Ruslana Lyzhychko, the pop singer and former Eurovision winner, with her night guards on Dec. 7. She has gained international celebrity status by serving as the tireless emcee and songstress of the EuroMaidan protests that began on Nov. 21 in opposition to President Viktor Yanukovych’s tilt towards Russia and away from the European Union.
© Ruslana Lyzhychko/facebook).
Heroes are born during momentous times and EuroMaidan is no exception.
Some of the heroic deeds inspired the whole nation, while other simply kept their companions warm with a cup of coffee and a chat. There is already a book and a documentary in the works about outstanding EuroMaidan personalities. The Kyiv Post picked six out of the crowd. Here are their stories:
It was the witching hour on Dec. 11 when massive numbers of riot police started attacking the protesters’ barricades. And then, around 2 a.m., the bells of St. Michael’s Cathedral started to ring, alarming the sleeping city and calling for help. The bells kept ringing until 5 a.m., to the amazement and inspiration of the growing crowd on Maidan.
The person who rang the bells in the middle of the night was 24-year-old Ivan Sydor, a graduate of the Orthodox Theology Academy. Sydor was sleeping in his room in the academy dormitory, right next to the cathedral, when his phone suddenly went crazy.
Callers found his number on the cathedral’s website and begged him to ring the bells. “They were crying and saying that EuroMaidan is going to be dispersed,” he recalls. “There were 70 calls during just one hour. People were calling from U.S., Poland, Italy.”
After requesting the blessing of the monastery’s prior Agapit, Sydor rushed to the bell tower. He has been ringing bells for three years, but this was obviously exceptional.
“The last time St. Michael’s sounded an alarm was in 1240, when Kyiv was under seizure from the Mongols. It was also a December, and the Mongols came to the Lyadski Gates, located in the place of modern Independence Square,” Sydor says.
About 40 minutes later, more ringers came for help. By that time, Sydor’s hands were sore and hurting. “Usually the bells of St. Michael’s cannot be heard on Independence Square. I think it was a little miracle that people heard the bells that night,” Sydor says.
When several hundred people rushed to Independence Square on Nov. 21 to start a protest that launched EuroMaidan, Andriy Choockovsky picked up some paper cups, a bag of Arabica beans and a portable burner. Then he went to the square, too. A co-owner of Yellow, a take-out coffee shop at Prorizna Street, he set up his goods next to the Founders of Kyiv monument and gave out about 50 cups of free coffee that night. He was one of the first people there to serve hot drinks to the protesters in below-freezing temperatures.
On the following days, he served up to 250 cups per day. He stopped his activity after protesters’ kitchens were set up, churning out hundreds of thousands free hot drinks per day, served by volunteers. Choockovsky’s coffee distribution spot became the place where first food donations were delivered.
When asked about why he did what he did, Choockovsky said: “I support people when they gather together and they know what they want.”
A tough soldier
A short old man stands alone in a crowd of protesters. He doesn’t join any of the chat groups on Maidan and doesn’t walk around much. Instead, Oleksiy Kushnirchuk stands motionlessly, his back very straight and attentively catches every word coming from the stage.
When asked how old he is, Kushnirchuk replies, “Not so old yet. Just 85.”
Kushnirchuk came to EuroMaidan on Dec. 18 from the village of Kosmach, in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, leaving behind his sick wife and a family of three children and seven grandchildren.
He spends every day on Independence Square, then goes off to sleep in a cold bus. He doesn’t complain. During his adolescence, Kushnirchuk spent 2.5 years in the ranks of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a paramilitary army that operated during World War II and fought against the Nazis, the Soviet Union and other enemies of Ukraine’s independence.
Kushnirchuk says he fears nothing since the day he found the dead body of his sister, killed by Soviet security officers.
“I become very angry when I hear about the customs union because it’s like a new Soviet Union, where we were treated as slaves for 70 years,” Kushnirchuk says, rapping out every word.
A cook and a poet
Valentyna Bilan, 49, an unemployed chef from Kyiv, has been coming to EuroMaidan since the very first day of its existence. This brave and distinctive woman took most of the home stock of canning to the protesters’ camp.
“I bring cucumbers, potatoes, carrots to the protesters,” she says.
On the morning of Nov. 30, when beaten protesters gathered at the yard of St. Michael’s monastery after peaceful rally was brutally disperced by the police, Bilan was there with a pile of hot pancakes. Since then, she cooked hundreds of liters of borshch, porridge and baked dozens of pies for the protesters.
“At first my husband was not very happy about this, but after I took him to the protest once, he began to support my initiative,” Bilan adds.
After actively participating in the Orange Revolution in Kyiv in 2004, Bilan began to write poems. Those poems are mostly about social and political issues, and she is happy to recite them for the people on EuroMaidan.
The woman plans to celebrate the New Year on Independence Square, regardless of the political situation. “I cannot live without the EuroMaidan spirit, like I can’t live without oxygen,” she says.
He sits in a dark corner of Maidan tent camp behind the stage, his hands dirty with paint, and draws a view of a night city on the orange helmet. Yuriy Yaskiv, 40, a construction worker from Ternopil, says he has already become a celebrity with his painted helmets. “There is a line to get a painted helmet already,” he laughs.
Bright orange helmets became popular among EuroMaidan protesters after the peaceful rally was brutally dispersed on Nov. 30 by police in a raid that injured at least three dozen demonstrations. Yaskiv says he has occasionally seen a painted helmet and decided to try himself. All the helmets have different drawings from revolutionary slogans to flowers and even landscapes. Yaskiv says he doesn’t take orders for the particular patterns and just draws what comes to his mind. “I have never studied painting, but it was always my hobby,” the painter says shyly and goes back to work.
Yaskiv says he is here for the future of his children. “I want them to be able to study abroad and then come back and change something here,” he explained. He came to Kyiv on Dec. 6 and says he has already painted over a hundred helmets. “And seems like will do more,” he says, smiling at a young man who runs up with another helmet.
The voice of Maidan
There are many trademark photographs of EuroMaidan crowds singing the national anthem while holding their cell phone lights up and switched on. There is one person who must have led this ritual from stage thousands of times since the protests kicked off. Pop star Ruslana, or Ruslana Lyzhychko, winner of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2004, has been the strong voice of Maidan since the very onset of protests. She was the one to lead a scared crowd to hide in St. Michael’s monastery in the early hours of Nov. 30, when the police violently dispersed several hundred young demonstrators.
She was the one whose voice belted from stage on the night of another attack, on Dec.11, when thousands of riot police stormed the protesters’ barricades all night.
She has been on stage every night for weeks now, and has almost lost her voice. Her fingers have suffered frostbite and the tough past few weeks have taken a toll on her petite figure. But she almost never leaves the camp, sleeping in the Trade Union House by Maidan and keeping a night watch, singing and speaking from stage for most hours between midnight and 9 a.m.
“My task as a volunteer is to do what I can – to give people energy and warmth,” she told the Kyiv Post huskily.
She said she will quit the street protests only when an agreement with the European Union is signed and the government resigns. Until that day, she says she will sing every night. “United we stand, be sure of that,” she said.
Kyiv Post staff writers Daryna Shevchenko, Nataliya Trach, Oksana Grytsenko and Olga Rudenko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com