On 21 November 2013, as thousands of his fellow Ukrainians first gathered in Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Independence Square – in Kyiv to demonstrate against President Viktor Yanukovych, a 40-year-old IT entrepreneur named Yuri Biryukov felt a stirring of hope. Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the EU association agreement that would begin the process of drawing his country into Europe, and instead to seek improved ties with Russia, had angered much of the population. The government was already deeply unpopular; high-level corruption was endemic and the country was close to bankruptcy. Change was coming, Biryukov believed, and he wanted to be part of it. He was just not sure how.
Peaceful protests turned to bloody revolution when riot police and hired thugs were sent in to clear the square. In January the first Euromaidan activists were killed. Biryukov had been taking food and medical supplies to the demonstrators at weekends but still felt he was not doing enough. After ordering snipers to fire on the protesters, Yanukovych fled to Russia on 21 February. One crisis was ending and another beginning. Just a few days later, several hundred Russian troops marched into Crimea. On 21 March the region was formally annexed by Moscow. And Biryukov found his purpose.
After seeing people using social media trying to raise money to help Ukraine’s decrepit army, Biryukov started a Facebook group called Wings Phoenix. Through his father, he had contacts in the 79th Airborne Paratrooper Division, which was based in his home town of Nikolaev in southern Ukraine. He asked soldiers what supplies they lacked and posted the information on the web page, which also contained his bank account details. As donations flowed in, Biryukov bought equipment – mainly body armour and walkie-talkies – and sent it to the front lines.
When I met him in late April at a café on Khreshchatyk, the main thoroughfare off the Maidan, Biryukov had already raised and spent thousands of pounds. Dressed in jeans and a casual T-shirt, he was gregarious and open. He leaned across the table to show me a large tattoo on his upper left arm of a phoenix surrounded by flames.
Biryukov’s mission to help the army was taking off. “We are repairing a plane,” he told me. “I have arranged for engineers from the Antonov plane factory to come and repair it. [They] need a plane in the east immediately, to transport supplies and men.”
The lesson from Euromaidan was that it was up to the ordinary people to act, he said. “We are the ones making the difference now.” A core of protesters remained in tents in and around the square, refusing to move until the parliamentary elections scheduled for October. People washed clothes in buckets while Cossack militiamen lifted weights. A stall sold toilet paper bearing the image of Yanukovych. The square’s inversion echoed that of the state: the people were proudly on display; officialdom, for the time being, was in retreat.
Even so, Biryukov was concerned. After sustained pro-Russia protests across southeastern Ukraine, separatists had seized significant parts of the Donbas region, including the major cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
To travel through eastern Ukraine in those early days of the crisis was to watch the country being torn apart. At Kulikovo Field, a wide, flat concrete expanse in central Odessa, the port city on the Black Sea, I saw my first pro-Russia demonstration. Several hundred protesters, mostly older men and women carrying Russian or USSR hammer-and-sickle flags, listened to Soviet marching songs.
A man proudly waved a banner depicting Joseph Stalin as Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Those of you who want to join Europe, take out your lubricant,” a speaker yelled, to roars of approval. “America wants to conquer us! It wants to buy our country!”
A woman in her sixties told me she would welcome Russian troops “with bread and salt”. “They [the government in Kyiv] hate us. They want to destroy our language.” She said she had seen the evidence on Russian television, which has moulded the imagination of eastern Ukrainians for years. “If you go to Lviv” – a pro-Kyiv city in the west – “they won’t even sell you milk if you speak Russian.”
A few days later, in Luhansk, I attended a press conference inside the state security services offices, 48 hours after their takeover. Masked men wearing camouflage uniforms and carrying automatic weapons were posted throughout the building. Valery Bolotov, a gruff former paratrooper in the Soviet army, announced the breakaway of the region: Luhansk, he said, would now control its own destiny. And in Sloviansk, a town near the Russian border, where armed men accused me of being an American spy, Colonel Igor Strelkov, a former Russian security services agent, was announced as the leader of the Donbas People’s Militia. He led a unit of Russian officers who trained local militiamen before moving on to other occupied cities in the east.
Over the following months, convoys of military equipment, including tanks and missiles, arrived steadily across the border from a training camp near the Russian town of Rostov, allowing the rebels to fight on in the face of superior numbers and firepower. Dozens of army helicopters and planes were shot down using weapons allegedly supplied by Moscow, while the Ukrainian military shelled separatist positions in the occupied cities. The election of the chocolate tycoon Petro Poroshenko to the Ukrainian presidency on 25 May barely registered in the east.
On a trip to the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, an industrial city of a million people, in July, I met the prosecutor general of the separatist “government”, Ravil Khalikov, who had arrived from Russia and had fought in Chechnya and Afghanistan. He was, he told me, working on a new criminal code, taking elements from Russian and Soviet law. The Russians were firmly in control.
It appeared that might change after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, allegedly by separatist rebels using a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile. All 298 passengers and crew were killed. But the international outrage proved short-lived, and although the US and the EU imposed sanctions on Russian companies and businessmen with ties to the Kremlin, Moscow’s belligerence towards Ukraine continues.
In early October, a few weeks before the long-awaited parliamentary elections, I arranged to meet Yuri Biryukov again. The T-shirt and jeans had gone, replaced by a camouflage jacket and matching fatigues with military insignia, army boots and, strapped to his hip, an automatic pistol.
The laughing IT consultant had been transformed. “Are you allowed to carry a gun?” I asked, as we sat in a café. “Officially?” was the extent of his reply. “Have you ever fired it?” He nodded. “Can you talk about it?” He shrugged. “I’m alive.”
Wings Phoenix was more successful – and more needed – than ever. In the past month alone his group had donated about 15 million hryvnia (£630,000) worth of equipment, he said. Food, underwear, radios, helmets, sleeping bags – Ukraine’s army needed it all. The Facebook group had morphed into a charitable foundation, sourcing equipment, mainly uniforms, from Canada, the United States, Europe and China. Some was bought from official suppliers and some received as donations. In total, Wings Phoenix had raised between 50 and 60 million hryvnia.
The Antonov plane Biryukov had had repaired was transporting supplies to the front lines. He showed me a photo on his phone of several Mitsubishi L200 pick-up trucks, and said he had supplied 12 of them to the army. I asked what they were used for, and Yuri scrolled to the next photo, showing one of the trucks now painted in camouflage. He swiped his finger across the screen once more to reveal a rocket launcher mounted on its back. Another swipe. The launcher firing: an explosion of flame and smoke.
A man walking past suddenly noticed him. “Phoenix!” he bellowed and leaned over the railing to shake his hand. Biryukov’s fundraising exploits have won him local fame. “I have my own battalion in the 79th Brigade now,” he explained. “Well, not my own. It’s a Ukrainian army battalion but it’s called Phoenix, after my group.”
He showed me its logo, emblazoned on a badge on his uniform. From tattoo to military insignia: the change seemed appropriate. I asked him what its Cyrillic lettering meant. “Fire of angry hearts,” he replied.
Biryukov, to my mind, had become a synecdoche for the Ukrainian people. He embodied both their increasing determination to fight Moscow and their anger at Putin and their own political establishment. The gradual fusion of civil society and state since Euromaidan had reached its inevitable conclusion in the camouflaged figure sitting before me. A civilian-soldier: a new type of celebrity in a new Ukraine.
The war was not going as well as he had hoped, Biryukov said. “The soldiers are tired. And they are not happy. How is it possible to be happy during war . . . losing friends?” His comfortable life as a businessman seemed far away. But he was not downbeat. He couldn’t be – too many people were relying on him.
“Do you know the slogan of the airborne troops in Ukraine? ‘Who else if not us?’ That’s why I do what I do: if I don’t do it, who else will?”