by Natalka Zubar
In the beginning was the word,
and the word was…
History of “Maidan” (part I): 2000-2001
from an encyclopaedia:
FORUM: [Latin. Forum] – a square in Ancient Rome where public gatherings and markets took place and court trials were held. It was to become the center of political life.
Ukraine. The Year 2000.
This was a time of corruption, with the pillaging of State revenue on a mass scale. State officials were a law unto themselves, while Parliament (the Verkhovna Rada) had also got out of hand. The referendum had been rigged. The courts were intimidated and subservient to the will of the Regime. The level of social development had dropped to freezing point, placing Ukraine on a par with the poorest countries in Africa.
The opposition was not only without influence, but also deprived of a voice. Public communication took place solely through manipulative means via a mass media which was cowered and obedient to the regime.
The majority of the population was at least partially aware of this. And it remained silent. What could any one of them do alone? What could any one of them say if nobody would listen?
There seemed no way out at all. Nobody expected change, nor did they hope for anything better.
However there was a solution to be found where least expected. Ukraine was saved by civic activists and the Internet. This is the story of the website “Maidan” and the group involved in it. It is the story of the democratic evolution of Ukraine.
1. H. H. BOLT. THE RELAYING OF PROTEST SENTIMENTS
The Internet in Ukraine at the outset of this account was in a zombie-like state. The technical infrastructure was there and worked well, however the content of its components was limited. The majority of Internet users needed it only for writing letters and visited mainly Russian or American websites.
Active news groups and forums were limited to program and technical topics. The overwhelming majority of printed or electronic media outlets had no online version, or one with no substance. The Ukrainian Internet was on the whole not interactive.
The totally (self-)censored mass media pushed talented journalists onto the Internet. In the spring of 2000, the website appeared: “Українська Правда” (УП) [Ukrainska Pravda – Ukrainian Truth], created by the journalist Georgy Gongadze. This website was the first to publish journalists’ investigations, including those into the corrupt activities of those in power.
It was precisely this website which became one of the few sources of information about the rigging of the national referendum of 2000. Other sources were opposition newspapers with small print runs and only one newspaper with a large circulation and specific audience – “Silski visti”[“Rural news”]. Only Ukrainska Pravda (UP) was able to ensure access to a potentially broad international audience.
In particular, UP published at the address: lists of those participating in the referendum , among whom one of the “dead souls” had the surname H.H. Bolt (one of the slang words used as a synonym for the male genital organ).
This was the first case when the traditional Ukrainian “giving the finger from your pocket” (a metaphor for inner protest) via the Internet became available to the information realm. The person who had added H.H. Bolt onto the list of those who had voted in the referendum had sent an information signal, this signal being then recorded and relayed further through the Internet. At the time of publication it was read by a very restricted audience, however the very fact provides a vivid illustration of the state of socio-political relations, and the limited audience of readers of the UP website began, through private channels of communication, to spread the information offline. Later citizen H.H. Bolt was to become a character in theatrical protest actions.
This incident was to be one of the first drops in the torrent which led to the effective discrediting of the referendum of 2000.
A person sends a signal – the signal is recorded by a correspondent – it is retransmitted through the website on the Internet – it is then circulated further by readers into the offline realm – it becomes a feature of the shared awareness of civic activists – it becomes acted upon in mass protest actions or other types of protest.
It is this kind of information circuit for intensifying and retransmitting protest public opinion that constitutes the modus operandi for the website “Maidan”.
2. “THE MELNYCHENKO TAPES”
Despite a relatively small readership of UP at that time and an almost marginal profile even in the Ukrainian Internet (UkrNet), UP became a “handbook” for Kuchma, with his aides regularly printing out its articles from the website. The content of these articles, as well as the sheer existence of an uncontrolled source of information, aroused fury in Kuchma, together with a stream of unprintable words. He discussed with the Head of the Minister of Internal Affairs Yury Kravchenko and the Head of the Presidential Administration, Volodymyr Lytvyn, means of “neutralizing” the journalist Gongadze.
On 16 September 2000 Gongadze disappeared. His many friends raised the alarm and even held a demonstration with the slogan: “Find the journalist Gongadze!” Coverage of this demonstration was broadcast by leading television channels in the country. This demonstration was the last to be presented without distortion on the national mass media for the following 4 years.
Thanks to television, people found out about the existence of the website UP and it swiftly became one of the most popular on UkrNet. It remains such at the present time.
At the beginning of November 2000 a headless body was found in a forest near Kyiv. These were the remains of Georgy Gongadze. His head has to this day not been found.
On 28 November 2000 in the Parliament (Verkhovna Rada) of Ukraine, the Leader of the Socialist Opposition Party Oleksandr Moroz called a press conference where he played for those present a cassette with recordings made in the office of President Leonid Kuchma.
The recording is from a normal cassette recorder. One can hear how Kuchma is discussing with other high-ranking officials how to rig the elections, how to “hang judges up from their balls”, how to “grab the journalist Gongadze by the arse and hand him over to the Chechens” and so forth. All of this is generously spiced with unprintable language, the most common word being a four-letter word beginning with “f”.
This document of the era was given the popular title “the Melnychenko tapes”, and the events around it – “the cassette scandal”. It led to a chain reaction in society which is still continuing and shows no sign of abating.
The transcription of the recording as well as the recording itself appeared on the same day on the Internet. News of these recordings spread among Internet users, with the traffic on UkrNet on that day reaching its first record peak.
People circulating the recording or transcription among people they knew. The few Internet cafés in existence at the time registered a boom in visitors. As well as the Internet, “the Melnychenko tapes” were broadcast only by Radio “Svoboda” (Radio Liberty), which had a limited broadcasting realm which the regime was soon to restrict even further.
People who back in Soviet days had been accustomed to listening to the Russian Service of Radio “Svoboda” as the sole source of uncensored information, moved to the Ukrainian Service and did not go back again.
Within a month, more than half of the population of Ukraine proved to be aware of the content of “the Melnychenko tapes”.
The regime initially denied everything, but then invited PR-agents, including some from other countries, to “regulate” the scandal. The source and means of obtaining the recordings were put in question, as well as the personal motives of the people involved in publishing them, and whether or not they had been doctored. The only thing not discussed was the actual content of the tapes and their connection with real events.
The very possibility of Kuchma’s having used such unprintable language in a conversation on State affairs was denied, and this denial, which could be heard both from him and from his companions became the final argument for people in favor of the authenticity of the tapes.
Since a person who consistently in public communications censors himself and obviously restrains himself from using that same “f” word on air, and then lies about the fact that he uses bad language, i.e. lies in a small way, will lie about something big as well.
After this the techniques for diverting public attention from the content of the tapes did not work since a critical mass of active people had become familiar with the content, and this content coincided with what they saw on an everyday basis around them.
A figure involved in one of the episodes on the tapes – lawyer Salov over whom Kuchma and Yanukovych discussed the methods for “hanging judges by the balls”, over the years since the “cassette scandal” first broke, has already won a case in the European Court of Human Rights. Yet in Ukraine there has been no court verdict over the content of the tapes. It is indeed unclear whether even one criminal investigation has been launched in connection with them, aside from the case of the murder of Gongadze which is very far from having been concluded.
The same techniques for diverting attention from the content to mere details have been used in the same form over 5 years. Nonetheless the majority of the Ukrainian population continues to consider the content of the tapes to be authentic, those who figure in them to be a priori guilty, but do not believe that they will ever face justice.
When information is evaluated by society on the criteria of its closeness to reality, no amount of PR technology is going to succeed in refuting it.
3. FORUMS AS A PROTOTYPE FOR RESISTANCE TO DESTRUCTIVE FORMS OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
In the middle of October 2000 the only political forum on UkrNet “Balachky” [“Chats”], where the subject of Gongadze’s disappearance was actively discussed, was suddenly closed by the provider who gave no reason. The founder and moderator of that forum, Volodymyr Martynyuk considers the closing of the forum to have been connected with its content, and believes that this was the first instance of political censorship on UkrNet.
At the same time a memorial website appeared in memory of Georgy Gongadze (gongadze.com.ua – the website stopped being updated in 2001) and an internet-forum on that site. From the beginning of the cassette scandal activity on that forum increased, with animated discussion about how the scandal was unfolding, as well as about the regime’s response and the content of the tapes.
At the beginning of December, in coordination with a PR campaign directed at distracting public attention from the illegal activities of the regime which had been recorded on the tapes, the internet forum on the Gongadze website was infiltrated by the first “servant trolls”, people who deliberately wrote on the forum page texts which were an agreed part of the PR campaign. For example, at the same time as printed publications, there were reports from supposed witnesses claiming that they had seen “Gongardze with their own eyes in Lviv” (at that time he had been dead for three months).
Individuals were let loose on the forum who wrote a lot of meaningless texts, or open abuse. Later we saw the appearance of specialists on the personal emotional makeup of specific participants in the forum.
The calculation behind such information provocation was that the forum’s participants would develop an aversion to reading the forum entry and would abandon this means of communication.
In Russia, with the help of such technology, all active forums on socio-political issues had been eliminated between 1999 and 2000. The attempt to apply Russian technology to Ukrainian forums began at the end of 2000, however in Ukraine the technology did not work.
It was specifically on the Gongadze website forum at the end of 2000 that it first became clear that in the Ukrainian information realm any destructive activity evoked unexpected and strong resistance. The response to the activities of the “servant trolls” was the self-organization of the members of the forum and their annihilating ridicule.
A destructive information signal elicits a reflex response of resistance from a collective mind.
4. “UKRAINE WITHOUT KUCHMA” – YOU HAVE TO STAND UP AND GET OUT THERE!
The Secretary of the National Council of Security and Defense in the year 2000, Y. Marchuk, submitted a report to President Kuchma where on three pages there were descriptions of those who were involved in the protest action “Ukraine without Kuchma” (UWK), how long and how assiduously they had been working to ensure a decent vote against Kuchma in the Verkhovna Rada. Over 5 years many versions as to the emergence of the UWK were made public and to this day there are “ideologues” and “initiators” of protest actions.
And indeed this really is the story of a spontaneous initiative and self-organization of civic activists.
The publication of “the Melnychenko tapes” was a profound shock to the public. And if, among the wider masses, the process of registering this shock takes a fairly lengthy amount of time, the civic activists responded immediately.
The day after the publication, on 29 November the lawyer Oleh Levytsky approached the civic activist Mykhailo Svystovych, , and complained that the latter was doing nothing although it was his friend (Georgy Gongadze) who had disappeared. He said that they needed to get out onto the square with their protest, even if it was just the two of them, even if nobody else could be found.
Oleh and Mykhailo succeeded in involving the politician Volodymyr Chemerys and the poet Andriy Pidpaly.
Over the course of several days, M. Svystovych rang around parties and civic organizations, trying to get people involved in protest actions. On 13 December V. Chemerys informed the Leader of the Socialist Party, O. Moroz about their decision to go out onto the street. Moroz said: “I have been surprised why the people aren’t coming out onto the street after the publication of such information” .
The young socialist Yury Lutsenko suggested setting up tents for handing out opposition newspapers. . These tents were to remain on Maidan Nezalezhnosti [Independence Square] for many months, and later become the symbol of Ukrainian protest.
On 15 December 2000 500 people came out onto Maidan , whereas the initiators themselves had only expected around 50.
It was decided to make the protest demonstration on Maidan permanent until victory was achieved. The protesters called for the dismissal of all those implicated by the “Melnychenko tapes”, with Kuchma included, and that court proceedings be initiated against them.
The protest was presented in the mass media as a fringe element, with real information about how it was proceeding being provided only by Radio “Svoboda” and UP.
On Maidan in the snow only a few tents remained. In each of these there were civic activists from different parties and people not aligned to any party. It had been decided that as a principled position the protest should not be linked with any particular party.
The information blockade deprived those protesting of the opportunity to enlist new support. M. Svystovych met Volodymyr Martynyuk who suggesting breaking through the information blockade by using the Internet. Yury Lutsenko gave 20 UH (hryvnia) for an internet-café.
On 17 December M. Svystovych, who was venturing onto the Internet for only the second time in his life, placed a call on the Gongadze website’s forum which read: “TO EVERYBODY! EVERYBODY! EVERYBODY! . This call was sent by V. Martynyuk to a couple of thousand email addresses, collected during the time when the forum “Balachky” was still active, as well as to several hundred fax numbers of journalists and media outlets.
People began gathering on Maidan. . The initial group of protesters was made up of civic activists with experience of socio-political activity primarily at the beginning of the 1990s when Ukraine gained independence.
Access to the Gongadze forum was blocked, and the forum did not work for several days. The website of UP was also periodically impossible to access. Other websites which at that time were partially covering the protest of “Ukraine without Kuchma” also periodically experienced the same difficulty (for example, the website UToday).
Martynyuk understood that they needed to create their own website. This is how Volodymyr himself describes his reasons: “The situation of a sudden dearth of information which appeared precisely then was extremely familiar to me and indicated nothing less than the preparation at the highest levels for some kind of unsavory and quite probably force-related actions. For example, there was a similar “removal” of all channels providing information (where the work of all correspondents and their centers of Radio “Svoboda”, the BBC and “Voice of America” had been blocked using various means) on the eve of the sending of Soviet troops into Lithuania near New Year in 1990. At that time I was the Secretary of the Political Council of “Rukh” (Narodny Rukh Ukrainy [The Popular Movement of Ukraine] and was quite well aware of this information blockade at the level of an “original source”.
All of this, together with the strange disappearance of news about UWK on Radio “Svoboda” and other foreign radio stations, as well as the “temporary” disappearance of Radio “Svoboda” and the BBC from certain shortwave frequencies, began to take place at the end of December 2000.
The Catholic and Protestant Christmas was always a favored time for the Post-Soviet leadership to come up with some foul trick or other, since the public in the West temporarily divert their attention from the outside world and concentrate on their own private lives.
Strange things began happening even on UP, while on television broadcasts a ‘guest worker’ appeared from Russia, D. Kiselyov, who bellowed that the State had to “put an end to anarchy”, without any justification labeled the participants in UWK communists and fascists and called for a repetition in Kyiv of what had happened in Moscow in October 1993.
Volodymyr believes that “if there hadn’t been “Ukraine without Kuchma”, it would have been the end to democracy in Ukraine. Ukraine would have followed in the steps of Russia, Byelorussia and Kazakhstan. There wouldn’t even have been the Georgian revolution, since the model, reference point and lesson for it became UWK”
Help in creating the website was brought by old friends from the civic organization “The Association of Middle East Studies” (O. Bohomolov, S. Danylov and I. Semyvolos). Within the framework of a charitable program the Association provides hosting services free of charge to academic institutions. The website with a simple news strip appeared on 20 December and became the official website of “Ukraine without Kuchma”. The main content of the news strip was made up of reports from Maidan Nezalezhnosti where the protest actions were taking place, and for this reason the site took the name “Maidan”.
“The Association of Middle East Studies” was for many years effectively “Maidan’s” office.
The emergence of UWK was made possible by the presence of two components – the experience of civic activists and the infrastructure of the Internet. The impulse, the signal to “stand up and get out there” was provided by the news about “the Melnychenko tapes”. Their content was the motivation which served as confirmation of all that actually happens when everybody remains silent.
5. THE WEBSITE “MAIDAN” AND THE COMMUNITY INVOLVED IN IT
From the first days of the website “Maidan’s” existence, a community of people formed around it who were initially united only by the desire to help UWK. The majority of these people were not in Kyiv and could not physically become involved in the protest actions.
The participants in “Maidan” took part at the virtual level in planning protest actions for the real Maidan, thought up slogans, wrote texts, collected donations for the protesters, circulated information in their own cities, as well as providing news from these cities, and organized protest actions there.
The website from its beginnings began to fulfill a coordinating function as well as providing a means of communication for activists and became a source of “people’s news”, the first example of civic journalism in Ukraine.
From the outset it was clear that almost every call for help would be responded to as long as the call gave the reason why it was important and was presented in language that was understandable and accessible for those addressed.
Moreover it didn’t matter who the appeal came from, whether the person had a good reputation or a known history. The main grounds for making a decision were the content of the call and the reasons given for it being impossible.
On 22 December 2000 I responded to the call of a person apparently called “Petro” (who in fact turned out to be Serhiy Danylov) placed on the “Maidan” forum with a request to organize a mirror of the website abroad. I wrote and offered a professional hosting site abroad under two conditions: no spam or hacker attacks from that server. Serhiy and his friends reacted warily to the offer from a person known to them only through the user name “Pani” since at that stage they already understood that the website was becoming the critical point for providing information about UWK.
Nonetheless they took up the offer, and within several days the form had already moved to a hosting in the USA, and later the news strip was also moved. Within a month the website received it’s name: http://maidan.org.ua, and soon a reserve name http://maidan.org.ua . The reserve address proved necessary due to problems with registration in the zone *.org.ua, which for weeks refused to change the registration detains about the name-servers. In addition, the State over all the years that the website has existed, has not given up its efforts to gain administrative control over the zone .ua .
Thanks to the decision to transfer the hosting abroad, “Maidan” has remained the only political website in Ukraine whose archives have been kept in full since it first appeared – both the news and the forums. All other websites existing in Ukraine before or during UWK for reasons which still remain unclear have lost the content of their forums. Many of the websites of those times have not been retained in full.
“Maidan” has not only retained its own content, but also its people. In the “Maidan” community almost all those who joined it at the beginning of UWK remain there to this day. There numbers have increased over the past years.
A critical force for the existence of the “Maidan” community has also been Ukrainians from “the fourth wave of emigration” as well as students studying abroad. From the first days they undertook to translate news from “Maidan” and the calls for help into the languages of the countries they were in. During the first weeks of the action they organized pickets in support of UWK in Germany and in the USA. They held collections and passed on the money received to help those protesting in the tents. They provided technical support for the website. These people have also become a constant source of news for “Maidan”. All of the coordination and communication between these young people takes place exclusively through the Internet.
This “foreign” Maidan force and the extended network of organizational and technical support for the website and the “Maidan” community safeguarded its stability and ensured its continued existence throughout the period of being “underground”. Given the risk of repressions being meted out to activists, a large part of the communications took place anonymously, under usernames. Over a long period of time only M. Svystovych and V. Martynyuk spoke on behalf of “Maidan” using their real names. Although the organizational and technical back up for the activity of the website was carried out over that entire period by no less than 8 other people in 4 countries of the world.
After the protest actions of UWK abated, the “Maidan” website and the community around it, not only did not disband, but on the contrary began to develop.
All communication, coordination and self-organization technology applied during the time of UWK and recorded in the “Maidan” archives was later used during the Orange Revolution in 2004.
UWK showed the effectiveness of the principle of copyleft – separation of the idea from the person, and also standing above party affiliation and ideology (“first we have to get rid of Kuchma, and then we can come to grips with language, cultural and ideological contradictions “).