Back to Kiev - two worlds
Several days at a significantly slower pace, my return from the eastern districts and Crimea to Kiev is a shock. Two different worlds; different languages; different flags and slogans; different people.
Ukraine’s capital is suspended. The nice weather and three days of bank holiday due to Women’s Day seem like an invitation to take walks, meet in bars, and so on. The people of Kiev continue to visit Maidan, stroll about, listen to live music, but also keep bringing flowers for all the victims of the revolution. And they never cease to wonder what tomorrow may bring. What will happen to Crimea, the eastern regions, the whole of Ukraine?
On Saturday, when I visited the building where an army of volunteers was trying to recover destroyed documents on Yanukovych and his people, I had a chance to talk to a 53-year-old Igor from Dnepropetrovsk. This shortish man, who had been at Maidan since December 1, told me the story of his life and his part in the revolution.
Igor is ex-military, who during the Soviet times served in places such as Estonia and Poland. He went from the army to militia. He served in an anti-drugs force in Dnepropetrovsk. He met his wife in the militia. It was love at first sight. They got engaged less than a month after they met and soon got married. They have been together for over 20 years. They have a 22-year-old son, Viktor. The boy followed in his father’s footsteps - he served in the Dnepropetrovsk elite air-landing regiment. When, on November 30, Igor saw what was happening in Kiev, he quit his job right away. He says he could not serve the organisation that turned against its own nation. He left a letter for his commander and went straight to Kiev.
There he joined the Maidan self-defence, the tretya sotnya company. Over time, he became one of its “officers”, a commander on one of the barricades. He saw the death of Serhiy Nigoyan, the first fatality of the revolution. He immediately recognised the wounds that had proven lethal for this young man from the Dnepropetrovsk district. He had no doubts: Militia had used live ammunition. He says that he knew from the start that people would die. But he chose to stay till the end; because there was no turning back. The father was joined by his son. They served hand in hand in tretya sotnya, the 3rd company. Igor used his experience to teach the boys some intelligence techniques, he did intelligence work too. They went to the Antimaidan to see where Berkut men were positioned, which units had been brought in to Kiev.
One time, he had a chat with the mother of one of the internal army soldiers. With a set expression on his face, he tried to persuade her to reason with her son, to understand that the authorities were sending these young boys to fight against their own nation that these very recruits were most at risk, while Berkut stood behind them, waiting to launch an attack. He asked her whether she wanted her son to have his own nation’s blood on his hands. The woman wept and walked away, quietly saying “Thank you”.
Several days later Igor came face to face with the internal army soldiers. He started telling them to be on their nation’s side. His speech was long, loud and confident. At one point he pushed aside one of the soldier’s shield and looked him in the eye. What he saw was a young man - terrified and moved. Suddenly he felt the weight of the shield in his hands. The boy dropped it and left the unit, despite threats of martial court barked after him by his commander. The commander himself soon crossed paths with Igor and was taken prisoner by the Maidan self-defence forces, whom he begged to be set free. He appeared terrified, even though not long before he had ordered poor, innocent teenagers to attack the very people who now held him.
Fate moves in mysterious ways. Several days later, a 19-year-old boy walked into the tent where Igor was resting. It was the same boy who had given away his shield. He said that even before they met, before Igor talked to him like a father, explaining why he should walk away, he got a call from his mother who told him about an ex-military man from Dnepropetrovsk, now serving in the tretya sotnya company, who urged her to reach out to her son and persuade him to leave the army. That man’s name was Igor. The boy wept as he thanked Igor for saving his life, saying that if it hadn’t been for those words, that encounter back then, he would have committed suicide. Because after what had happened he would have never been able to look in the mirror. As he hugged Igor, he confessed he never had a father and now felt like he had finally met one. Igor embraced him and promised to treat him like a son. The boy joined tretya sotnya and is now serving in the Maidan self-defense. February 18 and 20 are the worst days of Igor’s life. This was when several dozen people laid down their lives for a different, new Ukraine. On the 18th Igor was at the parliament building, where he and his unit clashed with titushky in Mariinsky Park. At some point, shots were fired. A 13-year-old girl, carrying bandages for the injured, was shot in the head before his eyes. I ask him how come he is so sure of her age, maybe he is exaggerating, is this even possible? His face turns into a mask of stone as he replies that he is sure because he knew the girl. Each passing minute brought more victims. Finally Igor decided to retreat. His son, Viktor, wanted to stay on and fight. A debate ensued that ended with the father addressing his son like a commander and soldier. He was speaking as a colonel, not a father. The son took his order and walked away. Igor left the battlefield last.
The following day, on February 19, Viktor went home. Igor saw him off to the train station and returned to Maidan. On February 20 he made a big decision again. He prevented his subordinates from carrying out an attack, he halted them. He saw what was going on and his military instincts told him that carnage would soon unfold. Later, his soldiers carried bodies of the fallen from other companies. With relief he confesses that on the 20th of February only three of his men were injured. One was killed. He says this with relief because the 35th Volyn sotnya had only 4 able-bodied men left after that day. Several were killed, several dozen ended up in hospitals. Finally, I ask him what Ukraine means for him and what he thinks will become of Ukraine in the immediate future.
- Ukraine is my mother. You may change women, leave them, fall in love, fall out of love, but you can never abandon your mother. She is the one, the only, and your most important one. She was there when I took my first steps, she gave me all. And you need to remember this always; always fight for her and take care of her. We will remain standing here till the end. There is a long, long road ahead of us, along which we will find no peace. It is just the beginning. All that Igor said, he said in Russian. Another amazing, Russian-speaking, Ukrainian patriot that I had the honour of meeting.