What's going on in Ukraine?

Police violence and ideas of the state in Ukrainian ‘Euromaidan’

The editors of Anthropoliteia would like to welcome Taras Fedirko with the latest entry in our developing Forum What’s Going on in Ukraine?

Violence as other; other as the authorities

In their responses to police violence during the ‘Euromaidan’in Ukraine, protesters and engaged commentators often located the source of brutality in some sort of unofficial, ‘other’realm within the state. Narratives of police brutality became narratives of the state as the riot police came to be imagined as commanded directly by the president Yanuokovych; authorities were thought to conspire against the Maidan; and snipers shooting at protesters on February 18-20 were said to be ‘Russian-trained.’

My interest here is in how protesters and sympathetic media represented the standoff between Maidan and ‘Berkut’ riot police not so much in terms of the enforcement of public order or contestations over what such order is/should be, but in terms of a confrontation between protesters and the authorities (rather than the police). The term for the ‘authorities’in Ukrainian is vlada, which simultaneously means abstract ‘power’and ‘people in/holding power’. Although it has an official usage (e.g. orhany vlady—state institutions, literally ‘organs of power’), it is crucial that in Ukrainian there is no word for ‘authority’and, I would add, no pragmatic difference between power and authority. The ‘realist’term vlada therefore maps the lack of emic differentiation between the official and unofficial power. I suggest that the displacement of the source of police agency to vlada was premised on understandings of vlada as the source of both official/formal and informal power in the society.

As the illegal and brutal police crackdown on Maidan on November 30 challenged the perceptions of the politically possible, many narrated ‘Berkut’s’ actions through figures of distance, otherness and displacement. Police violence was ‘mediaeval’and ‘Ukrainians suddenly woke up in Belarus’. Illustrating his post with the picture of Mongol siege of Kyiv, a blogger Andrii Okara wrote on a popular news website Ukraiins’ka Pravda: ‘Today’s pogrom [his word, referring to ‘Berkut’s’ crackdown on Maidan] of the peaceful demonstration in Maidan can be compared with the siege and seizure of Kyiv in November-December 1240 by Mongols of Batu Khan.’

Okara’s comment represents just one position in the spectrum of representations of police violence that attributed events on November 30 either to ‘inhumanity’of the police, or to some source ‘outside’of them, most notably, personal/informal/illegal decisions of the president, the central figure in vlada.

What we see… is a metonymic displacement of police agency to vlada.

Anatolii Hrytsenko, MP and ex-Minister of Defense, made a connection between the police action on November 30 and the president, saying that ‘Yanukovych went beyond the limits of humanity’. Reacting to official declarations by the Minister of Interior Zakharchenko who claimed that Berkut was provoked by the protesters and had to enforce the law, Oleksii Haran’, a historian, expressed what seems to me a much broader popular interpretation of the reasons of, and forces behind the crackdown. In a blog post titled ‘Police and the Party of Region [Yanukovych’s puppet party], stop and think!’, Haran’wrote: ‘officers and soldiers, do not carry out criminal orders! Don’t be “cannon fodder”of criminals!’, suggesting vlada had ‘Berkut’ on ‘manual control’(commentators often use the phrase to refer to extra-legal governance by direct orders).

What we see in these comments is a metonymic displacement of police agency to vlada. Comments above imply an ‘obvious’causal connection between ‘Berkut’s’ brutality and some obscure and unlawful decisions of people in power. In the logic of the protest discourse, the fact that the police beat the people it was supposed to protect and ‘be with,’automatically meant that ‘Berkut’‘were with’vlada. A popular protest slogan in Ukraine, perhaps dating back to the ‘Orange revolution,’is Militsiia z narodom! —‘Police is with people!’Such rhetoric originates in the Ukrainian constitutions, according to which narod [the people] is the only source of vlada [power/authority] in the state. Importantly, police in Ukraine is called militsiia—literally, ‘militia’, denoting the popular origins of the institution as it emerged in the USSR, and its function of bottom-up enforcement of order to protect ‘the people’.

Vlada and the idea of order

Such interpretation of police violence, and the rhetoric of protest mobilization, developed in the framework of Ukrainian (and post-Soviet more broadly) cultural ideas about what forces constitute the socio-political order. Vlada is a central concept here. As Caroline Humphrey (2002, 28) comments on the concept of vlast (the Russian counterpart of Ukrainian vlada): ‘According to [the idea of vlast], the socio-political order is brought about by the exercise of centralized and personified power, not by law, the observance of principles, or the existence of civil society.’As historically notions of the state in Russia and Ukraine had similar connotations to those of vlast/vlada , the cultural concepts of the state in the region encode ‘from the beginning the reification of political entities in which a central personification of power creates order’(2002, 28).

Such interpretations of police violence… developed in the framework of… cultural ideas about what forces constitute the socio-political order

Vlada is thus the sole realm from which decisions about governance come. Personified as Yanukovych, ‘his people’in the Cabinet and the Parliament, and the oligarchs whose interests they supposedly represent, and often referred to simply as vony (‘they’), vlada is thought to be non-transparent, corrupt, and beyond the law, for the force of law comes not from its being a modus operandi of the state, but an instrument applied by vlada. Vlada has both a visible official, and a concealed informal sides to it. (In this it is similar to another relevant concept, that of sistema—the formal-and-informal patterns [system] of governance that map the gap between the way things are supposed to be officially, and the way they really are.)

This complex symbolism of power in Ukraine underpinned the interpretations of ‘Berkut’ as not enforcers of public order, but as the private henchmen —‘cannon fodder’—of vlada/Yanukovych. The reported engagement of the police in illegal and officially ignored forms of containing the protests provided abundant material for such explanations.

Berkut and informality

After fights in Hrushevs’koho street erupted on January 19 (see a timeline of the protests on Allegra Lab) media and witnesses reported that ‘Berkut’ employed forms of violence that could not be simply explained through transgression of formally defined authority (as, for example, police brutality during the November 30 crackdown on Maidan was).

According to some media reports, police officers organized and commanded informal groups of hired thugs (titushky), who acted in accordance with ‘Berkut’ to provoke unrest and then identify protesters to be arrested (two most notorious cases took place on January, 26 in Dnipropetrovs’k and Zaporizhzhia. In Kyiv, the informal Samooborona police at Maidan emerged largely to contain and ‘arrest’provocateurs and titushky.)

Video: ‘Interrogations’of the detained titushky by Samooborona.

‘Berkut’ were also reported to take part in the kidnapping of activists, and were filmed crashing the cars of activists. For example the caption to this video reads: ‘Today [January, 23] around 5 AM Berkut ‘hunted’for AutoMaidan [an activist group] activists. People were caught in a trap; after the attack ten activists were kidnapped! The searches continue!’.   When on January, 22 two activists died of wounds sustained from 12 mm caliber metal bullets (meant for stopping vehicles) that were supposedly shot by the police, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) declared Berkut could not have possibly used such ammunition because there were no official orders for that. MoI’s comments contrasted with reports of ‘Berkut’ troops throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at protesters and using stun grenades enhanced with bolts. Such commentaries about the extent of the officially possible seemed to suggest that realities unwarranted by official documents did not exist for the purposes of Ukrainian law.

Image: A 12 mm caliber bullet presumably used against the protesters on January 22. Source: Arkady Babchenko, http://censor.net.ua/resonance/269229/pochemu_ya_uveren_chto_lyudeyi_na_barrikadah_ubil_berkut

Image: A 12 mm caliber bullet presumably used against the protesters on January 22. Source: Arkady Babchenko

Taking aside judgments about the veracity of the narratives of police violence, I think what is remarkable here is that people largely dismissed MoI’s declarations so as to imply that the range of state action was not limited to what was officially/formally prescribed. They appeared to take the logic of formal visibility implied by the MoI’s official position for more proof of their suspicions: what remained invisible and thus could not be punished had even more reason to be true.

what remained invisible and thus could not be punished had even more reason to be true

To recapitulate, the fact that MoI ignored and presumably ‘covered up’‘Berkut’s’ new methods was taken as proof that these forms of anti-protest action were directed by vlada. The president was believed to pay ‘Berkut’ troops informal salaries of up to several hundred USD per diem as commentators, among whom a former high-rank officer from the Ministry of Interior speculated that ‘Berkut’ policemen had been promised flats, additional payments and early rank promotion.

The idea that ‘Berkut’ and other police forces could be enforcing public order, rather than executing unwritten ‘criminal orders’from ‘above’, was absent in the dominant media coverage of the protests. (In contrast, the theme of police enforcing the law to contain ‘public disorders’was a recurrent one in interviews with ‘Berkut’ officers published prior to the shootings of February 18-20.) Actions of ‘Berkut’ were represented as fitting into broader patterns of informal governance long thought to be characteristic of Yanukovych’s vlada. The concept of centralized and personified socio-political order stretching beyond the domain of official authority underpinned interpretations of ‘Berkut’s’ participation in protest containment as enforcement of the order —and orders —of vlada rather than the maintenance of public peace.

Not by chance, related images of vlada as systemically corrupt and exercising power in concealment, formed the negative Other against which Euromaidan protesters sought to construct their demands and hopes for a ‘normal life’.

[Update:. After this post was written, Ukrainian law enforcement agencies published a joint report that in essence confirmed what I refer to above as ‘reports’of police violence. The report states that a special ‘Alpha’ group of the State Security Service carried out the sniper fire operation on 18-20 February. A special group within ‘Berkut’ is reported to have used live rounds. The official statement suggests that the plan of the final crackdown on Maidan in February was prepared in conjunction with officers form the Russian Federal Security Service. In the report, titushky (thugs) in Kyiv are said to have been ‘coordinated’by a businessman close to then Minister of Interior Zakharchenko.]


Humphrey, C. (2002). The unmaking of Soviet life: everyday economies after socialism. Ithaca, NC: Cornell University Press.


Taras Fedirko is a PhD student in social anthropology at Durham University researching anti-corruption investigations in Ukraine and London. He also co-edits a Kyiv-based literary magazine Prostory.  

3 thoughts on “Police violence and ideas of the state in Ukrainian ‘Euromaidan’

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