Dressed in a luxurious velvet military costume, traditional wool papakha hat and sword, Ivan Zababakha, a 70-year-old retired coalminer, was ready for battle.
A member of a 350-strong western Ukrainian Cossack club, Mr Zababakha and his fellow Cossacks have been keeping watch over Kiev’s Independence Square for days, braving subzero temperatures and defending the pro-EU protest camp against raids by riot police and Ukraine’s national guard.
“We came here dressed as Cossacks to lift spirits and the fighting will. But let me also point out that my sword is longer than the clubs the riot police have used to beat protesters,” Mr Zababakha said grinning.
The mustachioed Cossack is among a motley crew of thousands who have descended on one of Kiev’s most central and high-end districts and set up camp in a scene that resembles a cross between Occupy Wall Street and the 19th-century France of Les Misérables.
Angered by President Viktor Yanukovich and his decision not to sign a far-reaching integration agreement with the EU last month and instead seek closer ties with Russia, the demonstrators have cordoned off a swath of the capital about the size of Trafalgar Square. They have set up their own mini tent city with cafeterias, medical centres, clothes exchanges and even a massage zone.
Entertainment is provided round the clock from a massive stage in the form of stump speeches, concerts, Catholic and Orthodox masses and football matches on screen. Renditions of the Ukrainian national anthem, both planned and spontaneous, take place at least a dozen times a day.
Protest leaders say the highly organised operation is financed by donations from ordinary citizens, businesses angered with the government’s policies, and political parties, while there are also rumours that some of the country’s billionaire oligarchs are chipping in.
On weekdays the camp has been sustained by thousands of out-of-town protesters who arrived in Kiev days or weeks ago. The biggest die-hards live directly on the square in tents and survive on a diet of buckwheat, tea and open-faced sandwiches topped of with a slab of meat or lemon slice.
On a recent afternoon, Valery Seputkov, a contractor, stood on top of a 2m-high barricade of snow-filled sacks, daring riot police to cross it as Ukrainian flags flew in the wind at his side.
“On the other side of our ice wall you have Yanukovich’s regime of slavery and corruption that robs our country and our future,” he declared. “On our side, life is beautiful. We are one family, building our view of Ukraine in solidarity, supporting each other rather than scrapping for survival.”
Mykhailo Halushchak, 23, from Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains, pointed with pride to the tent where he planned to spend the next few nights sleeping with 20 other people. “It’s cool,” he insisted. “Romantic.”
We were in a ‘customs union’ with Russia for thousands of years under the tsar and then for 70 years under communism. We don’t want to go back to that. We won’t allow that
Nearby, Father Mykola, one of about 200 clergymen and nuns, tried to tune out the din of loud rock as he prepared for evening prayers. “It bothers me,” he said of the music “especially when we’re praying here and have mass. But what can you do? That’s revolution!”
With the exception of the priests and Cossacks, the demographics of the protest camp largely reflect the broader ideological divide of the country, with a faultline between western and eastern Ukraine.
According to a poll led by the respected Democratic Initiatives Foundation, about four-fifths of the out-of-towners are from western or central Ukraine, regions that are largely Ukrainian-speaking, pro-European and anti-Russia. Just one-fifth of the protesters are from eastern and southern Ukraine, where the majority of the population speaks Russian and ties to Moscow are much stronger.
Roman Nastashchuk, an unemployed engineer from the west, said he had travelled to the camp on a night bus with 70 others and would stay there until it was clear the country would seek integration with Europe, and not join a Russia-led customs union with Ukraine and Belarus. “We were in a ‘customs union’ with Russia for thousands of years under the tsar and then for 70 years under communism. We don’t want to go back to that. We won’t allow that.”
While most of the live-in protesters say they came to the square because of pro-EU sentiment – and anger over a November 30 protest when police beat student demonstrators – economic factors have also played a role.
The situation is particularly acute in western Ukraine, which does not have any of the major Soviet-era industrial plants that the east has and where salaries have fallen steadily.
Andriy Rozumiak, a construction worker who had trained as a psychologist, said he was now getting by on as little as 100 hryvnia ($12) a day versus 350 hryvnia two years ago. “Prices have risen and our salaries have fallen. There’s only enough money to scrape by. If someone gets sick or something else happens, that’s it.”
The economic situation was better in Poland and Europe, he said, but few eastern Ukrainians had had the chance to see that. “They got used to living under Soviet power,” he said. “Europe for some reason is scary for them.”