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The power of volunteerism: providing protective gear for protesters during Euromaidan   

12-year-old Roman Saveliev from Yahotyn, Kyiv Oblast. Photo: Museum of Dignity Lviv
The power of volunteerism: providing protective gear for protesters during Euromaidan   
Translated by: Christine Chraibi

When the Maidan began gathering in December 2013, no one could predict where it was going or what would happen. But, it is entirely correct to say that volunteers made a lasting contribution and helped the Revolution of Dignity come true. The Maidan would still have gathered people together, but it is unlikely it could have survived without the support of a widespread volunteer movement. Kyiv residents and Ukrainians from across the country provided a unique example of self-organization and self-sufficiency in order to achieve their goal – to change Ukraine.

Every day on the Khreshchatyk in Kyiv, volunteers organized the stay of several thousand people on the Maidan – doctors, lawyers, psychologists, journalists and many others. In a matter of days, dozens of volunteer initiatives and different Internet projects arose in makeshift quarters. For example, #Eurohostel , which provided shelters for protesters in Kyiv apartments, EuroMaidan SOS, which gave legal support, the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center (UCMC), which was regularly in touch with the national and international media, MaidanMedic, which provided medical aid, etc. Later, in 2014, volunteer fighters joined the Ukrainian army, while others provided them with all the necessary equipment during the first, most difficult months and so helped halt Russian military aggression in the East.

Ukrainian regions, cities, towns and villages joined in the fight, setting up their own local organizations and arranging delivery of equipment, warm clothes, food, etc. to the protesters in Kyiv. This is one such story of a group of dedicated, innovative individuals in Lviv who “manufactured” homemade protective gear/vests for the Maidan activists. Olena Chebelyuk, chronicler of the Museum of Dignity in Lviv, spoke with Andriy Saliuk, President of  Lvivsky Lytsar (Knight of Lviv), a volunteer initiative that continues to assist the Ukrainian army.

Photo: Museum of Dignity Lviv

Protective vests for the Maidan protesters

After Berkut units viciously attacked and beat the protesters, the Maidan began to manufacture various means of self-defence.

On the Maidan you could see people in motorcycle and ski helmets, military helmets, and other incredibly inventive life hacks. Activists would wrap their bodies and limbs in thick glossy magazines, which softened the blows of police batons. They carried self-made wooden or metal shields, wore sports knee pads on their legs and arms. There were also many original creations, even people dressed in medieval armour.

Armoured vests and protective gear were greatly needed, especially when the protesters were attacked by Berkut forces. It is in the western city of Lviv that a group of activists decided to coordinate their efforts and began manufacturing homemade protective vests.

One of these vests was donated to the Museum of Dignity in Lviv by representatives of the Lviv Regional Student Brotherhood.

Photo: Museum of Dignity Lviv
Photo: Museum of Dignity Lviv

Olena Chebelyuk spoke with Andriy Saliuk, a well-known Lviv volunteer, public figure, President of the Society for the Protection of Historical Monuments and an active participant in all the protest movements in modern Ukrainian history: from the Revolution on Granite in 1990, the Orange Revolution in 2004 to the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. Andriy Saliuk was one of the coordinators of the Maidan Relief Centre, which was located on the premises of the Society for the Protection of Historical Monuments. He tells his story:

On December 11, 2013, Berkut forces advanced along Instytutska Street and launched an assault on the Maidan. That confrontation lasted all night, and many people were beaten and gravely injured. It became clear that besides food, sleeping bags and medicine, Maidan activists urgently needed protective equipment, especially helmets and some sort of protection from police truncheons.

Photo: Museum of Dignity Lviv

-First, we decided to make some kind of protective vest. They were made of thin, 1-mm-thick sheet metal, which provided some protection against police truncheons.

-In January 2014, when the shooting started, we started making so-called winter vests. Unlike the summer ones, which were made of 1-mm-thick sheet metal, the winter vests were made of 3-mm-thick metal. Such body armour also protected against rubber bullets and heavy blows.

-We tested the vests in the surrounding forests, using guns and hunting rifles.

Testing metal plates for protective vests
Testing metal plates for protective vests. Photo: Museum of Dignity Lviv

-We organized a collection point on Kopernyka Street, on the premises of the Society for the Protection of Historical Monuments. The homemade vests were collected and registered here, and then volunteers transported them to Kyiv. By the end of January 2014, different self-established “factories” in Lviv had joined our movement and were manufacturing our designs.

Borys Poshivak, who was the president of the board of the Lviv Regional Student Brotherhood during the Maidan, describes the production process in more detail.

“At one of these private “enterprises”, steel plates of the appropriate size were cut with a laser. The plates were primarily intended to protect the chest and back, but the workers also produced so-called “heavy” armoured vests, which had special pads on the shoulders, the abdomen and groin. They were fastened with straps to the base, which was made from sleeping mats. All the parts were then delivered to a place where volunteers assembled them together.”

-Borys explains that he and his friends worked in the basement of the Palace of the Arts.

“There were at least ten of us. The metal plates were brought to the Palace, other elements were arranged in piles. The belts came in long rolls, which we cut to appropriate lengths and then, we assembled all the parts together.”

-I believe we’re all familiar with the photo that shows 12-year-old Roman Saveliev from Yahotyn, Kyiv Oblast. Journalists called him the “Child of the Maidan” or the “Ukrainian Gavroche”. It was in such a homemade protective vest, made in Lviv, that Roman fought on the front line of the Maidan.

Photo: Museum of Dignity Lviv

Manufactured and assembled by volunteers

Andriy Saliuk explains that in January such protective gear was manufactured and assembled by four groups of volunteers in several different places of the city. They also made sure that the entire process – from design to delivery – was strictly confidential so that as few people as possible knew who was making what and where.

-I coordinated the activities of these groups, ordered the material and kept in touch with the manufacturers. In February, it became clear that we needed more than four groups.

-We collected funds for the metal. Then, the specialists cut them into plates and brought them back to us here. Our female volunteers sat in two different rooms, assembling and sewing them together. In total, we made almost 2,500 homemade vests.

-According to the documents that we’ve kept at the Maidan Relief headquarters, I estimate that about 2,100 vests were delivered to Kyiv. Others went to local Maidan headquarters in Odesa, Dnipro and Luhansk. We also manufactured batons and leg shields.

-In February, when tension on the Kyiv Maidan rose and violence escalated everywhere, a lot of volunteers set out from Lviv to Kyiv. We tried to outfit every man and woman who was heading for Kyiv. We didn’t want to let them leave without any protection.

Photo: Museum of Dignity Lviv

-Later, at least two people told us that our homemade vests had saved them from Berkut bullets.

-Then, at the beginning of March, a unit of border guards arrived on our doorstep. They were being transferred to Chonhar, Kherson Oblast, the de facto border between occupied Crimea and mainland Ukraine. W gave them roll mats, sleeping bags and even some of our homemade vests… about fifty. They had absolutely nothing…

-We also delivered a lot of helmets to the Maidan, first ordinary construction helmets, then motorcycle or ski helmets. And then, when the shooting began, we searched for military metal helmets.

-In conclusion, I’d like to underline the impact of the volunteer movement in Ukraine during Euromaidan. The scale of the volunteer movement in Lviv and elsewhere in Ukraine, as well as individual creativity were really impressive!

The Revolution of Dignity changed the face of Ukraine, whereas the volunteer movement played a huge role during those crucial months and continues to be an important factor in civic society.

Ukrainian volunteer organizations have often taken over in the face of government inefficiency or failure.  One of the most lasting and influential results of the Maidan movement and the subsequent Russo-Ukrainian war is certainly the rise of civic activism in Ukraine.


Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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