A few days ago I had the opportunity to witness a revolution. Despite assuring my wife that I wouldn't be anywhere near the protests in Kiev, on Wednesday night I found myself in the heart of Independence square, the epicentre of the Ukraine's latest political struggle.
I was in the city to speak at an excellent conference and admittedly a little apprehensive about my first visit to a country gripped by political unrest. The latest news reports spoke of hundreds of thousands gathered in the square, police brutality against protesters and reporters, and the real possibility of national strikes. But we were assured by the organisers that the city was perfectly safe and the conference would carry on as planned. So I jumped on my flight early on Wednesday morning.
I was picked up at the airport by a member of the team that was putting on the event. During our drive to the hotel and then on to the conference venue, he gave us a thorough and fascinating recap of the events to date and his own personal take on what he thought the future held for the Ukraine. While western media was reporting around a hundred thousand people gathered in the square, local media was reporting closer to a million, and our companion, comparing his experiences from the Orange Revolution, was confident it was near a million.
As we drove through the city, life was going on as normal. Traffic was heavy, people were going to work and school, and commerce was happening freely. If you hadn't picked up a newspaper recently, you wouldn't have a sense that anything was out of the ordinary.
Later that night, during a private event at a lavish cocktail lounge overlooking Kiev, I heard rumblings of a possible trip to Independence Square. A few furtive glances between co-conspirators and we were out the door into the very cold Ukrainian night. With us was one of the conference organisers, who gave us a quick briefing to make sure we stayed out of harm's way.
At first glance nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Christmas lights were up, people were crowding the bars and restaurants, and the transportation system was humming. But as we got closer to Independence Square, we could hear the dull, unsettling roar of a very large crowd.
We continued towards Independence Square only to discover the entire thing blocked off by a huge barricade made of every household item you could imagine. Doors, tables, lamp posts, shipping pallets, crowd control fences, artificial Christmas, trees, and stepladders were just a few of the construction items of choice.
Peering through the gaps in the barricade, we caught our first glimpse of the protests.
We decided that we'd come this far, we might as well carry on, so we rounded the barricade and walked towards the heart of the crowd.
People were hunkering down for a long, cold night and were building campsites and fires near the barricade.
The protestors had erected a huge stage with a jumbotron behind it. There were rousing speeches, patriotic music, and news updates from protest organisers.
I couldn't tell you exactly how many people there were gathered in the square but it was easily in the tens of thousands. The atmosphere was not threatening or violent or unruly. It's been suggested that the three main opposition parties are coordinating the protests and in fact the whole thing felt very well organised with toilet facilities and plenty of food and drink on offer. We never felt in danger or unwelcome during our hour or so trip.
I feel quite privileged to have witnessed this monumental event in person. Sure it was a risk and just about every guide book and travel survival book urges you to stay well away from large crowds or political rallies but we witnessed history in the making. The Ukraine is a country in flux and I hope the Ukrainian people get the change they're fighting for.