(Article changed on January 30, 2014 at 05:35)
In an incredible display of fortitude, courage, and reckless stupidity; protesters seized the Ukrainian House Museum + Exhibition Center at 3:50am Saturday night Jan 25-6 (formerly Lenin Museum) .. their 4th downtown building (by Monday they had 6). There was a frigid 6 hour very tense standoff with MVS Interior Ministry troops guarding it only 5M inside the shattered windows. At about 1 am 300 protesters were crowded around the shattered windows chanting, threatening, exhorting the soldiers to get out, when in a terrifying moment, laser gunsight red dots appeared on them, roving around preparatory to a lethal barrage. Several of the crowd screamed at them to get back, but they acted utterly oblivious to the mortal danger, even escalating the situation 3 minutes later when they threw in big firecrackers (M80's) that exploded at the feet of the soldiers. I thought I would see I lot of people shot then, like happened in the Communist attack on Ostankino TV Center in Moscow in 1993 when 2000 heedless attackers drove a truck through the plate-glass windows and 25 Yeltsin troops inside mowed down the first rows in a volley of gunfire (officially 62 died there). Miraculously the IM troops held fire. Studying my video later, the laser dots apparently came from outside, laser pointers recklessly waved around by protesters or provocateurs (to blind Berkut riot police), something that could convince jumpy young troops that they were being targeted.
At 3am Vitaly Klitschko went in, yanked from some celebratory party, and negotiated with the police, persuading them to retreat, which they did through a long gauntlet of protesters. Again at 3:50am when the crowd started pouring through the shattered windows, I thought they would be cut down, but the troops had already retreated and Klitschko may have given them the signal. He was running back in forth wildly in the wet pitch black interior at first, but within 10 minutes the lights were on, protesters had penetrated to the top floor and within 60 minutes had started repairing the windows with sheets of wood. Protesters were forcibly ushed off the top floor (which had piles of sandwiches, lemons, cold tea; presumably from the MVD people), "Valuable exhibits are here", and people collapsed catatonic on a second fl. theater after the 6-7 hour -16C bitter exposure.
I'm convinced Klitschko's intercession likely saved lives, had the protesters continued their aggressive actions and IM troops reacted badly in fear or rage. It was a point of great importance in a momentous day that has seen the beginning of the end of this Marathon protest of courage and madness, heroism and recklessness, fearlessness and foolhardiness. Saturday Yanukovich cracked, offering enormous concessions that seemed unbelievable a day before, Prime Minister to Arseniuk, Dep. PM to Klitschko, return to weaker President Constitution, reform of Election Commission in 3 hours of negotiation- a deal they seemingly must take (though they've said "No"), because major bloodshed is close, the barrier having been broken with the killing of 6 protesters (and disappearance of 7 more, 3 from Nov 30th police attack, likely dead, inc. an MP), kidnapping of 2, 40-50 jailed, usually after savage beatings. Police have been spectacularly stoic, but have seen their comrades smashed by paving stones, burned by 2000 Molotov Cocktails, wounded by iron bars (1 dead)- many want to kill protesters. Indeed in any other country in the world (inc. America) many protesters would have been shot by now.
But Ukraine is different: like the long-abused populace, the police have an extraordinary tolerance and patience with abuse. There is a certain social compact between the people of Ukraine, born out of unimaginable horror and death, the murder of millions 4 times over 36 years by the Bolsheviks/Stalinists/Nazis/Soviets. It is a bond that doesn't exist anywhere in the world, that causes a universal allergic reaction to police attacks on the people, that let's the citizens shame the police into giving up, that lets hundreds of thousands work in the Occupation together like a finely oiled Swiss watch, that lets tens of thousands endure epic cold, hardship, misery for a cause- the desire to live like normal people.. with dignity.
That has inspired the world. I thought this was crazy, foolish, totally lost, 3 or more times. But when Ukrainians have had enough they are absolutely relentless, and the indomitable perseverance of this Protest has born fruit after an incredible 9 week Marathon of resistance against a criminal government and Party that spits on any pretense of Democracy (passing insane repressive "laws" with a faked hand vote of 235, 235, 235, when there were only 204 POR coalition members present- far short of a 225 vote majority, votes that would criminalize half the population and every journalist. majority, votes that would criminalize half the population and every journalist)They battled and endured bitter cold (-25C today, -32 wind chill), snow, ice, 4 mass police attacks, savage beatings, targeted attacks on the Press (biggest in history with 60 sent to the hospital), kidnappings and murders, snipers, threats and attacks by thousands of paid goons, electricity and heat shutoffs, sleeplessness from the nonstop blaring Maidan stage, and chronic boredom as they waited and waited and waited for a day that probably would never come. Reporters too suffered vicious police beatings, tear gas, explosions, rubber bullets; working 36-48 hour days (me 10 times), processing the torrent of info, photos, videos, pics of the vast city within the city that was Maidan. Ukraine can be a difficult abusive place, but I have never ever seen the level of brotherhood, generosity, and trust I witnessed in these epic protests- the unlimited free food, clothes, lodging, support, friendship.
Protesters said many times to me, "We are prepared to die for this", and I thought, "Sure, until the first dozen are cut down'. But they were, and they did, and though the scale isn't exact (and every agreement is subject to revision and reneging) ".. I think THEY WON ! PM Azarov and his government resigned Tuesday, and the RADA rescinded 9 of the 11 new repressive laws.
When I talk to friends in America, they will often say, "Are you still in Russia", and I repeat again for the 4th or 6th time, "Ukraine is a COUNTRY- it's been a country for 22 years". Vladimir Putin doesn't think so, and his thuggish pressure and Yanukovich's weakness, corruption, and treachery have provoked this crisis. But Ukraine" IS ". a " Country.
The whole world knows where Ukraine is today. And what it is. And they stand in awe at their courage and endurance.
Michael Hammerschlag's articles (HAMMERNEWS.com) have appeared in NYT, IHT, Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Hawaii Advertiser, Capital Times, MediaChannel ; Moscow News, Tribune, Times, and Guardian, Novaya Gazeta ; Kyiv Post & Weekly, Politics in Ukraine, and Business Ukraine. He's spent 8 years over the last 22 in Russia & Ukraine, and has covered this story since Nov 3rd.