In May 2014, I returned to Ukraine for the first time since the Maidan revolution of the previous winter, when a wave of protests culminated in the flight of Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s president, to Russia. The protests were triggered by Yanukovych’s last-minute decision, under pressure from Russian president Vladimir Putin, not to sign an Association Agreement with the EU; they became a mass movement after police assaulted a group of peaceful demonstrators. The Maidan protests—named for their location, Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square—were about much more than an EU agreement. Thousands of Ukrainians, ranging from idealistic students to patriotic old ladies, from the liberal intelligentsia to hardcore nationalists, held the square in hope of a new Ukraine, independent of Russian influence, pervasive corruption, and a government ruled by oligarchic clans.
Maidan was punctuated by a series of violent episodes: protesters abducted and tortured, mysterious snipers—perhaps government agents, perhaps provocateurs—shooting from rooftops, masked protesters throwing Molotov cocktails. By the time Yanukovych fled, central Kiev looked like a war zone. More than a hundred protesters had been killed—the “Heavenly Hundred”—as well as a number of police officers. Then Russia gulped up Crimea, and Russian-backed separatists began a war in Ukraine’s eastern regions, Donetsk and Luhansk.
In Kiev, I had arranged to stay in the same place I’d lived from 2008 to 2010, just a few blocks from Maidan. Halyna, the apartment’s caretaker, let me in. She had a manic sparkle in her eyes as she told me to be careful at night and not to allow anyone to follow me into the building, because there were bands of disreputable characters roaming the streets.
But the true danger—to one’s physical safety, and to Ukraine’s future as a nation—lay in the east. “Every second person in Donetsk is a separatist,” Halyna said with a hard smile. “Lumpen. Do you know what lumpen means? They just want to drink and steal, they don’t want to work.” She was referring to the Marxist term Lumpenproletariat—the dregs of the lower classes, the criminals and degenerates who would never achieve class consciousness.
The apartment was as I remembered it, only more decrepit. Halyna told me that it had been empty all year. It was now in such bad shape that it was hard to rent out, and the building’s plumbing was rotten. The poorly lit vestibule and chipped marble staircase, once so familiar, had become menacing. At the all-night convenience store around the corner, the place where my friends and I had often bought supplies for late-night parties, a chalkboard announced a sale on vodka and beer. A building down the street had been turned into the headquarters of Right Sector, the new coalition of right-wing nationalist organizations, balconies draped in its signature colors: red for blood, black for earth.
It was Kiev’s most beautiful season, and Khreshchatyk Street, the wide boulevard that leads to Maidan, bore no resemblance to what I’d seen in the live feeds and videos I’d spent the winter watching from New York. Then everything had been snowy, barren, charred, and clouded with smoke from open fires and burning tires; now it was leafy and green, just coming into blossom. There was pouring rain almost every day, as if the sky were trying to wash away the pain and destruction of the preceding months.
Khreshchatyk was still closed to cars, though, and the protesters’ tent city was still standing. I passed some scary-looking guys in fatigues. One was wearing a balaclava and pointing a very old rifle at his friend’s head, apparently as a joke. In front of the central post office, I watched a disheveled man in camouflage buy a cloud of cotton candy. Someone had painted pink polka dots on the burned-out former Trade Unions Building, the protester headquarters destroyed during the last days of battle, giving the structure a strange, cartoonish look. Maidan protesters had often talked about their desire to live in a “normal European” country, but nothing was normal or European about this scene; neither was there the mild, friendly mood that had made me fall in love with Kiev on my first visits.
The people still camped on Maidan were the most marginal protesters, the ones who had no jobs to return to and no kitchen gardens to tend, who hadn’t chosen to go and fight against the pro-Russian separatists in the east. They’d settled into domestic life on Maidan, a cozy permanent revolution. People were cooking, couples were arguing, and music played from boom boxes. A man fed pigeons, and a toddler in a motorcycle jacket poked his head up above the wooden boundary of the encampment. A banner with photos of a Maidan martyr cried, “Avenge the deaths of the great knights!” The tents were marked with the names of sotni, regiments: a city name, or “OUN,” for the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.
A sidewalk exhibit showed homemade bulletproof vests, leg shields, and armor. There were a number of small altars with photos of the Heavenly Hundred, candles, and flowers. People watched news about the war in the east on a giant screen. Down the street, a man in a sailor’s hat was playing a cheesy song in English about a miracle. The blue and gold Maidan piano, featured in so many photos of the “Revolution of Dignity,” as Ukrainians liked to call it, had fallen terribly out of tune.
As I passed a young man wearing a shirt with an eagle on the front and “SS” on the back, a guy in a horse costume put his arm around me.
“Take a picture with a horse,” he said, “It will be fun!”
The horse was not alone. Khreshchatyk was swarming with Mickey Mouses, giant green insects, and people inviting you to pose for photos with dingy doves. Vendors sold golden loaf magnets (a golden loaf of bread was one of the scandalous artifacts discovered in Yanukovych’s mansion), T-shirts showing Cossacks and the nationalist hero Stepan Bandera, and various items shouting FUCK PUTIN, alongside the usual cheap, mass-produced embroidered peasant blouses and plastic garlands of blue and yellow flowers.
As the center of Kiev’s downtown, Maidan had always been full of furries and vendors. The tourist trade had persisted even as the coffins of the dead were carried through the square. But now it was different: everyone was in costume, and it had become hard to distinguish the amateurs from the professionals. There were would-be soldiers with uniforms and antique rifles, Cossacks with billowing pants, high boots, and swords, and girls dressed as village maidens of the past, in embroidered blouses and red beads. Many people were wearing blue and gold outfits. In a way it was touching, but it was also intolerably kitschy, as if Americans all decided one day to go around dressed as pilgrims. The overt theatricality gave the proceedings an air of insincerity that was the very opposite of Maidan’s famous ocean of shining eyes.
My clarinetist friend Mitya told me that Maidan had been a theatrical performance from the beginning. At one point, he said, he’d been kept waiting for a long time to perform on the main stage, where musicians had played around the clock for the crowds of protesters. As Mitya stood in the wings, he watched a man yelling into the microphone, sounding very aggressive, exhorting the crowd. Mitya thought he had the mannerisms of a fascist and assumed he was an orator, a political figure. But when the orator came closer, Mitya saw that he was wearing eyeliner; he was an actor. This was Yevhen Nishchuk, Maidan’s unofficial MC. The role came easily, since Nishchuk had also helped run the Orange Revolution of 2004, the last time Ukrainians had gathered on Maidan to get rid of Yanukovych. (That time, Yanukovych had stolen the election; he was replaced by the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, who soon proved a miserable disappointment.) Nishchuk was a professional.
“He’s not an orator, or a politician, or a revolutionary,” Mitya said. “He’s more like a tamada [the person, in Georgian culture, who leads toasts] or like Father Christmas.” Post-Maidan, Nishchuk had been made the interim minister of culture.
Mitya put me in touch with Taras Kompanichenko, a latter-day Ukrainian bard. When I met Kompanichenko on Khreshchatyk Street, he was dressed in full Cossack regalia: loose sharovary, pants suitable for riding on horseback; long, pointy shoes; and a tie woven in a traditional Ukrainian pattern. His hair was closely shaved except for the Cossack oseledets, or “herring,” a long, graying plume on the top of his head. For convenience, he’d wound his forelock around his ear. His thick, dark brown mustache curled up at the ends. This wasn’t a protest costume, or a means of attracting tourists; this was how he got dressed for work. He kissed my hand and escorted me past a group of boys breakdancing to techno music, into Puzata Khata, a chain that offered Ukrainian cuisine at fast-food prices. (The name translates to something like “Belly Cottage.”)
Kompanichenko had the long nails required to play the kobza, the lute used by the Ukrainian minstrels known as kobzari. The kobzari, who were usually blind, roamed Ukraine for centuries, relying on the generosity of their listeners. Their songs often dealt with religious and historical topics. As vectors of Ukrainian national feeling and as wandering mendicants, kobzari were repressed first by Russian imperial authorities, then by the Soviets. According to a story in wide circulation in Ukraine, Stalin summoned all the Ukrainian minstrels to a conference in Kharkiv in 1939 and had them shot. State-sanctioned kobzari endured, however, within Soviet Ukraine’s institutionalized folklore. The kobzar tradition gained new life after Ukraine became independent, as part of the effort to recover and purify the nation’s identity.
A professional musician and composer, Kompanichenko played very old songs, some of them dating back to the seventeenth century. He had made his whole life into an embodiment of the Ukrainian national idea, a romantic fantasy of Cossack heroes and pastoral patriots. It was fitting that he shared his first name with Taras Shevchenko, the poet-prophet of the Ukrainian nation, who was often called a kobzar himself, though he was not a musician. In the nineteenth century Taras Shevchenko had wept over Cossack burial mounds, writing poems that glorified a mythical Ukrainian past; now Taras Kompanichenko was carrying on this tradition.
Kompanichenko had unwound his forelock from his ear, and stroked it as he spoke. He was the most earnest person I had ever met. I was moved by his gentle sincerity, but I couldn’t help finding him a little ridiculous, like a museum exhibit that had come to life and wandered out into the streets.
In the early days, Kompanichenko said, the Maidan protests had been something like a people’s national liberation festival. The music had been acoustic, and there was only one microphone. Maidan’s musicians had acted as private citizens, as protesters. They hadn’t been detached from reality, hadn’t been stimulated by alcohol, fame, or money; they had participated because they cared about their country. This sense of a higher purpose had given Kompanichenko an almost superhuman strength, he said, enabling him to play endlessly in the rain or snow, long after he’d lost his voice.
Then Svoboda, the ultranationalist party, got sound equipment. Everything became much more formal. There was a long line to perform, and the political parties took turns running the show. Some musicians were paid by political parties; Kompanichenko was concerned about the spiritual as well as financial corruption that this had caused.
“Our weapon is our soul,” he told me. “Music is magical. It can carry ideas into the heart, by giving them the wings of emotions. But it has to be sincere, not manipulative. It has to search for the truth, for universal human values.”
During Maidan, Kompanichenko and his Cossack choir made a point of performing only familiar songs so the crowd could sing along. They were reinforcing the true national archetypes, Kompanichenko said: not salo, Ukraine’s traditional cured lard, or horilka, Ukrainian vodka, but freedom, and “the fundamental values of European civilization.” They sang a Ukrainian version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the EU anthem, over and over. Once the first people were killed, Kompanichenko and his Cossacks started playing memorial songs for the dead.
By February 19 performers were being shot with rubber bullets. The only person onstage who had a bulletproof vest was the MC. Kompanichenko continued singing, though he was consumed by the fear that a bullet would fly into his open mouth and pierce his throat.
By this point in our conversation, Kompanichenko was close to tears. Daft Punk’s latest single was playing in the background.
“Did my music provoke violence?” he asked plaintively. “It raised the protesters’ spirits. They were so brave. They didn’t know how terrible the consequences could be.”
I went to an artists’ talk, curious about whether revolution had given new vitality to the Kiev art scene. Everyone was supposed to be speaking Ukrainian, partly out of patriotism and partly because one of the panelists was Polish and understood Ukrainian and not Russian, but people kept forgetting. (Like many of Ukraine’s cities, Kiev is largely Russian-speaking, though most people are bilingual, and many mix Russian with Ukrainian.)
“I don’t understand everything,” the Polish panelist said pleasantly, when one Ukrainian, Liza Babenko, criticized another, Larisa Venediktova, for speaking Russian. Venediktova spoke Ukrainian for about thirty seconds, then returned to Russian as she discussed the fact that the future was simultaneously now, never, and always.
Denis, a very young leftist activist, said in Russian that he had been preparing for the revolution for his entire life. He had the feeling that time was leaping forward; perhaps it was getting ahead of itself. “I have arrived in the future,” he said ecstatically. He had an artistic it-boy look, tall and skinny, with a strong chin, a straight nose, and hollow cheeks.
“Has the future passed?” an audience member asked.
Denis thought for a while.
“The future has come,” he announced. By then almost everyone had given up and switched to Russian, though most of them didn’t seem aware of what language they were speaking. Only the poor Polish woman toiled on in Ukrainian, and had to keep asking clarifying questions. She asked one woman to translate a word into Ukrainian; the woman, who was Ukrainian, had to ask another panelist. It was all very symbolic, this disjunction between intentions and inclinations, this literal failure to find a common language.
“The future is the bottom,” someone opined. At the exhibit that accompanied the talk, I had seen a large square of black paper taped to the floor; perhaps, I thought, this had been the future.
Actually, Venediktova said, history was an endless stack of paper in a bottomless hole.
“Then what is the paper at the bottom of the pile?” a man in the audience asked. He broached the idea of the end of history.
“No, no, no,” Venediktova said impatiently, in English for some reason.
“Maybe the future is a swimming pool,” someone suggested. By then about half the panel had gone out for a cigarette.
While the leftist artists were preoccupied with the future, Laima Geidar, a lesbian activist who’d worked as a medic during Maidan, was interested in the past. When I asked to interview her, she wanted to meet at the McDonald’s on Khreshchatyk, a place where she’d spent many hours during the protests and battles, getting warm.
I was surprised to discover that Laima had become an avid proponent of the Ukrainian national idea. This was remarkable not only because she was a lesbian feminist—not exactly part of the usual nationalist demographic—but because she was a Russian speaker. Her mother, with whom she was no longer on good terms, lived in Siberia. The Ukrainian and Russian national ideas were at war in Laima’s head.
“The murder, the suffocation of Ukraine—this is part of Russia’s national idea. Now, analyzing all these events, I think Yanukovych was Putin’s project,” she said in Russian. “They decided to find a jailbird, make him a governor, make him prime minister, and then he could become president. His only interest was in stealing. He had no national idea—just murder and kitsch, like at his mansion.
“During our revolution, I discovered our classics—our prophet, Taras Shevchenko, Lesya Ukrainka, Ivan Franko, writers who taught us about the moskali”—the derogatory Ukrainian word for Russians—“about their lying, thieving ways, about their amorality in the pursuit of their goals . . . and only now, surviving all this terror, I understand the greatness of these poets, these prophets. Shevchenko wrote something like ‘It’s all the same to me which God a boy prays to. But it makes a difference to me when evil people lull Ukraine to sleep, and Ukraine wakes suddenly from her dream in the middle of a fire.’”
When Laima had finished crying, we walked around Maidan. Laima wasn’t the only one with Taras Shevchenko on her mind; there was Shevchenko graffiti everywhere. On one wall, Shevchenko was a Marvel-style superhero with a purple mask and a bulging groin. Another mural showed him in an embroidered Ukrainian blouse and an orange helmet, the kind popular on Maidan, with red and black Molotov cocktails forming Xs on either side of his face and the words OUR WHOLE LIFE IS WAR in a banner over his head. In yet another painting, he wore a red and black nationalist bandana over the lower half of his face, scowling above the words THE FIRE DOESN’T BURN THOSE WHO HAVE ALREADY BEEN TEMPERED IN THE FLAMES. Nationalism was a cult of war, a cult of death, a cartoon.
Laima pointed out some girls in hijabs, saying they were resettled Tatars from Crimea. She described treating a man whose stomach had been slit open, and others who had been shot in the head by snipers on the rooftops. She showed me the place where her fellow medic, a young woman, had been shot through the neck by a sniper. (In the hospital, the woman had tweeted “I’m dying” and then gone silent, prompting an internet furor. She survived.)
Laima was furious with Germany and the United States for not helping Ukraine to defend itself against Russia. “They don’t know who they’re dealing with—you can’t put on a tie and talk to these people,” she said. “You have to pick up a stone and throw it.” Maidan’s cobblestones, once torn out and thrown at police, were now piled in neat stacks.
We looked at the displays in some of the tents.
“A good communist is a dead communist,” Laima read approvingly from a sign above a hanged mannequin. Another hanged effigy was dressed in a red snowsuit decorated in hammers and sickles.
Someone was drumming inside the music conservatory just off the square. Laima stopped to enjoy the rhythm; she didn’t seem to notice the foul smell in the air. Maidan stank, like an infected wound.
“I don’t like to go to Maidan anymore,” my friend Mitya told me later. “It’s like a corpse—the body is there, but the soul is gone.”
With war erupting in the east, the euphoria and solidarity of Maidan had been replaced by grief and anger. Fear contorted faces that I’d always known as friendly and calm, and the air was thick with suspicion. Anna, a young woman I knew from AIDS work, had helped coordinate medical care for wounded protesters. She told me that she believed rumors that Right Sector was a Kremlin project and that Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the ultranationalist Svoboda party, was on the Russian payroll. Yulia Tymoshenko, the ex-prime minister incarcerated by Yanukovych, had never actually been in prison and was paid by Putin; it had all been an elaborate plot so that she could become president herself. Anna had heard from a person who worked for Vitali Klitschko, one of the opposition leaders, that some people were paid by opposition political parties to stay on Maidan—to live there. “Otherwise who would stay on Maidan for months?” she asked. “And they were so well organized.” The first clearings of Maidan had been done to provoke further protests—it didn’t make sense otherwise. Anna couldn’t say who’d brought in the snipers, though. Maybe Tymoshenko, maybe the United States, maybe Russia. She was convinced that China was involved, too.
By the time she was finished, I felt dizzy. I asked what she thought about the situation in the east.
“I am supporting the idea of exterminating separatists,” she answered casually. (We were speaking English.)
“Exterminating?” I asked, shocked.
“I would deport them, I mean. I would buy them tickets myself.”
Anna’s attitude was not unusual. Many otherwise pleasant people had concluded that the only answer was to excise a certain portion of Ukrainian society, cutting it off like a gangrenous limb. No one had ever liked industrial, proletarian eastern Ukraine much anyway; wasn’t it just Soviet deadweight in a Ukraine eager to flee westward, into Europe and the future?
The night before the presidential election on May 25, there were campfires on Maidan. If something went wrong, people were ready to protest again. During my short walk home from the Maidan metro station that night, I saw at least four men lying on the sidewalk, drunk to the point of unconsciousness. They didn’t look like bums.
On Election Day, the streets were hot and empty; people were afraid there would be a terrorist attack. At polling stations, voters queued for hours in their embroidered Ukrainian blouses, worn as a sign of patriotism. Petro Poroshenko, dubbed the “Chocolate King” because he’d made a fortune with his candy factories, won easily against ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and an array of more marginal radical, nationalist, socialist, and communist candidates. A friendly, English-speaking oligarch and seasoned politician, Poroshenko was considered the lesser evil, the right man for a state of emergency. Just a few months after Maidan, idealism was a thing of the past.
After the election, the Kiev city administration made a desultory attempt to clear Maidan, removing the makeshift museum exhibits and sending the campers and souvenir vendors packing. Many Kievans wanted life to go back to normal, to be rid of the stench of Maidan’s corpse, the suspicious characters, the spectacle of lawlessness. But some believed that the campers should be allowed to stay. Hadn’t they fought for Maidan? Would the revolution be over when they left? Going back to normal was frightening; Maidan had been about overturning the status quo and making a new reality, and at present reality didn’t seem very new at all.
When I took a final stroll on Maidan before flying home, I found the campers burning tires. Men in fatigues and balaclavas stopped cars on Khreshchatyk Street, checking their trunks. The occupiers were reluctant to give up their territory, to remove the costumes that had invested them with the power of history.
Old ladies berated these dregs of the revolution, telling them to get off Maidan so it would be clean again. Grubby little men in camouflage sat on a tank parked in the square, along with a girl who was playing old Russian rock songs on a guitar.
A one-eyed drunk danced ecstatically.
“Glory to the nation!” he cried.
Sophie Pinkham is a writer specializing in Russian and Ukrainian culture and politics. The above piece is excerpted from Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine by Sophie Pinkham. Copyright © 2016 by Sophie Pinkham. With permission of the publisher W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.