When Viktor Bisovetskyi and his wife Inna saw that protesters had taken over a conference centre called Ukraine House near Kiev’s Independence Square, they packed up a couple of boxes of books and jumped in their car.
Their plan? To open a library for the anti-government movement known as Maidan, or square.
“When I saw that Ukrainian House had been seized I thought it was a good idea to begin thinking about culture,” said Mr. Bisovetskyi a marketing manager for a Ukrainian steel company. “I thought we should think about doing something instead of fighting.”
Ukraine House, once a museum for Lenin during the Soviet days, had been the scene of a tense standoff Saturday night. Thousands of protesters surrounded the building, smashing windows and trapping about 200 police officers inside. The standoff ended peacefully after several hours and the police officers were allowed to leave. Now, less than a week later, the building has been turned into a community centre for the protesters, offering just about every service imaginable thanks to dozens of volunteers and countless donations.
There’s free legal advice, a place to sleep, medical care, travel information, psychiatric help, cellphone charging and a recruitment centre for the newly formed National Guard. There’s a chapel manned by two priests; a cafeteria offering free sandwiches, fruit, soup, tea and coffee; and a drugstore providing complimentary cough medicine, Advil, bandages, ointments and a multitude of other health-care products.
And tucked away in a corner of the basement is the Bisovetskyis’ library. The shelves, donated by a friend, are neatly lined with detective stories, travel guides, National Geographic magazines, children’s books, philosophy texts and classics such as Mina Laury by Charlotte Bronte, in English. All the books have been donated in the past few days and a couple of librarians stopped by to organize everything.
The couple can barely keep up with the demand for the books and the amount of donations. Their selection now includes books in Ukrainian, English, Russian and Turkish, and each is stamped “Maidan Library.” Books can be taken out for any length of time and borrowers get a candy when they bring them back. “We needed some incentive,” said Mr. Bisovetskyi.
So far, the most popular books have been Agatha Christie novels, said Ms. Bisovetskyi. “We have these [protesters] in their military uniforms with dirty faces, dirty hands and they were reading, and reading very different books. Some with jokes and classics and [at first] we had two books in English, one was Agatha Christie and one was how to get into the top MBA programs. Both were taken out.”
The conference centre is not far from the largest set of barricades in central Kiev, where militant protesters – dressed in masks, helmets and carrying clubs – burn tires and taunt police who are lined up just a few metres away. Mr. Bisovetskyi said the Maidan movement has strayed from its initial pacifism and he hopes the library will help “restore the balance.”
“There are some people here who really think aggressively,” he said. “That’s their business. But we also need to think about some other things, about culture. It’s not about force.”
The couple lives about 500 kilometres away in Dnipropetrovsk, in eastern Ukraine, and they were on holiday in Kiev visiting family when the centre was taken over and they rounded up books. They planned to head home Wednesday and have put the library in the hands of volunteers.
“We will keep in touch with Internet and telephone, but there is no urgent need to do this because, as of now, it will work without our involvement,” said Ms. Bisovetskyi, who works in real estate. She added that her hopes for the protest movement go beyond political change.
“What we want is for people to realize what they want to become,” she said. “That they really can become whatever they want to be. That’s freedom.”