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Birth of a nation

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Dec. 12, 2013, 5:51 a.m. | Op-ed — by Katya Gorchinskaya

Berkut troops stand on Instytutska Street before an attack on peaceful protesters just after 1 a.m. on Dec. 11.
© Kostyantyn Chernichkin

Katya Gorchinskaya

Deputy Chief Editor

 No amount of live video feeds or news stories can convey the essence of EuroMaidan.

The Dec. 11 massive attack by Berkut riot-control police, for example, took people by surprise. Although there was an alert from the leaders of the political opposition that there would be a police raid at 1 a.m., people simply dismissed as ludicrous the idea that a raid would happen that night.

After all, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland were in town and President Viktor Yanukovych assured them and other world leaders that no force would be used.

I left Maidan around 1 a.m., with no visible signs of an imminent attack, and with just a few handfuls of protesters shivering near the stage. I rushed back to find it completely transformed in a matter of 15 minutes after receiving a tip-off that Berkut is advancing.

People by the main stage on Maidan Nezalezhnosti now looked scared, not cold. Thousands of riot police troopers approached two barricades, faces masked and black helmets bobbing like a grotesque mutant living sea. Their loudspeakers were playing the same pre-recorded message over and over and over again: this is an Interior Ministry warning. We respect your right for a peaceful demonstration, but if you see any provocateurs armed with sticks, chains and such, please inform the police.

On stage, Ruslana, the singer and 2004 Eurovision winner, repeated another message time and again: we're a peaceful demonstration, remain calm and do not succumb to provocations. Submit to all demands of the Berkut, but stand strong in defense of your rights. The two messages drowned each other out, turning the scene into a cynical symbol of the state and the people being unable to hear each other.

Women were approached by activists and asked kindly, but persistently, to move closer to the stage. Men encircled them for protection in a touching gesture that had no air of pretense. There were only a few hundred men to defend the barricades, which had been ambitiously built all around EuroMaidan. But a cry for help went out already through every channel- from stage, live television feeds, all social networks and every phone in the crowd.

When Berkut started crashing through the first barricade, it was truly scary. It was not clear what their plan was, and at that point it seemed that it would be a miracle if no blood got spilled. Now, when we know that only 20 people required hospital treatment after that night, it does seem nearly miraculous.

It soon became clear that Berkut was acting under orders to go easy on the protesters, and the resulting scuffle looked like a practice session of police units, not real action. As police broke through the first barricade, the church bells of St. Michael's started to ring – an ancient and powerful call for alarm and mobilization.

For hours that followed, those watching Maidan saw massive shoving between Berkut and demonstrators, and its footage was top news around the world. But what was even more striking is how quickly Kyiv mobilized and moved into the city center, turning a crowd of a few hundred into a mass of tens of thousands of people in a matter of several hours. There was a lot of dignity in it, and a lot of pride.

This was the massive proof that EuroMaidan is not about its leaders, that it's truly the will of the people.

Every person taking part in it was a leader and a hero. I am talking about all those drivers who tweeted in the crazy hours of the morning that they will be ready to pick up and drive to Maidan anyone for free.

It's about a young woman with cerebral palsy who came to volunteer in the kitchens of Trade Union House, cutting lemons and making tea for hours with her not fully functional hands for those people in the streets. She was there on EuroMaidan on Nov. 30, when Berkut attacked unsuspecting youngsters who were in the way of the Christmas tree.

It's about a 16-year-old student who was caught and beaten by Berkut in the middle of the crowd on Dec. 11. He returned to Maidan, with a smashed face, as soon as they released him because he just could not stay away.

It's about the metro driver who, while driving between Khreshchatyk and Teatralna in the early hours after the Berkut attack on EuroMaidan, told passengers what is happening there and urged everyone to come out at Teatralna and support the people.

It's about investment bankers covertly designing stickers featuring brand names of oligarchs who did not support the European integration to initiate a nationwide boycott. It's about CEOs taking unpaid leaves to defend their Maidan.

It's about all those doctors who volunteered to lay out mats and bandages in anticipation of injuries on the day they expected an attack on  city hall. Seeing them prepare like that, matter-of-factly, was one of the scariest things of the past week. It's like we're preparing for a war.

In a way, this is a war. It is a war for a new civilization in Ukraine. Based on values such as solidarity, dignity, respect for an individual and clear and equal rules of the game for all. This is no longer about Europe or integration – it's about who we are and where we want to go.

This is about a nation being born. Mutilated by years of misrule, impoverished by looting, it emerges slowly from the ruin. This process is massive and we don't know how well this birth is going to go. But it's happening now and here, in Kyiv, and it's both painful and awesome. The only place to truly feel the pain and grandeur of this national awakening is to stand there right on Maidan.

Kyiv Post deputy chief editor Katya Gorchinskaya can be reached at katya.gorchinskaya@gmail.com

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