Conflict & Justice

Kyiv’s Maidan is once again a place to enjoy an ice cream cone


Independence Square, Kyiv, May 28, 2007.


Natalia Kolesnikova

KYIV, Ukraine — Olena Barvinok is a gentle, soft-spoken woman, smiling at passersby as she passes out collections of her poetry on Kyiv’s Independence Square.

But ask the 62-year-old activist about Friday’s deadly clashes between protesters in Odessa — which left dozens dead, most of them the pro-Russians who some critics claim instigated the fight —and her tone shifts from motherly to determined.

“What else can you do?” Barvinok says forcefully, echoing the oft-repeated but unproven charges the protesters were hired thugs. “You have to destroy them.”

Kyiv’s “Maidan,” the nerve center of the months-long pro-European protests in Ukraine, has long since quieted down, but emotions here — ranging from anger to uncertainty — are still quietly stirring, albeit under a veneer of normalcy.

These days, the barricades are still standing, as are the clunky field kitchens that huff plumes of smoke into the sky.

But life here appears to have moved on.

Once the bustling epicenter of protests against ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, the Maidan has become more a living monument to the movement than a forum for government critics, even though there's plenty of dissatisfaction with the new elites.

On sun-drenched afternoons, young families stroll through the sprawling encampment — still festooned with months-old anti-government slogans and memorials to those killed in clashes with police — as street musicians play for change.

Entrepreneurs have returned in full-force, with vendors selling souvenirs that poke fun at the old regime. Those include doormats with Yanukovych’s likeness and miniature golden toilets — a jab at the autocrat’s tasteless luxury, uncovered by activists after they stormed his lavish residence following his ouster.

Teenagers enjoy ice cream cones, pensioners gleefully chat, and couples embrace.

The scene is miles — both literally and figuratively — from the volatility of eastern Ukraine, where a wave of separatism has plunged the country further into post-revolutionary crisis.

There, the Kyiv authorities have launched an “anti-terrorism” campaign aimed at dislodging armed rebels who’ve seized official buildings in more than 10 cities and roam with virtual impunity.

The operation already cost the lives of both Ukrainian soldiers and separatist rebels, raising fears that it'll provoke a Russian invasion.

Meanwhile, the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa settled into an uneasy calm on Saturday after dozens of protesters there were killed the night before in an unprecedented bout of violence, which the authorities in Kyiv allege was orchestrated by Russia.

Renewed protests broke out there Sunday after pro-Russian supporters stormed the city's police headquarters, demanding the release of prisoners taken into custody after Friday's clashes.

On the Maidan, however, the only signs of unrest are the apparently homeless stragglers asking passersby for cigarettes and spare change, or the occasional heated political debate. (Although a violent scuffle broke out earlier this week between ultra-nationalists and self-defense members, it happened at night, and few traces of the clash remained the next day.)

But that doesn’t mean it’s lost the revolutionary spirit.

Dig around, and you’ll find traces of anger at the new Kyiv authorities for failing to act more decisively against the pro-Russian rebels — or for not reforming a police force that’s lost almost all public trust and has failed to stymie the increasingly militant protest movement in the east.

And then there’s people like Vasiliy Meshteshuk, a 48-year-old self-defense force member who still has trouble believing much has changed politically since Yanukovych’s ouster in late February.

He not only accuses the new authorities — most of whom are old faces — of having done little to thrust Ukraine’s crippled economy back on track, but he also believes they’ll resort to the same behavior as the old elites.

“They’ll rob the country blind, then flee from here,” said Meshteshuk dismissively. “And they’ll take those billions in aid money that’s being sent over here with them.”

The self-defense units — still posted to dingy tents along the Maidan’s perimeter — have been probably the most vocal opponents of the new authorities, vowing to stay on the streets indefinitely.

But far from everyone is as outspoken, or even as critical.

Some find themselves mired in deep uncertainty, grasping for answers as to how to fend off the separatist threat that Ukraine’s weakened military seemed unprepared to meet.

“We must defend ourselves, but we’re just not ready —psychologically, and in terms of resources,” said Tatyana Oratovskaya, a middle-aged Kyiv resident, visibly distressed.

“Society is divided, the police are doing their own thing, and we don’t know what steps to take in order to defend ourselves properly.”

That sort of concern is usually masked by the casual bustle on Maidan, where Oratovskaya took a friend visiting from abroad on Saturday to have a glimpse at the massive makeshift shrine to the dozens killed in in the bloody days before Yanukovych's ouster.

Barvinok was nearby too, handing out copies of her poetry collection.

While she tries to remain hopeful about the future — cheering on the pro-Ukraine protesters in Odessa she claims did a "good job" by violently clashing with their pro-Russian counterparts — she says she can't help fear the centuries-old sway Moscow has held over her country.

"My heart hurts for Ukraine," she said.