This article is the latest in our series marking the anniversary of the Maidan Revolution. See the other articles in the series here.
The protesters had been in the streets for months, braving the bitter cold Ukrainian winter and multiple clashes with riot police, but refusing to leave until the Ukrainian government signed an association agreement with the European Union. Unable to placate the crowd that had become to be known as “Euromaidan,” Ukrainian parliament passes a series of “anti-protest laws” in mid-January (approved in less-than-democratic fashion) in an attempt to scare the protesters into submission or to grant the police the legal authority to break their backs if they continued their rallies.
It did not work. For another month there were rallies, riots, protests, crackdowns, mass arrests, and deaths. On January 22, several protesters were shot dead, reportedly by police. Another person was killed on January 28 after being shot by a water cannon in freezing temperatures, the fifth person to die during the Euromaidan protests. The protests only grew larger, the protesters more resolute, and the city of Kiev (as well as other cities across the country) was grinding to a standstill. The crisis, at this point, was unavoidable, and more of the people in the streets were no longer just calling for an EU association deal – they wanted justice. They wanted a new government. And by mid-February it became clear that they would not leave unless they got it.
On February 17, the Yanukovych government made a surprising announcement, offering the opposition amnesty if they would relinquish control of the areas across the country which they had occupied. The protesters did not stand down, seeing the deal as a way to co-opt the Maidan movement instead of reforming the government.
But it was the morning of February 18 that changed everything. After protesters marched on the presidential administration and parliament buildings, protesters and police began to clash. By noon those clashes had turned deadly. By evening, Berkut riot police were deploying in legions, accompanied by armored vehicles and carrying riot shields lined up near Maidan Square, the headquarters of the peaceful protesters, and warned the crowds to disperse. At 17:53 GMT, we watched a livestreaming video as the police advanced on the square. The announcer, realizing what was happening, made a simple declaration as the police attacked the square:
Little did he know how right he was. Within hours much of Maidan Square was on fire, but the protesters did not leave. By the end of the day at least 26 civilians and 10 policemen were dead. But the revolution had just begun. Over the next days, the police would struggle desperately to displace the protesters with smoke grenades, flash bangs, rubber bullets, water cannons, riot shields, batons, and live ammunition. The fires, first started by flash grenades which hit the protesters tents, were fueled by the protesters who threw wood and tires onto the flames and Molotov cocktails and bricks at the police.
We know that some of the protesters had guns because some of the police officers were shot. We also know, from a near-limitless number of videos, pictures, and eyewitnesses, that the majority of the protesters remained peaceful, and the majority of those who did not were fighting back, not attacking, and were protecting the protesters in the square from the Berkut. In surreal scenes, many tens of thousands of protesters prayed, listened to speeches, and sang songs as those on the periphery engaged in brutal, and often hand-to-hand, combat with the attacking police.
By the morning of February 20, two days after the riots began, the police near the International Center of Culture and Arts on Institutska street opened fire on the crowds, killing dozens. There are contradicting reports about whether or when the police were fired on, but what is clear is that they initiated the fighting at Maidan Square days earlier, they killed a disproportionate number of protesters, and videos show them indiscriminately firing into the crowds below [WARNING – GRAPHIC].
Despite the escalating violence, the protesters remained, preferring to die than to back down and return to the status quo. That night, many of Yanukovych’s political allies deserted their posts. The first to notice this were the opposition members of Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. Realizing that they had enough MPs to have a legal quorum, and while the protesters in the street held funerals for the dead, the Rada rewrote the laws of the country.
The next day, February 21, several opposition leaders were chosen to meet with President Yanukovych and negotiate a settlement to the crisis. A deal was reached which would bring about early elections. When the opposition leaders returned to announce the deal to the people of Maidan Square they were booed off the stage. Approximately 100 lives had been lost in the defense of Maidan Square. The protesters, who never elected those who signed the deal with Yanukovych to represent them, would accept no deal that did not bring about the resignation of the government and the prosecution of those who were responsible for so much death. The protesters pledged to march on the Presidential administration building the next morning and remove the government from power.
That night, Yanukovych fled to Kharkiv, and on to Russia. The next morning protesters awoke to find no riot police, no presidential guards… and no government. The doors to the presidential palaces and many government buildings were simply left open, with the paper evidence of the former government’s corruption left floating in the lake.
In the following months, the Ukrainian people learned that they did not know the full extent of the previous government’s corruption. The country’s coffers were empty, its military run down and corrupt, and large amounts of money left the country when its former officials fled to Russia. Worse yet, Russia’s response to the successful revolution was to annex Crimea and invade eastern Ukraine.
The truth is that Russia’s aggression did not start then, however. Russia had bullied Yanukovych into abandoning the European Union, and it had counseled his government in the months that followed.
The spirit of the Euromaidan revolution, easily forgotten in the chaos that has followed, is an existential threat to Putin. His war against Ukraine is a war against the very idea of liberal democracy. Just like the democracy movements in Iran, and Egypt, and Libya, and Syria, liberal democracy is fragile. By its very definition it is a rejection of the power structures that give rise to leaders like Yanukovych and Putin. It is a soft target, and Putin believes that by crushing Ukraine’s military, and its economy, he can crush the very spirit of revolution. He and his allies are architects of similar strategies which have been employed in Iran and Syria.
It’s not clear yet whether the Maidan Revolution will ultimately succeed. It faces the legacy of corruption, an invading super power, and a government which is struggling to cope with both at once. Today, however, the people of Kiev once again occupied Maidan Square in a ceremony to remember those who have given their lives for a chance to change their country and realize the dreams of freedom and democracy. Ultimately, those who stand in the way of the desire for peace, prosperity, and liberty will always have reason to fear the will of the people. The Euromaidan protests last year survived the brutal onslaught from those who would crush it. The people who took to the streets then still believe that, though they are once again under attack, they will prevail.
The ceremony remembering the fallen protesters of Maidan, held on February 20, 2015.