The first day I stood on Maidan was November 22. It was raining. I was unsure, and maybe even a little confused, about what was happening. A guy in a truck was spouting off some stuff about Ukraine being Europe to an audience of about 100 people with umbrellas and ponchos standing in front of the green skeleton of the future New Year's tree. It felt like nothing, really. After listening to a few half-hearted choruses of "Slava Ukraini — Heroyam slava!" (Glory to Ukraine — Glory to the Heroes) — a slogan that would resonate across Kyiv in the next three months — I trudged home, shrugging off what I had just witnessed.
That night, on my way to a party, I saw Arseniy Yatseniuk — then the leader of the Batkivshchyna party, now the interim Prime minister — handing out fliers in a metro station and taking photos with passersby. "Everyone to Maidan! Sunday! Noon! Ukraine is Europe!" the small papers proclaimed. I joined the fray long enough to snap a few photos, and it slowly dawned on me that maybe I had underestimated the day's experience. So I showed up at noon.
Ten thousand other people showed up, too. Under the guise of demanding President Viktor Yanukovych's signature on an agreement with the European Union that would "associate" Ukraine with the EU by guaranteeing IMF loans to develop infrastructure in Ukraine, ultimately providing the Ukrainian government with the possibility to request full membership in the EU. At the same time, Yanukovych would be rejecting Russian president Vladimir Putin's attempts to bring Ukraine back into the Russian economic orbit by signing on with his Customs Union, along with Belarus and Kazakhstan. On one level, this was all about money and a piece of paper that would make that money materialize. But on a much more important level, this was about a conviction that "Ukraine is Europe" meant something just as material. The people on the streets wanted to convince the EU that Ukraine is not just floundering under its Soviet past but is striving toward a European future — that this European future is something like Ukraine's destiny. And that by being part of a European future, Ukraine and Ukrainians could be truly free.
I wasn't convinced that this pro-Europe rhetoric was ever any better than a pro-Putin version. The EU had no interest in gaining Ukraine as a member, as the Ukrainian economy would be a big drain on its already limited resources. Most people didn't really understand that IMF loans would require the government to introduce austerity measures, including raising transportation prices and decreasing pensions. But "Europe" still sounded better, because it would confirm that Ukraine isn't Russia, that Europe values Ukraine as an independent government and economy, rather than as a bridge on the way to Russia. And it allowed people to proclaim that, in a democracy, it's acceptable and even encouraged to take to the streets and say that you disagree with your president's actions.
But in this version of democracy, you're only allowed to disagree in certain ways. I marched with a group of Ukrainian feminists who carried signs that said "Feminism is a European value" and "You want to be Europe? Say no to sexism and homophobia." And these women were physically and verbally attacked, first by a guy wielding a metal pipe and then by a bunch of women who didn't want to hear that sexism really existed. This was the first time I was called a "provocator" — an instigator, someone who comes to an event with the intention of stirring up trouble for everyone else. In other words, while it was fine for people marching to carry flags from the three main opposition political parties, to have different kinds of affiliations, talking about feminism and tolerance was a provocation.
Over the next weeks, as protesters built a tent city on Maidan, feminists who came to join the protests with signs proclaiming tolerance and solidarity were attacked with fists and pepper spray, were surrounded by ultra-nationalists wearing buttons that said "for a clean Ukraine" (as in, Ukraine for Ukrainians only) and pushed around, their signs being torn into pieces and crushed on the pavement. In these late November days and nights, I began to see swastikas painted on buildings and Galician-cross adorned flags of white power groups swarming onto Maidan. Ultra-nationalist Ultras representing Kyiv's Dynamo soccer team created a human chain around Maidan. The black and red flags of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) began cropping up alongside Ukrainian, European Union, and party flags. The slogans expanded to include not just glory to the heroes but Glory to the Nation! Death to Enemies! and Ukraine Above All! Before the end of November this seemed to be a movement overtaken by right-wing nationalists with neo-Nazi and white power elements. On November 29, we left Maidan early because it was swarming with threatening-looking men with black and red armbands who seemed to recognize us, and we were tired of getting attacked.
But then it changed, at least somewhat, in the early hours of November 30. Under the guise of completing the construction of the New Year's tree, sleeping students in tents on Maidan were brutally beaten by the riot police, or Berkut. Maidan was cleared and cordoned off, surrounded by more police. Despite this, thousands showed up that day, shouting "Hanba!" (shame) at the officers who protected a metal tree instead of Ukrainian students. On December 1, a massive mobilization against the violence of the previous night brought the entire city together. Non-violence and human rights became the new buzzwords — no one was even talking about Europe anymore.
And it just kept growing. Students organized strikes, protests against police violence continued, and the plastic and metal branches of the New Year's tree became barricades protecting the tents. I started to hear the word "revolution." Yanukovych appeared as the target of people's disgust and frustration. Protesters took over the City Hall and named it "Revolutionary Headquarters." Huge tents, nailed to the pavement, started creeping down Khreshatyk, Kyiv's main street. Massive piles of donated clothes and food filled the square. Kitchens churned out tea and hot meals. Barricades were reinforced with snow. The colder it got, the more people hunkered down into their tents.
Of course, this was never going to last. On December 9th, I ran into a friend from a Western Ukrainian city on the outskirts of the protest camps, and when we tried to cross the barricades one of the guards asked me not to enter. He said, "We're suggesting that women not come onto Maidan. We think something might happen tonight, and we don't want women coming in now." I went in anyway, but it was dark and snowing, and everyone seemed tense. When we crossed out of the barricades on Khreshatyk, the guards were clearly on edge, facing a whole row of Berkut who seemed ready to pounce. But it would take another day before anything happened. After clearing as many women and children as possible, or gathering them near the stage in the center, the men on Maidan stood against the Berkut as the troops attempted to storm the square and destroy the camp. Like everyone else who wasn't on Maidan, I watched a live stream all night. I watched guys in orange helmets refuse to surrender to violent forces. And somehow those violent forces didn't kill anyone. They couldn't get the tents down. They sprayed the City Hall and those defending it with water, but it was so cold that the sidewalk in front of the building froze over and the police couldn't get any closer. By the time I woke up, the Berkut had pulled back. When I went to Maidan that day, the barricades were reinforced with benches pulled from around Khreshatyk. And there were even more tents.
Soon after the attempted storm of Maidan, I stayed on the square all night with some Ukrainian companions. People were in good spirits, despite the freezing cold. There were plenty of fires, there was plenty of tea. People filled the City Hall, sleeping on the stairs if they couldn't find space on the floor. Medical and psychological care points contributed to the safe haven created for long-term protesters. There were masked and helmeted men patrolling the doors, checking our bags and documents, weeding out drunks and thugs, and standing ready for another night attack by the Berkut.
I don't remember how it went from this calm to never being calm again. I went to Maidan almost every day, just to wander around, maybe to listen to a lecture or watch a film at the small Open University stage, sometimes listening to a speaker on the main stage. I felt discomfort at the growing Nazi graffiti and the images of controversial Ukrainian historical figures as "symbols" of the movement. I grew frustrated as the exits from the metro were barricaded off one by one, forcing me to walk through the urine-soaked halls past sleeping and fighting drunks who were turned away at the barricades. I started to feel like I was being watched. But I kept showing up, just waiting for the next big thing to happen.
I was at something totally different, a gathering on Mykhailivska Square, north of Maidan, to remember some Russian journalists who were killed by fascists and to speak out against fascist violence. It was a moving event, with very eloquent speakers linking this memorial to the protests on Maidan. Near the end, when it was getting dark, we started hearing sirens. A lot of sirens. Ambulances stationed around Mykhailivska Square started moving to Maidan. Someone with a data plan told us that something was happening on Hrushevskoho, one of the streets near Maidan. No one knew what it was, but they went. I could hear sirens and sound grenades, and one by one, everyone headed toward Maidan.
I didn't join them then. It was cold, I was tired, and I had thus far avoiding participating in major violence. As Yanukovych and his cronies had recently passed a set of laws making the legality of showing up at even the anti-fascist event questionable, and I didn't want to draw attention to myself or to my friends by being somewhere dangerous. Despite my quite sufficient language skills, I remained terrified that in this situation, if someone shouted "run" or "hide" it wouldn't register, and I would become the responsibility of someone else, and they might risk their safety for me. Even now, I haven't resolved the balance of helping people speak out about something because I have access to an audience they don't and of needing to just shut up because I am in the way — of their health and safety as well as my own. And the laws passed on January 16th didn't help — anyone living, working, researching in Ukraine with a foreign organization (me) could be counted as a foreign agent and therefore subjected to potential surveillance that wasn't used before. Mostly, though, I was scared — not just for myself but for my friends. I didn't want to risk my life, but I didn't want to see them risk theirs, either.
Hrushevskoho Street tasted the first blood of the revolution. Police sniper fire killed three protesters in front of the Dynamo soccer stadium and swanky jewelry stores to prevent anyone from moving towards the Parliament. Countless people were hit by gas canisters or temporarily blinded by the constant onslaught of tear gas. More water cannons are used to create icy patches and douse the protesters with freezing water. A friend escorted me to Hrushevskoho the next day. He was surprised I was so tense — he said he had been there the day before and it was fine to just watch. Looking down on the street, most was obscured by the thick smoke from tire fires. There were three rows of barricades, and memorials to those killed already lining the bottom of the street. This was the first time I ever felt like I was in a war zone. Rows upon rows of Berkut stood menacingly from higher ground, while the masked men in orange helmets tried not to look frustrated as I crossed into the second barricade to photograph them. And the barricade made out of burnt-out police busses. The home-made shields and armor. The iced over barricades of snow, sand, and whatever else could be found. The dirty black slush that will never wash out of my boots. A small sign that I was there, too.
As the barricades were reinforced with steel beams and barbed wire over the next weeks, new graffiti and posters took over the areas around Maidan. "The heroes will not be forgotten!" "If you weren't on Hrushevskoho, you're not a man!" (complete with lipstick-stain kisses) "Freedom or death!" An anarchist A covered by a Nazi Wolfsangel. Inside the newly occupied Ukrainian House, men in bulletproof vests mopped the beautiful marble floors, explaining to reporters how excited they were that they'd found a lawn-mower sized floor sweeper so they could really do a good job cleaning up the slush. Students and protesters slept calmly, and women behind white partitions accepted bags full of gas masks to hand out later. Printouts of the faces of ruling party representatives who had a hand in the recent violence papered the walls alongside heartbreakingly beautiful artistic renditions of the events on Hrushevskoho. Only a few snowy barricades protected this sanctuary from a Berkut assault.
Like everyone else in Kyiv, I waited patiently for Opposition leaders to make deals with Yanukovych. I rolled my eyes when those deals were so obviously ridiculous. I nodded along as an armored man in the Ukrainian House described the "Amnesty Laws" — which would guarantee the protection of protesters from prosecution as long as they evacuated government buildings like the City Hall within 15 days — as "Hostage Laws" because they took the responsibility away from Yanukovych and his Party of Regions. As January became February, faith in the Opposition waned. Protesters realized they were on their own. The Opposition could make compromises, but no one on Hrushevskoho wanted to compromise. Yanukovych certainly wasn't going to give any ground. And eventually these tensions had to come to a head.
February 18, 19, and 20 are blurry again. My husband had come earlier to Kyiv and we spent those days glued to the live streams and my Twitter feed. On the 19th, we went for a walk and every single business was closed, three Metro stops from Maidan. We could see the smoke from the tire fires that shielded protesters from police fire. We read that the smokescreen protected the protesters from the Berkut's attacks more than anything else. We watched the number of casualties grow and grow. I frantically updated my Facebook page as I read that one of my friends was unaccounted for and that maybe his brother was dead. I felt a mixture of relief and guilt at confirming that both brothers were alive, and that it was someone else with the same name who had died. I watched my friends' horror as they confirmed the death of their friend who had come to support our leftist protests over the course of Maidan. I watched the Trade Union building burn and people climb down its flaming sides to escape. I waited for the police to come knocking on my door when Yanukovych declared his anti-terrorist operation that would allow him and his partners to do and take whatever they want to anyone deemed complicit. We waited together, for three days, until the police pulled back. Then we watched as Yanukovych disappeared. We speculated about where he was headed. We watched the new parliament overthrow him and wondered about the legality of this action. We watched vote after vote in Parliament, we watched Yulia Tymoshenko speak on Maidan for the first time after being freed from prison. We watched Yanukovych's lavish estate get opened to the public, we laughed at the absurdity of it all (a zoo? a galleon? what about the golden toilet everyone was talking about a month ago?).
And then we mourned. On Khreshatyk, the sidewalks had become piles of bricks, waiting to be thrown at rifle-wielding police. Tires and fires dotted the way to Maidan. People holding flowers flooded through the barricades. Trucks filled with Maidan's defense forces carried Ukrainian flags down the street to choruses of "Slava Ukraini! Heroyam slava!" Civilians took photos with captured APCs and the still-masked men policing them. I jumped at every victorious explosion. I saw flowers pile up among the helmets and tires. When we finally made it through the barricades to Maidan itself, a trail of flowers and colored lanterns led up the hill to Institutska Street, where most people were killed. Some personalized memorials showed photos of those who gave their lives, with poems or songs or even a donation box for funeral costs. A wall of sidewalk stones that weren't used as weapons became a massive monument to the memory of those lost. Everyone cried. For the first time in a long time, I sang the Ukrainian national anthem with everyone else — Ukraine is not yet dead!
I go to Maidan every day again. The messages from the stage are now about unity and new beginnings. People often speak Russian to show that they want Ukraine to stay as one country. The microphone is open to anyone who wants to say something. I've never seen so many flowers in my life. There are already some engraved stone memorial plaques with the names of those who gave their lives. There are new signs on Institutska renaming it "vulitsya Heroiv Nebesnoyi Sotni" — Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred Street. Schoolchildren's pictures line the stone memorials, their paintings of fireworks and bright orange flames reminding us that these kids will always remember what they watched on those days. "Thank you for our future," one sign reads. Thank you for giving up your lives so that we can live as Ukrainians, at least for a little while longer.
I don't know if this is over. I don't know what the Heavenly Hundred died for. I don't know if there is going to be a war and if more people might die. I don't know if some of them will be people I love. What I do know is that this story is just one of the millions of stories about what has happened on Maidan. These stories are going to define my generation in Ukraine. Everyone I know here has a story like this — where we were, what we were doing, how we learned about what was happening. An early poster I saw around the city was a Ukrainian flag with a droplet falling from the blue to the yellow. "Ya — kraplya v okeani." I am a drop in the ocean. This story is a droplet in a massive sea of confusing, divisive, and horrifying events. There isn't one story of what happened on Maidan. But I was a drop in that ocean.
Sarah Leonard is a social researcher from the United States who is using a pen name to protect her sources. She first lived in Ukraine in 2004 and most recently has been living in Kyiv since September 2013. All photos taken by the author.