April 14 2014
Jillian Kay Melchior
Kiev — The face of a young, bearded man named Sergei Nigoyan is spray-painted on a shield that’s propped against a tire barricade in Kiev’s Independence Square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti. On a chilly day in April, Ukrainian reporter Kristina Berdinskikh pauses by it, her face solemn. On January 3, she had interviewed Nigoyan, she explains; on January 22, he was shot dead on Hrushevsky Street by the regime’s riot police, four bullets to the head and neck. By most accounts, he was the first to die in the Ukrainian revolution.
Nigoyan is just one of about 135 “Maidaner” protesters Berdinskikh has written about since the revolution began on November 21. Published on Facebook, Berdinskikh’s page, Maidaners, features a series of personal profiles in a format that’s similar to Humans of New York (which Berdinskikh has never heard of). Her short stories about activists, accompanied by photo portraits taken on her mobile phone, have been translated into 18 languages; the English version alone has more than 18,000 followers, and the most popular story to date was viewed more than 107,000 times internationally.
“The main reason for this project is that journalists were focusing on the political part [of the Ukrainian revolution], but no one was focusing on the individual people of Maidan,” Berdinskikh explains. “And in Maidan, there were very different people [coming together for the sake of their country]. You could very easily meet a millionaire talking to a homeless person. . . . I wanted to tell their stories.”
Berdinskikh had worked for six years at Korrespondent, Ukraine’s most popular weekly publication, breaking stories on political corruption. But in November, United Media Holding — which owned not only Korrespondent but also the Ukrainian edition of Forbes — was bought by a 27-year-old multimillionaire who may owe his fortune, many suspect, to his political connections. The new management promptly instructed Korrespondent’s editorial staff that investigative reports on Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his cronies were off-limits, so Berdinskikh quit, along with the editor-in-chief and more than a dozen of her colleagues.
Berdinskikh’s last day at Korrespondent was November 22 — one day after the first demonstrators gathered in Independence Square to protest Yanukovych’s decision to turn down a trade deal with the European Union. “I actually overslept the beginning of the revolution because I was so upset by the events at work,” she says. Berdinskikh went to the Maidan, began talking to people, and published her first profile online on December 1.
Writing about the Maidaners was not without risk, especially given the government’s violent repression tactics. Government troops had brutally beaten demonstrators, including 15- and 16-year-olds, and dragged wounded activists from hospitals to prisons, and Yanukovych’s parliament passed a law strictly limiting demonstration and assembly. At one point, everyone on the Maidan received a chilling mass text message: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”
Knowing that Yanukovych’s goons could be reading Maidaners, Berdinskikh warned her sources that the stories would be published online; she used only their first names and never kept their contact information. “People knew the risk, but they were not afraid,” she says. “Few people refused to give interviews.”
Nigoyan’s story was in many ways typical; like so many other young people, he felt it was his duty to protest, Berdinskikh says. The 20-year-old Armenian from a small village near Dnipropetrovsk had looked for activists near his home. When he couldn’t find them, he went to the train station, bought a ticket, and immediately left for Kiev, sleeping in tents or in a building rented by opposition leaders for the Maidaners.
“[He] called his parents only when he was on Maidan,” Berdinskikh wrote. “When the father found out where his son was, he became very nervous and asked Sergei to be careful. . . . I asked [Sergei] why he had come. ‘That’s also my future. I will live in this country,’ he answered.” Weeks later, he was dead.
Over the past four months, Berdinskikh has written a story almost every day. She profiled a Palestinian-Ukrainian doctor who teamed up with an Israeli medical-school student to perform surgeries on those shot by Yanukovych’s troops. She wrote about a business owner who encouraged his staff to protest on the clock and who supplied firewood as they gathered in the frigid square. Recently, she wrote about a 22-year-old woman named Oksana who volunteered to plan funerals for protesters killed at the Maidan; Oksana has been working with authorities to identify the bodies, contacting families, buying coffins, and finding appropriate burial clothing.
These short, vivid profiles offer an unusually intimate glimpse into a chaotic revolution, and they have attracted an international following. Many international reports have focused on the radicals in the crowd, but Berdinskikh says that extremists and provocateurs made up only a small minority of the demonstrators. Most people who showed up were committed to peaceful opposition and wanted only a free Ukraine governed by the rule of law, she says.
Before the protests, several Maidaners tell me, young people didn’t believe they would ever have a chance to change Ukraine, establish rule of law, and stand up against corruption in government. Today, they have hope — but it was won at a terrible price.
At least 105 died, many between February 18 and 20 as the government opened fire on the protesters. The Kyiv Post reported last week that 1,737 “have sought emergency medical assistance since February 18.” Around 200 people are still missing.
Today’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti is a different place. Barricades still stand, scattered with flowers and white plastic rosaries and photos of the “Heavenly Hundred” who died on the square. Ukrainian flags fly everywhere, and it still smells like campfires, though the scent of tear gas has dissipated. Squatters have set up camp in the tents once occupied by demonstrators, but the Ukrainians who made their stand here still come back and wander through. Vendors have crept back in, selling yellow and blue scarves and other patriotic kitsch, but overall, it’s a quiet, somber place.
The Maidaners say they have triumphed over their domestic threat, and they are now gearing up to face the foreign one. Many I spoke to expressed their fatigue. “We wake up each morning, and the first thing we do is read the news, because we don’t know whether we’ll still have all of our country,” a young hotel clerk tells me. Others speak bluntly about their willingness to fight and die to defend their country against Putin. The mood is tense, and no one seems sure of how this is going to play out. The revolution may have ended, but the country is still in crisis mode. Regardless, I haven’t spoken to one Ukrainian who isn’t optimistic about the outcome.
Berdinskikh says the experience has changed her life. Today, she is working on a book about the Maidaners; she hopes it will help the nation remember its murdered heroes.
“Before, I used to write about bad things like corruption and intrigue,” she says. “Over the last four months, I had come across a lot of kindness, things I had not experienced in my work before. That inspired me a lot. . . . The thing I’ve been most amazed with is how Ukrainians can help each other, volunteer, and don’t expect to get anything back.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.