“The Image of Putin Has Broken”

Maidan protest, 2014
Maidan protest in 2014. Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty.
Julia Ioffe
February 28, 2022

On November 21, 2013, Ukrainian investigative journalist Mustafa Nayyem posted an innocent enough message on Facebook. “Meet you at 10:30 pm under the Monument of Independence,” he wrote. “Dress warmly, bring umbrellas, tea, coffee, a good mood, and friends. Repost in every possible way. Welcome!” 

It was a response to Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych bowing to pressure from Vladimir Putin to back out of an economic cooperation agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. Putin didn’t like the idea of Ukraine drawing closer to Europe—and away from him—so he sent Yanukovych a massive aid package, which was, essentially, a bribe. Like many other young Ukrainians, the 32-year-old Nayyem was not happy with the decision, which meant that Ukraine would continue to be stuck in the mentality and system of the sovok, the “dustpan,” which is slang for the Soviet era. So he called people out to protest. And because he was a bit of a journalistic celebrity, people listened and came out—lots and lots of people. And they stayed and stayed and stayed. Even when Yanukovych sent goons to beat up the college students and young people on Kyiv’s Maidan, or public square, they stayed and more people came to join them, people from all over the city, and then from all over the country.

It all came to a head on February 20, 2014, when Yanukovych, apparently under pressure from Putin, ordered the special police to open fire on the protestors. At the time, I was covering the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and seeing the news, I decided to go to Kyiv. By the time I managed to get on a flight, the shooting had thankfully stopped, but the death toll was in the dozens. I arrived on the 21st. Mustafa, who was a close friend of my boyfriend at the time, met me on the Maidan, gave me a flak jacket and a helmet, and then took me on a tour of the vast encampments that had now spread on the Maidan and around it. It was like being in Blade Runner. Lit by the fires blooming from oil drums and trash cans, young men in knee pads and athletic helmets trained with bats and pieces of wood bristling with nails. The shooting was over for the night, but there was talk it would start again tomorrow. The mood was tense, frightening. After the tour, I bought some water and food and holed up in my hotel room. When I woke up the next morning, the city was jubilant: Yanukovych had fled. The Revolution of Dignity had triumphed.