Accessibility links

Breaking News

Kharkiv Diary: On The Sidelines, Watching 'A Theater Of The Absurd'

Pro-Russian Protesters Declare 'People's Republic' In Kharkiv
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:01:40 0:00

WATCH: Pro-Russian demonstrators occupying the regional administration building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv declared the sovereignty of a so-called "Kharkiv People's Republic" at a rally on April 7. A security operation launched by Ukrainian authorities has since driven the protesters out of the building. (RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service)

KHARKIV, Ukraine -- On the evening of April 7, police in Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, arrested 70 pro-Russian "separatists" occupying the regional government building, a forceful end to a long, angry, and bloody day.

I call friends. One says he walked past the regional government building and saw a crowd of pro-Russian activists standing at the entrance. The building had no flag. The doors of the building were open. Another friend said the deputies were still working, but that the second floor was occupied by police and anti-Maidan protesters. The announcement by [Interior Minister Arsen] Avakov that the building is under control leaves people puzzled.

Freedom Square leads up to the regional government. I'm walking from the Lenin monument at the bottom of the square. About 800 meters long, the square is long, like Wenceslas in Prague, but twice as wide. There's not a single Russian square you can compare it to, although it's paved with bricks, like Red Square. Any comparisons to European spots are also inadequate.

Here you have megalomania and humanity at the same time. It's the first time I've seen this kind of architectural thinking. The entire drama will unfold in a space, 500 meters by 500 meters, in front of the government building. There are approximately 2,000 anti-Maidan demonstrators standing near the entrance of the building (a Stalin-era structure in the spirit of the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow). Standing across from them, the same number of pro-Maidan protesters, Ukrainian flags. Cries of "Arise, great country."

Smoke bombs explode, about three, across the road from the right wing of the building. The smoke disperses quickly, fights can be seen on the pavement, "titushky" are kicking and hitting Maidan protesters. Gunshots are heard, it's unclear from where. A Ukrainian flag falls. Pro-Russian protesters are heading from Shumska Street toward Shevchenko Park, in the course of five minutes I see about 10 different fights that leave people bloody. A pair of ambulances arrive. The titushky run fast, land solid punches, knock people to the ground, and use their legs and batons. They wear medical masks and sneakers, hats, and hoods.

I hide behind the spruce trees at the start of Shevchenko Park and watch three fights at the beginning of Shumska. It's too dangerous to take a picture. The police are pretending the fighting doesn't concern them.
Protesters face off outside the regional administrative building in Kharkiv.
Protesters face off outside the regional administrative building in Kharkiv.

Some girls from the pro-Russian side are standing nearby, talking about how yesterday they personally beat up Maidan protesters on Shumska and Rymarska. One of them even ended up on the news. She's heavily made up, in a black and yellow jacket. Another has a patch with a red cross on the sleeve. Three older women try to join in their conversation, but that turns out to be a bad idea: the anti-Maidan girls are highly adrenalized, they reek of alcohol. I use my anonymity to listen in on this theater. A Molotov cocktail gets thrown on Shumska. Two people are beaten and bloody. Two others have bandaged heads.

I call the coordinator of Kharkiv's Maidan protests. We meet on the corner to the left of the regional government building. After the forced dispersal of Maidan protesters from the square, he has no more than 300 supporters left. Oles Donyy, a deputy from the Kyiv city administration, asks people what happened the night before. The people answer: "The police allowed pro-Russian activists to enter the regional administration building without resistance." "But it's impossible to take such a building in 10 minutes," he says, "all the gates are closed." "Not when the police aren't attempting to fight the titushky," the people argue back. People were in shock, they screamed at police: "Why are you just standing there?"

An old officer, a former homicide detective, says police just detained a man shooting an air pistol at the Maidan protesters. But a plainclothes officer orders his release, saying to the arresting police, "Let him go, that's our guy." The old man asks his former boss what's going on. The boss just asks everyone to leave peacefully. Donyy says the leadership of the Kharkiv security service needs to be changed urgently, and a part of Kyiv's services as well. But he's not sure they'll listen to him [at talks on implementing a lustration policy] in the Rada tomorrow. Because he's certain that Ukraine handed over Crimea to Russia following an agreement between the Rada and the Kremlin. The only advice he can give Kharkiv's pro-Ukrainian residents: to watch out for their personal safety. Soviet-era hit songs can be heard ringing out over the square.

ALSO READ: Ukraine Authorities Clear Kharkiv Building

The center of Kharkiv is very beautiful in a cold sort of way, and it seems small. But I still can't calculate exactly how much time it will take to walk from Metro Architect Beketov to the Shevchenko monument on Shumska, and from there to Freedom Square where the main events will take place. I arrive 10 minutes after the announced start of the Maidan meeting. Maidan protesters stand under yellow-blue Ukrainian flags across from the Antimaidan, who stand in a line guarding the entrance to the government building. There are about 1,500 people on each side. They're separated by three police cordons. Bikers and cyclists wearing St. George ribbons roar along the first cordon, the one closest to the building. Along the second, pedestrians and trams pass peacefully.
Pro-Russian protesters clash with activists supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine as Interior Ministry troops attempt to keep them apart during rallies in Kharkiv on April 7.
Pro-Russian protesters clash with activists supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine as Interior Ministry troops attempt to keep them apart during rallies in Kharkiv on April 7.

Both groups of protesters shout chants. The pro-Russians repeat their grim mantra, "Russia." The Ukrainians manage a plaintive "Ukraine's not dead." There are funny moments too, but the humor drains away as I see strong young men on the Russian side, carrying bats. They have new, expensive sneakers and hoodies, the bodies of trained fighters, druggist's masks, and very angry eyes. They are well-financed, I begin to understand, as I look at their Moscow-brand clothing.

The pro-Russian protesters in front of the government building begin the process of calling out the names of the "alternative" deputies they want to see installed in office. It's like a theater of the absurd, a parallel civil reality that has no relation to the political one.

Men in fancy sports clothes and carrying bats run in a line parallel to the building's right side. They come from behind the Maidan protesters and around the police cordon dividing Maidan from Antimaidan. There are close to 200 of them, and their appearance leaves no doubt: it's time to run to the opposite side of the square, which I do. As I run, about five smoke bombs go off in the same spot as earlier in the day. The police, in their cordons, do not react.

I reach the other side and see that the Maidan protesters are running quickly down toward the Lenin moment, away from the building. The titushky are replacing the hipsters, roughly speaking. The Antimaidan fighters have secured the entire perimeter of the square. My task: to cling to the wall. I find myself protected by the back of a man who looks to be 65. We joke. He's on the side of the pro-Russian activists, but not an active protester. He's certain that the Maidan protesters are just western Ukrainians who have flooded into Kharkiv. Then suddenly: "Go away, little girl, you aren't speaking Kharkiv's language. It's time for you to go." The Antimaidan fighters drive the pro-Maidan demonstrators further down towards Lenin; there are going to be fights. Yes, it's time for me to go. I leave Shumska for the Shevchenko statue. Heading towards me I see pro-Russian fighters, St. George ribbons on their sleeves, bats in their hands, and faces flushed from running. "I didn't get arrested and I got to do some beating-up!"