You want to hear everything I know about the Dignity Revolution of 2014. About Kolya Dyen and his Horde of Cossacks. How he helped us get rid of the most unscrupulous and bloody collection of saboteurs, provocateurs, and gangsters that the Kremlin ever managed to send into Ukraine.
Let me just start by saying that Kolya was not even a Cossack. He was the most Cossack-ish of us all, but he was completely Anglo-Saxon. Kolya wasn’t even his real name. He adopted it when he moved to the Ukraine in the ’90s.
He came as an exchange student in mathematics at the University of Kyiv. But he’d dropped out of mathematics and had switched to studying the hopak: our muscular leaping and squatting dance that you Americans associate with the Cossacks. So Kolya was not exactly the stereotype of a warrior, right? Nor did he look like a warrior! Small-boned, with fine features—and yet he was the one who led the charge towards a platoon of Berkut, those heavily armed secret police, with nothing but a sword in his hands.
How Kolya got Grigor Parkov to join him is impossible to guess. Grigor, as everyone who met him agrees, had been dropped on his head as a baby. Or else nursed on straight vodka. I’ve also heard that he was that kid who fell through the ice in the Dnieper and wasn’t resuscitated for an hour. Anyway, he was a total psychopath. He’s the one responsible for most of those lunatic cries during the occupation of Dignity Square: “Mammals of the world, unite! Death to Reptiles!” Or “Let’s carpet-bomb Moscow!” Maybe you remember his interview on live television when he told the female reporter, “My name is Nine Incher.”
Whatever his story, Grigor’s brain is skewed very differently from most people. He would have been shivved by now if he didn’t weigh a hundred and twenty kilos and stand two meters high.
Who else was in the Horde? Let’s see, there was the meth addict Dzheff Suzhenko. He was a pipe fitter who’d lost his job two years earlier during the Russian gas fiasco. And of course we had the champion Combat Hopak fighter—and biggest ego east of the Danube—Zher Rumterkon. Zher single-handedly brought at least a dozen followers into the Horde—members of his Combat Hopak gym. Combat Hopak, in case you haven’t guessed, is a kind of fake martial art with swords and baggy pants; really it’s just a chance to show off your best hopak dance moves.
Zher was just as big as Grigor, although otherwise completely the opposite. I’d never met a man as simple as he was or with a bigger heart. He’s so obviously the anti-Grigor that it makes me think whatever god is in charge up there was playing a joke on us.
The scariest person in the Horde was Draga Svyato, a real ball-buster of a female bodybuilder, built like a brick house and twice as likely to rain holy terror down upon anyone who shook her. She may have only been of average height, but she still looms larger than life in my memory.
Now, I don’t speak for everyone in the revolution. It was composed of hundreds of thousands of the best patriots of the motherland. Everyone who spoke up risked their lives, and indeed hundreds were martyred. Brave young men and women. Assassinated. Gunned down or simply disappeared. Not only on the square but all around the country. The efforts of our little horde were maybe no more than a sideshow in the larger revolution. But every Ukrainian is a hero who stood up to the corruption and violence.
That was the reason behind the revolution, you know. We were taking back our country from the traitors who’d sold us out to the Evil Empire to the east. Maybe you didn’t know that—most outsiders think the protests were about the 2013 Euro Trade deal. About how the president had promised he would sign it and then at the last moment said he would sign with Russia instead.
And Ukraine’s economy was in tatters. Russian mafia families were flipping every commodity we had—natural gas, wheat, metals—you name it. They’d buy at huge discounts, using corporations they created when the Soviet Union fell. Then they’d resell everything back to us at crazy, inflated prices. These guys are why they invented the word kleptocracy. How else could so many billionaire oligarchs come out of our broken-up SSR?
It was in November of 2013 that the Maidan protests started. The beginning was peaceful enough: an opposition party called for it on Twitter when the president changed his vote. In the days that followed, as many as 200,000 people came to the rallies. The city of Kyiv was on our side at first and set up a heated tent with hot tea and sandwiches. Ruslana gave a performance. Politicians came from Lithuania and Poland to speak.
My first day out on the square to join the protest wasn’t until after the heating tent was set up, I admit. That little touch of civilization was what had lured me in. Well, that, and the fact that my sheet-metal business had gone down the toilet, thanks to all the graft from the administration. The price of gas had gone nuts, and to make matters worse, they had loaded extra taxes on me and everyone else who wasn’t in their political party.
November in Kyiv is not a gentle time of year. So there was a bit of a macho vibe among the protestors—he-men showing off in the cold weather. I wasn’t one of them. I bundled up in a great wool coat, a cherkeska westerners think of as the old Cossak overcoat. And I stayed in that heating tent the entire time it was up, maybe two weeks. Shivering and drinking hot tea. And then pissing it back out into the snow.
Things went south when some protesters tried to storm the Government Building. That’s when the secret police were sent in: Russia sent their GRU, and the administration brought the Berkut. They used tear gas on us, but it was too late—we held the building.
In December, tens of thousands continued to protest. A few in Parliament recommended a vote of no-confidence in the administration, but the majority passed the “Dictatorship Laws.” The Berkut and the GRU struck back with armed attacks on unarmed protesters. People disappeared. Bodies were found in the woods.
The administration also hired Ukrainian thugs—we call them the titushki—to attack protestors. Worse than the injuries they inflicted was the false impression they tried to give, that the Ukrainian people supported the administration. And those titushki! A bigger collection of morons, dupes, and lapdogs could never be found. They helped fool the rest of the world into thinking that there was legitimate support for the administration. Well, I mean, even the most corrupt man in the country can still count on thirty-five percent of the population to follow him to hell and back, if he’s slick enough. I guess you Americans learned that yourselves, a few Januaries ago.
Things were getting very bad in the middle of February. Zher and Grigor were cursing and throwing whatever they could find at the Berkut on the other side of our barricade: bricks, Molotov cocktails…you name it.
By the way, there was a decided difference in the roles for the sexes. It was men only, out on the front lines. The women were active, but in supporting roles. They were the ones who turned City Hall into a hospital. They kept us in supplies. Antiseptics. Anesthetics. Or, when we ran out of those, vodka.
Men who were shot were carried into the building, and the women pulled the bullets out of them. Unless they were shot in the lungs, heart, or head. Then there was nothing to be done for them. By the end of February, many in the GRU and Berkut had begun shooting to kill. One day alone, February 28, we brought in hundreds of wounded and something like thirty dead.
The hospital had turned into a morgue. It stank of guts and blood and feces. Outside was the stench of mud and burnt tires. And vodka. Everywhere, that stinging smell of cheap potato vodka.
Out at the barricades, the temperature was in the zeroes. In the distance, you heard the sickening crack of the sniper’s rifle every few minutes. Our little groups huddled behind the barricades, a lot of talk was on the sellouts in Eastern Ukraine who wanted to let the Russians come in to steal everything and enslave us once again. But the old-timers reminded us bitterly of the Holodomor of the 1920s. That was when millions of Ukrainians watched their own families slowly starve to death while the Russians stole all our food.
They’d wind up their stories with, “You don’t think Putin would do it all over again?”
It was in the pits of this despair that Kolya had his idea. It happened in a large group of protestors who were building a giant mound of tires they were going to light on fire. Some people nearby were arguing that we should make a retreat, that the protests were too violent and we should return to passive resistance. Others wanted to murder everyone in the administration; the snipers and the armed police were still firing live rounds at us.
Tempers ran high, and no one knew who to listen to.
Then Kolya appeared in his Cossack dance outfit—outside, in the bright light of noon, among the enemy’s camouflaged infantrymen and our groaning and desperate working-class protesters, men wrapped in stinking and bloody winter jackets. Where he got the courage I’ll never know, but he jumped up on that pile of tires and climbed to the top, waving the two prop swords.
“This is no time to back down!” He swung one sword at a tire and chopped through it. It wasn’t just a prop after all.
“We are fighting for our freedom! The way your ancestors did against the czars! Glory to Ukraine! Slava Ukraïné!”
Someone shouted against him. “Don’t listen to the American! We’re all going to be killed. For nothing.”
Other young men yelled back, “What about passive resistance? Like Mahatma Gandhi?”
Grigor appeared out of nowhere. He piped up, “Fuck that passivist bullshit! We need NATO airstrikes!”
“Yeah!” others answered. “If NATO won’t, maybe China will!”
But like most of the weary and the cynical there, I was fascinated by Kolya: a dance costume? We looked at him like he had lost his mind. How long before he would get shot in his already crazy brain?
Grigor, still shouting, climbed up the tire mound and stood next to Kolya. “Vlad the Empoisoner is going to nuke us all. Chernobyl was no accident!” He grabbed one of Kolya’s swords and smashed it against the other that Kolya still held. The clang rung out melodramatically.
That was enough to spur Zher to scramble up the mound after them. “They’re right! We can’t give in to these guys!” He pulled his own sword out of his belt and clashed it against both of theirs.
Throughout the protest, Grigor had been spewing so many conspiracy theories that I’d quit listening to him. But now, even his Chernobyl crap sounded sensible. And it helped that the three of them loomed so menacing on that pile, holding their swords.
“Ha-ha!” Grigor whooped, dashing down the pile and skipping around the crowd. “Which one of you fairies dares to live up to his own ancestors? Death to the invader!”
Everyone grew excited. Though many of us ordinary Vlads and Ivans still held back.
That was when Draga Svyato appeared. She held a big bundle of heavy wooden poles in her big meaty hands: accessories from Zher’s Combat Hopak studio. She waved one in the air and hollered, “Who else is a true Cossack?”
We crowded around her, and she handed out all the poles. Then more swords and costumes appeared—from Kolya’s dance troupe? More came, to get one of the props or to cheer on someone else who did get one.
“All the poles and swords handed out?” Draga bellowed. “Good! Now, the three of you—” and she grabbed the hands of Kolya, Zher, and Grigor, “Come up here and form your regiments!”
She put each of the three men in charge of a battalion of protestors. None of us carried a gun. But some took off their shoes and put on high red yablochko boots, the traditional boots of the Cossack dancer.
Draga did not relent. She clapped big fur hats onto the heads of anyone she could, she produced more boots, and she continued her fiery cries of war: “Slava Ukraïné! Let us show the world! We are more than they think. We are a horde! And we will not go quietly!”
She sent runners off to Zher’s gym, where they fetched a dozen more Combat Hopak uniforms. She also sent people to Kolya’s studio to get all of the costumes from his dance troupe. Within an hour, we had dozens of men milling about in Cossack clothing, waving swords or brandishing wooden poles. Some even just had long knives. They sang and danced and whipped themselves into a frenzy.
I had started off as just another one of the onlookers, but since I was already wearing my cherkeska, that long overcoat of the winter Cossack, I got pulled into Kolya’s battalion. Draga’s message was in my head too, and before I knew it I was swinging a broken lamppost like a halberd and joining the march out of the barricade into the open street. We headed straight toward a squadron of the Ukrainian Berkut.
On that cold and miserable day, after we had watched so many of our number mowed down like cattle by the Berkut, I have to tell you that my heart was in my throat. With each distant gunshot, I jumped. But I think no one else in the Horde even flinched. Many had entered into some kind of ecstatic state where even their own death was not something to be feared.
And then the second of the amazing episodes from that day occurred: The Berkut did not fire at us. Instead, they put down their weapons and cheered us on!
How could this be? We had been fighting the Berkut since the beginning of the protest. We had thrown Molotov cocktails and bricks at them! We had punched and mobbed them. We had even captured many of them. Always turning them in to the custody of the priests, who had stayed neutral in the whole melee.
And of course the Berkut were always hitting us back ten times harder than we could hit them. They had been killing and jailing us by the hundreds. They called us trash and puppets and fools. And now, all of the sudden, we were on the same side?
The only explanation I can imagine is that it must have been those outfits. We reminded those young men who had joined the Berkut that, above all else, we were their countrymen. For it was a Zaporizian Cossack uprising 500 years ago that led to the creation of Ukraine. The very name Cossack means freeman. And we have been a pain to Moscow ever since. That’s why Stalin outlawed any hint of Cossack identity, during his reign.
Without our everyday winter coats, perhaps we no longer looked to them merely like members of an opposing political faction. European-wannabes. Whiners who always complained about our shithole country. Now, in our boots and our fur hats and our baggy pants, we looked like the paintings of their grandfathers hanging in their living rooms. We looked like Super Patriots. So the Berkut let us pass.
We didn’t fare so well against the GRU gunmen in the buildings behind them, though. Once they saw that the Berkut were not going to shoot us, they opened fire. They killed several of us immediately. That was how poor old Dzheff Suzhenko became the first martyr of the Horde.
And then came the third miracle of the day: a hail of bullets came back at them. From the Berkut themselves! They couldn’t bear to see those Russian invaders shooting at their brothers. At a bunch of dancers with swords and clubs.
When the GRU realized what the Berkut were doing, they turned and ran like a bunch of scared children. I don’t know where they went—back to their armored escape cars, I guess.
We carried our dead back to our occupied building. Everywhere phones and cameras were out, recording the bloodbath. Three GRU dead were cleaned and laid out as per our Cossack traditions, left for their countrymen to come for.
Which brings us to the fourth and final miracle of the day. The story of our excursion went viral. Patriotic fervor finally caught on to the majority of the country. At last, the opposition leaders were united enough to declare that very night that they would call for a mass armed uprising in twenty-four hours unless the corrupt administration resigned. They also demanded that the “Dictatorship Laws” be repealed and that the original constitution to Ukraine be restored.
The next morning, a Russian delegation flew in to Kyiv to meet privately with the president. We all knew what they were trying to tell him. It would was an offer he couldn’t refuse. And sure enough, that afternoon, snipers from all the tallest buildings began firing into the barricade where the Horde had come from. All around the square, GRU and their damned titushki fired guns, tear gas, and flash. Meanwhile, that cowardly Russian sent his minions into the Crimean Peninsula, to steal it from us during our hour of crisis.
But that backfired, because all it did was make clear to the general population what the true stakes of this contest were. Within a few hours, Parliament called for the impeachment of the president and the prosecution of all those hired to murder the protestors. The GRU and the titushki had to flee Ukraine immediately or risk facing justice. And the president fled with them. Victory was ours!
In the three years since those fateful days of 2014, we Ukrainians have had an even worse time with Russia. And we know that we will always be infiltrated by thousands of pro-Russian trolls on the GRU payroll, especially in the east, in the Donbas.
But thanks to that Dignity Revolution, our country is no longer the puppet of an enemy power. And if some government players are still stealing Ukraine’s resources, it is only at the same level of petty larceny that the rest of the world has to deal with—our president is no longer spearheading the corruption. Imprisoning his political enemies. Hiring thugs to disappear critics. Showering himself with billions of dollars in national resources. And all the while inviting Russians to carve away as much of our country as they wanted.
As you know, Kolya Dnei has since passed away from a case of plutonium tea. Or, as we call it, Putinitis. And of course you couldn’t interview Grigor if you wanted to; he’s gone completely batso. But Zher is still around—he’ll back me up any of these details.
Charles Joseph Albert writes fiction and poetry when he isn’t smelting exotic alloys. His poems and stories have appeared in Short Edition, Del Sol Review, and Thieving Magpie. Two collections of short stories, The Absent and the Dead and A Thousand Ways to Fail, have recently been published.
Jury S. Judge is an internationally published artist, writer, poet, and cartoonist. Her Astronomy Comedy cartoons were published in The Lowell Observer. She was interviewed on the television news program NAZ Today for her work as a cartoonist. Her artwork has been featured in over one hundred thirty-five literary magazines, including the covers of Blue Mesa Review, 3 Elements Review, Glass Mountain, and Levitate. She has also been interviewed by Streetlight Magazine and The Antonym. She graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BFA from the University of Houston, Clear Lake in 2014.