6 Insanely Post-Apocalyptic Realities of the Ukraine Revolt
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 ...
Having an Ice Fortress Helps
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:
One of them, anyway.
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.
Having Grizzled Combat Veterans on Your Side Helps, Too
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.
It Starts With Psychological Warfare
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 ...
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 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.
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."
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.
Robert Evans wrote a book, A Brief History of Vice, in which he drank his own pee to test an ancient tobacco recipe. The least you can do is pre-order it.
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