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9 years on, the meaning of the Maidan protests persists in Ukraine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last week, the world marked a year since Russia launched its full-on assault on Ukraine. February 24 is also the day nine years ago when Ukraine's Russian-backed president fled the country from Moscow, following huge protests in Kyiv's Maidan Square. From Kyiv, NPR's Julian Hayda reports on the anniversary of Russia's first invasion and prelude to today's war.

JULIAN HAYDA, BYLINE: Nine years and some months ago, Kyiv's Independence Square - Maidan, as locals call it - looked a lot like it does today. Eight lanes of traffic meet in a tangle of narrow, medieval streets. Acres upon acres of red brick sidewalks abutting monumental granite buildings make pedestrians look like ants.

Good to meet you.

LARISSA BABIJ: Likewise. Yeah.

HAYDA: This is where I meet Larissa Babij, a Ukrainian American translator who's called Kyiv home since 2005. The area is surrounded by government buildings and high-end offices, a veritable power center in Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHEERING)

HAYDA: And that's exactly why, in November of 2013, Ukrainian activists chose this place to protest the decision by then-President Viktor Yanukovych to ditch a plan that would draw Ukraine closer to the European Union. Instead, Yanukovych wanted to move closer to Russia. Babij learned about the gathering on Facebook and told some of her friends.

BABIJ: I'm going out to Maidan, and it was like - it was a very, like, kind of unsure thing, but I was like, no, I'm going to go there. And I came, and there was, you know, some dozens of people, maybe up to a couple hundred milling around. It was very quiet.

HAYDA: For a week, she and others converged on the Maidan with a small but growing group of people.

BABIJ: There were a lot of impromptu conversations between people, and they talked about politics - politics in a really fundamental way - like, what are you doing here? What kind of a country do you want to live in?

HAYDA: But as the crowds grew, so did the police presence. By the end of November, Special Forces shut it down.

(CROSSTALK)

HAYDA: Men in helmets and armor overwhelmed the group, swinging batons. Nearly a hundred people were injured, mostly college students and journalists. But within days, as many as a half million more people gathered in the square. I was there, too, and back then, I asked student protester Anastasiya Kryvyak why so many had suddenly showed up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANASTASIYA KRYVYAK: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: "People of all ages are standing here to make sure that the government just doesn't beat people," she said. "That is our right."

TERRELL JERMAINE STARR: There's a threshold of abuse that is just simply too much, and they hit the streets and they demand change.

HAYDA: That's Terrell Jermaine Starr, a political analyst who moved to Kyiv a few years before. He says the government's attempts to clear the area turned more and more violent over the following weeks and months and the protests became entrenched. The movement wasn't so much about East-West politics anymore.

STARR: It's one thing to say we're not going to go to the EU. It's another thing to see your child being beaten mercilessly and people dying.

HAYDA: By February nine years ago, this cycle of resistance and repression grew so violent that snipers shot and killed over a hundred protesters on the Maidan. Today, Larissa Babij and I retraced the steps of those protesters as they marched on parliament and directly into sniper fire.

BABIJ: The Maidan, like - it was meant to - we don't know exactly what it was meant to, but it toppled the government.

HAYDA: Parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from office, and on February 24, he fled Ukraine to Russia. In quick succession, Russia occupied parts of Ukraine.

SOPHIA WILSON: The victory made Putin realize that he can no longer control Ukraine via puppet regime.

HAYDA: That's Sophia Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University, who has a forthcoming book on the movement's legacy.

WILSON: Depicting it as anti-Russia or pro-West is very misleading. Polls show people of Ukraine - they were not anti-Russia. They just said, we just want to live in a democracy.

HAYDA: Since Maidan, entire government agencies were replaced. All of the country's cops were fired in a bid to end police brutality. For Larissa Babij, though, the Maidan is still unfinished business.

BABIJ: If you look at how Ukraine is defending itself today and has been defending itself for the past year, that defense actually gives this Maidan meaning. Had Ukraine capitulated in February, March of last year, this Maidan would have been, like, a little - you know, a little spark.

HAYDA: But Ukraine did not capitulate, and Maidan's meaning endures.

Julian Hayda, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julian Hayda