Ukraine’s Bloody Thursday Swells the Ranks of the Revolution

The bloodiest day yet in Ukraine's three-month-long political crisis saw volunteers rush to makeshift hospitals in churches and hotels as the protesters' anger and commitment grew

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Etienne De Malglaive / Getty Images

A medical team with a field hospital is shown set up in the lobby of the Ukraine Hotel near Maidan Square on Feb. 20, 2014

On Thursday evening, Olga Gurina begged off work early, cooked a quick dinner for her teenage son and rushed to the Mikhailovsky monastery in her hometown of Kiev, where a field hospital had been set up to treat the wounded from that day’s revolutionary violence. She found herself at the center of a citywide mobilization. That morning, police had openly used live ammunition against protesters for the first time since the uprising began in November. Dozens of people were killed. But instead of frightening the protesters away, it brought them out by the many thousands to help the revolt in whatever way they could.

Gurina, a middle-aged retail manager, offered the paramedic’s training she remembered from her student years. The monastery’s refectory had been turned into an operating room, with beds laid out beneath the gilded icons of Orthodox saints. In the entryway, a nurse in a surgical mask asked curtly about Gurina’s qualifications and, apparently satisfied, told her to strip off her overcoat and get into scrubs. Until that point, Gurina had never taken part in street protests in Kiev or anywhere else. And why was today the day she joined? “Why?” she snapped back at a reporter. “Because they’re killing us out there!” She may have wanted to say more, but a young woman who looked to be in her late teens was brought into the refectory screaming, a crude bandage covering the left side of her face. Gurina got to work.

A few blocks away, at the Hotel Ukraina, other volunteers had set up a makeshift clinic in the lobby and, in a nearby wing, a morgue for those who had died of their wounds. According to the medical corps of the Maidan, as Kiev’s revolutionary encampment is known, between 70 and 100 people died in Thursday’s violence, a staggering figure even by the standards of the Arab Spring revolts of the past few years. But this was not the Middle East. This was the biggest country in Eastern Europe, home to a large if fledgling middle class with aspirations of joining the European Union.

In late November, those aspirations first ignited the uprising against President Viktor Yanukovych when he decided to scrap an integration deal with the E.U. in favor of a closer alliance with Russia. But what began as a peaceful movement of students intent on a European future has morphed into an all-out insurrection against the state. With each successive attempt to scare away the protesters by force — first with police truncheons, then with tear gas and stun grenades, and finally with live bullets — the intensity and size of the revolt have grown. After Thursday’s violence, much of the city center began to resemble a war zone. Young women on the square poured gasoline into empty beer bottles to make Molotov cocktails, hundreds of them. Young men in ski masks patrol the occupied city center armed not only with clubs but with rifles. And in other cities across Ukraine, the revolt continued to grow more violent. In the city of Lviv, an opposition stronghold in western Ukraine, an explosion caused a fire in the barracks of the Berkut riot troops, marking the latest in a series of attacks this week against the security services around the country.

The Mikhailovsky monastery, with its pastel blue chapels and gilded spires, has been a sanctuary for the revolutionaries from the beginning. When the first crackdown in late November saw riot troops beat dozens of students in the center of Kiev, many of them ran inside the Mikhailovsky cathedral and found haven inside its walls. By Thursday night, the monastery had become a logistical hub for the revolution. Hundreds of regular citizens, including elderly women and students in their teens, streamed through its gates all evening to provide assistance.

Some brought medicine, surgical equipment, warm clothing, a television, lamps, fire extinguishers, pots of soup and sandwiches. Others volunteered to stack and sort it all, to work the kitchen or treat the wounded. In the monastery yard, a young paramedic named Sasha laid a mannequin on a piece of cardboard and began teaching an open-air seminar on first aid, focusing on gunshot wounds and broken limbs. “Remember, your first priority is not to dull the victim’s pain but to stanch the bleeding,” he instructed. At least 50 people formed a circle around him and watched with rapt attention.

But amid the camaraderie of the gathering, there was also much anxiety and even paranoia. Smaller circles of people traded rumors of the military planning to use poisoned gas and of Russian death squads coming across the border in helicopters to help Yanukovych crush the revolt. Particular venom in these conversations was reserved for the Russian government, which the revolutionaries believe (with fairly good reason) to be goading Yanukovych into using force. So it was no surprise that my Moscow accent did not help me strike up conversations with the volunteers. Even after studying my American passport and press accreditation, the priests refused to give their names or answer questions. “We are only praying here,” said one of them as he instructed volunteers on where to put deliveries of medicine. “The church is open to all.”

It is, however, not open to any supporters of the President, for whom the role of the Mikhailovsky monastery has been a particularly bad omen. As one of the oldest religious institutions in Kiev, the birthplace of the Russian Orthodox Church, its solidarity with the revolutionaries has given the uprising not only moral weight but the air of a righteous crusade. Earlier in the day, the priests, some wearing bulletproof vests, had helped lay dead bodies along one of the monastery’s walls so that people could come to identify them. As the bereft bent down to inspect the pale faces, the priests of the monastery stood silently in prayer.

In the refectory, the doctors sometimes found themselves unable to treat the wounded with their spare supplies (the clinic even lacked a defibrillator), and as morning turned to afternoon more corpses were brought out to the monastery yard. “Nearly all we’ve seen today are gunshot wounds,” said one of the doctors, Alexander, declining to give his last name. But after receiving first aid, the victims often needed to be taken to hospitals, and some refused out of a fear of being arrested and taken from the state-run wards directly to prison. “Those were the hardest cases,” Alexander added. “We did all we could.” By nightfall, thankfully, the police had retreated from the Maidan, and there were no new victims coming to the refectory. So apart from changing bandages, Gurina and the other volunteers were then able to change the sheets on the dozen operating tables, getting them prepared for the clashes they feared would come by morning.