads and shoulder-length moustaches, puffing on tobacco-filled long and curved Cossack pipes, surprisingly, look appropriate here, as though in their own environment, although under any other circumstances they would be perceived as mummers.

Like many priests, all faiths who during stormings come out in front of the barricades along with everyone else, and stand in front of people, not behind them.

Faith is generally very organic here. The three-hour prayer that morning when the Maidan learned that it was blocked, people being baptised on the barricades with helmets in their hands, Christmas cribs already installed near the Christmas tree – all of this is fully consistent with the place and the spirit. Faith, as it transpired, can actually make people follow itself if it doesn’t set the goal of turning them into mindless freaks. And even the poster “Long live Santa Claus, away with Jack Frost!” is not annoying.

And the anthem, when thousands of people are standing, with their hands on their hearts, and singing Souls and bodies we’ll lay down, all for our freedom,And we’ll show that we, brothers, are of the Cossack nation!” 

Zaporizhzhya Sich as it is. Khortytsia. Taras Bulba. Volition.

“Can you hear me, father? I can hear you!”

During the storming, the winner of Eurovision 2004, Ruslana, stood on the stage all night. She called on the police to stop, called for refrainment from beating, she said it was a peaceful rally. By the way, in my opinion, she does not sleep at all. Every night, every hour she sings the anthem from the stage. She spends the night in the House of Trade Unions, together with all – on the floor. And then, when the security forces, having failed to break through the enormous crowd of people who came to the aid (the people of Kiev, having learnt about the beginning of the storming, began to come on foot from all over the city, brought helmets and were lining up in a fighting formation, and at some point there were so many of them that the police simply did not have the strength and then the order was given: “Shields to the ground!” – people on the stage began to chant: “We are the nation! We are the nation! We are the nation!”.

And they really are a nation. Members of Verkhovna Rada are standing together with the people on the barricades. In front of the people; protecting their constituents with their own bodies. On Lutheranskaya Street, they were standing in front of bulldozers. Can you imagine members of the State Duma, standing on Bolotnaya Street between the police and protesting citizens and preventing the police from beating people? That night, taxi drivers drove people to the Maidan free of charge, advertising the offer on the Internet. Hotels allow all comers to warm up and recover. Truly all comers – including the police. It’s quite a strange view, when both ‘Berkut soldiers and rally participants are standing in one queue for the toilet. As they say here: “Those who are in  red helmets, are ‘our people’. Those who are in black, are also ‘our people’, they just don’t know about it yet”. Hostels provide accommodation. Motorists are placing ads on the walls, expressing their readiness to take people home ‘bezkoshtovno’, i.e. for free. People bring food, firewood and diesel fuel from across the entire city. The flow of support for the camp does not stop here, even for an hour. A group of Crimean Tatars arrived and cooked pilaf in a huge cauldron for the whole week. And Miss Ukraine 2013 as a regular volunteer carries tea to frozen people throughout the whole camp. I see her every day. Lately, she has been working with her face covered with a medical mask so that too much attention doesn’t hinder the top model from performing low-ranking – but now, very fundamental – work.

Are there nationalists here? Yes, there are. They form a majority here. Mentally, the Maidan is Western Ukrainian. The ‘Svoboda’ is nationalist. The flags of Ukrainian Insurgent Army are seen quite frequently. And the chants “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”, “Glory to the nation! Death to the enemies!”, “Ukraine! Above all!” are heard every minute from every corner. There are ultra radicals – the same young football fans that fought/scuffled with ‘Berkut’ soldiers and chased them away at the monument of Lenin; the same that rammed internal troops with a bulldozer near the Presidential Administration building and the same that fought during the storming near the House of Trade Unions and sprayed the attackers with water hoses from the windows of the City Council. From time to time they appear here, and now, they noisily march through the streets with nail pullers and parts of plumbing pipes in their hands, and then disappear. There are few of them, but they are the most noticeable. All the others are moderate. Not well-mannered, but, how to put it in words… well, they don’t put their words into actions. Here, nationalism is not personified. Not directed at individuals with unsuitable skin colour and, it is not directed inside at all, but rather outside, against the policy of those who are trying to impose the will of neighbouring states on the country. It important that it’s not against countries – it is against the policies of the countries.

I completely disagree with the Bandera slogans. But my Russian speech and Russian passport does not get me into trouble. With all of these chants and flags, assassinations on ethnic grounds are extremely rare here. There is a large Turkish diaspora and they are treated quite calmly, even respectfully. Despite the fact that on the barricades one could hear about the “nasty Janissaries”, whom the Cossacks have never allowed to rule over them. Yes, there are fights with the left. Yes, the monument was being toppled with the cries of “Commie to the gallows!” But no one cuts each other with knives and no one shoots another in the head  in the entrance hallway”. Nobody cries: “It’s high time to stop feeding Hutsuls!”.

– He who is not jumping, is a Moskal – said a jumping man in Cossack hat, looking me in the eye.
– I am a Moskal – I replied.

We lit each other’s cigarettes  and parted; each of us went about his own business. In general, “there are different types of nationalism”.

The Maidan is absolutely not a story about hipsters. This is about something else. The vast majority of people here are normal people. Hardworking people. Simple people, farmers, dressed clumsily or just simply. Here, you won’t meet boys in narrow jeans with iPhones. Actually, they come here during the weekend, of course, as if going to the theatre, to take pictures, but all the rest of their lives’ they devote to earning a living; the core of the camp consists of people who don’t belong to the highest strata of society.

I think they don’t have a profound understanding of the European integration concept. Actually, The Maidan is not about European integration, either. Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the agreement was only the beginning. And if the authorities hadn’t paid attention to the protesters at that time, everyone would have gone home a long time ago. It is not such a big problem – they didn’t sign it this year, they would sign it next year, when a different person becomes president. Fair elections and freedom of speech haven’t yet been cancelled by anyone here.

But the authorities behaved in a completely idiotic way. Thirty men beaten; even if they did throw sticks and stones at the Special Forces unit, it is a very unprofessional response. And the next day, thousands came to the Maidan. Then, there were clashes on Bankovaya, where people were beaten even as they were lying on the ground, and, as a consequence, millions took to the streets. Then, there was the demolition of the barricades and absolutely stupid attempt to mop up the Maidan; and this Sunday, the largest attendance of people is expected. At every opportunity the government is does everything to extend the range of the Maidan; time after time. Now, even at night, ten thousand people continue to stand here. Initially, there were three hundred.

The Maidan no longer resembles ‘Zarnitsa’ [a military game for children]. Demolished toy-like barricades were replaced with thick walls made of bags of snow, sprinkled with water and reinforced with welded plumberware pipes – they were welding them the whole of the day before yesterday – with ropes, barbed wire, spike strips, barrels, metal shields and generally everything that came to hand. The unawareness of what and how to do, and why we gathered together here, is now gone and the service has been organised clearly and precisely, with shifts, platoons, hundreds, the assignment of responsibilities, sectors for observation, posts, positions and pass control. Service at the posts is provided by veterans of Afghanistan; approximately 600 people right now. For the repulse of the attack, they prepared plywood panels – it reminds me our childhood games, when we used to pretend to be knights. Streets are blocked by spike strips. The situation has become serious. Yanukovych stirred up this anthill and, by stirring, he infuriated it. People are cheerful, angry, they have become  prepared and are now waiting.

On the bridge over the barricade on Instytutska Street, a poster is hanging. It reads” “Berkut, welcome to hell”.

Of course, it could be taken down as well. Anything can be taken down. Four thousand educated and trained soldiers, dressed in armour, with shields, gas, grenades, plastic bullets and water cannons are capable of performing miracles.

But then, half of Ukraine will come here.

Generally, the most interesting thing here, which will subsequently be best remembered, is, of course, people. The boy, eighty centimeters tall, who on the morning of the blockade approached us, a group of journalists, stopped and said, “Guys, I’m scared”. He said it in Russian. The girl who stood in front of the barricade, looking at cohorts and phalanxes of faceless people, hiding behind plexiglass visors, and weeping. She was obviously scared, but, as it seemed to me, that wasn’t the reason why she was crying. Rather, she was crying because of the feeling that the country had crossed a line and there was no way back. A member of parliament on a barricade at Lutheranskaya Street, when it creaked under the pressure of the internal troops, climbing up and calling on soldiers not to execute criminal orders, not to shed blood, because people will not voluntarily leave anyway. The priest, leading a column of people, singing the anthem, marching toward the presidential administration building; toward the police cordons. A hand holding a cross over the helmets of attackers and defenders, glowing in a single cloud of breath, exhaled from thousands of mouths. The pastor in the Lutheran Church, young and smiling, who established a medical centre in his temple. The voluntary first aid team near the very Administration building, where the shambles occurred; where people were waiting for a repeat – quietly, confidently and without fear – two girls and a boy, all of them approximately twenty years old. Veterans of Afghanistan, having formed a chain in front of a barricade and the first to have taken the brunt of the attackers, and even for some time, pushing them back, were calling people over to help. And these people, climbing over the barricade and jumping into the crowd, taking their place in it and squashing with full force the armoured dark mass which advanced from the upper part; from Bankova. And the fat chubby boy, with whom we were pressed to the barricade at some point and who, having dug his foot into the ground, was pushing back shields, shouting loudly. Cut off from their people and encircled, a few soldiers of the Special Forces, pressed against a baluster, forming a “testudo” and barred with shields – in my opinion, they were just as  ready to die for their own reasons, for their order, as those who surrounded them were willing to die for their freedom. And a corridor, organised especially for them, in order to enable them to go back to their people, under the chants of thousands of throats “Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest!”, and their subsequent retreat. And the roar of hundreds of metal shields, simultaneously laid on the pavement to the command: “Shields to the ground!’. And shouting, and ringing, and roaring, and the noise of units, and fists raised over the files of soldiers, prompting the back files to “Stop” – all of that contributed to the unique noise created by thousands of people, who gathered together for confrontation. 

But most of all I remember a woman in her fifties. She was standing on the side, near the tents, and somehow she did not draw anyone’s attention with her poster, although usually all here trying to convey their ideas. And she had a poster – a simple piece of a drawing paper. Only one inscription written on it: “We, the mothers, may not run away from truncheons. We can run towards machine guns. Do you want that?”

Generally, posters are a separate issue. A separate report could be written about them. They are a revel of creativity, wit and resourcefulness. But most of all, I liked two serious ones. “They don’t let us live – we won’t let them govern”. And the second, which was written on the demolished barricade – “Slaves are not allowed in paradise.” It’s amazing how people managed to express my entire philosophy of life in just fifteen words.

The Maidan is growing every day. Changing by the hour. Each time, I go there in order to monitor the situation, I don’t recognise the places where I was walking just a couple of hours before. Whole streets of tents have been built, and I’m starting to get lost in them, unable to find a familiar way to the hotel. Fortifications are strengthened constantly, and constantly some new engineering solutions are found. From the last – spike strips wrapped in barbed wire and the same barbed wire, spread as a broad band on the neutral zone. More and more people are constantly coming. The camp’s population grows. A customary existence, which has already established its own logic, got going and entered the optimum mode. Everyone knows their place, everyone fulfils his duties. Some carry firewood, others distribute tea and sandwiches, the third ones prepare them, the fourth ones cook soup, bigos [sauerkraut stew], porridge and goulash for all, the fifth ones stand on duty at the barricades, the sixth build them, the  seventh are in self-defence units, the eighth set up tents, the ninth collect garbage, the tenth, the fifteenth, the twentieth… Amazingly, snow which had fallen and tamped down, was removed from the square in just one night – with just sticks and hammers was cleared, put in to sacks and used as a barricade.

As it was written here on one of the flyers: “I am but a drop in the ocean”. But together, they are the ocean.

Thus far, the Maidan has been defended. It has been stood up for; in the direct sense of the term. Here, in my opinion, the whole Ukrainian police and the authorities have no more reserve forces. I cannot imagine, what to expect from them next. Unlike direct and predictable, as ABC, Russian authorities, Viktor Yanukovych is completely unpredictable. Now, there is stagnancy there.  A parity of forces was established. Neither one, nor the other side has clear numerical advantage. But still, people await a violent resolution of the situation and are preparing for this. I too am waiting. It seems to me that gas will still be used. Yanukovych has already lost the Maidan once, which didn’t allow him to become president, and, obviously, he doesn’t want to see the same developments for the second time. So, I think he’s ready for an extreme option. But again, it is absolutely impossible to understand his logic.

A Ukraine on that night – the night of storming – joined the EU after all. At least the Maidan did, for sure. An inscription is placed on one of the passes through the barricades: “Entrance into Europe”.
And this entrance leads through the Maidan; In all senses.

And Ukrainians are brave fellows. Simply amazing men. They stood up and defended. Volition!

Author: Аrkadiy Babchenko