February 20, 2014: The Massacre


On the morning of February 20 Serhiy wakes up at five. One of the commanders is rousing everyone still asleep. No one speaks. Everyone at the Conservatory was told to keep vigil all night, to pair up with someone so if the building were to be stormed their partner would wake them. But after 0500 everyone would need to be awake.

         The Maidan is eerily quiet. Even the voices on stage have been reduced to the murmur of a few chanting priests as the fire along the contact line continues to burn in parts and smolder in others. The clinking of metal on metal still echoes, but by now it’s embedded in everyone’s subconscious like the sound of their own heartbeat.

         Serhiy goes up to the first floor. He hasn’t seen Smyk since last evening, but he knows they were planning something. Then he hears it. Everyone awake at the Conservatory knows exactly what it is; they’ve all been waiting: a few cracks from a firearm upstairs. Then comes the order to launch a barrage of fireworks and rocks at the Berkut milling around the Stella. Suddenly the entire line erupts in the dark and every young man in the Conservatory rushes out to spur them on.


         “Push forward! They’re backing up! Push forward!”

         Spotlights shine directly into the Berkut’s eyes from the second floor of the Conservatory. A few more shots ring out. Serhiy reaches for the bits of cobblestones piled in sandbags stacked along the barricade. A couple of figures run laterally just behind crowd pushing along the front line. One stops beside Serhiy to let off a burst from the Kalashnikov he’s carrying, then moves to another section of the barricade, fires another burst of three or four shots. He proceeds like that toward the Trade Unions Building.

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         The Berkut tends to their downed commanders under a hail of rocks and firebombs. Somewhere in the confusion the priests have ceded the stage to a commander now barking orders again. “Berkut is shooting. Bring the wounded behind the lines. Berkut is shooting.”


         As daylight breaks, the protesters breach the barricade in several places and surround the Stella monument. The Berkut is retreating. Victory declarations blare from the stage. “The Stella of independence has been taken by the Maidan! Slava! Slava! Slava!

         Soon smoke starts billowing from the Conservatory. “They’re throwing firebombs at the Conservatory. It’s not us. They want to burn down the Conservatory! … Berkut stop! It’s a historical building! Everything is being filmed! Everything is streaming live!”

         Behind his shield, Serhiy throws stone after stone as he steps across the barricade. A group of Berkut flee up the hill toward the October Palace, so Serhiy goes back quickly and grabs a Molotov cocktail. He then gives chase parallel to the retreating riot police, but on higher ground. From above he sneaks behind a dumpster and comes upon a huddled group of Berkut. He lights the rag on the bottle and lobs his bomb, which explodes to the roar of everyone around him swarming up the hill.



Novak wakes up to the sound of fireworks. He’s fallen asleep with both the computer and TV on, so he isn’t sure where the noise is coming from. He opens the window, and though his view of the Maidan is blocked, he can hear explosions like on the night of the attack. He goes out to the elevator bank where there’s a view of the Maidan from the back side of the hotel, between a few buildings. There’s chaos and movement and he needs to get down there as quickly as he can. He gets dressed, puts on his flak jacket, hops into the elevator.

         As soon as he steps out of the hotel he sees that the Berkut, who were there when he came home, are now in full retreat. In the confusion he manages to slip through, climbing heaps of charred debris into the actual square submerged under a stifling pall of smoke and morning fog.

         The men at the microphone are trying to impose some order on the melee. “They’re shooting on Institutska! Get medics on Institutska! We’ve got wounded.”


         Groups of men with helmets, shields and sticks push the Berkut up the hill beyond the Hotel Ukraina.

         Novak hears a shot from up high. Everyone is pointing to the Hotel Ukraina. A Berkut is down. Four of his comrades carry him away up the hill.

         The Maidan breaks into packs, each one stalking the withdrawing Berkut soldiers, who turn and fire a few shots to keep the crowd at bay. Novak follows from what feels like a safe distance, even though he knows nothing is safe here.

         As soon as the first pack approaches the top of the hill on Institutska, just beyond the Ukraina, a salvo of fire comes at them from a Berkut barricade farther up. The men run for cover with their now useless shields pierced like pieces of tinfoil. One is hit. The others hide behind trees, a concrete wall, garbage dumpsters, whatever is there. In the distance they can see the black Berkut helmets peering out and firing a few shots.

         “Guys! Guys! Help me!” one kid shouts.

         “There’s wounded here!” another screams.

         Novak creeps slowly up the hill, hypnotized by the action, trying to make some sense out the movement and drawn in by the obvious danger.


         “I’m hit! Get help!”

         The boy is about ten meters ahead of him. Novak jumps out from behind a tree and grabs the kid’s parka hood. He drags him for a few steps on the ground and the hood rips, so he reaches down and grabs the kid’s collar to get a better grip. Shots ping off the cobblestones and cement all around.

         Novak finally drags the kid to lower ground behind a tree. He sees some medics walking up in their white T-shirts. The kid’s leg is gushing blood through his pants and Novak helps him onto the stretcher. As he bends over he feels a burning pain on his butt. He checks himself as if reaching for his back pocket and there’s blood. At first he assumes it came from the kid’s leg, but the pain tells him it’s from his own body.

         He helps carry the stretcher down the hill a bit to the lobby of the Ukraina. In the bathroom he pulls down his pants in front of everyone and sees the blood. He’s been hit in his backside. It’s only a wide scratch, but it hurts.


         Back in the lobby the many wounded are leaking blood onto the marble floor. Novak lies down on his side and waits to be treated. Given the worse condition of the others around him he knows it will take a while.

Then he hears it. Everyone awake at the Conservatory knows exactly what it is; they’ve all been waiting: a few cracks from a firearm upstairs. 

Elvis smells smoke in his dream and wakes up to the sight of bedlam down below. He can see the Berkut retreating to his right. He grabs his cameras. Once out of the hotel he follows a group of kids walking up the hill with their shields, he can see them stepping directly into a kill zone. When the shots come he dives behind a concrete barrier.

         Sure enough, one falls, then another. Elvis is pinned behind the concrete wall, safe, within ten meters of the kids, and films the entire scene while lying on his back. Everyone just waits under cover. At one point he hears a shot from up high behind him. It could only have come from the Ukraina’s upper floors. He and the other boys are sitting ducks for anyone in the hotel, but it was only one shot. All the lethal fire is coming from farther up the hill on Institutska, where the Berkut has amassed around the National Bank building.

         When a medic comes Elvis puts his camera away and rushes to help a fallen protester, an older man. They drag him onto a stretcher and carry him down to the Ukraina lobby.


As soon the call comes for medics to treat the wounded, Larissa’s heart leaps into her throat for fear that her son might be one of them. The medics immediately set up a triage station in the Hotel Ukraina lobby. Dozens of doctors, nurses and other volunteers go there. Everyone has been expecting exactly such a worst-case scenario, hoping it wouldn’t come to pass. But once the fresh blood glazes the floor no one thinks much of anything but tending to those now drifting toward death.

         The first boy she sees has been shot in the arm and she ties a tourniquet just under his shoulder. Another has been grazed on his calf but tells her to take care of the man next to him, who has been hit in the neck and seems to be fading. Larissa looks at him and realizes she doesn’t know how to treat anything of the sort, so she pulls a female doctor over. Blood gushes over her hands as she tried to stanch the entry wound with a towel, but it’s too late. The man has lost so much blood that he’s already turning blue.

         Larissa tries to organize the stretchers so there’s more space for the incoming wounded. One of the men lying on the ground calls her name.


         It’s Roman.

         “Are you wounded?”

         “A little, but it’s not serious. Tend to the others.”

         “Have you seen Serhiy?”

         “No, I haven’t.”

         She pulls down his pants and looks at his wound.

         “It looks like you were just grazed.”

         “It was probably a ricochet off the street.”

         There are boxes of alcohol and gauze. She pours some alcohol on the wound and looks for tape to keep the gauze down. As she’s rifling through the box, she intentionally takes longer so she can scan the lobby for her son.

         After she’s taped the gauze onto his buttocks, she grabs one of the hotel towels someone has laid out in piles all around, to keep the gauze down.

         “I’ll be alright. Don’t waste time with me. There’s a boy there whose leg is bleeding badly.”


Serhiy joins two other young men and they enter the October Palace building. Shots were heard coming from there some moments ago and one of the men gave orders to clear out any Berkut hiding inside. Who gave the order or how doesn’t matter; everyone seems to be acting telepathically, pushing forward only because backward would put an end to the Maidan and all its aspirations.

         They enter the building. It’s dark. They walk up the stairs. Each man checks a room. They look empty.

         Then Serhiy turns around and goes back into the room he’s just walked out of. He ducks down and sees the black pants of a VV soldier under a desk. He’s startled and doesn’t know what to do.

         “Come out from under the desk.”

         “I’m unarmed.”

         “Put your hands out in front of you.”

         The soldier gets up and Serhiy frisks him the way he’s seen so many times on TV.

         “Don’t beat me. I didn’t want to be here.”

         Serhiy notices the kid is probably even younger than himself. Out of some unconscious sense of honor, Serhiy lifts his own balaclava so he can be equal to his adversary—recognizable. It suddenly dawns on him that this is a prisoner. They said something from the stage earlier about prisoners, but he can’t remember. He doesn’t know what to do.

         Serhiy grabs the helmet off his captive’s head and examines him. There’s fear in eyes, fear like Serhiy has never seen before—only felt from within when he was at one of his many low points. Now he can see his own fear reflected in the eyes of someone expecting to suffer, not knowing how, but trying to resign himself to inevitable pain.

         “Where are you from?” Serhiy asks in Russian.


         “Get out of here. Go back there and tell them we let you go.”

         “Thank you,” he says as he’s backing out of the room, toward the stairs. “Diakuyu,” he adds, switching to Ukrainian to emphasize his gratitude.

         Serhiy is shaken. Maybe he should have been tougher. Maybe he should have taken him as a prisoner. He remembers the feel of that ankle the day before while dragging the Berkut who lost consciousness. He’s too sensitive for all this business. He wants to hide under the table himself and cry.

         As soon as he steps outside, someone asks for help with the wounded. They run down the hill to Institutska and carry one of the fallen into the Ukraina. He expects his mother to be inside, and sure enough she’s the first person he sees. He taps her on the shoulder as she’s cleaning a wound. She wants to hug him but her hands are occupied.

         “Don’t worry, mama. I’m okay. Everything is good.”

         “Please stay back. They’re shooting everyone up there.”

         “I’ll be fine.”

         At that moment a few commanders come in. One is Smyk. He spots Serhiy and yanks him away. “Let’s go upstairs, room by room. There’s shooters in this hotel, we need to find them.”


Elvis wanders the Ukraina lobby and takes photos of the wounded lying on the floor, one by one, methodically. Then he films.

         While panning the ground, one of the wounded, a tall older man with a somewhat puffy cheeks, smiles at him.

         “Elvis, it’s me.”

         He sees Novak and puts his camera down.

         “You’ve been hit?”

         “Grazed. You still have a room here?”

         “Tenth floor.”

         “Take me there.”

         Elvis helps him into the elevator, and when they close the door to the room behind them, it feels like some switch to the drama has suddenly been turned off.

         For the next hour they triangulate the action on the Maidan from their window to the TV to the computer. They regularly go to the window across the hall, in the English journalist’s room, to see if the Berkut are still shooting from the top of the hill.

         At one point some men from the Maidan Defense come in to check for snipers’ nests, but the search seems pro forma. Serhiy is among them. They open the door and see Elvis filming them. Novak is on the bed, lying on his stomach, facing away from the door. He turns around as much as he can: “We’re journalists, from the United States.”

         Serhiy recognizes the voice but prefers not to say anything. The men close the door and carry on checking the other rooms.

         The Maidan keeps smoldering as exultant voices blare from the stage. Lines of Berkut prisoners are marched down Khreshchatyk to the City Hall. “Don’t hit the prisoners. Don’t hurt them!”

         The TV is on, Elvis streams the action live while simultaneously filming it.

         “This revolution,” he pronounces, echoing some long forgotten song, “will most definitely be televised.”


(Click for Part 1 Feb. 18; Part 2 Feb. 19; Part 3, Feb. 20; Part 4, Feb. 21)

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