What Is It Like to Live Inside a Sub-Zero Ukrainian Tent City?

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Dec. 13 2013 5:25 PM

Revolution on Ice

Ukrainian protesters are living on the street, withstanding bitter, freezing cold. What is it like to live inside a sub-zero tent city?

Protesters drink free "hot Volyn tea" and eat hot soup at Independence Square.
Protesters drink free "hot Volyn tea" and eat hot soup at Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine.

Courtesy of Anastasia Vlasova

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KIEV, Ukraine—The week began with this tweet from the possibly authentic Twitter account of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich: “Over next few days it will cool significantly. Dress warmer or spend time at home with family. #PresidentsTip.”

Yanukovich, who is currently facing the wrath of Kiev’s massive Euromaidan protests, isn’t known for his compassion. (In his two presidential campaigns, his first opponent was poisoned and the second is now in jail). But he might have a point—for once. This is no Arab Spring: It is ridiculously cold out here.

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Ukraine's demonstrations began last month after Yanukovich walked away from a deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties to Russia. As winter has set in, the protests have snowballed into a sustained anti-government rally. But on Kiev's Independence Square—known as the Maidan—protesters face not only riot police, but also snow and ice.

On my first evening at the Maidan, fat snowflakes fell on the tent city clustered on one side of the square, a labyrinth of tents, railings, and metal barrels with logs set aflame inside. Two men beckoned me to join them by their barrel, blue eyes set against faces reddened by the cold. The snow melted when it touched the back of my hands, and soon my palms were broiling. Next to me a middle-aged woman warmed her scarf, which had frozen around her neck.

Kiev in winter would seem completely inhospitable to street protests. But a weatherman on Russia 24 drew the opposite conclusion, finding a link between icy weather and unrest in the Ukrainian capital. After all, the 2004 Orange Revolution took place exactly nine years ago, in the same bitter temperatures. “Maybe it’s no coincidence,” he speculated.

Protesters drink free "hot Volyn tea" at Independence Square.
Protesters drink free "hot Volyn tea" at Independence Square.

Photo courtesy Anastasia Vlasova

In spite of the elements, the pro-Europe protesters have built a thriving winter village. Clouds of steam rise from field kitchens, where volunteers serve food around the clock. On Sunday, I got a bowl of clear soup, sprinkled generously with fresh chives and dill. Burly men munched on bread with salo, slabs of pork fat, washing it down with strong, sweet tea ladled into disposable cups. Best of all was the tea served with kalyna, a bright red berry, or coffee boiled in a vat with sweetened condensed milk. Surprisingly, there was no alcohol to be seen—this will not be a vodka-warmed revolution. People needed to be alert, and the volunteer guards don’t let drunks pass through the barricades.

There is some indoor space, however. The newly minted Revolution HQ is the occupied city hall, a stone's throw from the Maidan. By the entrance to the building, a hand-drawn poster explains that the protesters’ headquarters needed medicine, food, money, warm clothes, and gas masks. The heavy rotating doors lead into a hive of activity. Downstairs there were tables spread with more food, and even a makeshift shrine with candles. In the toasty grand hall upstairs, protesters dozed on colorful blankets that stretch across the room like a vast oriental rug. One corner harbored a medical center, with a sign that said “PSYCHOLOGIST.”

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