But the opposition in Kiev also includes hardened extremists, creating a dilemma for movement supporters.
KIEV, Ukraine – As the center of the Ukrainian capital tipped into a maelstrom of gunfire and blood Thursday, a man wearing a helmet stood on a street corner near Independence Square, the epicenter of the violence, holding a leaf of printer paper.
“Guys,” he called out, “we are forming a new hundred. Please sign up.”
Anton Chontorog, 23, a computer programmer, joined a small crowd of young men who lined up to enroll in the “hundred,” the basic organizing unit of a strikingly resilient force that is providing the tip of the spear in the violent showdown with government security forces.
The sotni, as the units are called, take their name from a traditional form of Cossack cavalry division. Activists estimate at least 32 such groups are in Kiev now, with more forming all the time.
Chontorog said he had been in the square many times as a protester, but that after the violence Thursday wanted to commit himself to the fight, which meant following orders from a commander. “A volunteer just shows up to help,” he said. “A member of a hundred has obligations.”
Across Kiev and beyond, personal barriers that once defined the limits of behavior are crumbling, pushing this fractured but, until a few weeks ago, proudly peaceful nation of 46 million into chaos.
The Ukrainian authorities and their allies in the Kremlin identify the source of the increase in violence as extremists and terrorists, the young militants of sometimes sinister, far-right political affiliations with ideologies formed in the struggle against Polish and Soviet domination. They have provided much of the muscle in increasingly bloody clashes with the police.
Late converts to militancy
But there are thousands of other protesters who, like Chontorog, are late converts to militancy, who say they believe the government has left them with no choice by deploying so much lethal violence itself.
On Thursday, a few anti-government militants could be seen carrying weapons, but with reports that the police have killed more than 70 protesters, most of the gunfire clearly came from the other side of the barricades.
Nonetheless, the murky nature of the opposition gathered in Independence Square, at least on its fringes, creates a dilemma for the United States and the European Union, which would prefer a neat apposition of peaceful, prodemocracy demonstrators vs. the thuggish kleptocracy of President Viktor Yanukovych. But that line of thinking often blurs in the streets.
The ambiguity was captured Thursday by a 25-year-old man wearing a mask who gave a blunt summary of his cause: “Nationalism is what I believe in,” said the man, who gave his name only as Nikolo. “The nation is my religion.”
Since the protests began in November, Nikolo has traveled six times from his home in Lviv to hurl rocks, and to prove that violence works.
‘Revolutions are violent’
“What have humanism and pacifism ever brought to any nation?” he asked, clutching a battered metal shield. “Revolutions are violent.”
Young militants like Chontorog and Nikolo are by no means the only presence on the streets. More typical, perhaps, is the 33-year-old manager of a U.S. telephone company here who drove his family car to the barricades and unloaded bags filled with empty glass bottles to help replenish the protest movement’s supply of firebombs.
“A week or even a few days ago, I would never have seen myself doing this,” said the well-dressed man, who gave only his first name, Viktor. “Now, I am ready to bring not just bottles but also gasoline.”
He added a commonly expressed view: “Of course I don’t like violence,” he said. “But violence is just a response to violence on the other side.”