I checked in at the hotel – they wanted half an hour alone with my passport, in the way that receptionists in Eastern Europe so touchingly do – so I left them to it and went to watch the demonstration on the TV in my room. It didn't look like the sort of crowd that turns up for a couple of fine speeches, then drifts placidly homeward. I wasn't going to miss anything. It looked reassuringly like an all-nighter.
Some of the snow was settling on the gold domes of St Sophia as I passed them on my left and the streets began to slope downhill. There were more people about. I had just climbed that spur of land above the Dnieper on which the ancient city stood – below me now was the full-on roar from Independence Square. I took the first dark street that seemed to lead that way and came out at the end of it into the fringes of a crowd I couldn't quite make sense of at first. It seemed I was behind the stage from which the speakers were addressing the real crowd, but the giant plasma screens on either side of the stage obscured the view beyond it. I would have to make my way right into the thick of it before I could start to get some sense of its extent, so I set about doing so.
At close-quarters it was a dour, forbidding crowd to begin with – the big black coats in which the men stood listening, the smell of vodka on their breath as you pressed past them, the bitterness of the cold… I'd visited many East European countries but this was my first time in any part of the former USSR – my first post-Soviet rather than merely post-Communist crowd. From the other side the screens and the speakers and the laser displays that were mesmerising this crowd were impressive rather than appealing, likewise the vast modern square which was hosting the spectacle. Besides, pushing through a crowd in the country you are from is different – you know all the little phrases, you know how hard you can push and the gestures that will more or less appease people as you do it. Any foreign crowd is daunting. An utterly foreign crowd in an unpredictable mood is utterly daunting.
But I stood in this one all the same and several things quickly struck me. TV is good at capturing euphoria – the awkwardness in such gatherings rarely comes across in the small screen version of these events. In a way that's what the plasma screens were there for too, I supposed, to validate what was happening, make people feel they were on TV, so it must be real. Not just to tell them that the whole world was watching but to show them exactly what that world was seeing. They were there to show the crowd just how big, just how powerful it was, in a country where the only publicly visible power had been emphatically that of the governing party. The screens were all of that. But perhaps they were also to help overcome the strangeness they, the Ukrainians, were feeling at coming together in this way, en masse, defiantly – the first time for them too. In a way, I mused, this crowd might feel almost as foreign to itself as it did to me – perhaps that was what I was picking up on.
Which struck me as a rather contorted idea, once it had occurred to me – I wondered perhaps if the shock of this cold, together with not having eaten properly all day, was beginning to affect my thought-processes. I felt ravenously hungry all of a sudden anyway and wandered back the way I'd come until I found somewhere open.
After eating I just looked about for most of that night, uncertain of where or how to begin. I recalled now the irritation I'd sensed at some of the questions I'd asked people over the internet, or my vexation at messages which had gone strangely unanswered over the past few days. I felt ashamed. Why would people in the midst of this want to talk to some chancer who had, to be honest, always thought of this country as more or less a Russian province? Would I not be exposed the moment I opened my mouth, even assuming I could find someone with whom I had a language in common?
I went to look at the student camp – a little town of tents, the snow settling quite heavily on them by now, ringed with a human chain of protesters to defend it against any mobsters that might happen that way. They would indeed be there all night. They had been there all the previous night too. They had dragged park benches from all over the city, piled them up and chained them together into barricades where the camp was most vulnerable to attack. The minivans which had carried the protesters to Kiev were likewise parked three or four rows deep where the camp was open onto the rest of Kreschatik Street.
Above one section of the human chain was a Green Party banner – so I finally plucked up courage – here I would be among my own kind. But the only one I had a language in common with had slept four or five hours in the last two days – her French was not at its best, she apologised. Come back tomorrow, she said. And it was 3am by now. The not-very- suitable jacket I'd brought with me was caked with snow. It seemed good advice.
Next day mid-morning the city centre was still teeming with protesters. The non-stop rock concert of the small hours seemed still to be in progress on Independence Square, but it was the students I needed to talk to really. I strolled down Kreschatik still feeling oddly diffident. I'm freelance – I had no Press accreditation with me. That embarrassment from the previous evening still inhibited me too – surely this place must be swarming with half the world's top-flight reporters. But then if I thought about it the visa had taken me more than a week to get. So maybe they weren't here yet. And maybe I should just plunge in whether they were or not…
Plunge in I eventually did, and with encouragement from an unexpected quarter. A kiosk served me some scalding hot pizza out of a microwave and I had retreated to a columned arcade overlooking the boulevard from half-way along it, to wait for the pizza to cool off. Then I would watch the crowds and enjoy a breakfast al fresco while I worked out a way into all this.
A cock sparrow flew down from somewhere, squinting up at me and waiting for my meal to begin. His began at the same time. I threw him a piece, of which he made very short work. So I threw him a bigger piece. You soon get hungry in this cold – I agreed with him about that. This new piece he seized upon just as hungrily but fluttered to a nearby window-ledge to chomp it up in private. I ate some more and looked about me again. A couple of journalists were standing nearby now, with cameras and press cards around their necks. And next time I looked his way the sparrow was back again – eager as ever, my previous two offerings quite forgotten. So he got another. And another. And then we shared the last piece between us.
I thanked him and walked over to where the journalists were. We chatted for a while – I'd promised to send my girlfriend an email and I needed to contact my editor of course – ask him what sort of thing he wanted now. I mentioned this and they casually gestured in the direction of the student camp – 'Try the Press Centre in there,' one of them said, 'They have email.' 'But how do I get in?' 'Oh don't worry. Just speak English.'
Of course! Why hadn't I thought of that?! Approaching the camp once more, it occurred to me that after all I belonged here in a way too, didn't I? I wanted that nature reserve left alone, i.e I wanted the government of this country to abide by international law – so then I also wanted the only method that would remove this hoodlum of a president – that is to say, fair elections. I didn't need to be a 'top-flight reporter' to see that. Even just knowing about the Biosphere Reserve I already knew more about this country than most people where I was from – and I was here to learn anyway, wasn't I?
So I'd left London less than twenty-four hours earlier when I spoke English at two or three links in that human chain until one of them nodded and let me inside the cordon, as if at a password, patting me on the back as I went. At the Press Centre I was the first foreign reporter to present himself but they were just about to hold a Press Conference for Ukrainian journalists. I was asked to wait around until afterwards, when I could use their computers and they would see about getting me some accreditation.