Six Moments on Maidan

In July 2014, Burn Magazine asked me to take over their Instagram handle, @burndiary to share images and stories as I was reporting in Ukraine. The exercise was enlightening: how do you share an intense and complicated story in snippets (with character limits) over seven days? I loved being able to shape a long form story around vignettes that were brief enough to engage a casual viewer, but detailed enough to provide insight into what the mainstream media isn’t covering in the Ukrainian crisis. The users learned new information along with me; they met the characters and saw the places in real time.

Below is the first of the two main pieces I produced for them, about the state of the Maidan four months after the revolution. To see the photos on Instagram in their original format click here for a storified version and click through to the originals.

To read the second part of the story — which details the crisis surrounding the mobilization of civilians into the conflict — click here.

Tents on the Maidan in central Kyiv, May 2014

Maidan Nizelezhnosti, or Independence Square, in the heart of Kyiv, was the rallying point for the EuroMaidan protests that led to the downfall of former president Viktor Yanukovich at the end of February. The protests brought together a broad cross section of Ukrainian society — students, businessmen, the intelligentsia, retirees, the working class — with the aims of bringing down a corrupt leadership, loosening ties with Russia, and looking westward, to Europe, for economic partnerships. Though most of the protesters resumed their daily lives after Yanukovich fell, several hundred remained on Maidan, constructing a tent city that, four months later, still consumes the square, and has remapped the landscape of central Kyiv.

A young girl wearing a Vinok, a wreath of poppies that is part of traditional Ukrainian folk costume, explores the wreckage of the barricades and tent city on the Maidan in central Kyiv, while a dissenter in camouflage relaxes outside his tent.

It’s hard to describe how surreal the Maidan feels these days. I’ve spent a lot of time in Kyiv in the past five or six years. I lived in Moscow from 2008–2009, living and working with several Ukrainian colleagues who have become lifelong friends. Nearly every summer we convene in Kyiv for a wedding or spend a few weeks in Crimea. But this year I didn’t pack a bridesmaid’s dress or swimsuit.

Coming back into the center of Kiev, to a place I’ve been a dozen times, walked and laughed and shot wedding photos of my friends, and to turn the corner and see the Maidan completely upended — it felt like walking onto a perfect movie set of an uprising. All the burned out buildings, all the piles of tires, all the men in camo with puffy eyes from having slept on the ground for six months (and starting on the first beer at 11 am every day), but nothing is happening. No one is moving. They’re just there, like extras waiting for a crowd scene, for someone to yell “Action!”

It’s become a tourist attraction, for locals and foreigners alike. Families take an evening walk through the square and pose stoically for snapshots with a tank, or a shrine to those who died in the protests. Souvenir stands have popped up hawking flower wreaths and anti-Putin trucker hats. Donations boxes sit next to each tent and the men hustle you for a few hryvnya if you point your camera their way.

Lazarus in his tent on the Maidan. June 2014
“I woke up two days later — in the morgue…”

I was in tent #12 on the Maidan, celebrating someone’s birthday with gristly pork kebabs, a handle of vodka, a dozen pickled odds and ends, and a group of men in their fifties who only referred to one another with their noms de guerre from their time serving in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — “Odessa,” “Viper,” “BlackAss.” They were swapping stories, trying to impress me. (It’s one of the trickiest parts of being a young woman journalist working in tough areas — my gender, age, and looks often play a part in how or whether I can get access to something; but occasionally they can jeopardize getting a straight story from a source — particularly men.)

Tall tales and hyperbolic war stories trade like currency on the Maidan, and nothing can be independently verified, so I just sat back and listened. Soon one of the men who had been chain smoking in the corner stood up slowly and limped over to the table with the food. I asked him what happened. “Oh! You didn’t hear it already?” one of the other men interjected, “This guy’s a legend.”

“I got shot, twice, on the day of the Heavenly Hundred,” he said, flatly.

On February 20th, close to 100 people were killed by sniper fire coming from the rooftops of buildings surrounding the Maidan. It’s still unclear who the snipers were, but the death toll was staggering, and it shook the nation. The fallen are now referred to as the Heavenly Hundred.

“You’re leaving out the best part,” his buddies said, egging him on. “C’mon, tell her!”

“I woke up two days later,” he paused for effect and cracked a wry smile, “in the morgue.” His lung had collapsed and his breathing was so shallow, the people who pulled him from the barricade thought he was dead. When a family member came to identify a different body at the overstuffed morgue two days later, they noticed he was still breathing. Emergency surgery revived him. A month later he left the hospital and came back to his tent on the Maidan with a new nom de guerre — “Lazarus.”

Rostyk works on an electric bicycle used to generate power on the Maidan. June 2014
“They’re not the revolution — they’re the leftovers.”

Rostyk was rolling cigarettes on the coffee table, with another one bobbing up and down on his lip as he talked. Straight-faced and at times deadpan with a cossack haircut and a strong western Ukrainian accent, he came off as more of a pirate than the professional lawyer he is. I don’t think I ever saw him wearing a shirt.

He shared the same sentiment nearly every Ukrainian I spoke with expressed: The people left in the tent city on the Maidan weren’t representatives of the revolution so many Ukrainians had sacrificed to take part in. They were gangs, criminals, gypsies, bums. “They’re the leftovers,” Rostyk said. He had spent two weeks in jail during the EuroMaidan protests, and when he got out, had the Ukrainian Trident (which spells out the word ВОЛЯ, or freedom) tattooed on his back.

I came to see this for myself. I’d go inside the tents at all hours of the day and night and talk to people, about their day-to-days, their lives, their politics. Everyone has a different opinion of why they’re there and what they want to achieve — all of the verve and unity of EuroMaidan had fizzled into factions. Many of them arrived months after the revolution — they were just looking for something to do. And so this…this is what they’re doing. They’re standing guard. Over a pile of mouldering shit, busted up pallets and tires and dirty mattresses, a stack of firewood, a square no one has yet made a move to reclaim, a litter of kittens born under the barricade.

Doctor Misha inside a tent on the Maidan. June 2014.
“I never thought it’d be gunshot wounds”

Not everyone on the Maidan upheld a facade of machismo hero-worship. Though I met Doctor Misha at the birthday party where I heard Lazarus’ story, he was a different breed. In a world of unwashed camo, his pressed khakis, starched collar, and slick 1990s-style wraparound sunglasses with purple lenses instantly read “outsider,” but it was more his demure, almost haunted demeanor that set him apart. Yet he couldn’t walk 15 feet through the encampment without someone coming out to shake his hand.

When the first clashes with police turned violent in January, he came to the square to organize a rough-shod field hospital, and started patching up broken bones and spritzing tear gas victims with liquid antacid to stop the burning. Local pharmacies donated first aid stock; Facebook posts instructed people to show up at the square with as many lemons as they could carry to fight off the pepper spray. “I never thought it’d be gunshot wounds, though,” he told me quietly, off to the side of the celebration, in his soft, piercing voice.

He was on the square during the sniper attacks, and saw most of the carnage firsthand, one body at a time being carried into the tent. “It was terrifying, it was heartbreaking, but it was inspiring, too…Doctors and nurses left their jobs and came to the square when the hospitals stopped admitting patients. The diaspora sent supplies, medicine, money. So many more would have died, but people came together.”

He kissed my hand; he used my full name; he made me promise that when I wrote his story, I’d be sure to tell the diaspora thank you for him.

Two members of the Right Sector spar outside their tent on the Maidan. June 2014.

All over the encampment on the Maidan, donation boxes sit perched outside of the tents, bearing hand-scratched signs. Most are asking for money for food, but a few honest ones read “For smokes” or “We need a drink.” Crowds of what I can only call war tourists have started flocking to the square, snapping photos and taking video, and the encampment has discovered a new brand of busking — sparring for money.

The men are either comically inept at fighting (it’s no small wonder most of them didn’t want to head to Donetsk to fight actual combatants) or unsettlingly adroit at it, like the two men pictured here. Their fight unfolded at a breathtaking speed as they weaved and dodged and twisted in and out of one another’s grips. There was a striking intimacy and immediacy to it — the kind of urgent energy that comes with a close-contact conflict. It was hard not to draw an analogy with the struggle the whole country is embroiled in right now.

Their fight left me wondering where someone learns hand-to-hand combat like that, so I stuck around after it was all over and the crowd thinned out to ask. Turns out, I didn’t need to: the men settled down in plastic lawn chairs and cracked open tepid beers, their hands no longer moving fast enough to conceal tattoos covering them. I recognized them at once: year markers and place markers — prison tattoos.

A producer at Hromadske TV prepares for a live broadcast from their Kyiv studio in June.
“We thought, if the state doesn’t want to have public broadcasting, we can do it online.”

Though it had been in the works for months, Hromadske TV, the brainchild of a group of young Ukrainian journalists aiming to bring credibility back to the news, got a jumpstart on November 29, 2013, the first day of the EuroMaidan uprising. “We decided to launch that day,” co-founder Natalia Gumenyuk told me, “and once we started broadcasting, we never left the studio.” They covered the protests with live streams from the square, and had a team of journalists on the ground working to fact-check news reports and rumors going viral on social media. Soon it had thousands of followers on YouTube, and crowd funding started trickling — then pouring — in.

In a country where almost all the broadcast news is either tabloid or propaganda, Hromadske stands out as an independent voice. Its studio is decidedly low-budget — an echoey black box with a simple banner and a row of Mac desktops manned by coffee-fueled young producers hustling around behind an anchor who’s reading the latest news from Slavyansk in a T-shirt and grandpa cardigan — but the reporting is solid, straightforward, and unadorned. It’s not uncommon to see interviews conducted on Skype or iPhone video footage from a field correspondent on Hromadske. It can’t compete with the production value of national broadcasts, (Chanel 5 is funded by the new president, billionaire Petro Poroshenko, who announced that upon taking office, he would give up control of his eponymous candy empire — but maintain ownership of the TV station…) but it doesn’t need to. “If the reporting is good, people will forgive you for the quality of the broadcast,” Gumenyuk explained. “There are so many important things happening, and [our] urge is to make people know about it…it’s not your job, it’s your DUTY to report.”

Now, Hromadske (which literally means ‘public’) has become a part of the news vernacular of engaged citizens all over Ukraine. My friends in Kyiv watch it religiously, but so do their parents who live in small farming towns out west. A priest in Rivne encouraged people in his congregation to watch. A woman selling me ice cream in a park noticed my press pass and told me she just found a reason to watch the news again: “Have you heard of Hromadske?”