The Maidan martyrs: a decade on from Kyiv’s bloody revolution

<span>‘He believed he had rights and that he could shape his own life’: Inna Plekhanova beside a memorial to those killed in 2014, including her son Oleksandr.</span><span>Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian</span>
‘He believed he had rights and that he could shape his own life’: Inna Plekhanova beside a memorial to those killed in 2014, including her son Oleksandr.Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Guardian

Ten years ago Oleksandr Plekhanov took part in protests against Ukraine’s corrupt then president, Viktor Yanukovych. He was one of tens of thousands of demonstrators who had gathered in the Maidan, Kyiv’s central independence square. The pro-European movement began after Yanukovych dumped an association agreement with the EU and accepted a bailout from Russia.

Plekhanov believed Ukraine was at a crossroads. History was being made. The choices were stark: a return to the USSR, with Moscow calling the shots, or a democratic future where the country decided its own destiny and integrated with the west. Aged 22, and a student, Plekhanov chose Europe. His mother, Inna, said: “My son didn’t know the Soviet Union. He believed he had rights and that he could shape his own life.”

The protests began in November 2013. Initially, they were peaceful. For three months there was a standoff. Then Yanukovych, under pressure from Vladimir Putin, sent in thugs and baton-wielding riot police. Crowds chucked stones; smoke and explosions filled the air. Plekhanov was standing at the bottom of Institutska Street, next to a makeshift barricade. At 6pm on 18 February 2014, he called his mother to say he was OK, alive.

Soon afterwards a sniper shot him in the head. “It was a single shot, right in the middle of the temple,” Inna said. The riot police – known as Berkut – were perched on the roof of the neo-classical October Palace. From there, they gunned down unarmed protesters, massing on the slope below. Friends dragged Plekhanov to the trade union building across the road. He was taken to hospital but died in the early hours.

This was Ukraine’s second popular revolution in a decade. An uprising took place in 2004 after Yanukovych, backed by the Kremlin, stole a presidential election.

Plekhanov was one of 103 protesters killed in what Ukrainians call the Revolution of Dignity. Putin responded by blaming the CIA for a “coup”. He annexed Crimea. Next came a covert takeover of the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Then, two years ago, a full-scale Russian invasion.

Was the Maidan worth it, given the war and bloodshed that followed? “There was no other way. We have been fighting against Russia for 350 years,” Inna said, standing next to a memorial wall for her son. Friends from his technical university had put carnations next to his picture. The spot where he fell was a few metres away. Instituska is now known as Heavenly Hundred Street, in honour of Plekhanov and the other Maidan martyrs.

According to Inna, Ukraine’s post-2014 presidents – Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskiy – could not have stopped Putin from invading. “Sure, our leaders made mistakes. But Putin was determined to conquer Ukraine,” she said. She added: “Russia steals Ukrainian territory, deports the local population and settles Russians in their place. It happened in Kuban [in southern Russia]. It’s happening again in Mariupol.”

The sniper who killed Plekhanov has never been identified. It is unclear if he was Ukrainian or Russian. Yanukovych fled to Moscow later that week, with senior members of his entourage and security forces. It subsequently emerged he had stolen billions. Much of the evidence from four key days – 18-21 February 2014 – was deliberately destroyed, Inna said. There was little prospect of justice or prosecutions, she suggested.

Another victim was Vasyl Aksenin, a 52-year-old engineer from the south-western city of Chernivtsi. A police officer shot him from close range. Aksenin’s son Yuriy played a video showing his father keel over as a Kalashnikov round struck him in the leg. It was 9.17am on 20 February. He was taken to hospital in Poland but died a month later from thrombosis. His portrait is the first in a line of memorials, stretching up towards Bankova Street and the presidential administration.

“My father saw young guys suffering. He felt his generation was to blame for being too passive. His own father was sent to a Soviet gulag. His grandmother survived the Holodomor [Stalin’s 1932-33 famine],” Yuriy said. “Seven out of her 10 siblings perished.” In his view the 2014 revolution was incomplete, as Ukraine still had corruption and other “Russian complexes”. “We are more civilised. But we have a long way to go to full democracy,” he remarked.

If the Maidan had failed, Ukraine – as a nation and a people – would have disappeared, he added, swallowed up by a Russian imperium. Future Russian military targets included the Baltic states and Poland, he suggested. “Putin is not fighting for territory. He’s fighting for our identity and personality. He calls us Russians,” Yuriy said. He continued: “I think making things better for a society can only happen through pain. It’s necessary.”

The Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov visited the Maidan on several occasions in the winter of 2013-2014, bringing food for its open-air kitchens and to protesters camped out in freezing tents. He said he declined offers to address the crowds because he did not want to come across as a “fake politician”. “It was a sign Ukraine didn’t want to go back to the USSR or Russia. There was a new middle-class generation. It wanted a European lifestyle and Ukrainian politicians in Ukraine,” he said.

A decade on, was the revolution a success? “It’s difficult to say it was a real success because it ended with the annexation of Crimea, and Russia making a final decision that Ukraine was an enemy country,” Kurkov replied. He pointed to the example of neighbouring Belarus, a de facto Russian colony under its authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko. “If not for the Maidan we would be a second Belarus now, 100% controlled by Russia,” Kurkov noted.

Plekhanov had been unable to take part in protests every day because he was busy finishing his diploma in architecture, his mother said. He had plans to do postgraduate work in Norway. After that he wanted to build Scandinavian-style eco-houses in Ukraine, to replace the ubiquitous Soviet-era apartment blocks known as khrushchyovka. Inna, who is 60, said her daughter Yuliya emigrated to the US after her brother’s death. “She doesn’t want to come back,” she said.

On Monday a few wellwishers trudged up Heavenly Hundred Street, clutching flowers. One sported a Ukrainian flag. It was a brilliant early spring day – cold and clear – with a blue sky. Plekhanov was posthumously made a “hero of Ukraine”. Inna said she preferred to visit her son’s monument when few people were around. “Of course I wish things had been different and that Sasha [her son] had gone abroad sooner. He said he had no choice other than to take part.”

She added: “He told me: ‘Mum, if I don’t go the Maidan, they will kill us one by one.’”

There were few current grounds for optimism, she said. Russian troops were pushing forward and Ukraine had suffered recent defeats on the battlefield including the loss last week of the eastern city of Avdiivka. Nonetheless, she remained hopeful. “I believe in victory,” she said. “But Ukraine is paying a heavy price for its freedom and independence. The people who could be building a better future are being killed.”