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Stumbling on a revolution

During a run-of-the-mill press trip to Kiev, I came across a country in the throes of an uprising

I spent this weekend in Kiev, to cover World AIDS Day. A frontline in the war on the virus, a fascinating arts organisation flew me over to cover their fight. The schedule was packed – artist appointments through the day; the nights spent with activists on the streets. The thing was, the streets of the Ukrainian capital happened to be occupied by protests that few saw coming. 

Resentment had been bubbling against the president, Viktor Yanukovych, since he was elected two years ago: he had somehow managed to piss off just about everyone from hardened opponents to supporters; or so I was told, foreign heads of state and the average Ukrainian citizen. This culminated last week in the final-hour refusal to sign a trade-deal with the European Union, much to the fury of Ukraine's west-facing native population, widely seen as a kow-tow to Russia's declaration of “economic war”.

This escalated irrevocably at 4am on Saturday, when the government's special police force, the Berkuts, went to town on the small group of unarmed protestors camped out in the central Independence Square. That this attack took place below the gaze of a statue to Ukrainian freedom was lost on none of the populace, especially considering the authorities’ bleakly laughable pretext of erecting a Christmas Tree for December. 

This brutal attack generated something several steps above a national outcry. Throughout the next day, our guides played us YouTubes of the horrific attacks, proudly reminding us that never in Ukraine's history has the young state openly attacked a peaceful protest. Revolution and its likelihood drifted from "possible" in the morning to "likely" by the afternoon – one media worker said proudly "We are not Belarus. We are not Russia. We are not a dictatorship."

The conventional police force and even the president immediately distanced themselves from the attacks, but throughout the afternoon and night of Saurday, crowds massed around the sacred dome of St. Michael's Cathedral. As incense drifted through the city from the Orthadox services, the air was full of horns beeping in support of the demonstrators. The corners of Maidan Square were turned into a car rally, with every passing window flying the Ukrainian blue-and-yellow flag, and few from the 100-odd crowd chanting YOU-CRY–EEN–HA

Some in the evening crowd were clad in half-sardonic hardhats, with empty plastic water bottles strapped to their arms like recycling-friendly Michelin Men. Most weren't – by 11pm on Saturday evening, there was next-to zero police presence. A few of the assembled had children with them. One couple we spoke to described crying when they saw the bloody violence of the night before. 

Right now, sitting back at my desk in London, I'm seeing insane pictures of petrol bombs, chain-wielding protestors and really scared-looking riot police. I'm hearing reports that that noted Russian leader Lenin's statue has been toppled. All this is happening 22 years to the week after Ukraine voted to split with the Soviet Union, and crowds this huge haven't been seen since the Orange Revolution. Though fractured, opposition leaders are, of course, calling for the resignation of the president. Not as loudly as those shouting over the walls over the administrative building, of course. A general strike has been called for tomorrow, and there's no way of knowing what will happen tomorrow.

On Sunday, strolling down the central shopping street towards the central square, we saw masked people hanging out of the Kiev City Council building, waving the blue-and-yellow while people below cheered. We asked a teenage passerby why the police didn't stop them taking over their offices. He looked at us, looked around at a street full of people and shrugged "They couldn't"; which seemed like a fair point.