As a new state, Ukraine had enormous problems, most obviously corruption. An association agreement with the EU, which Yanukovych promised to sign, would be an instrument to support the rule of law within Ukraine. The historical function of the EU was precisely the rescue of the European state after empire. Yanukovych might not have understood this, but many Ukrainian citizens did. For them, only the prospect of an association agreement made his regime tolerable. So when Yanukovych suddenly declared, on November 21, 2013, that Ukraine would not sign the association agreement, he became intolerable. Yanukovych had made his decision after speaking with Putin. The Russian politics of eternity, ignored by most Ukrainians until then, was suddenly at the doorstep.
It is the investigative journalists who bring oligarchy and inequality into view. As chroniclers of the contemporary, they react first to the politics of eternity. In the oligarchical Ukraine of the twenty-first century, reporters gave their fellow citizens a chance at self-defense. Mustafa Nayyem was one of these investigative journalists, and on November 21, he had had enough. Writing on his Facebook page, Nayyem urged his friends to go out to protest. “Likes don’t count,” he wrote. People would have to take their bodies to the streets. And so they did: in the beginning, students and young people, thousands of them from Kyiv and around the country, the citizens with the most to lose from a frozen future.
They came to the Maidan, and they stayed. And in so doing they took part in the creation of a new thing: a nation.
Whatever the flaws of the Ukrainian political system, Ukrainians after 1991 had come to take for granted that political disputes would be settled without violence. Exceptions, such as the murder of the popular investigative reporter Georgiy Gongadze in 2000, brought protests. In a country that had seen more violence in the twentieth century than any other, the civic peace of the twenty-first was a proud achievement. Alongside the regularity of elections and the absence of war, the right to peaceful assembly was one way that Ukrainians themselves distinguished their country from Russia. So it came as a shock when riot police attacked the protestors on the Maidan on November 30. News that “our children” had been beaten spread through Kyiv. The spilling of “the first drop of blood” stirred people to action.
Ukrainian citizens came to Kyiv to help the students because they were troubled by violence. One of them was Sergei Nihoyan, a Russian-speaking ethnic Armenian from the southeastern district of Ukraine known as the Donbas. A worker himself, he expressed solidarity with “students, citizens of Ukraine.” The reflex of protecting the future, triggered in the minds of students by the fear of losing Europe, was triggered in others by the fear of losing the one generation raised in an independent Ukraine. Among the representatives of older generations who came to the Maidan to protect the students were the “Afghans”—veterans of the Red Army’s invasion of Afghanistan. The protests of December 2013 were less about Europe and more about the proper form of politics in Ukraine, about “decency” or “dignity.”
On December 10, 2013, the riot police were sent in a second time to clear the Maidan of protestors. Once again the word went out, and Kyivans of all walks of life decided to put their bodies in front of batons. A young businesswoman recalled that her friends “were shaving and putting on clean clothes in case they should die that night.” A middle-aged literary historian ventured forth with an elderly couple, a publisher and a physician: “My friends were an invalid who is well over 60, and his wife of about the same age—next to them I seemed rather young, strong and healthy (I am a 53-year-old woman, and of course at my age it is difficult to think of physically overcoming armed men). My friends are both Jews and I am a Polish citizen, but we walked together, as Ukrainian patriots, convinced that our lives would be of no value if the protests were crushed now. We made it to the Maidan, not without some difficulties. My friend Lena, a doctor, the gentlest being in the world, is only a meter and a half tall—I had to keep her at a distance from the riot police, because I knew that she would tell them exactly what she thought of them and the whole situation.” On December 10, the riot police could not move the crowd.
On January 16, 2014, Yanukovych retroactively criminalized the protests and legalized his own use of force. The official parliamentary record included a raft of legislation which the protestors called “dictatorship laws.” These measures severely limited freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, banning undefined “extremism,” and requiring nongovernmental organizations that received money from abroad to register as “foreign agents.” The laws were introduced by deputies with ties to Russia and were copies of Russian legislation. There were no public hearings, no parliamentary debate, and indeed no actual vote: a show of hands was improperly used instead of an electronic count, and the number of hands raised was short of a majority. The laws were nevertheless entered into the books. Protestors recognized that they would be treated as criminals if apprehended.
Six days later, two protestors were shot dead. From the perspective, say, of either the United States or Russia, both much more violent societies, it is hard to appreciate the weight of these two deaths for Ukrainians. The mass killings by sniper fire four weeks later would overshadow these first two deaths. The Russian invasion of Ukraine that began five weeks later brought so much more bloodshed that it can seem impossible to recall how the killing began. And yet to the society actually concerned, there were specific moments that seemed intolerable breaches of common decency. In the final week of January, Ukrainian citizens who had not previously supported the Maidan protests began to arrive, in large numbers, from all over the country. Because it seemed that Yanukovych had now bloodied his hands, his further rule was inconceivable to many Ukrainians.
Protestors experienced this moment as the warping of their own political society. A demonstration that had begun in defense of a European future had become a defense of the few tenuous gains in the Ukrainian present. By February the Maidan was a desperate stand against Eurasia. Until then, few Ukrainians had given any thought to the Russian politics of eternity. But protestors did not want what they saw on offer: violence leading to a futureless life amid wisps of what might have been.
As February began, Yanukovych was still the president, and Washington and Moscow had ideas about how he might remain in power. A telephone call between an American assistant secretary of state and the American ambassador in Kyiv, apparently recorded by a Russian secret service and leaked on February 4, revealed that American policy was to support the formation of a new government under Yanukovych. This proposal was out of line with the demands of the Maidan and, indeed, completely out of touch. Yanukovych’s rule was already over, at least in the minds of those who chose to risk their lives on the Maidan after the killings of January 22, 2014. A survey showed that only 1% of protestors would accept a political compromise that left Yanukovych in office. On February 18, parliamentary discussions began, with hope that some compromise could be found. Instead, the next day saw a bloody confrontation that made the continuation of Yanukovych’s regime even less likely.