The heart of Kyiv was full of walkers eager to outstrip the shadow of a looming war and enjoy the first breath of Ukraine’s spring, and for many their Sunday stroll in the pale sunshine took them to Independence Square, better known as Maidan.
It is eight years since Ukraine's "revolution of dignity" ended with dozens of protesters being shot dead on Maidan and adjacent streets by the security forces of then president Viktor Yanukovich, whose rule was backed by the Kremlin.
On the night of February 21st he fled Kyiv and quickly found refuge in Russia, along with his main political allies and many of the officers who fired on the demonstrators, all but a handful of whom were armed with nothing more than makeshift shields and sticks.
The revolution had begun three months earlier when Yanukovich suddenly decided to move closer to Russia rather than signing a landmark deal with the European Union, and opponents of the move were beaten by his riot police on Maidan – brutality that turned a relatively small political protest into a mass uprising against impunity and corruption.
“For nearly 100 days people were on Maidan, through the cold, through winter, through so many fears and worries. It was very hard and we didn’t know what would happen or how it would end,” says Vira Ripa from Bilohorodka outside Kyiv.
“But the people stayed, we were all here together with a feeling of unity and national spirit, of solidarity and strength. Despite 80 years under Soviet pressure we showed that our Cossack gene survived, that we still wanted freedom and would not give up,” she explains, between laying red carnations at a memorial to those killed on Maidan – who Ukrainians call their “heavenly hundred”.
"Eight years ago there was fire, flame and smoke here. People were being killed. They gave their lives for changes in Ukraine, so our next generation would live a free and normal life . . . I'm convinced that Maidan changed Ukraine forever."
For Russia, Yanukovich’s use of violence against his own people, gross corruption and support for draconian anti-democratic laws did not strip him of legitimacy, and the Kremlin denounced the revolution as a western-backed coup led by fascist elements in Ukraine.
In the following weeks, as Moscow’s state media told Ukraine’s Russian-speakers that neo-Nazi mobs planned to attack them, the Kremlin annexed Crimea – where it had a major Black Sea naval base – and sent operatives and arms into eastern Ukraine to turn its tiny separatist movement into a militia army that seized swathes of the industrial Donbas region.
Fighting in Donbas has now killed 14,000 people, and shelling has intensified in recent days amid western warnings that Russia is poised to invade Ukraine on a bigger scale using the 150,000 troops, tanks, missile systems, fighter jets and warships that it has massed on three sides of its neighbour’s territory.
Russia insists it is not planning to attack, while also setting conditions for de-escalation: Ukraine must fulfil the onerous terms of a framework peace deal on Donbas to the Kremlin's satisfaction, and the West must bar Ukraine from Nato and remove the alliance's troops and hardware from eastern Europe.
The crisis also shows how Russian president Vladimir Putin and his closest allies, most of whom served in the Soviet security services, have not reconciled themselves to Ukraine's post-Maidan turn to the West, its deepening integration with the EU – which is now the 41-million-strong country's main trading partner – and its long-term ambition to join Nato.
Putin’s anger over the loss of a key ally – which he blames on the West rather than his own actions – mingles with a kind of moral outrage that Kyiv, ancient heart of eastern Slavic civilisation, is moving rapidly away from the Kremlin, which is now a bastion of Russian nationalism and the Russian Orthodox Church and a fierce opponent of liberal values.
In 2013, four months before Yanukovich abruptly chose deeper ties with Russia over the EU, Putin told a conference in Kyiv called “Orthodox-Slavic Values: The Foundation of Ukraine’s Civilisational Choice”, that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians shared “spiritual values that make us a single people” and a long history that is “the foundation upon which we can build new integration ties”.
His host that day was an oligarch who is probably his closest friend and ally in Ukraine – Viktor Medvedchuk.
Putin is godfather to one of his daughters, and Russia has lambasted Kyiv for placing Medvedchuk – a leader of Ukraine’s main pro-Moscow party – under house arrest over allegations of treason and of financing the separatist militia in Donbas, and for sanctioning three television stations that he is believed to control; the tycoon denies all the accusations.
Medvedchuk’s plight adds another personal element to Putin’s enmity towards the pro-western leaders of Ukraine, a country that he has claimed can attain “true sovereignty . . . only in partnership with Russia”.
The split even acquired a religious dimension when the Orthodox Church of Ukraine gained formal recognition of its independence in 2019 after more than 300 years of subordination to Moscow, in another move that enraged the Kremlin and Russian nationalists.
“This was historically a place of refuge, and eight years ago protesters came here for safety and even the police did not enter to try to arrest them,” says Father Ihor at the golden-domed monastery of St Michael in Kyiv, just a few hundred metres from Maidan.
“The injured were treated inside, right in front of the altar, and the dead were laid out behind the church,” he recalls, during a visit to the capital from his parish in the Black Sea port of Odesa.
“Of course I follow the current news, and I think that for as long as there are aggressors there will always be fears [of war]. If you want peace then you must prepare for war. But that doesn’t mean anyone should panic. It means we should be ready in mind and body and spirit,” adds Father Ihor, who was a sailor before he joined the priesthood.
“We have our armed forces, we have our people, we have our country and we will all stand together, including those of all religious beliefs and those with none.”
For people pausing on a Kyiv pedestrian bridge to sip coffee, take selfies and enjoy sweeping views of the Dnieper river, all-out war still seems to be a remote – or even unimaginable – prospect.
“We don’t watch the news or think about this. We’re trying to enjoy life. If we need to suddenly find a bomb shelter then I hope the survival instinct will kick in,” says Denis, visiting Kyiv with his girlfriend Ira.
“We have to stay positive. We’re not buying [emergency] goods or packing a suitcase or anything like that,” Ira adds.
Hennadiy and Svitlana stopped in Kyiv on their way home from a skiing and spa holiday in the Carpathian mountains of the far west of Ukraine, and would soon continue on to the south-eastern port of Berdyansk on the Black Sea – just 90 km from the frontline.
“We were scared when this started in 2014, but not anymore,” says Svitlana. “We are used to it and don’t believe there will be a bigger attack. Everything will be fine, we’re in a great mood after a lovely holiday,” she adds.
“It’s all just politics and the box [television],” says Hennadiy.
“A friend in [militia-controlled] Luhansk told us they are forcing people there to evacuate and they are mobilising people to fight – but it’s all staged. And we have lots of friends in Russia and they don’t want this war either,” he adds. “It’s wrong to set two brotherly nations against each other.”