From Storming to Mourning the Security Service in Ivano-Frankivsk – Part 2: Or, From the Corridor of Shame to the Pantheon of Heroes

Police mourning their fallen colleagues, 2 June 2014, central Ivano-Frankivsk

Police mourning their fallen colleagues, 2 June 2014, central Ivano-Frankivsk

This is the second of a two-part blog post. In the first part on the funeral of National Guard soldiers, formerly of Berkut, killed fighting for Ukraine in Donetsk region, I presented the mourning that took place in the city over at least three days since 29 May. Here I look more at the political controversies, as well as the questions for memory and memorial culture, that have emerged in light of these deaths and the burial.

The six men from the region killed in the helicopter, including the three buried in the Memorial Square, were members of the Berkut special police unit until it was disbanded after Yanukovych fled the country and the new government assumed power. These men had volunteered to transfer to the new National Guard, a unit that replaced the Internal Military, and is responsible to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which is also in charge of police.

Berkut officers were responsible for beating students and protesters on 1 December, which reignited the initial wave of Euromaidan protests and turned Kyiv’s Independence Square into the fortified tent city that was the heart of protests. Meanwhile, in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, after Yanukovych was deposed, in some places Berkut officers were greeted as heroes.

A Gryfon member and a member of the public

A Gryfon member and a member of the public

Troops from the Gryfon unit stand guard

Troops from the Gryfon unit stand guard

When the Police and Security Service (SBU) HQ was being stormed in Ivano-Frankivsk on 18/19 February, Berkut officers -including the six men killed near Slovyansk in the “anti-terror operation” – were present in the city. Indeed, they were inside the building. First ordinary police officers were brought out of the police wing of the building on Lepkoho Street and were greeting with shouts of “the police are with the people”, so an almost forgiving and celebratory greeting.

Later Berkut officers emerged – including the six men being mourned from Ivano-Frankivsk region – were made to walk through what is termed “a corridor of shame”, a kind of “guard of shame”, basically. The Berkut officers were released from the building, disarmed and their body armour removed, while the crowd mostly booed them. However, what is only now being appreciated is that in abandoning their posts, the then-Berkut officers betrayed their oath and abandoned their duties. Had things turned out differently in Ukraine, this act could have faced serious consequences. At this point, then, these men refused to fire on fellow Ukrainians.

After the police HQ was taken over, the crowd moved towards the Security Service wing of the building. That wing was harder to take and better protected, with “activists”, many associated with Maidan Self-Defence and Right Sector – and notably its youth wing, Tryzub Bandery – soon preparing burning tyres and the Molotov cocktails which caused significant damage to the building. It was then partly looted, while both sides – SBU workers and “activists” – burned documents, with a smaller-scale storming of the prosecutor’s office taking place, too, with documents burned there. The events at the prosecutor’s office remain to this day shrouded in mystery.

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So, Berkut officers, including the six men being mourned and the three men from the city buried in the Memorial Square alongside Roman Huryk, were in February perceived as some of the biggest enemies of the protesters on Maidan. Their unit was declared responsible for murders, hence the “corridor of shame” and, later, after the collapse of Yanukovych’s rule and the formation of new (para)military units, some members of Right Sector and Maidan Self-Defence refused to fight alongside ex-Berkut and Ministry of Internal Affairs fighters in the National Guard. Some of the tensions are still evident in this Vice News dispatch, for example. However, some units are reconciled and it is reported that a someone formerly from the Maidan units was among National Guard members in the helicopter, three of whom are now buried in Ivano-Frankivsk’s Memorial Square.

The Memorial Square is a palimpsest of memorial culture – forgotten Polish-Catholic graves slowly regaining some prominence after the cemetery was turned into a park by the communist authorities and the nearby church demolished to make way for the theatre. Since Ukraine became independent, and especially in the twenty-first century, some Polish graves have been restored, with a memorial to Polish military present, among the graves of Ukrainian cultural, academic and military figures. But the rest of the dead, ordinary people, are generally forgotten as the pantheon of Ukrainian heroes from cultural figures to freedom fighters grows.

The history of the Memorial Square becomes a microcosm of the complex history of the city and its residents. And this time again it will be a site revealing the difficult, ambiguous story of recent history, of Euromaidan and its aftermath, the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Killed in action defending Ukraine from a threat to its territorial integrity, the three men enter the pantheon of heroes here in Ivano-Frankivsk.

It would seem that given Ukraine’s current situation and the tragedy that has befallen the families of the men killed in action near Slovyansk, the term “heroes” would be enough to lend some decorum to this burial in Ivano-Frankivsk. Indeed, largely this has been observed, although a public spat has emerged which has called into question not so much the amnesty granted the men when they belonged to Berkut, but the behaviour of organisations like Maidan Self-Defence and Right Sector, who like to present themselves as living heroes, embodiments of the spirit of Maidan.

Three crosses for the fallen men, 2 June 2014.

Three crosses for the fallen men, 2 June 2014.

The obvious tension that emerged with these men being buried alongside Roman Huryk, once deemed a victim of Berkut or associated snipers, was eased by the dead student’s mother who said she accepted the decision. However, her words reported in the press suggest a sense that the decision was taken over her head and she had little say, as the city council’s executive committee unanimously took the decision. Viktor Anushkevychus, the city’s mayor, spoke briefly on the matter, stressing the “symbolism” of Huryk “hero of the heavenly hundred” and “ex-Berkut heroes of Ukraine” being buried side-by-side, as it shows “that no one will be able to divide us”.

In this official statement, the totemic word “hero” is applied, seeking to heal all wounds and smooth history through what is in current conditions a sensible amnesty, casting aside partisan differences. Forgiveness had been issued to the Berkut men after walking the corridor of shame, they performed their penance, and on top of that they gave their lives for Ukraine, and only then earning their hero status.

However, close to the surface there still bubbles the ambivalence of relations between state and society, as Euromaidan and the deaths of the “Heavenly Hundred”, including that of local student Roman Huryk, have yet to be granted closure. Equally, whoever “we” are, who Anushkevychus states shall not be divided, is not clear. Is it the community of Frankivsk? Is it Ukraine – divided by Yanukovych’s government and now fighting united, with even former enemies now side-by-side? It’s not clear, especially given that Ukraine is now effectively engaged in a localised civil war. It is not proving easy to mobilise public enthusiasm, or indeed men to fight en masse, in what is proving to be a dangerously deadly fight in eastern Ukraine.

Ivano-Frankivsk's newest street, running of Hetman Mazepa Street as part of a planned city centre bypass, is now named after Roman Huryk, the local student killed on the Maidan on February 2014.

Ivano-Frankivsk’s newest street, running of Hetman Mazepa Street as part of a planned city centre bypass, is now named after Roman Huryk, the local student killed on the Maidan on February 2014.

During Euromaidan and the subsequent Crimea crisis, for people here, the enemy was clear: Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, Putin and his “little green men”. But now, heading eastwards to fight against fellow Ukrainians, even if they are supported by Chechens, Serbs or Russians, is less of an easy option than joining what were, at least until the final days of Yanukovych’s rule, largely a relatively safe form of mass protest during Euromaidan. Today, despite the threat to Ukraine, there is very little of the popular nationalism that seemed to flourish after the deaths on Maidan and the fall of Yanukovych. Instead, an atmosphere of fear and apprehension alongside a stubborn pursuit of everyday life prevails. And there is no cathartic compensation, for the community at least  – obviously not for those who lost loved ones on Maidan – as there was when Roman Huryk was killed on Maidan, as by the time of his funeral, the rule of Yanukovych and his government was collapsing. Now, instead, the danger facing eastern Ukraine seems more real -regardless of the physical geographical distance – as local men fought and died there, leaving a trace of distant Donetsk in Frankivsk.

While some groups, particularly Maidan Self-Defence and, increasingly rarely now though, Right Sector, locally present themselves as the bearers of the legacy of Maidan, of heroism, it seems their claims lack social legitimacy. Now, as the threat grows more acute, it could become much more difficult to mobilise men to fight in eastern Ukraine, with volunteers serving in large numbers already now.

Any squabbles Maidan Self-Defence or Right Sector get engaged here in Frankivsk can seem petty when an acute threat faces Ukraine in the east and masses are dying on both sides, particularly with the Ukrainian authorities resorting to increasingly strong-arm tactics, including aerial bombing. (Ukrainian reports state 300 “terrorists” or “separatists” were killed just yesterday, 500 were injured, with two Ukrainian servicemen killed and 45 injured.) The harmony sought by burying the men as heroes, the unifying effect, has been disrupted on the local level by seemingly petty squabbles, as ghosts of past political differences emerge and the corpses of the dead are used for apparent points scoring.

Police HQ on 18/19 February 2014 after being stormed. The anti-Yanukovych graffiti was gone by the next day.

Police HQ on 18/19 February 2014 after being stormed. The anti-Yanukovych graffiti was gone by the next day.

After the deaths of the ex-Berkut officers in the helicopter near Slovyansk, a local councillor, Mykola Kuchernyuk, stated that the deaths were partly a result of this looting of the security service and the failure of Self-Defence and Right Sector to return the bullet-proof vests and so on. (A big PR stunt emerged a few days ago, stressing that Self-Defence returned some vests, but the numbers don’t add up.) Indeed, after storming the the Security Service and Police HQ in February, the “activists” of Maidan Self-Defence and Right Sector looted some equipment, largely bullet-proof vests and shields, that were intended to be sent to Maidan in Kyiv or used in Frankivsk, if things got further out of hand.

Kuchernyuk can’t understand why the Self-Defence still need these vests, since ‘there has not been a single provocation noted by police against them’. In an escalation of the war of words that his first article provoked, Kuchernyuk has even called for an “anti-terror operation” in the city… to get rid of Self-Defence. He argues that the units have failed to disband or join the National Guard or Territorial Defence, as a parliamentary degree required them to do by 18 May. In the city, he believes, Self-Defence are terrorising the population and the authorities with their methods, including the APC outside the police HQ. Kuchernyuk also rejects the organisations’ claims to speak for the people of the city – since, as he rightly recognises, the people of the city largely want peace and quiet, rather than paramilitary organisations fighting over local positions of authority.

The reemergence of the spectre of recent history and the failure to lay to rest the complexities and controversies that saw the city divided and protesting in February against the state security apparatus, which is now afforded hero status, put Right Sector and Self-Defence in a difficult situation. People in the city and the local press remembered that it was these organisations that formed the Corridor of Shame and then looted the security service, taking away vital protection equipment. Of course, lacking the benefit of hindsight, the actions in February seemed justifiable in working towards bringing down Yanukovych’s rule and his security apparatus.

So, in a sense one aspect of the response from the Maidan “activist” core is understandable: don’t blame us, we were doing what we had to at the time. And their response that some politicians and councillors today, including Kuchernyuk, are seeking to exploit the helicopter tragedy for political gain today, seems reasonable. More questionable, perhaps, is the assertion that the “corridor of shame reflected the demands of the community”, as it is never clear in the conditions of mob democracy that emerged during the sharp end of protests here which elements of the community are represented in the actions of the most active elements.

Of course, the response to the accusations against Right Sector and Self-Defence have taken on an ad personam quality, with Kuchernyuk’s past membership of the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (United) emphasised, since this Party sided with Yanukovych against Yushchenko around the time of the Orange Revolution presidential elections. This led to the councillor being labelled now “a potential Judas separatist” (see the caption accompanying the linked article’s picture). This same report, which neatly spans in its allusions to betrayal the entire cultural-historical spectrum relevant here in western Ukraine – from the crucifixion of Christ to the martyrdom of today’s Ukraine – also attempts, however, to falsify recent history.

What a building that hasn't been subject to an arson attack looks like. Apparently.

What a building that hasn’t been subject to an arson attack looks like, apparently, according to frankivsk.net.

The report claims, ‘As everyone knows, really Right Sector and Self-Defence protected the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MBC) of Ukraine buildings from marauders. And it is only thanks to Right Sector that there were no arson attacks on the MBC in Ivano-Frankivsk.’ Maybe in Ukraine there is some technical definition of arson (підпал) that I’m not aware of and the term does not in fact cover throwing burning molotov cocktails through windows of a building with people inside. But I saw the building on fire that night. And maybe there is some definition of ‘marauders’ that I don’t understand, but the aftermath of the events of 18/19 February suggests a significant level of looting and damage, with repairs subsequently estimated at $1 million.

Now, just maybe, the young men and teenagers we saw filling up molotov cocktails were not part of Right Sector. But that seems unlikely, given the commands that were being issued that evening and the fact that numerous Tryzub members – incorporated into Right Sector – were out that evening.

It seems that the controversies emerging from Euromaidan and subsequent protests have a long way to run. And, rightly, in time they should be debated, but such squabbles appear unbecoming while the dead are waiting to be buried or have just been laid to rest.

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Top: “Eternal glory to the heroes who fell for the freedom and independence of our fatherland.” Bottom: “And in the memory of generations to come your names will not be forgotten.”

Still, it is interesting to observe now are the local-level debates, confrontations and images that emerge, giving some insight into the way the memory and subsequent history of events is constructed. While battles rage in eastern Ukraine now, with civilians and combatants dying and suffering injuries, here in western Ukraine some apparently rather petty battles are taking place, battling for the future: the future right to write history and secure the strongest claims to the totemic term “hero”.

For now, though, aside from petty struggles seeking to usurp apply labels of good and bad, heroism and betrayal, the sensible approach to push forward for now a sense of amnesty and unity reveals the complex processes that await the historiography of Euromaidan and its aftermath. And these processes are evident in vernacular memory, which recognises often that circumstances change, individuals as members of organisations end up in unforeseeable situations that make them seem an enemy to some, heroes to others, then another change and perceptions are reversed.

In this way, vernacular or popular memory can seem to serve as a better archive of the ambiguity of historical events. However, over time it can submit to authoritative narratives that emerge which want a simplified history, black and white definitions of heroes or enemies, making the imagined nation or the political state, rather than ordinary people, the agents of historical and political change.

Mothers and children mourn in monumental form their fallen fathers and brothers. The Red Army war memorial, Ivano-Frankivsk, 2 June 2014.

Mothers and children mourn in monumental form their fallen fathers and brothers.
The Red Army war memorial, Ivano-Frankivsk, 2 June 2014.

Meanwhile, whatever the grand narratives of relations between western Ukraine and the Red Army, ordinary people still come to mourn their lost loved ones a sites of memory around the city, including the Red Army memorial. No longer the premier site of memory in the city, it still has significance for families affected, as the Memorial Square now becomes the central site of mourning and heroism in the city.

And, sadly, these new sites of memory, mourning and heroism emerge because of further tragedies befalling families in this region in military action that, in turn, is causing tragedies for people in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere.

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From Storming to Mourning the Security Service in Ivano-Frankivsk: Part 1 – Troops mourned and buried in the city

Police mourn their fallen colleagues, Sunday 1 June, Ivno-Frankivsk

Police mourn their fallen colleagues, Sunday 1 June, Ivno-Frankivsk

On 29 May, a Ukrainian military helicopter carrying military and nonmilitary service personnel was shot down by fighters near Slovyansk in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. At least twelve men were killed, including one general from Lviv and six members of Ministry of Internal Affairs units, who were from the Ivano-Frankivsk region.

Three days of mourning were announced in the city, starting on 30 May, meaning all loud or celebratory cultural events were cancelled, which I wrote about here. On Sunday 1 June, a mourning service was held outside the Security Service and Police HQ in Ivano-Frankivsk for the six men, before the three of them who were from the city were buried in Ivano-Frankivsk’s Memorial Square, next to the Franko Theatre, on Monday 2 June. They were buried alongside the young student Roman Huryk, who was killed on Maidan in Kyiv in February. I wrote about his funeral here and the mourning that preceded it.

In this post, I depict the mourning and funeral in the city for the men killed in action near Slovyansk in the government’s “anti-terrorist operation”. I also outline certain ironies of fate surrounding these events, as well as the controversies that have emerged as a result. After all, the six men killed are former members of the Berkut special police unit – once a leading enemy of Euromaidan protesters. The Security Service and Police were a target for protests in the city during Euromaidan, subsequently remaining a site of demonstrations long into the spring after the collapse of Yanukovych’s rule.

For those of you who want to skip the description, then head to the second part of this post, dealing with the political and historical controversies surrounding the burial.

Tributes laid to six men from Ivano-Frankivsk and a general from Lviv killed in a helicopter shot down near Slovyansk.

Tributes laid to six men from Ivano-Frankivsk and a general from Lviv killed in a helicopter shot down near Slovyansk.

The memorial service, панахида, for the six men from the region, like the funeral for the three fighters from the city itself, was very much a public event. Around two thousand people, according to news reports, braved the downpours and attended the mourning service on Sunday, held at 1pm outside the Police and Security Service HQ on Lepkoho Street. The crowd sang dirges and mourning hymns, while a police band later played as the coffins of five men were carried to Konovaltsa Street. (The sixth body has only just been released to return from eastern Ukraine and a separate memorial service was held on 5 June before the man’s planned burial in Kolomyya region.)

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A colleague carries the coffin of a fallen comrade along Lepkoho Street on Sunday 1 June.

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The coffin is carried towards Konovaltsa Street

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A cross in memory of Volodymyr Sharaburyak, killed near Slovyansk

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Three of the men were from other parts of the region and their remains were taken to their home districts for burial. Ivano-Frankivsk police are switching to Prius cars, by the way.

This corner is the site of a memorial to Ministry of Internal Affairs workers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.Since the announcement that the helicopter with local men had been shot down, hundreds of mourners paid their respects by this monument. On Sunday, the coffins were placed in the back of van-type hearses, with the remains of two of the men from Kolomyya region transported for burial there.

Local press video coverage of Sunday’s memorial service is available, while there are plenty of photos here.

On Monday, at 11am, on a grey, overcast, chilly day, the funeral of the three men from the city began at the Greek Catholic Cathedral where several thousand had gathered to pay their respects. A few key roads around the city centre were closed, though traffic was still flowing a few dozen metres away.

Soldiers in a funeral procession, 2 June 2014, Ivano-Frankivsk

Soldiers in a funeral procession, 2 June 2014, Ivano-Frankivsk

The crowd was notably smaller than for Roman Huryk’s funeral, which on a mild February day at the height of the Euromaidan and Yanukovych-related violence in Ukraine filled the city’s streets and the huge square outside the regional administration building. Still, it was a sizeable crowd of several thousand who gathered by the cathedral and then joined a procession to the city’s Memorial Square at the opposite end of the central Nezhalezhnosti Street.

Police mourning on 2 June 2014, Ivano-Frankivsk

Police mourning on 2 June 2014, Ivano-Frankivsk

I followed the procession (following an unpleasant incident that happened to me and I wrote about here), noting that the crowd had thinned somewhat along the way. Local councillors and officials, including the mayor spoke at the funeral conducted by several priests before the coffins were buried accompanied by a gunfire salute. Members of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Gryfon unit, as well as hundreds of serving police and some military were present. However, there is anger that there was no official representation from Kyiv, with one relative of a man killed reminding Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk of his promise made on Maidan, “If it’s a bullet to the head, then so be it.” There is a sense that career politicians are now in power and have forgotten about the promises made, as young men and women continue to die as Yatseniuk and others sit safely in Kyiv.

Mourners, Memorial Square, 2 June 2014

Mourners, Memorial Square, 2 June 2014

A male choir had sung the the mourning song associated with the “Heavenly Hundred” of those killed on Maidan and with their microphones left on, the pained weeping and wailing of women came across the sound system and this seemed to stun and silence those gathered more than anything. After the coffins were finally laid to rest the Ukrainian national anthem was sung and this man gave a salute forming the Ukrainian national symbol, the trident. It was quite a touching gesture, (although reading this article this morning put the salute in a different context) as he stood apart from the large part of the crowd, mourning in his own way, as earth was scattered over the graves that will reside in the Memorial Square alongside Roman Huryk.

A man gives the Trzyub/Trident salute as the national anthem sounds during the funeral of three Frankivsk men killed near Slovyansk.

A man gives the Trzyub/Trident salute as the national anthem sounds during the funeral of three Frankivsk men killed near Slovyansk.

In Part 2 on this theme, I write about the politics and controversies surrounding this burial, as well as the wisdom and qualities of an everyday, vernacular memory. 

 

Post-election News Update and Three Days of Mourning

After the weekend’s elections, which I wrote about here, life in the city continued largely as normal. However, three days of mourning were announced, beginning today, since six of the twleve soldiers killed in the helicopter that was shot down on 29 May in the Donetsk region are from Ivano-Frankivsk region. As this report shows, a shrine to the men has emerged on the memorial to MInistry of Internal Affairs workers who have been killed on duty. The period of mourning means that concerts are by and large cancelled in the city, as are any other celebratory events, night clubs shut down while cafes turn down their music. Their funeral will be held on Sunday and they will be buried at the city’s memorial square, where Roman Huryk – a young student killed on Maidan in Kyiv in February – is also buried.

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Bars on the tax office window in the city centre on Nezhalezhnosti Street. Despite going to the bookshop next door regularly, I’d never spotted this until my wife pointed it out. Thanks to tweeter @svlmoscow for pointing out these are possibly early c. 20 guns, 1910s-1920s. The shape looks a bit like the Ukrainian trident.

Yesterday, a pre-planned march took place, which happened to coincide with the deaths of the local soldiers in eastern Ukraine. The march was variously called the Fan March or the march for national unity. Although it began as an initiative of local ultras (I’m not sure which team they support, given the distance of several divisions to the professional leagues of any team in Frankivsk), the pictures show that the march attracted a broad cross section of the city’s inhabitants. Following the march, accompanied by patriotic songs, flares were eventually let off the Franko monument by the city’s main theatre with the anti-Putin “la-la-la” anthem fairly popular, judging by these videos. On 28 May, meanwhile, the mothers of Ivano-Frankivsk accompanied by others held a protest outside the Security Service building (I’ve covered plenty of those, but this one was different): they were protesting against Right Sector and Maidan Self-Defence and those groups’ conflict with the police, including their protests outside the police HQ or use of APCs on the city’s streets. While Right Sector and Self-Defence claim to speak for the city community, it seems that these mothers can stake a better claim to represent the population’s views. Although the mothers were calling for peace, it seems that it was already under threat, even though “activists” had also called for a week of peace and quiet in the city. Early on 27 May, Viktor Nemish’s car was subject to a suspected arson attack. Nemish is a local councillor, head of the coordinating council in the city (responsible for negotiating between the city authorities, state institutions and the population – although really that means the Maidan Self-Defence and Right Sector). On 29 May, meanwhile, notorious local UNA-UNSO activist “Chimik”, the Chemist, Mykhailo Boychuk had his car set on fire. Not the APC, which is almost certainly his, but  a small van. For now, there are no suspects, although it seems clear that the two arson attacks were not a coincidence. It seems like the story of the tensions between the people of Ivano-Frankivsk, Right Sector and Self-Defence, and the police, has a long way to run, getting murkier by the day. A new police head has been nominated, someone who is from the Ivano-Frankivsk region, satisfying the parochial demands of Maidan Self-Defence, while he also has a clear anti-Party-of-Regions past. However, it’s not clear if he has been able to take up his post, with the coordinating council – headed by arson-attack-victim Nemish – yet to approve his candidature. Meanwhile, Right Sector members entered the city’s tax office on Wednesday to protest against the new head who had been nominated. They claim to be countering corruption and nepotism with their campaign, although the news report linked to here suggests that there is a connection between Right Sector’s opposition to the new head and the rather fishy matter of an ongoing investigation into the local vodka plant. The photo accompanying this blog, meanwhile, is of the bars on a window facing onto the city’s main street from the tax office. Despite often visiting the bookshop next door, I had not spotted these intriguing bars where guns are moulded into shapes protecting the windows. A reflection, perhaps, of past methods used in tax investigations? Or a sign of things to come? Meanwhile, all of the votes from the region have been counted in the presidential election (and from the city’s by-election). It is confirmed that here Poroshenko got 65%, exceeding the national average by 10 points, while Tymoshenko was slightly more popular than nationally with almost 15%. Svoboda’s Oleh Tyahnybok got 1.8%, about 0.7 points more than nationally, while Dmitro Yarosh, leader of Right Sector, got 0.6% of the vote in the region, so below the national average. If western Ukraine, and Ivano-Frankivsk specifically, is the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism, it’s not evident in the election polling. In the parliamentary by-election, the Svodboda candidate got just 14.9% of the vote, despite the now-deputy-PM Svoboda candidate winning with over 30% in the 2012 elections. The winner was notorious local businessman and Ihor Kolomoyskyy associate Oleksandr Shevchenko with over 37%. Second was incumbent mayor Viktor Anushkevychus with just over 25% – who is now condemned to sort out the messes he’s made in the city over seven years as mayor. And so, Ivano-Frankivsk is again a city in mourning, with the events in eastern Ukraine now seeming closer and more real in the city. At the same time, everyday life goes on, too, as the city and its residents seek to maintain some semblance of normality in post-Maidan, post-Revolution and now post-election Ukraine.

Armoured Personnel Carrier in Frankivsk: The Farce Continues

Yesterday’s post on the presidential election campaign ended on an optimistic note regarding the “activism” of Maidan Self-Defence and Right Sector in the city. Unfortunately, this optimism proved premature as the farce of the selection of the new head of police in region entered a new act today. Since 25 April, an armoured personnel carrier has been stationed outside the police HQ in the city, so the building whose Security Service wing was burned out in mid-February. The campaign to prevent Volhynia native and experienced police functionary Serhiy Piddubnyj becoming head of Ivano-Frankivsk region police has been going on much longer.

APC outside Ivano-Frankivsk police HQ, 5 May 2014

APC outside Ivano-Frankivsk police HQ, 5 May 2014

Today was supposed to have been Piddubnyj’s first day at work, although he never turned up, at least not through the front door. Perhaps because since this morning a crowd of a hundred or so “activists” had been awaiting his arrival, hoping that he would take the APC “Taxi to Dubno” back to his native region.Most probably the armoured personnel carrier belongs to one of these guys, interviewed here, with the article asking if they are “extremists or defenders”. Good question.

It’s not clear from any media reports what grievance Maidan Self-Defence and Right Sector have with Piddubnyj, other than that they are categorically opposed to his role.* While the media continue to claim that this small group of activists represent “the community”, in reality public opinion in the city has very little interest in who is head of police and instead is more concerned by the ability of these groups to continue to blockade streets and administrative buildings.

*UPDATE: Since writing initially, I have found this interview from 5 Kanal, Petro Poroshenko’s news channel and one of Ukraine’s most watched. Here a representative of Self-Defence claims that they don’t want Piddubnyj because “he’s not from this region”, “he’s an outsider” and the “community doesn’t want him”, with Kyiv failing to listen to the demands. First-hand evidence, then, of these organisations declaring themselves the voice of the community, which is quite far from the truth. Presumably, too, these organisations and “activists” are angered by the fact that the new head of Odesa police is from… Ivano-Frankivsk region. Viktor Nemish is the local councillor who in local power structures is the voice of these organisations, and he claims that only two candidates are acceptable to these groups after conducting a folk version of “lustration”.

If the simple reason for opposing Piddubnyj is that “he’s not from our region”, then this is quite a worrying insight into the mentalities of these groups that claim to speak for the city community and seek to determine its future. If someone from Volhynia in north western Ukraine is unacceptable, then what chance does anyone more exotic stand in the city?

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The groups involved today were: Maidan Self-Defence, which took on a coordinating role in the protests in Kyiv and locally, but now seems to be some kind of semi-paramilitary gang of camouflaged men; Right Sector, who locally at least are basically UNA-UNSO, a paramilitary group, plus the youth organisation Tryzub (Trident); and Automaidan, with the Kalush branch most evident today. Very few police, beyond traffic cops blocking the street, were visible when I passed about 13:30 this afternoon, although the media show that many uniformed officers did come out to declare that “the police are with the people”. (The photo reportage linked to here also manages to be typically sexist towards female police officers) It’s not clear what intention the police had with this statement, although since most have declared loyalty to the new head it was presumably a rejection of the “activists'” attempts to appropriate the voice of the people of Ivano-Frankivsk region.

Ivano-Frankivsk, 5 May 2014, APC outside police HQ with Maidan Self-Defence, Right Sector and Automaidan "activists"

Ivano-Frankivsk, 5 May 2014, APC outside police HQ with Maidan Self-Defence, Right Sector and Automaidan “activists”

Some obvious questions that are raised by this farce are: how is it possible for someone to park an APC on a main street in the city centre and outside the police HQ and get away with it? It suggests the police here are weak and in fear of these paramilitaries, or they are somehow coordinating with them on a more significant level than joint patrols around the city in the aftermath of Euromaidan. Should these “activists” get more active and violent, what are the chances of the police or other forces in the city halting them?

Another question is in whose interest is it to disrupt the installation of the new police head? The declaration that it is in the interests of the “community” does not wash, so it is necessary to inquire what connections these organisations and their paramilitaries have to various political, business or criminal interests in the city and the wider region. I’m not suggesting that these connections necessarily exist but it is worthwhile investigating.

The only sensible suggestion surrounding this whole farce – beyond internet comments which suggest that these blokes who claim to be the region’s biggest “patriots” and “heroes” are actually harming their country – is to hold elections for the head of police. Obviously, however, given the popular indifference to this question then it could be easy to swing any election in favour of these groups’ and their backers’ interests.

My own suggestion is that if these blokes are such heroes and so concerned for their country, then the Ukrainian army is waiting with conscription for 18-25 year olds having been reinstated. That could also solve the problem of having so many men with little to do in the middle of the day marching around the city, potentially armed, and causing more trouble than good. Indeed, for anyone coming to Ivano-Frankivsk from outside the area, these camouflaged groups and their APC are really the only visible sign in the city that the country is actually in crisis.

New sushi restaurant opens on Frankivsk's main street

New sushi restaurant opens on Frankivsk’s main street

It is, as I mentioned yesterday, a source of a sense of incongruity being in this part of Ukraine while the foundations of civil conflict, or worse, grow deeper in other parts of the country. Aside from the presidential campaign coming to town, new restaurants continue to open including this place on the main street, the “Stumetrivka” or Nezhalezhnosti Street. It’s a sushi bar, suggesting there’s some nouveau riche cash still sloshing about the city. The owners of the restaurant, meanwhile, have taken liberties with this neat nineteenth-century building and destroyed the original façade with new doors and windows, including extending their size which is probably against planning regulations. But no one cares much for those in the city – as my post on the infamous Royal Burger brewery building showed.

The tragedy in Odesa has, however, been recognised officially in the city, with more raucous events within Ivano-Frankivsk’s City Day anniversary celebrations, scheduled for 9-10 May, cancelled. So this means that there will be no rock concerts and such, since these fall within the traditional nine-day mourning period. The annual blacksmiths’ festival will go ahead as planned. Aside from this official gesture, though, there’s little evidence of mourning in the city for those killed in Odesa. Although the Fabbrica restaurant that I have written about did abandon owing to events in Odesa its traditional closing dances over the weekend.

Meanwhile, as the country plunges further into crisis, those in Self-Defence and Right Sector who claim to be the greatest heroes and patriots continue to fight their absurd, farcical struggle over the head of police on the streets of the city.

Maidan Cleared Up, Mothers Calling for Order, the Pillar of Shame and More Minor Marches

The traces of Maidan around the city are slowly disappearing, even the spaces around the hardcore of Right Sector and Self-Defence who still remain on the square outside the Regional Administration but in more smaller and less conspicuous numbers. The tent from the Rally Square (Vichevyj Maidan) by the Post Office, the original site of an occupation and protest in the city from November, disappeared last week.

On the square outside the Regional Administration Building in the past week a makeshift memorial to the Heavenly Hundred, as those killed on Maidan in Kyiv are popularly referred to, has appeared.  It is constructed from the rudimentary wooden shields that have come to symbolise the fighters on Maidan, alongside the tyres which burned for long days and nights in the winter of 2013/2014, while also shoring up the barricades.

Heavenly Hundred Monument or the Pillar of Shame

A Makeshift Memorial to the Heavenly Hundred, Ivano-Frankivsk – or in fact a ‘Pillar of Shame’.

Looking through the local press again I have learned that this memorial, as I interpreted it, is in fact ‘a pillar of shame’, which, according to one activist interviewed, is aimed at expressing an urge for ordinary people to change their behaviour and thus change society. The idea is for people to come to this pillar and inscribe it with the names or photos of  ‘officials who have taken bribes’ or demanded other payments. It is thus intended as a symbol of the civil revolution that is expected to follow the battles conducted by those who carried such wooden shields.

Yesterday there was no indication of the intentions surrounding this installation, hence my initial reading of it as a makeshift monument.

ImageImage The Regional Administration has also finally decided to clear up it’s own sign which for a couple of months was plastered in Right Sector stickers. The sign is clearly brand new, as the stickers are a pain to get rid of (as I’ve found putting my hands to work around the city). Presumably the tax payers of the region have funded the new sign, as well as the door that was smashed up and recently replaced.

Meanwhile, Chicken Hut, the fast food chain, has finally removed its own pro-European poster, declaring that ‘Together we will be victorious’ while showing the Ukrainian trident surrounded by the EU stars. It’s back to special offers now.

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Chicken Hut's old pro-Europe poster

Chicken Hut’s old pro-Europe poster

Still, some entrepreneurs have not given up on the European symbolism. Two enterprising you women on a busy crossroads on the way out of the city towards Lviv and Kalush were attempting to sell flags, including the EU flag, the Ukrainian flag and the black and red nationalist flag, to passing vehicles. In the fifteen minutes I was waiting for a friend near there I did not see them make a successful sale. My friend says that they had been there for some two weeks, so business must have been good at some point, although I think the peak may have passed.

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Selling flags to passing motorists on vul. Halytska out of the city on Saturday 5 April 2014.

The end of February and the first weeks of March seemed like particularly worrying and tense times in Ivano-Frankivsk, as various groups, including Right Sector and its allies Patriot of Ukraine, appeared to appropriate the city space through posters, marches and occupying various administrative buildings demanding personnel changes. Since then, however, the city has been largely calm, with the attempt to revive daily rallies by Right Sector and Self-Defence unsuccessful. Instead, the atmosphere of the city has been one of getting back towards some kind of normality in the new conditions of tensions over Crimea and now southern and eastern Ukraine. Perhaps springtime has helped as more people take to the city streets and various cafes are putting their tables and chairs out on the streets again.

Yesterday, however, local press reported that there was a march by ‘Frankivsk residents’, ‘the community’ or Right Sector and Self-Defence – depending on which reports you read – on the Police HQ again, following a march four weeks ago which I witnessed. I did not witness yesterday’s events as they were not pre-reported extensively in the press, and I was lecturing anyway at the time it took place. Today, the police HQ was free of any protesters when I passed it and it has been peaceful all day. And it also seems that the candidate that Right Sector had wanted for the local head of police, which incited the occupation of the police HQ from a month ago, is not in the running. Equally, the head of the National Resistance organisation in the city is not in the running, as reported in an article which again uses the problematic notion of ‘the community’, assuming that there is some sort of consensus in the city as to who are acceptable and unacceptable candidates.

Still, despite their differences and threatening to break off relations, the Self-Defence and police are still cooperating, with local press reporting successes where arrests have been made during joint patrols. Here someone was caught with some marijuana, for example.

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The march through the city was both a protest against the new man assigned as regional head of the Security Service (SBU/ СБУ) as well as a reason to mark the memory of the Heavenly Hundred. This report shows that a poster was placed on the burnt out entrance of that section of the police, but there was no sign today of this memorial to those killed on Maidan , merely a trace of the graffiti that it had covered.

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The report cited above is problematic because it frames those protesting as ‘the community’, whereas at 1pm on a Wednesday, many members of the community, including students who were one of the chief initiators of protests in the city, are busy working. It also means that it is easy for anyone disposed to presenting western Ukraine as extreme-nationalist such “patriotically”-minded reports can be used against the authors’ intentions.

This report, meanwhile, ignores the aspect of honouring the Heavenly Hundred and declares the march to be intended as a call for combatting corruption. However, it also mentions a civic protest by mothers of Ivano-Frankivsk who called for order in the city. Presumably this was a call not only to the police but also against the actions of Right Sector and others. Its reference to ‘Frankivsk residents’ is less troubling, since a greater mix of the city’s population and its varying views and approaches to protest and power are accounted for.

The mothers’ protest seems more closely aligned to the civil revolution or perhaps better, transformation, that characterises the urges of those involved in the initial civil society protests from November. An organisation called Ivano-Frankivsk 2.0 has emerged which is seeking to transform the city space into a more pleasant place to live, highlighting some of the hidden and blindingly evident problems in the city which nevertheless regularly features high up in rankings of the best places to live in Ukraine.

Equally, this protest against a questionable development by the city lake is framed as a civil society protest, connected to the spirit of Euromaidan and the battle against corruption in local authorities. Indeed, some of the women who speak in the lengthy video may have also been those outside the police HQ on 9 April calling for order in the city. The problem by the lake is the fact that a smaller lake was filled in for building purposes, ostensibly for a sports centre but it seems developers want to put flats in this attractive location. Some of the women who speak further into the video appeal to “European” values, which caring for the environment are said to characterise.

Of course, aside from some attempts in blogs or by tracing other news stories around the city which do not relate to Euromaidan and its consequences, it’s hard to get a feeling of the everyday in the city which continues in the atmosphere of the tense new normality that is emerging.

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What may have an instant affect on city residents is the planned price rise for bus journeys, going up from 2 UAH to 3 UAH. A 50% increase, although it has been at 2 UAH for about three years now, so it’s unlikely that with the rise in petrol prices that transport services will be profitable. On the other hand, incomes are not rising, while other prices are – so this will be an additional squeeze. In positive transport news, after creating a mess in November by moving long-distance and international bus services out of the city, a ticket office for the regional and long-distance bus stations has opened right in the centre. And the system works fine, as I tested it today buying a ticket for a weekend trip, although if it becomes popular the tiny kiosk will prove insufficient.

At the university, lectures go on, seminars continue and some students fear imminent war, while others are more pragmatic or perhaps simply stuck in their rhythm of 30+hours a week of classes, thus unable to dedicate much energy to much else.

So while certain organisations involved with the violent, sometimes armed, side of revolution in Ukraine seem determined to appropriate control of the public space and local politics, it seems that functional mechanisms are working to resist such domination. Civil society is active in its various ways – whether through protest, clearing up rubbish or shaming corrupt individuals, – seeking a transformation of the city and Ukraine, while local authorities are resisting the pressure to install certain candidates despite the pressures of baseball bats or mobs marching through the city. And, for most people in the city, life just goes on.

Speaking to a Shopkeeper about the Boycott of Russian Goods, Corruption and Storming the Security Service Office

Recently I attended a child’s birthday party and the conversation turned to the topic of Maidan, revolution and the future elections. Some of the guests at the birthday were local businessmen, lawyers and officials. Their identities will remain anonymous, but what we discussed grants insight into the workings, experiences and consequences of recent events in Ivano-Frankivsk and around Ukraine that cannot be gained from simply walking around the city, working at a university or consuming media, whether local, national or international.

So this post will offer insight into how Maidan was funded and organised, the Security Services’ work in Ivano-Frankivsk, including responses to their HQ being set on fire (which I witnessed), as well as life after Revolution, including the boycott of Russian goods and the role of Right Sector in the city.

Most of what I write is a representation of people’s first-hand experiences, or what they heard from those who were at the heart of the action. I end on a comment on further attempts to come to terms with the recent past in the local and national press, as well as in society.

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A billboard in Dolyna, Ivano-Frankivsk region, calling for a boycott of the ‘occupiers” products.

We’ll start with the boycott of Russian goods by a few small chains of local convenience stores. One of the people I spoke to owns a few shops in the city and helped to organise the local boycott, which received significant local and national media attention. Indeed, the media attention was so great that the shopkeeper started to ignore his phone as tv crew after tv crew turned up at his stores. His female staff, meanwhile, made sure that they turned up to work with their best make up and hair styled, he said.

The idea for the boycott started as a patriotic attempt to support the Ukrainian economy. The shopkeeper stressed that in interviews he made sure that his views were not presented as an anti-Russian act, but as a pro-Ukrainian one. While the action brought positive PR, there was also a crisis when some young locals went around one shop involved in the boycott and found products still bearing Russian barcode numbers, with the film quickly going viral around Frankivsk. The initial planned response to this setback on the second or third day was to abandon the boycott, removing stickers advertising it from the shops’ windows.

However, the shopkeepers decided to continue and conducted a further clearance of Russian products, upsetting some customers as Snickers and chewing gum fell victim. As the shopkeepers and consumers have found, however, it is not easy simply to judge the provenance of a product by the barcode. The BBC has reported on an app created in Ukraine to aid identification, as some products bear a Ukrainian or another country’s code yet were manufactured in Russia.

The Greenfield Tea brand has proved particularly difficult, as both the BBC article and shopkeeper noted, as it claims to be a British company, but is merely registered at a PO box in London. The ultimate owners are Russian, but the barcode is Ukrainian, with the tea being packaged in Ukraine. Equally, a brand that appears Polish, and has a Polish barcode, Żubrówka vodka, is in fact owned by a Russian corporation now. Meanwhile, cat food is problematic because Whiskas is an international brand with profits largely not going to Russia but what enters the Ukrainian market is produced there. And customers have been complaining that their fussy cats won’t eat anything else, but the danger of a backlash or bad PR in social and traditional media mean that Whiskas stays off the shelves.

Product Boycott

 

As this poster being circulated on social networks shows, plenty of the brands do not seem Russian at all but merely global, part of the brand collections of conglomerates. For example, I bought some Oral-B toothpaste recently whose packaging was entirely in Russian, but the stated place of manufacture was Germany, whereas the barcode suggested that it was actually Belgium and Luxembourg. Equally, Nescafe and Nestle are Swiss, but their products for the Ukrainian market are produced largely in Russia. Persil, meanwhile, is a German brand but if you go to a store here, some versions of it are produced in Poland while others in Russia. Lays crisps (chips) may be produced in Russia here, but the ultimate owner is American (PepsiCo). Coming from Leicester, the home of Walkers Crisps, as I do, these are the kind of things you know. So it seems that such social media campaigns are not really accurate in terms of targeting purely Russian products.

In the age of globalisation and mega corporations, the patriotic act of a boycott proved much less simple than imagined. Only switching petrol providers can be relatively unambiguous, as brands like Lukoil and TNK are boycotted.

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A boycotted Lukoil petrol station seen from the Bandera monument in Ivano-Frankivsk.

Despite pressure from salesmen, arriving at the stores as regularly as TV crews, pleading the Ukrainian provenance of their brands or appealing for compassion, fearing losing their jobs as no one is buying their tea, the shopkeeper held out. And, he admits, since the boycott and good press, business has picked up a fair bit, offsetting some losses incurred by abandoning Russian or Russian-made goods that were already in stock.

Another aspect of post-revolutionary life that has improved business for the shopkeeper is – for now – the end of what was, effectively, extortion caused by corruption at various levels in state institutions. During the Yanukovych years, after easing off in the “Orange” years, shakedowns and raids, as well as state inspections, increased significantly, reaching levels that recalled the bandit years of the 1990s. State institutions under Yanukovych got in on the act, so the fire department, for example, would call up asking for some booze or other goods with the hardly implicit threat that not obliging them would see some costly inspections take place, which inevitably would find some fault or other with fire safety. The fire department weren’t the only ones at it.

During the revolutionary days of February 2014, the fire department called again calling for a donation but this time, unusually, of tushonka,or canned meat. This unusual request aroused suspicions, while the explanation that it was for “Afghan veterans”, who were supporting the revolution in large numbers in this part of Ukraine, was dismissed. The shopkeeper eventually elicited the information that the meat was to be donated to the state’s internal military and special forces. Since turning down this request, nearly two months ago, and the change in power, the shopkeeper has not faced any further extortion. How long this lasts will depend on how successful the civil revolution demanded by ordinary Ukrainians is.

The shopkeeper knew that the tins of meat could not possibly be for the Afghan War veterans because he was clued up as to how the local Maidan activists from Frankivsk in Kyiv were funded. While I tried to indicate in November how the local occupation functioned in Frankivsk, what happened once the centre of attention shifted to Kyiv and those most active here moved to the capital, I’ve not been able to fathom. Yes, there were local donation boxes and ways of transferring money to secure accounts, while others volunteered to take activists to Kyiv by bus or other means. Equally, once in Kyiv it was possible to find support on the Maidan, getting food and shelter. But donation boxes would not cover those costs. There are theories and rumours of US/EU/CIA funding etc., but what I found out about was how local businessmen, involved in businessmen with turnover much greater than shopkeeping, were funding local activists.

The logic of it is quite clear – if you are a small or medium-sized business owner and the business climate created by the Yanukovych-era authorities was disastrous, then investing in revolution makes sense, while also satisfying an urge to do something patriotic.

Of course, it was far from clear that the Yanukovych regime would fall until he actually fled the country. So funding revolution was a dangerous act, and it turns out that the local Security Services (SBU) had compiled a case against the businessman who had helped fund sending Frankivsk residents to Kyiv to Maidan. One of the lawyers present had seen the reports and evidence some two inches thick in a file, with sixteen years in prison being the sentence demanded of this businessman. However, before he could be sentenced, the local SBU office was stormed on 18 February, once mass killings were initiated in Kyiv. (The new authorities in Kyiv have started to release their findings from their investigations today.) And then the Yanukovych regime started to unravel and collapse.

However, on the night of the storming of the SBU office, the fate of Yanukovych and his apparatus was not clear. So, the storming of the security office in Ivano-Frankivsk and the smaller raid on the Prosecutor’s office by the court, involved the destruction by protesters of numerous files and documents, as well as computers and other equipment. The fear was that if the Yanukovych regime were to survive, then the evidence gathered would implicate not only the businessmen funding activists in Kyiv but also the activists themselves who had been traced by the Security Services.

The lawyer explained that one favoured method is to trace mobile phone signals. A phone usually active in Ivano-Frankivsk which then remained in Kyiv for a few days or weeks was clearly indicative of someone being on Maidan. And many such individuals who returned to Frankivsk either in December after the initial wave of protests or later in January and February were summoned for interviews or “chats” at the SBU.

So as well as some demonstrators collecting weapons and shields from the SBU building on 18 February, part of the reason for storming the building – aside from expressing anger – was to destroy evidence which could have been used against significant numbers of the local population were there to be a clampdown on protestors and activists.

 

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The main entrance to Ivano-Frankivsk Security Service HQ burns on 18/19 February 2014.

Who those active in setting fire to the security service HQ were, is not clear, and I doubt there will be an investigation. But on that night, alongside ordinary people, Right Sector and Self-Defence were evident, although by then, the leading locals activists from those organisations were in Kyiv as the situation in the capital was becoming fatal. Since the collapse of the Yanukovych regime, Right Sector especially became more visible in the city, although for the past three weeks, they have not been significantly evident – in terms of marches, rallies or propaganda materials – in the city centre.

At the moment, no one is really sure who Right Sector are (beyond those who generalise about right-wing, neo-Nazis and so forth). Well, the reality on the ground is that regardless of the ideas that Right Sector and affiliate groups claim to promote, no one really knows who they are.  Here is Mustafa Nayyem’s view, in English. Nayyem, a Ukrainian activists and journalist of Afghan origins – not a veteran but a former migrant – was one of the first to initiate civil protests in November when the decision to abandon the EU Association Agreement was announced. He sees Right Sector, like many in Ukraine, as a murky group with connections to funding by oligarchs and even the Yanukovych regime itself, so an organisation which may have swallowed up the smaller nationalist organisations that now come under the RS umbrella.

In Ivano-Frankivsk, after a period when the local media seemed to en masse (and some of my students too) buy the idea of Right Sector as Ukrainian patriots, the backlash is now starting, with one local journalist producing (in Ukrainian) an astute critique of the ‘parasitism’ that characterises the organisation nationally and on the local level while dismissing the myths it has built up around itself. Indeed, 75% of its members in the city are under 18 and simply from the Tryzub youth organisation, which was subsumed under the RS umbrella. It provides those youths once seen around the city, marching around with baseball bats, but hardly suited to genuine (para)military action.

However, it is clear what young lads with a few weapons are good for. Locally, according to the people I spoke to recently, Right Sector is becoming associated with, or always was associated with, protection rackets and dodgy businesses. Hence the rather selective approach taken by Self-Defence and RS to meting out justice on businesses perceived as being corrupt. The local market was targeted, for example, for its Party of Regions associations, yet other businesses that could be suspected of similar remain safe.

Of course, as the article by Roman Kapiy on the local Right Sector argues, those who were under its banner in Kyiv, along with Self-Defence and others, radicalised the revolution and pushed forward the collapse of the Yanukovych regime. However, it is worrying now how such groups attempted – on the local level – to fill in the power vacuum, repeating the methods of violence and raids that were associated with the Yanukovych era. However, it seems – at least locally – that this is coming under control again, while the state authorities in Kyiv are beginning to establish what happened in Kyiv in February and are setting about establishing what is going on now.

As Nayyem has argued, supporting Euromaidan doesn’t make you a Right Sector supporter. However, it does make you responsible for challenging them – whoever they are and whatever their ideas are – to make sure that the initial hopes of a civil revolution, and a shift towards “Europe” – as imagined as a civil, open society with improved quality of life and incomes – becomes possible.

That’s why I encouraged my students to head out to Maidan in November already. And that’s why, in my own little ways, I’ve been trying to critique and challenge the authoritarian and extremist nationalism that prevailed in the vacuum after the collapse of Yanukovych’s regime.

 

Storming the Security Service and Police HQ

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Tuesday 18 February 2014: this was the day that the protests and government responses brought large-scale fatalities in Kyiv. The news of the mass protests and fatalities in Kyiv brought a radicalisation to the atmosphere in Ivano-Frankivsk. While also inspiring peaceful mass student protests today and a blockade of the city’s branch of Epicentre (Ukraine’s B&Q), which is owned by Party of Regions MPs, last night saw a storming of the city and regional office of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU/СБУ) and police. The SBU is effectively a successor to the KGB, while the SBU and police are both part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVS/МВС) and thus occupy the same Habsburg-era building on Sakharova Street, near the university and maternity hospital.

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Right Sector (Правий Сектор) stickers adorn the sign on the White House and buses prepare to take, potentially armed, activists to Kyiv.

After a day of increasing tension and numbers of people milling about on the street waiting for something to happen, last night saw protesters retake the White House (city and regional administration) without resistance, but the storming of the SBU building ultimately resorted in molotov cocktails, part-destruction of the building and general smashing of windows and anything else accessible by probably some 200 people of a crowd of a couple of thousand.

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By the time we arrived around 11 pm, a large crowd had already gathered and one entrance to the building was being stormed. It was the entrance to the police section of the building, so the organisation less hated than the SBU. As we approached from the university side, we could hear windows being smashed, as well as a mixture of cheers followed by jeers. The latter were a result of police leaving the building, as well as some Birkut (special forces) members. They left without resisting and ultimately brought joy to the crowd who then sang the national anthem. That part of the building was secured by protesters as part of an occupation.

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The building did suffer some pointless damage as a number of people waiting for something to happen started smashing windows after the police had left, while some of those trying to smash windows showed great persistence even as they continued to throw for several minutes the same oversized bricks at metal bars which were positioned too narrowly to allow that brick through. Others were more effective, though, while some decided that it was necessary to smash police crockery through a basement window. Still, overnight, no more damage was done to this part of the building despite being easily accessible through unusually poorly secured windows, which had no bars on them and offered easy access into the building.

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The building was also graffitied, although by this afternoon that had been painted over. It is not clear who painted over the graffiti, although it is unlikely to have been the police who were nowhere to be seen in the area or, indeed, in the city.

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Here the graffiti read: “Yanyk shitbag” and “Tear off your badges of rank”. Both are written with the ‘o’ sound replaced by ‘a’, suggesting either very poor Ukrainian ability or a satire on the current government’s perceived Russification of Ukrainian. By today, this grafitti had gone, as had any trace of the signs showing which institution is housed here.

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What was evident last night (in the early hours of this morning) was the lack of any leadership over events, as the storming of the building took on a largely spontaneous form and those present and most active, seemed to be reduced to a primitive masculinity taking pleasure in loud bangs, smashing things with bricks or sticks, or setting fire to things. The only time any leadership seemed clear was when a man in an orange helmet decided that a group should storm the local prosecutor’s office, which they duly did.  An older man talking to the orange helmeted younger man did ask, though, “where’s the left sector?”, referring to the prevalence of nationalist Right Sector activists. “It used to be the left sector active around here. Now nothing.” Then he suggested storming a few buildings, including the prosecutor’s office. Today, piles of documents were still smouldering there in what some in the city suspect was not necessarily an act of revolution but potentially an attempt to benefit by destroying documentation relevant to particular cases. This suspicion seemed potentially justified, since today there was no evidence of revolutionaries guarding this building, while people inside were trying to get things back in order.

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However, clearly not at work today was the SBU/Police building, although there are reports that its functionaries are on the streets of the city today, wearing balaclavas and joining the ranks of protesters. As some protesters last night headed off to storm the prosecutor’s office, another mass movement of the crowd took it about 20 metres to the left to the SBU entrance. This door was protected by some functionaries inside the building and unable to get inside by storming this part of the building (a ladder would have done the trick as first-floor windows without bars were open but in the heat of the moment, few think practically) molotov cocktails started flying, while tyres soaked with petrol were put by the doors. These weapons were clearly prepared by a small group of men in their teens and twenties. The smells last night/early this morning were quite unusual, with something resembling frying doughnuts giving way later to the smell of petrol before the burning started. The scent of fuel made it ominous that fires would be started.

And indeed they did start. This newspaper report shows the inside of the building today, which has become the city’s number one attraction as members of the public visit it. These are my before/during/after shots.

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 Beyond expressing frustrations in a visceral manner, there was no real reason to set fire to this building. The symbolism of showing how emasculated the state’s security services are in the city could have been achieved by simply taking the building, as happened with the police side of it. However, the young men preparing molotov cocktails who we spoke to declared two reasons for setting fire to this building. Firstly, “force is the only argument they understand” and secondly “they won’t give up the arms and shields inside without this”. The point was to force whoever may have been inside to relinquish control of stocks of police arms and shields and anything else of use. This region has been accused of transporting arms to Kyiv – with nine police killed there, it seems they must be being used – and it seems the radical protesters knew where to get them. In neighbouring Lviv, the military arms depot went up in flames, which may have been an inside job, to – quite wisely -sabotage any radical attempts to get hold of arms.

We also suggested to these young men that this building could be given over to the city’s use – as a school or university – but they failed to accept that and decided that this “stolen” property must be returned to the “nation”. The fact that any renovation will be funded from the “nation’s” pockets didn’t occur to many people. Seeing the building go up in flames, rather than out of any sympathy for the SBU or police, we called the fire brigade. They eventually arrived, although long after 1am, after we had left. Initially on the phone they refused to come unless we could provide a building number for the SBU office – which was not visible at all, even though it is obvious to anyone in the city which building is the former KGB HQ opposite the maternity hospital. Once they did arrive, news reports say that protesters initially resisted allowing the fire brigade to tackle the blaze, before two engines were eventually allowed close enough to the building. According to the phone operator, we were the first to call. Although most of those present were passive, there was little in the atmosphere to suggest that anyone else would have called. Except maybe the owner of this bike, attached to a tree outside the burning building.

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 I’m touched by the idea of turning up to a protest/riot/storming of the security service on a bicycle then also taking the care to lock it to a tree.

This guy also survived unscathed, standing opposite the protests in a Ministry of Internal Affairs-sponsored chapel.

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Above him, this image, which is used by the Ministry to symbolise its work. It seems, though, that the people have assumed now the role of St George and the dragon, at least here, has been slain. Although it could prove still to be a hydra.

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