Men who until recently were teachers and lawyers said the adulation insulates them from fear on the front lines.
Saying they heard sniper fire, a group of women take shelter behind a tire barricade in Kiev, Ukraine, Feb. 21, 2014. Opposition leaders signed a deal with President Viktor Yanukovych that calls for early elections and constitutional changes to roll back executive powers, a day after a drastic escalation in the conflict between protesters and riot police left dozens dead. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
The street fighters in Independence Square, kitted out with motorcycle helmets, plywood shields and baseball bats, are an intimidating lot by any measure, and this week they turned whole battalions of riot police officers on their heels in epic, bloody clashes that stunned the world.
On Friday, several dozen of these men lounged near a barricade on Hrushevsky Street in a scene that seemed gloomy and dangerous until one noticed the other figures who have become nearly as ubiquitous as them as the huge protests against the government of President Viktor Yanukovych escalated into deadly combat: women bearing trays of tea and bags of cookies.
‘They are the best Ukrainians’
The exploits and fearsome appearance of the fighters, known as the defenders of Maidan, as the square is known, have been elevated to lore, at least among supporters of the opposition. Old men pat them on the back, children revere them, and women want to be their girlfriends.
“They are the best Ukrainians,” said Olena Iaschuk, 26, a website editor who was making the rounds of the barricades to offer warm tea from a thermos, stepping gingerly among heaps of paving bricks. “They are the bravest men, they are fighting for our freedom, they defend us and they are our heroes.”
If Independence Square has become a crucible to test physical courage, many of the men who passed that test say they could not have done so without the undying enthusiasm of people like her.
Not everyone considers them heroes. Within their ranks are fighters who tried to immolate the police with petroleum bombs, and some groups of protesters have been sustained and driven by dark, nationalistic ideologies from Ukraine’s past. But many, if not most, people in Kiev wholeheartedly support the men.
The adulation is palpable and only grew this week. “We want to cheer them up, and we want to support them,” Iaschuk explained. “They smile, and they say thank you for the tea, and sometimes ask for our telephone numbers. And we say, ‘No, boys, only after you bring us victory.’ ”
Her friend Galyna Kolodkevych, 26, a professor of Ukrainian literature, said she wanted to marry one of the men. Her future husband, she said, should belong “only to the Right Sector,” a coalition of hard-line street groups that have played a prominent role in the fighting.
Oleksandra Braginskaya, 25, an art historian, wore white shoes trimmed with tufts of fur as she carried bananas and a bag of cookies for the men.
“They feel scared all the time because they don’t know what will happen in the next minute,” she said.
The objects of this outpouring of admiration are men like Dmitry Iliuk, 29, a classical violinist who teaches music in a high school in the town of Verkhovyna, in western Ukraine.
Thursday morning found Iliuk crouching behind a plywood shield, preparing for a risky offensive to reverse an effort by the police to press into the square two days earlier. Protesters opened a breach in their barricades shortly after dawn, then ran a hundred yards or so across a scorched buffer zone to confront — and quickly push back — the riot police, who were firing shotguns at them. It was an action that turned the tide, but also cost the lives of at least 70 people.
“I was not afraid, not one drop,” Iliuk said.
He was wearing a red ski helmet and ski goggles, and carrying a baseball bat attached to a cord looped around his wrist, lest it be knocked out of his hands, which are more accustomed to delicate music instruments. “All around me, people were wounded because the police had nothing left to do but shoot, and they shot.”
‘I’m an ordinary citizen’
Roman Tokar, 31, a lawyer from Zolochiv in western Ukraine who wore an ill-fitting vest of bulbous plastic plates originally intended for dirt-bike riding, said he was continually scared but overcame his fear because of the support he feels from residents of the capital.
“I can’t drink any more tea, but they keep bringing me tea,” he said. “We are even joking now, telling the women, ‘Stop, you are making the defenders of Maidan fat.’ It’s really pleasant, and we really love these brave girls and even grandmothers who offer us tea.”