On the Origins of “Euromaidan”

Tomasz Różycki

I wrote the poem “Maidan” (translated into English as “Euromaidan”) shortly after the 2013–2014 events in Kyiv’s Independence Square. This background requires some commentary — especially for readers distanced from the “cursed” problems of Central and Eastern Europe. At the time, I was glued to what was going on there, watching day and night as things unfolded on social media and keeping in touch with my Ukrainian friends who were taking an active role. When, in 2013, the pro-Russian government of President Yanukovych shattered any possibility of Ukraine joining the European community of free countries, the youth took to the streets in a protest that was brutally suppressed by police forces. The dispersal of the peaceful demonstration provoked anger and mass opposition in defense of those who were beaten. Protestors from all over the country built an encampment in Independence Square, where the initial demonstration had taken place, and fended off numerous police attacks by setting barricades of car tires on fire. Kidnapping, torture, and intimidation of activists led to the formation of independent media, NGOs, and a broad social resistance movement against the dictatorship. The awareness that the Yanukovych regime was a puppet in Russia’s hands and that Ukraine was becoming an authoritarian state sparked a wave of solidarity and opposition across the country.

One of those who joined the protest was Mykhailo Havryliuk. He was caught by Berkut officers, stripped naked in the snow on a city street, then beaten and humiliated. Mykhailo was a well-known and admired figure on the Maidan, recognizable because of his hair, shaved in the style of a Ukrainian Cossack. Those who harassed him recorded what they did on a cell phone, and soon the entire world was watching them beating a bloodied naked man, spitting on him as he stood in front of them, shoving a broom in his hand and pronouncing him “Cossack Hetman.” I couldn’t get the image of a naked man, wounded and trembling in the snow, surrounded by an armed gang of assailants mocking him, out of my head. The short video made the scene iconic and compelled a comparison to other events painted by the Great Masters: assailants beating a naked defenseless man, while at the same time giving him a symbol of reign, a crown of thorns, and naming him the “King of the Jews,” just like a broom as baton for someone they call “Cossack Hetman,” or whatever name, in whatever time or place.

A second scene, which I heard about from eyewitnesses, took place later in the hospital, after authorities opened fire on the protesters. They killed about a hundred people, mostly quite young. The protestors defended themselves with whatever they could, using police shields they’d seized and construction hard hats, and finally Molotov cocktails hurled against the advancing massacre. The nurse at the hospital kept the personal belonging of the wounded and murdered in a separate room, including dozens of the victims’ cell phones. She later said that one of the worst moments of her life was when, that evening, the bloodied phones left in her care began to ring one after the other, incessantly dinging. Having heard the news about the use of weapons, family members had begun to worry. And almost every screen displayed the same name of the caller: MOM.

The protest ended up being successful, and Ukraine was able to bring about the removal of the dictator and to hold democratic elections that confirmed support for joining other European democracies. But it was clear to everyone that Russia (at least a Russia led by Putin) would try to destroy such a dream for the future at any cost — with deceitful propaganda, corruption, and war. Unfortunately, such problems do not go away or become simply historical context. The fight for freedom, a universal theme known to everyone, persists. And the number of victims keeps rising.

Mira Rosenthal is the author of The Local World, winner of the Wick Poetry Prize, and Territorial, 2022 Pitt Poetry Series selection. Her translation of Tomasz Różycki’s Colonies won the Northern California Book Award. Her other honors include an NEA Fellowship, a Stegner Fellowship, a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Award, two Fulbright Fellowships, and a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies.

Tomasz Różycki is the author of many books of poetry and prose, most recently the volume Ręka pszczelarza and the essay collection Próba ognia: Błędna kartografia Europy. Over the last decade he has garnered almost every prize Poland has to offer as well as widespread critical acclaims. His volume Litery (in Mira Rosenthal’s translation) is forthcoming in 2023 from Archipelago Books.