Honestly, these anti-government protests and revolutions are all starting to run together.
We've seen it happen seemingly a dozen times in the Middle East, and now it appears that every month the streets of some unstable country are filling with young people running from tear gas and setting things on fire. Well, have you ever wondered what it's like to get so fed up with the system that you take to the streets, facing down tanks and machine guns armed with nothing but whatever random objects you can find around the house? We wondered that very thing, so we asked some people who did it. Successfully.
The activists we spoke to are from Ukraine (their protest, in a roundabout way, led to the Crimean crisis currently dominating every news cycle not dedicated to whatever Justin Bieber snorted this week), whose movement grew from a few people squatting in a public square to a force that toppled their government within just a few months. And they told us ...
Remember the "Occupy" movement? You know, when lots of young Americans insisted they were going to overthrow the system by permanently camping in various public parks? And then everyone went home as soon as it got cold? Well, when protesters in Ukraine got sick of their government, they built a gigantic fucking medieval-style fortress in Independence Square ("Maidan") in the capital city of Kiev, complete with ramparts:
See, guys? That's how you "Occupy" something.
The protesters we spoke to knew they didn't have the immediate, overwhelming numbers necessary to pull off an Egypt-style popular coup. And they also realized that big marches through the streets were easy to disperse -- suppressing one meant nothing more than a day or two of bad publicity for the president's regime. Building a giant fortress, on the other hand, let their numbers count for more and guaranteed that any government crackdown would be livestreamed across the world for days. And if you think we're being silly referring to their fortress as "medieval," well, here's their catapult:
And where a brutal winter is usually the worst enemy to a movement based on camping in a public place, the fortress was a way to turn winter into an improvised weapon. The protesters realized early on that Kiev's regular snowfall had a purpose beyond pleasing Bing Crosby's ghost. If you compact a shitload of snow into a trash bag, you eventually wind up with an ice brick hard enough to stop bullets. Combine enough of those bags, and boom -- ice fortress:
That's Mr. Ice Fortress to you.
But the wall isn't what makes the fortress work; it's the logistics of managing the functioning army of volunteers inside it. As one of the protesters (who we'll call "Alexander") said:
"People have installed huge kitchens to feed everyone. The early protesters organized into several different camps. And each camp has their own thing. Some do kitchens, some specialize in being filled with a lot of strong armored guys to protect the perimeter. There's even a camp specializing in IT: They have Wi-Fi and a bunch of community tablets and laptops so people can stay in touch."
As the months wore on, protesters organized their own free university:
"Today we're going to learn the history of trebuchets, and then use one on a phalanx of riot police."
And a library:
They were in it for the long haul, is what we're saying.
The protesters would wind up holding that square in Kiev for months, and when the government tried to take them out, they didn't just show up with pepper spray and threats of disorderly conduct arrests. Things got serious, and bloody, courtesy of the Berkut -- Ukraine's elite riot police/overly enthusiastic stormtrooper cosplayers:
But on the side of the protesters were, among others, the people you'd think were least likely to take part in a hippie sit-in protest: middle-aged army vets with combat experience. So right away, the tone of this protest was a little different from the kind of chants-and-signs demonstrations that the authorities usually ignore. As another of the protesters, "Alexey," told us:
"Many of them were veterans of special forces, the Russian Spetsnaz. The first were veterans of the Soviet/Afghan war ... they train every evening. They make shields, and they also have trophy shields that they took from the police."
Pro Tip: Stolen riot shields make surprisingly cozy pillows.
The presence of Afghan war veterans is important -- if you haven't seen Rambo III, the invasion of Afghanistan was the USSR's Vietnam, lasting 10 years and costing 13,000 soldiers and over a million Afghan lives. In other words, these people weren't going to run in terror the moment they heard gunfire. The combination of "hardened veterans" and "normal people pissed off that the police are beating people bloody" meant Ukraine's new protest movement had a little more resolve than the average crowd of college students.
If you've been following the Ukraine story on the news, you already know that square and snow fortress would eventually become the apocalyptic hellstorm you've seen on television recently. But the violence was the culmination of a long campaign of back-and-forth mindfucks.
And an ongoing attempt to birth history's most badass picture.
First, a little bit of background: All of this started when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych took a $15 billion bribe from Russia in exchange for pulling out of a treaty that would have brought his country closer to the European Union. The president wasn't exactly popular in the first place, doing things like rigging his election, as well as stealing $160 million from the central bank and using government funds to build a private palace complete with its own zoo. But this move to align with Russia over the EU was the last straw, and citizens who were terrified of winding up under Putin's reign started to protest.
The clashes with the government were nonviolent, for a while. Almost passive-aggressive, in fact. For example, one photographer we spoke to attended a human chain in front of one of the lines of riot police. Rather than packing their usual homemade shields and beat sticks, the protesters showed up with mirrors:
Shame! It's the emotional equivalent of a catapult loaded with rocks. Of course, the government had their own tactics, like forcing protesters to stand around naked in below-zero weather while riot police laughed and took photos.
Tensions built as the protesters made it clear they weren't going anywhere. And they knew that, eventually, the inevitable was going to happen ...