KYIV – On Wednesday morning, at 4 a.m., several dozen helmet-clad men were fanned out around the northern perimeter of Kyiv’s Independence Square. Some were bent over a roaring fire, their faces caked with soot. Others stood by the square’s outer perimeter: a wall of brick and snow-filled sacks. The cold was biting and all-consuming. A guard named Vladyslav Malkovych, 27, climbed the barricade to peer out across the line that separates the Ukrainian capital from the ‘Maidan:’ the central square that has, since the start of December, been occupied by anti-government protesters.
Since mass demonstrations broke out here in November, some 2,500 people have gathered in Independence Square to volunteer as Maidan guards, according to Euromaidan PR, the public relations service of the protest movement. The men come from across the country—and sometimes beyond.
Like all things association with the Kyiv protests, the Maidan guard runs a tight ship. Men and (some) women who show up to enlist are organized into divisions; they are given supplies, like helmets, and receive basic training. Many volunteers have experience serving as soldiers in foreign wars (like the Soviet wars in Afghanistan), and they often assume leadership. The men are housed in apartments, or opposition-run buildings, or in large tents on the square itself.
Hours before he arrived on the front line, Malkovych was sleeping in one of those tents. Around him were some four dozen men: reclining in bunk-beds, talking and eating. A large table running through the tent’s center was cluttered with cookies and oranges, bowls of pickles, pork fat and a giant loaf of glazed brioche. On each side of the tent, men were tending to wood-burning stoves. The light from the flames revealed shelves of neatly-packed supplies and a few posters of Jesus. A lone woman offered tea.
The men in this tent are mostly from the Kosivsky district, in Ivano-Frankivsk province. In the ‘Kosivsky tent,’ some men know each other from back home, but others met on the Maidan. The guards—most of whom did not want to reveal their names—are here for different reasons. And so, they say, they never talk politics. On the walls of the tent, there are only Ukrainian flags.
Malkovych says his motivation for signing up was personal. On the night of Nov. 30, his sister was attacked by Berkut special police while protesting peacefully on the Maidan. She was beaten and her skull was cracked open. (She remains in hospital.)
But Malkovych has also been involved with nationalist parties for 16 years. “After 20 years [of independence], we find ourselves in a country that is free only in name. Either we gain a free, independent Ukraine or we are left as slaves for the rest of our days.”
Somewhat rough-and-tumble in appearance, Malkovych speaks softly about the ‘soul’ of the Maidan. But he is far from a revolutionary romantic. “No one wants to give away their life,” he muses. “But if the question is not resolved by peaceful means, then it will be resolved by a fight.”