My journey into Ukraine’s democratic revolution: From the Magnificent Maidan to the Butchery of Bucha and Babyn Yar

By Doniphan Blair

This is a continuation of our week-long feature on Ukraine to mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion. You can read Part One here.

AS DIRK and I walk out on Kyiv’s magnificent Maidan that glorious September 11th morning, I am struck by its large, open space but also strange structures, like the glass domes or comedic sculptures at its north end, where we entered, or the tall column capped by a figure in the distance. Despite the storm clouds, a wan sun shines, people are smiling, and there’s an eerie peace.

Unbeknownst to us on the Maidan at that moment, 250 miles to the east, around Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv, Ukrainian Davids are on the march.

Indeed, they retook more territory in days than the Russian Goliath conquered in months, driving the invaders into a panicked retreat and to abandon immense amounts of equipment and ammunition.

President Zelenskyy announces this battlefield success that very evening, in his nightly national address – the first good news Ukrainians have heard since their defence of Kyiv, six months earlier.

“They used special forces, drones and ‘maneuverable warfare’ to get behind the Russians and spook them into running,” a military analyst on CNN explained on September 13th, although he forgot to mention their masterful military feint.

For weeks, President Zelensky had been talking up a counterattack in the south on Kherson, the only regional capitol conquered in Russia’s most recent invasion, which tricked them into withdrawing troops from the north near Kharkiv. Already known as a brave and funny commander in chief, Zelensky was proving to be a brilliant one.

“We love our president,” Alena had told me with a smile, which suggested a romantic side to national struggle.

Zelensky pushed his generals to attack, even though the Americans kept vetoing their battle plans, as the two militaries computer war-gamed during the summer in Ramstein, Germany.

They had to break the entrenched front lines before winter, obviously, as a frozen war of attrition would benefit better-armed Russians. But they also had to prove to citizens and allies alike that the cornucopia of donated war materiel was being put to good use.

As of September 11th, the U.S. had provided about $19 billion worth, five times the annual allotment to Israel, including advanced HIMAR missiles and promises of much more, although that could be reduced or decimated by a Republican-controlled Congress.

Dirk and I thread our way across the six lanes of Khreshchatyk Avenue, Kyiv’s main shopping street, which intersects the Maidan, since we neglected to notice the pedestrian tunnel for that purpose. We ascend the Maidan’s block-wide steps and approach its centerpiece, the gold-plated column crowned by Berehynia, the Slavic fertility goddess.

Only then do we see, in the middle of the square’s proscenium, the dance troupe. It consists of a dozen women, including one of color (Ukraine has a substantial Roma population as well as some African immigrants), two men and a camera crew. Between takes of turning, jumping and gesticulating, the dancers goof off and giggle, although still well aware of the fierce battles raging five hours drive east or south. Each one probably has a cousin or friend under shellfire, at the front or already in the earth.

Kyiv seems normal, except for the passport control on the roads entering town and at the train station, the sandbags and plywood around important buildings and statues, the machine gun nests at official entrances, and the occasional air raid sirens, which oblige museums to evacuate, but everyone else ignores. People laugh in the streets, and the restaurants are full—up to a 30-minute wait at the most popular—but few openly celebrated Zelensky’s announcement of battlefield success on September 11th, as was reported in the American press. Almost everyone I met was still nervous, some were traumatized, and a few were having panic attacks.

Fifteen miles north of the Maidan is Bucha, whose residents reported the first Russian war crimes spree. Bucha bore the brunt of Russian bloodlust because it was where their once-vaunted armor was ambushed by Ukrainian regulars but also townspeople tossing Molotov cocktails.

The Ukrainians destroyed up to a dozen tanks and vehicles which triggered a 25-mile-long military traffic jam and ruined Putin’s plans for a one-week war. Amazingly, the Russian soldiers carried dress uniforms for a victory parade, while many officers booked reservations at Kyiv’s premier hotels and restaurants.

Dirk Grosser is of medium height, strong build and open demeanor. He favors plaid shirts and hiking boots, perhaps in deference to his practical people from the once-East German city of Dresden, where he lives in a three-story townhouse he renovated himself. On our deluge drive from Lviv to Kyiv, Dirk told me how he raced all night from Germany to Ukraine, after a late start due to house guests, to attend a seminar he organized about what artists should do during a war. A performance artist and filmmaker by profession, Dirk started doing small conferences in this vein after learning some of his leftist friends supported the Russian invasion. In addition, he was shooting a related documentary, tentatively titled “Exile”.

Amazed by Dirk’s ambition and hard work as well as interested in the cause, I volunteered to production assist: find translators, do second camera and the like. Three days after our first Maidan visit, we drove the M-07 north to the once-bucolic commuter town of Bucha. We set up next to its verdant central walkway in the outdoor tables of a fast-food joint, which had umbrellas to ward off the light rain.

Every person we asked had had harrowing experiences. “I was in a basement for weeks,” a towheaded, ten-year-old boy, riding around on his scooter, told us, “I was very scared.” After calling his mother on his smart phone, which almost all middleclass kids have, he said, “She doesn’t want me filmed.”

Between wiping her eyes, a thin, expressive, perhaps 50-year-old Roma woman named Nadia told us about the rapes, including of underage girls, the men trying to remove their military tattoos, a death sentence under Russian occupation, the summary executions, which sometimes included torture or amputation, and the often audible screaming.

The interviews were conducted in Ukrainian, which neither Dirk nor I understand, but our translator, an aid organizer from Kyiv also named Nadia, provided periodic summaries in English. At the end of the interview, most of us were crying, and we all hugged Bucha Nadia.

Bucha’s streets were littered with bodies for weeks, since the residents were too fearful to collect them. The kill count now exceeds 450, almost 2% of the population but will probably go much higher. Mass graves full of civilians, some showing signs of torture, amputation and even castration, have been uncovered in the liberated towns around Kharkiv like Izium.

“We were given orders to kill everyone we see,” a Russian soldier told his girlfriend by phone from Bucha, according to call transcripts published by the New York Times on September 28th.

Evidently, the Kremlin intends to terrorize the Ukrainians into submission, including the ethnic Russians they’re supposedly saving, and escape recrimination through propaganda and conspiracy theories.

This strategy will work, they assume, by virtue of their long expertise with such subterfuges but also the current popularity of conspiracism worldwide and cyberspace’s capacity for disinformation. Hence, the Russians keep claiming they’re fighting Nazis.

As if on cue, when the Bucha story broke on April 1st, Russian diplomats and media figures began accusing the Ukrainians of lying and fabricating evidence, using actors, ketchup and Photoshop, a gaslighting calumny that many Russians and Russophiles continue to repeat ad nauseam today.

On our way back from filming in Bucha, to complete our atrocity tour, we stopped by Babyn Yar, the ravine four miles north of the Maidan better known by its Russian name, Babi Yar. This is where the Nazis, also compulsive conspiracy theorists, slaughtered some 33,700 Jews in two days, still considered a record.

Now located in a large, popular city park, Babyn Yar features an imaginative, multifaceted memorial. Right on the ravine’s edge, in fact, is a two-sided synagogue adorned with colorful animals, clouds and Hebrew phrases, a fantasy version of a traditional Ukrainian synagogue.

The walls are hinged and there is an oversized hand-crank, the guard showed me, which folds the entire structure into a 20-foot-tall wooden case, suggesting children’s theater or the Jewish need for portability.

Some people were probably offended when the Babyn Yar Memorial foundation—formed in 2017, after the Soviets downplayed the Holocaust for decades, with an all-star board chaired by the Russian-Israeli scientist and dissident Nathan Sharansky and featuring rabbis, artists and politicians—decided to build a psychedelic, fold-up synagogue to commemorate what is traditionally marked by dark stone memorials or anguished sculptures. I myself was confused. But as I walked around and mulled it over, I realized: This is where Ukrainian middle schoolers are brought to look down into that monstrous death hole and, if you want to get metaphorical about it, what the souls there see looking up. Surely a positive image of Ukraine’s millennia-old Judaism provides some solace.

Dirk and I hiked down the path behind the synagogue into the ravine, which must have been deep, given it now holds around 90,000 Jewish bodies, almost all of Kyiv’s pre-war Jewish population, and a similar total of Roma, Russian and Ukrainian nationalist bodies, an irony not lost on some Ukrainians.

Dirk can be contrarian, but he readily joined me in a meditative “om” chant. As a Holocaust survivor’s son, who has long grappled with this apocalyptic nightmare, I felt a certain peace in Babyn Yar’s death hole: Ukrainians were finally healing from that national trauma using sophisticated art and psychology. Tragically, it was just in time for the next atrocity.

Babyn Yar’s memorial complex also has an eight-foot, dark stone menorah, which serves as its centerpiece, and a large, black stone wall, although unlike anything I’ve seen at other Holocaust memorials. Titled “Crystal Wall of Crying” and installed in 2021, it was designed by Marina Abramović, the legendary Serbian performance artist, and has dozens of large crystals, which glow with light and are embedded in the wall. A football pitch away, there is a large, circular, silver platform with a dozen silver pillars, each fitted with an eyepiece for viewing archival Holocaust footage—everything riddled with bullet holes. The Holocaust in Ukraine was largely by bullets. Neither “Psychedelic Synagogue” nor “Riddled Silver Pillars” are listed on the Memorial’s Wikipedia page, and I’ve yet to find their creators’ names or installation dates.

 “When Bucha happened, we were all crying,” I was told by Marina, a 20-something woman who works in the arts, including promoting her reserved painter boyfriend, and has an irrepressible laugh.

“But we can’t stay that way. If we let them depress us, they will win.”

Many Ukrainians told me they were depressed for a week or a month after February 24th but were energized by friends, the exigencies of war or Ukraine’s stoic tradition.

Marina, whom I met in Lviv but is also a refugee from Dnipro, which is half way between Kharkiv and Kherson and was being shelled as we spoke, just returned from the U.S., where she visited her mother in Minneapolis and could have applied for refugee status.

“I saw only a few Ukrainian flags or signs of solidarity,” she said. “At a club, the singer said she wanted to dedicate the next song to those who have suffered. I thought she meant us, but she was referring to George Floyd.” Marina also spends all her earnings to support Ukraine’s economy.

“Some people say this being happy is wrong,” Kirill told me. “But my friends who are soldiers say, ‘We have to protect this. You must do your normal life because we are in stress, and sometimes we need to go enjoy this.’” Kirill’s friends reminded me of the Babyn Yar installations, which I came to see as suggesting we appreciate life even as we mourn mass death, learn about horrific history and fight fascism, which I also learned from my mother’s experiences in the Holocaust. The Ukrainians perfected this philosophy, evidently, over a century of being butchered mercilessly by the Soviets, Germans and now Russians. 

“Some people outside the Maidan were angry with us, saying, ‘It was like a festival, not a protest,’” said the Ukrainian popstar Ruslana Lyzhychko in “Winter on Fire” (2015), an excellent documentary about the Maidan Revolution (available on Netflix). Ruslana, as she is known, was also a center-right Rada representative but fell in love with the kids of Maidan and became their celebrity spokesperson.

As the Maidan dancers prance and gambol across Ukraine’s main stage, with no official minders and only Dirk, myself and four or five others watching or filming, I realize I’m witnessing a minor miracle: Ukrainians expressing freedom, fancy and joy in the shadow of a gruesome, genocidal war. When they take a water break, however, I continue my exploration and wander up the steps to Berehynia, standing resplendent in the slight sun, gold leaf gleaming off her column and the foliage she holds above her head.

That’s when I notice, behind Berehynia’s column, the  art show: two dozen, ten-foot-tall, artistic iron easels with pages from a graphic novel, “Dad” by Oleksandr Komiakhov, I  find out by Google Translating a photo of the credit. The title page surprises me. It has a man and woman seemingly straight from the Burning Man festival: him heavily bearded, wearing a motorcycle helmet and holding a baseball bat; her with pierced lips and a furry cat hat and cradling a box of Molotov cocktails.

“If these are the mythical heroes of Ukraine,” I think, or something along those lines, “They really have achieved a certain free speech absolutism, and freedom in general, a democracy which enshrines art and ideas, which many Ukrainians have been enjoying for almost a decade… Many of the kids of Maidan must be in government by now.”

“They are all phonies, patsies and spies!” would the rebuttal of many Russophiles and hard rightwingers but also some leftists, including friends of mine. Sandy Sanders, a neighbor, artist and seemingly decent guy, whom I’ve known for 20 years, denounced one of my heartfelt Facebook posts from Ukraine by insisting the Maidan Revolution was a “U.S.-financed coup” and the separatist struggle in the Donbas was a “neo-Nazi civil war.” Since he doesn’t seem like a Machiavellian manipulator, Sandy must be utterly unaware that he’s parroting Putin’s conspiracy theories, that people power is organic and hard to manipulate, or that fascist societies can’t be paragons of liberty.

In fact, there’s precious little police presence in Ukraine, although martial law was declared on day one and they’re in a duel to the death with an adversary thrice their size and with a long resume of atrocity and spy craft. Indeed, three teams of pro-Russia Chechens tried to kill President Zelensky early in the war, the attack on Kyiv’s secondary airport by Russian paratroopers and over 100 helicopters delivered special forces to decapitate the government, and they continue attempting to infiltrate spies, saboteurs and assassins, or to enlist them in sitio.

Nevertheless, in all of downtown Lviv, I saw only two soldiers standing guard (the 24-hour sentries at the central bank), while the nationwide curfew of 11 p.m., widely adhered to by Ukrainians, was barely enforced. On my many walks home at midnight or later, I saw few police patrols and no stops.

Five days after my first Maidan visit, I was stopped by a soldier who saw me take a selfie near a trainyard and demanded my phone and passport. I braced myself. “There is still a lot of corruption,” a few Ukrainians had warned me. Fifteen minutes later, however, I was chatting amicably in English with his commanding officer, who asked me to delete the photo and dismissed me with “Have a fun visit to Kyiv.”

Also defending Ukraine from Russian espionage is their “safe city” system, using surveillance cameras and artificial intelligence, Kirill told me. Amazingly, at the start of the war, Ukrainian cyber security held off the onslaught of Russia’s notorious hacker army.

Others referred to their long, painful learning curve with Kremlin agents. “The K.G.B. killed my grandfather,” a long-haired Lviv waiter told me with a laugh, “It’s a sad story.”

They also carried plastic sheets for the torrential rains. Within a few weeks, that plastic was woven into a sea of tents, barricades, lean-tos and kitchens, inhabited by a vast cross-section of Ukrainians, from tech workers and academics to dirty, young men carrying bats. One young man told me his dad went to the Maidan because “he always had to be in middle of everything,” while another said his dad promised to take him, but his mother intervened—he was only 14. The protesters discussed and debated, played guitars and drums, and DJed and danced, even though there was almost no alcohol on the Maidan. When temperatures plummeted and snow blanketed the vast encampment, they gathered around 50-gallon-drum fires.

As I ponder this critical history, about which I knew little before entering Ukraine on August 23rd (its Independence Day from the Soviet Union, coincidentally), a moving moment from the Maidan Revolution—one I just learned about from the documentary “Fire in Winter”—comes to my mind.

After two weeks of protests, the Berkut riot police tried to clear the Maidan a second time. Their first attempt, on November 30th, 2013, merely shocked the protestors, who fought back fiercely or called their parents, some of whom joined them on the Maidan.

The night of December 10th would be different, they realized, as they watched police buses pull up on Khreshchatyk Avenue and spit out hundreds of officers with helmets, shields and cement truncheons. As the women went to the proscenium for protection, some of the men—some wearing helmets, many carrying bats—went to face the Berkut. Meanwhile, a lone figure sprinted away, a theology student named Ivan Sydor.

As it happened, the official bell ringer for the 11th century Cathedral of St. Michael, on the hill north of the Maidan, was Sydor. Undoubtedly gasping for breath as he topped the belfry stairs around 1 a.m., he began ringing St. Michael’s bells furiously, as had his forbears during the Mongol invasion. Sydor rang for four hours and roused thousands, who ran to the Maidan, surrounded the Berkut and scared them off.

Thinking about Sydor’s desperate appeal, the Kyivers’ stalwart response and the bravery of the Maidan fighters, I pull my cap over my eyes, lest one of the dancers or Dirk see I’m crying.

Featured Image: Author

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