#3. All at Once, the Protest Becomes a Revolution
As in any war, the supply lines are crucial. The barricades don't hold themselves -- thousands of protesters eat thousands of pounds of food, drink thousands of pounds of water, and poop thousands of pounds of poop. They need supplies, waste management ... in other words, they have to run their own functioning city. To keep their fortress supplied, the protesters formed the Automaidan: car-owning cavalry who ferried supplies where they were needed. To quote another activist we spoke to, "Olesya":
"The Automaidan patrol the streets, they know where the police are -- which streets you can expect to see them at and when their patrols are scheduled for. If a car does get stopped by those police, they have a radio system, and they can call for reinforcements. Cars full of protesters will swarm the traffic stop and start taking video and yelling whenever we catch them violating some procedure."
So they didn't have time to decorate. It's still more Road Warrior than anything you've done.
Olesya's husband was involved in this continuing tit-for-tat between the Automaidan and the Berkut. At one point, some prisoners were being driven to a jail, and swarms of car-mounted protesters surrounded the motorcade on the highway and forced the police to stop. The protesters jammed the road, blocked all exits, and mobbed the police van with a sea of angry humanity. They told the Berkut they could walk out, but only if they removed their helmets so the protesters could take pictures of their faces. It was a rare victory during a difficult time, and the Automaidan paid for it. A few days later, Olesya said, the worst happened:
"They pulled over one vehicle in the Automaidan and stole their radio, so they started sending out requests for all the other drivers to converge on this one area. And when my husband and his comrades arrived, it was an ambush. They were all arrested and beaten, and their cars were impounded."
The whole thing was caught on video:
But the supplies kept flowing. In this brand new "wartime" economy, the two most valuable commodities were firewood (because nights with below-zero temperatures aren't uncommon) and tires. Try smuggling huge piles of either past a police checkpoint in your car to see why. The cops recognized this, and for weeks the citizens of Kiev couldn't transport car tires or firewood without risking a beatdown. For a brief time, Kiev was the only city on Earth where "felony possession of tires" was a thing. And just why are car tires useful? Well, it just so happens that you can stack a bunch of them up into a fairly effective barricade:
But fuck it, you can stack anything. The real value of the car tire is its ability to burn like a son of a bitch for hours while pouring off clouds of inky black poison smoke at anyone downwind. So when the Ukrainian police slammed against the rebel fortress, the only way to hold the barricades was by turning them into a ring of fire. Alexey was there for the final, apocalyptic showdown:
We'll just leave this here to set the scene.
"The Berkut were very close now ... The whole place was disorganized, and a lot of the self-defense force guys were missing. Berkut snipers with rubber bullets were shooting for the heads and abdomens of the Afghan veterans to remove them from the scene. At some point we [civilians] realized that this was all on us. We had to stop the attack from progressing ... The cannonade was nonstop. Something was exploding every second. Stun grenades and smoke grenades, mostly. The police had advanced right up to the barricade. So the protesters decided to light the barricades on fire to keep them out."
A thousand heavy metal album covers were born that night.
#2. Fire Hoses Are Scarier Than Tanks
Really, a lifetime of Hollywood movies is piss-poor preparation for fighting a successful revolution. For example, you'd expect a big ol' tank like this ...
APC, whatever. Don't be a dick.
... to destroy a barricade made of wood and tires and ice with ease. But an armored personnel carrier is surprisingly easy to deal with. Combine professional-grade fireworks ...
... with the best Molotov cocktails your combined liquor cabinets can make ...
... and you can melt an armored personnel carrier's wheels to the ground in literally three seconds:
If you can't watch the video, let us sum it up in three photos:
Never again will we doubt the utility of a well-stocked liquor cabinet.
The most dangerous weapon in the government's arsenal didn't turn out to be tanks or guns or even tear gas. Fire hoses, mounted on vehicles, made an ideal foil to both the "wall of fire" surrounding the Maidan and the protesters themselves. You take a hose soaking in below-zero temperatures and try to do anything but freeze.
Winter is a fickle friend.
"We stopped throwing the Molotovs until we really needed them, when the water cannons started advancing. I saw five cocktails hit a cannon at once and it just started to melt down, there was a great cheer as the water stopped flowing."
#1. In the End, You'd Be Shocked at What a Bunch of Protesters Can Accomplish
When 2014 arrived, so did the endgame.
Protesters, seen here fighting what we suspect to be some sort of Balrog.
On January 16, the government passed a law banning things like "wearing a helmet" and "protesting your violent government" with prison time. And because Yanukovych was a hip, with-it sort of despot, he had no qualms about using technology to terrify dissenters. Every activist whose phone had GPS received this text message shortly after the protests started: "You are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance."
"Thank you for choosing FascisMobile."
Meanwhile, the list of detained and missing grew every day. While the protests were at their peak, we asked one activist what it was like to be hunted by his own government:
"In the last few days several people I know have gone missing. One of the Maidan's organizers went missing a few days ago. Sometimes people leave their home, their families know they're headed for the Maidan, and their families don't hear of them again. Or they go to the gas station to fuel up and this is when they go missing."
It got to the point where "huddled around a fire barrel with other protesters" was the safest place to be.
When we asked what he planned to do if the police came for him, he put a finger out in the apparently international-or-at-least-European-also gesture of "wait." This was a middle-aged fellow who looked more like the Platonic ideal of an algebra teacher than a revolutionary firebrand. He stood up and in one smooth motion lifted a bulletproof vest from beside his desk and slid it on. Then he flashed an enormous Russian-made revolver to the camera and said, "The authorities have left us no other way out."
On Monday, February 17, Vladimir Putin gave the Ukrainian government $2 billion and some advice. The government took both, and that next day they invaded the Maidan with tanks and machine guns. Three days of violence followed, resulting in the deaths of 100 protesters and 16 police officers. But that wound up being the last gasp of the old regime: By the end of the week, Yanukovych was fleeing for his life. Several days later, he attempted and failed to break a pen while delivering an ultimatum on international television:
C'mon, guy. Pencils.
This prompted Russia to move into Crimea (a region of Ukraine with a Russian majority population) and turned the whole thing into the international crisis that continues as of the writing of this article.
But whatever happens, it's important to keep the above picture in mind. Think of it when you hear the latest outrage from people like Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong Un: At the heart of every dictator is a frustrated little man who can't even master his Bic.
You can donate to help those who were wounded and killed in the protests here.
Robert Evans would like to thank Yuliya Skatova for translating several hours worth of interviews, Alexey Karpovich for being an incredible photographer, and Alexander Marinich for helping him organize this. Please contact Robert here if you have a story to tell.
Related Reading: Cracked has made a habit lately of reporting on real people doing real things. We talked to a 911 operator, a costumed employee at Disneyworld and a transgender woman in just the last few weeks. Hungry for more knowledge? Learn about life as a legal prostitute and in a high-security prison. Got a story of your own? Send it here.