The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1921] Epicentre of a revolution: Kyiv's Independence Square, the place of political activism


In mid-November of 2004, Ukrainians dressed in bright orange scarves took to the streets of their capital, Kyiv. The trigger was the widespread conviction that the presidential election had been stolen by the sitting government, which was associated with years of cronyism and corruption. From all over the country, supporters of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who had promised to clean up the government and forge a new beginning, converged on the city's central square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti [Independence Square]. With the square overrun at all times of the day and night, those who came from out of town pitched their tents on the adjacent streets, and soon native Kyivans did the same. They vowed to remain there until the government gave in, and either proclaim Yushchenko the winner, or call new elections. The sitting government led by Leonid Kuchma believed it could stare the protesters down. In the weeks that followed, the Maidan became the main battleground of what became known as the Orange Revolution: a remarkable production of political theatre, part Woodstock, part militant outpost, giving a part of the world largely inexperienced with democratic politics an extraordinary example of peaceful activism.

A Canadian architecture student of Ukrainian ancestry, I had left for Ukraine in September. My visa application stated that I would be researching the manifestation of a bourgeoning Ukrainian nationalism in recent buildings. At the same time, I was digging up my roots, using my research as a pretext to fund my ten-week trip to the mother country. But, at exactly the halfway point of my scheduled time in the country, everything completely and irrevocably changed. I found myself caught up in the excitement of the Orange Revolution. So, on November 22, the day after the elections, I bought an orange scarf, and as though it were the most obvious decision in the world, I dropped everything and joined the masses.


Every day for nearly three weeks, my life revolved around the events of the Maidan. Early in the morning, I woke up in the suburban apartment of a friend, and enjoyed the peaceful walk along the vast, crumbling Soviet-style apartment blocks to Minska subway station, where I paid ten cents for a ride to the city centre. Tired commuters came and went with each stop, slowly being replaced by optimistic, smiling faces, each with their own orange scarf or flag. By the time I reached Maidan subway station, the train at full capacity, I was violently spit out the doors and onto the platform. Through the station, groups of people covered head to toe with orange were streaming towards the exit. Chants of 'Yush-chen-ko!' echoed up and down the 100-metre escalators. Closer to the surface, the crowd became bottled up; the tension was tremendous. I was part of a volcanic force lifting a sea of orange through cracks in the surface of the earth.

The only way to enter the fray was from the station directly below the Maidan. Through the murky claustrophobia of the underground pedestrian passage, I snaked between huddled circles of cold protesters and past kiosks of indifferent cigarette vendors. Up one of the several icy staircases to ground level, I was instantly propelled into a boisterous flag-waving parade, caught in a flurry of chants aimed towards the main stage, each word echoing and mutating through a sea of hundreds of thousands of orange bodies.


History was being made around us. Every actor requires a stage on which to perform. Every time requires a place where history must unfold. The Maidan, the chosen stage, is a place familiar with transformation and turmoil, much like the nation it has come to represent. In a constant state of reconstruction, it perpetually builds over itself, as memories of large and small events intermingle, mix, and solidify its character. Its evolution over time has held no constant velocity, but rather, like Ukraine's first thirteen years of shaky democracy, it has moved in jagged spurts of acceleration, stagnations, or even reversals. Over the past decade several demonstrations and tent cities have materialized, in various configurations, on and around the Maidan. These protests, organized in mass opposition to then-president Leonid Kuchma's increasingly corrupt leadership, were direct precursors to the events of the Orange Revolution, which played out like a final standoff.


After a morning of attending speeches at the main stage, the afternoon would find me swept up in a boisterous parade coming down from the Parliament building. Numb from cold and hunger and intoxicated by the rhythmic waves of the masses, I walked aimlessly, allowing each sight and sound to filter into my memory. I watched as organizers nailed several more tents to the rapidly growing Tent City. Out of nowhere, a formal religious procession passed. I stopped along the way to admire a brick wall covered with names written with snow, where protesters visiting the capital proudly proclaimed their hometowns. I followed for several blocks a Chinese-style dragon carried by a dozen students, made of orange fabric and paper, as it carved through the crowds. The students sang in improvised harmonies and banged recklessly on makeshift plastic drums. Suddenly, they stopped without warning, wrapped into a circle, and sang the national anthem a capella, before continuing on their parade.


Independence Square embraces both its symbolic responsibility and its practical use by a diverse populace. Beyond the people's creative inhabitation of the space during demonstrations, the Maidan is bustling with activity at the most normal of times. It is still a main transportation hub and still the centre of year-round tourist activity. Evenings are crowded with well-dressed youth hovering around the marble-clad fountains, where drinks and music flow into early morning. Likewise, it is the promise of spectacle that pulsates through downtown Kyiv on any given weekend. With the main boulevard of Khreshchatyk transformed into a fully pedestrian thoroughfare, the citizens' pastime of choice is the promenade, where one comes to see and be seen.

A source of great civic pride, the Maidan's prominent centrality is visible on many scales. Kyiv, political capital and historical birthplace of the Ukrainian people, straddles Ukraine's east-west division, the Dnipro River. Independence Square, by name alone, demonstrates its symbolic weight in the city and in Ukraine. Its centrality is nominated, assumed and practiced: it is the place of gathering and activism when crucial issues are at hand. For a people considered to be historically passive, and still dealing psychologically with a near-century of repressive Soviet influence, the potency of this symbiotic relationship between square, city and nation is all the more pronounced. When compared to other public spaces in Kyiv, Maidan stands out as glaring exception: it is not adjacent to key government buildings, or a church, or overrun by a market. For all its symbolic grandeur, its affiliations are vague enough that it welcomes a non-partisan crowd; here, there is no conflict between the sacred and the profane.


As night fell, I briskly climbed a steep embankment adjacent to the Maidan for a better view. Just then, accompanied by a flourish of violins and trumpets, Yushchenko arrived on the podium to an electrified crowd. His disfigured face displayed on fifty-foot Jumbotrons drew a tidal wave of cheers. A nation on its feet waited for instructions, waiting for something to happen. Nobody had ever witnessed or participated in such an event, rookies that we were. The air was thick, bathed in the hues of orange fluorescent light and driving snow. There was an uneasiness, a mix of giddy excitement and nervousness about what would happen next. The only thing people knew was that the government would not simply relinquish their power without a fight. There we stood, on Independence Square, rather, on our Independence Square.

What makes a public place particularly special? For a nation? For an individual? I could methodically provide a physical inventory of the Maidan: its complete backdrop of austere 1950's Stalin-era facades, its cosmetic ensemble of faux-triumphal arch, column and globe, or its new allegiance to unchecked western capitalism in the form of a shiny, underground shopping complex. But this skirts the true significance of the place, its true reason for existence. Because when I stood at the top of the hill, overlooking a sea of attentive spectators, we received a panorama no television screen could recapture, and authentic emotion filled our hearts that simply defied description.

Eardrums on the verge of bursting, eyes on orange overload, I ducked into a cafe to warm my feet. But any relaxation I sought was short-lived. 'What? Yushchenko took the presidential oath?' 'What? Tanks and secret police outside the city?' Suddenly cigarettes light up in unison, an army of fingers sending text-messages on their cell-phones. I strained to understand every word, frustrated with my unsatisfactory grasp of Ukrainian. It was a layer of mystery that I did not need, and it made every situation tense. Thankfully, with the help of friends, I received translations of every sliver of rumour, rhetoric and opinion flying constantly through the air. But I was no less tense. Around me, the chaos began to solidify. A nation was built on that very spot, built of the intangible spirit in the air, voices raised in joyful song. They were constructing temporarily for the present, but at stake was something which could perpetuate, be eternal.


As basic survival mingled with political agenda, users began to test the plasticity of their environment. Sheer numbers of demonstrators coupled with horrendous weather organically extended Maidan's assumed boundaries past the mute, unforgiving facades. With tents pouring into adjacent streets, cultural centres, banks and even City Hall were transformed by volunteers into 24-hour food, medical and rest stations for the cold, weary protesters. The public realm, malleable with the movement of the masses, extended like fingers over, under and through the rigid Soviet-era order of the Square's planning. In a matter of a few days this network grew to include nearly all local streets, as well as a series of satellite locations at key government buildings, where tent villages were erected.

Initially the success of the event seemed to be the result of the well-placed

main stage playing to agreeable crowds; its orientation turned its back on the more enclosed and 'designed' portion of the Maidan, instead taking advantage of a sloping topography and the expansive Khreshchatyk boulevard. However, repeated visits and long hours spent amongst protesters revealed the spatialization of political activism to be much more dynamic and nuanced, subject to subtle, day-by-day alterations, evolving into a functioning organism. Individuals felt compelled to react to the atmosphere around them, realizing that they had the ability to organize and change their surroundings, even the power to destroy them. Similarly, Maidan Nezalezhnosti was an open, public space of the most valuable kind because of the way opinions were shared free of inhibitions and without fear of censorship. The Orange Revolution was all the more remarkable when placed in historical context. Although the Maidan's urban form remains largely unchanged since the time of Communism, the events of November and December marked a crucial shift in the social consciousness of the Ukrainian people, the demonstrations for which Maidan can claim to be both site and catalyst.


The cynic watching television on the other side of the world (or, of Ukraine, for that matter) could have reduced the events to a simple reaction to collective discontent, perhaps even to overblown hype. But what is it then, that defines a true revolution? To be in Kyiv on the Maidan in November became about more than just political upheaval. A true revolution is born of sheer conviction shared by the multitudes. We found comfort here: between the unimaginable joy of 'being there', and the knowledge that this was a struggle, deadly serious, between the right to live freely and the unthinkable alternative. There was a serious understanding that our current actions would affect the future generations of Ukrainians.

The days faded into nights; the Revolution had become a blizzard of events. However, little by little, an underlying meaning began to emerge from the flurry, a slow self-organization, the glimpses of a blossoming national identity. Armed with a notebook, an audio-recorder and a microphone, I became captivated by the subtle changes in the spaces, and began to record them. The initial chaos and excitement began to diminish, and a solemn sincerity replaced it. I spent hours and hours simply on watch, in and around the Tent City, through the crowds of the Maidan, and around the protest circuit. It became less and less about the bureaucracy of the political process, and more about the event itself, made manifest in this most public of places. Where there was once a rope fence now stood stacks of styrofoam. Camping tents were relocated or replaced by larger army tents. Information and food points huddled under existing bus stops, giving away tea and coffee. Every surface became an art canvas. Car trunks became soup kitchens while their speakers proclaimed the evening news. One morning, out of nowhere, a steel, onion-domed chapel appeared on the wide Khreshchatyk sidewalk. Another day, a fleet of taxis choreographed a street barricade. Dance parties and drum circles erupted spontaneously; I could not help but join in.


Independence Square is now quiet. It has once again resumed its everyday role in the heart of a growing metropolis. Even the most militant demonstrators have departed, their tents uprooted, with their goals accomplished and their expectations easily exceeded. In fact, save for the souvenir vendors selling orange scarves, there is scarcely a trace of the events which grounded an entire city to a sudden halt, for those several weeks in the winter of 2004. But this emptiness is no cause for concern : the Maidan has a certain knack for rising to the occasion when circumstances demand.

Like Ukraine, Maidan remains a healthily open question. In their respective scales, they are grappling with issues of identity and self-portrayal: the Square as place of openness and interchange, the Nation negotiating its 'borderland' terrain between Russia and Europe. The critical mass which inhabited it was not simply 'taking back the street', but staking claim to their native land. It was this spirit of activism, now forever engrained in the memories of Ukrainians, which made Maidan transcend its physical attributes, becoming a testament to a transformed Ukraine, and an exemplary public place for the world at large.

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