Two years ago today, the headquarters of Ukraine’s uprising went up in flames while protestors were shot in the streets. Those who survived are determined to preserve the legacy of this sacred ground.
Blue skies and a sharp light marked the morning of February 18, 2014. It was Kiev’s first sunny day in a month defined by snow, grey cloud cover and bloody sidewalks.
For three months, Ukrainian protestors were battered by police batons, rubber bullets, real bullets, and the biting Ukrainian winter wind in a series of anti-government protests that came to be known as Euromaidan — for the Kiev square where it began — or the Revolution of Dignity. On that sunny morning, the protestors thought they had won the standoff; February 18th was supposed to be the day that Parliament signed a series of laws promising constitutional change, early elections, and amnesty for the protestors, then considered outlaws.
“We marched to Parliament to tell them that ‘we did our part, now do yours,’” says now-nineteen-year-old Sviatoslav Yurash, former head of Euromaidan’s press center.
A student at University of Kolkata in India when the protests began, Yurash arrived in Kiev on December 12th, 2013, three weeks after a group of about 1,000 Ukrainians — covered in blue and yellow, ranging in age and political affiliation — took to the streets. Weeks earlier, the government had eschewed a set of trade laws that would have inched Ukraine closer to European Union membership in favor of a package that brought the country closer to Russia, to the outrage of much of the Ukrainian populace.
“I came in with salo [cured pig fat, a traditional Ukrainian dish], said ‘I’m from Lviv, I can speak English and I’d like to help,’” Yurash recalls of his first day as a Euromaidan volunteer. Yurash speaks perfect English — in an accent that he says, “Americans consider British and Brits consider a nightmare” — which he picked up as a kid consuming any bit of English-language media he could find. His English fluency allowed Yurash to get a foot in the revolutionary door, and a sense of responsibility for his country’s future saw his duties evolve as temperatures dropped and snow accumulated, from those early days of December through February 18th, when the protestors marched on Parliament.
The walk to Parliament from Maidan Square, the heart of Kiev and the home of the revolution, took roughly 20 minutes. Protestors were greeted by a group of Titushky (mercenaries hired by the government) in eclectic garb and heavily-armed riot police. Around ten a.m., word got out that the laws the protestors had fought for had been blocked by Parliament members.
“It’s impossible to say who started the violence,” says Yurash, tall and lean with an intrepid smile that fits his young age. “But the ingredients were clearly there.”
The militarized police arm of President Viktor Yanukovych’s government swarmed Euromaidan protestors. Dressed in blue camouflage, they shot into the crowd from rifles, battered skulls with metal billy clubs, and greeted fallen protestors with a flurry of kicks and cracks from police batons.
The unarmed protestors — largely untrained citizens who, when asked by foreign journalists for motivation for their discontent, responded with some variation of “our children can’t grow up in a country like this” — countered by throwing rocks. They were forced to flee; some fought along the way, others attempted to appeal to their assailants’ humanity.
“You are the same as us! We are all Ukrainian!” they shouted.
By four p.m., Yurash and the retreating protestors were pushed back to Maidan Square, where the violence continued. Yurash weaved between protestors and shielded riot cops as he sprinted up to the second floor of the Trade Unions Building, where the press center was located. As he had been doing for months, Yurash began answering phone calls from newsrooms in places like the U.S., South Africa and India.
By five, the building — which housed a medical center, a kitchen and outlets for various self-defense groups to convene — was evacuated. Yurash stayed as long as possible, but was forced out when smoke grenades were thrown through the windows. Coughing, his eyes welling, his trademarked black suit speckled with dust and debris, the six-foot-five Yurash grabbed as many documents and as much computer equipment as his long arms allowed. He scurried to a safe house adjacent to the Trade Unions Building, where the press center continued to aid foreign journalists.
By nine p.m., an unidentified group of about ten people, thought by many to have been hired by the government, set the top two floors of the building ablaze. Remaining inhabitants were forced to climb out of the building’s windows. Plumes of orange flame taunted the wounded, muted protestors below. The fire lasted through the night and into the next day, leaving the Trade Unions Building a smoldering, uninhabitable exoskeleton.
“It was like seeing everything — emotions, relations, progress — burn,” Yanush says. “[The Trade Unions Building] was home. The future was being written there.”
* * *
Today, the future is no longer being written in the building that came to epitomize Ukraine’s revolution.
On the 18th, the Trade Unions Building was destroyed. On the 20th, unidentified snipers took the lives of over 100 protestors, now known as the Heavenly Hundred. Yurash described that last day as horror. “Blood, brains,” he says, “people with holes in their head, holes in their heart.”
These three days of severe violence resulted in an agreement between the two sides on the 21st. That night, former president Yanukovych fled his posh $75 million estate, eventually reappearing in Russia where he is said to be living under Kremlin guard. He is now considered a war criminal in Ukraine.
On paper, Euromaidan protestors got what they wanted, but ensuing conflicts in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region mean that the turmoil is far from over. A recently-failed package of LGBT-friendly laws ensured that the country has to make up ground in its quest to join the European Union. A Bloomberg report paints a bleak picture of the country: “Ukraine now looks like just another incompetent and corrupt post-Soviet regime. It’s no wonder cracks are appearing in Kiev’s all-important relationship with the West.”
To a pessimist, and probably to a realist, parallels can be drawn between the state of Ukraine and the state of the Trade Unions Building. Billboard-sized canvases conceal the building’s heavy fire damage; blocks away, in Parliament, leaders of the new government smile as they struggle to keep the country’s economy afloat, its citizens fed, and its name away from that damning ten-letter word.
The canvas on the longer southwest side of the building features a golden field of wheat under a baby-blue sky, mirroring the Ukrainian flag; storks (a prominent Ukrainian symbol) fly through the scene, and the revolutionary chant “Slava Ukraine, Heroyam Slava!” (“Glory to Ukraine, Glory to the Heroes!”) is written in blue.
Conflict with Russia has delayed necessary fundraising efforts, but the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (or FPU) — which has officially occupied the building since 1991 — is optimistic that the building will be completely restored by 2017.
Not everyone is hoping for a rebuild, though. Similar to the varied opinions surrounding the future of the World Trade Center site post-September 11th, it’s difficult to find a consensus regarding the future of the House of Trade Unions.
“We came up with the idea to be patriotic,” says Vladimir Sayenko, deputy chairman of the FPU, when asked about the pro-Ukrainian canvases hugging the Trade Unions Building. Sayenko’s office is cavernous and corporate. Visitors can almost see their reflections in the polished tile floor as they enter to meet Sayenko, a bulldog in a navy blue suit with a history of legal trouble.
Sayneko notes that the pro-Ukrainian banners’ five million hryvnia (around $185,000) price tag was covered by the FPU. Eventually, Sayenko says, the canvas space will be sold to advertisers to raise more money for the rebuild, as the nine-million-dollar repair costs can’t be reimbursed through an insurance claim, because the arsonists have never been identified. Fundraising efforts have fallen short, so the FPU has agreed to split costs with an outside investor. Part of the building will be used for the investor’s “business purposes” as a result.
In the FPU’s earlier days, a nine-million-dollar renovation would have been routine, but a culture of corruption and fund misappropriation has left the once-wealthy union collective stretched thin. According to an article in Ukrainian Week, after the Soviet Union’s evaporation, buildings owned by old Soviet trade unions were given to the FPU by the government in an effort to win the Federation’s favor. Fedir Sydoruk, editor-in-chief of Slidstvo.info, a Ukrainian corruption-monitoring publication, estimates that these properties were valued between five and six billion dollars when the Federation came into existence in 1991. FPU leadership began selling assets under the table for personal gain, leaving a small circle at the top very rich while causing the Federation’s total value to plummet to what one source estimated to be around $30 million today.
To some, the Federation relinquishing part of its home base to stay afloat is karmic. “Their mission is the opposite of what they are,” Sydoruk said, adding that, in addition to fund misappropriation, the FPU has a history of supporting the government over the rights of the workers. Their support of the government over the November 2013 European Union dispute was part of what sparked the revolution.
When asked to comment on the allegations of corruption, Sayenko says that many of the FPU’s opponents have their own agenda, but that the FPU does “realize in a country with a history of corruption, nothing is untouched.” And in regard to the Federation’s loss of assets, Sayenko said, “we don’t do that anymore.”
* * *
Yurash says he doesn’t know what should be done with what’s left of the Trade Unions Building, but that it shouldn’t return to the hands of the FPU, which he calls a “corrupt Soviet holdover.” Still, his face illuminates when he discusses the building during the three months of protest.
The first iteration of the International Press Secretariat consisted of Yurash, two ex-pats (British and American), a handful of English-speaking Ukrainians and a handwritten sign taped to a wooden folding table on the second floor of of the Trade Unions Building, a sprawling Soviet-era superstructure in the heart of Maidan. Places like the Trade Unions Building were commandeered and used for a wide range of purposes, from makeshift soup kitchens to negotiation centers to places where protestors could find reprieve from the cold. It only took a couple of days for the first wave of volunteers to join, and within a week the press center was working with clientele including the New York Times, The Guardian, and Vice News.
The revolution inspired a diverse crowd, Yurash says, not all of whom were equipped to handle the physical toll of street protesting. “Some decided to lend their linguistic and social media ability,” Yurash recalls.” Volunteers were used as translators, writers and social media gurus tasked with running the group’s Facebook and Twitter accounts (“Euromaidan Press” and “Euromaidan PR,” respectively; both are active today, with an audience of over 40,000 each).
The Building’s diverse ecosystem allowed for easy cohabitation. Different groups provided different services, and all made a point to help each other: The kitchen provided food for the medical center, the medical center patched any cuts or bruises that a press center fixer might receive in the field, and the press center helped answer any logistical question that a kitchen volunteer might have.
“It was a great honor to find your place,” says Yurash. “It was a chance to write history.”
Yurash spent his 18th birthday in the building — February 16th, two days before everything burned down. “I passed out on one of the floors of the building,” Yurash recalls; many volunteers spent nights in the building, finding room to sleep wherever they could, in chairs and on the ground. “When I woke up and wandered outside, some of the volunteers greeted me with cake and well-wishes. And then we got back to work.”
* * *
According to Yurash, attempts to organize a protest against the rebuilding of the Trade Unions Building have consistently failed. Ukrainian attention is generally divided between ongoing conflict in the east and a fledgling economy.
“Since the revolution ended, there was no point to sit down and say, ‘Well, what do we do now?’” Yurash says. “The country continues its transformation. And in that, people don’t have freedom of mind to consider what they’ve been through.”
But public opinion was recently heard when a restaurant and hookah lounge opened on the Trade Union Building’s southeast side in early November. Word of the restaurant spread through social media outlets, anger building tweet by tweet over the thought of a commercial establishment opening on land where Ukrainians were leveled by their own government. By mid-November, it was gone; bright red signs that were put up weeks earlier removed, and the windows covered with blue and yellow paper.
It is also becoming clear that the FPU might find it difficult selling their signage as advertising space; Vodafone recently pulled out of a deal to utilize the Trade Union Building for a billboard, citing “public outcry” in a press release.
While the FPU insists that issues surrounding the building are in the past, Sayenko spoke of their plan to honor the Euromaidan movement, through a museum or memorial in the renovated Trade Union Building. Sayenko envisions it being a 100-square-meter room, or .00005% of the total building. Whether or not Euromaidan leaders will be happy with this remains to be seen, but if they think like Yurash does, the two sides are far apart.
“My vision for the future would be the demolition of the existing building, and the construction of something smaller,” Yurash says.
“The story should be told, physically, through Maidan. Work, effort, ideas of those who came to [protest] were represented in that building.”
* * *
Alex Lubetkin is a journalist and video producer based in New York City. His work has appeared in VICE News, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Matt Rota is an illustrator living and working in Brooklyn. He’s an Instructor at the the School of Visual Arts in NY and The Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. He’s on Instagram @matt.rota.