On Jan. 22, 2014, a young businessman named Dmitriy Bulatov dressed, kissed his wife Anna and left for the bank. A blanket of snow covered Kiev’s streets. The door shut behind him. He would be several kilos lighter and missing half an ear when they kissed again, in a hospital ward, eight days later.
When that day finally came, he remembers she cried a lot. His face was swollen and covered in crusted blood from a gash across his cheek.
“I was just happy to hear any word she spoke.”
Just two months earlier, Bulatov had, from nothing, become a household name as a leader of the Euromaidan movement that opposed president Viktor Yanukovych. A month after that, Bulatov led a convoy of a thousand cars to the door of Yanukovych’s home, where armed guards were taking notes — they marked Bulatov and dozens of others for death.
Within a few weeks he was kidnapped and tortured on a cold apartment floor, his body carved and left to bleed. Eight days is a long time to spend in hell, he tells me, the scars of his ordeal still torn across a clean-shaven face. “I wasn’t sure I could take it.”
He could. And, like the country he has helped change forever, Bulatov will never be the same as before that cold, wet morning.
European Square stands in the heart of Kiev’s city center, surrounded by former glories. There is the brutalist Hotel Dnipro, where Soviet diplomats dined in their third-biggest city, and from whose windows government snipers picked off protesters last year. There is Ukrainian House, built in the ’80s as a museum to Lenin, which now stages banquets and concerts. And there is the white colonnaded entrance to Dynamo Stadium, where Ukraine’s most famous soccer team, Dynamo Kiev, are well beyond their Soviet heyday.
The flup-flup of tire on cobblestone is almost deafening, as drivers weave about the square like fighter pilots. It has been named for both Stalin and Hitler in its 200-year history. Kiev, like Ukraine, has often been a victim of geography, caught between Europe’s superpowers.
It is to European Square, amid the noise and the traffic and the cold weather, that Bulatov, now 36, takes me after our third coffee — careful, it seems, to show me his mindful driving. He parks, gets out, walks past a cop to its center.
“This,” he says, suit jacket open to the elements, “is where it began.”
On Nov. 21, 2013, President Viktor Yanukovych canceled plans to sign a free trade deal with the European Union, under pressure from Russia. Within hours, a few thousand protesters took to Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) demanding the president’s resignation. Days later there were nearly 200,000 Ukrainians banging drums, singing songs and barbecuing food — a festival in the sub-zero cold.
Bulatov, like everyone in Kiev, closely followed the news. But he was a businessman, not a protester. The morning of the 30th he woke up and checked Facebook. A message from a friend said Kiev’s feared riot police, the Berkut, had stormed Maidan. A third friend had been dragged away and detained. Bulatov switched on the TV.
“I was terrified,” he tells me. “I couldn’t just look at it. I picked up a Ukrainian flag, put it in my car and drove it to the city.”
Even he was surprised how quickly it happened: Within hours, dozens of cars were following him, each one honking and waving and telling each other how they could stop Berkut from causing more trouble. Soon it became a full-blown civil disobedience movement. A message would go round informing of a trouble spot, and within minutes cars would roll up and block entire streets, stopping the police from reaching protesters, or at least buying them vital moments before the cudgels came.
Bulatov led other missions to occupy government buildings, ministries and hospitals, from where protesters were being plucked by Berkut, taken out of town and beaten — protesters like Yuri Verbitsky, a 50-year-old programmer, whose body was found broken and dumped in a forest outside Kiev in late January.
Automaidan, as it would become known, was a novel idea. “Fifty cars are incomparably more effective than 50 people, in terms of the problems they can cause,” said founding participant, Oleksiy Hrytsenko. Sister movements soon sprang up as far flung as Philadelphia and Edmonton, as Ukraine’s diaspora drove in solidarity with Kiev. And Bulatov, with his Volkswagen and his flag and his friends, was an overnight celebrity.
That fame didn’t come cheap. They had to pool money for gas. And police and gangs of unemployed young bruisers hired by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, known as the Titushki, began burning vehicles associated with Automaidan. Driving licenses were revoked. Fortunately Bulatov had the cash. When the revolution broke out, he ran an auto body shop, a management consultancy and a small restaurant outside the city’s biggest university, named Mr. Sanders (after the character in Winnie the Pooh). He was one of Automaidan’s biggest benefactors, as well as its leader.
Bulatov used a mass-SMS service to communicate with his followers. At one point it was costing him $100 a day. He was also fighting censorship, which came in an unerringly passive-aggressive fashion. This example arrived when Bulatov tried to corral supporters to protest the Christmas Day attack of journalist Tatyana Chernovol:
We urge you to edit the content of your text:
“Automaidan quest tea party at 12:00 in European Square. After we’ll have a super ride to one of the executors of Tatyana Chernova.”
and to remove ‘Tatyana Chernova’.
On Dec. 29, with Maidan burning and people dying, Bulatov’s Automaidan drove 24 kilometers to Yanukovych’s Mezhyhirya residence, which included sports fields, hunting grounds and the president’s lavish “Honka” club house, where associates wined and dined away from the capital.
More than 1,000 cars made it. “It was amazing,” says Bulatov. “It was like a cry from the soul for us. It was all very emotional. We wanted to show our protest had no crime, no violence. We wanted to show we weren’t scared of them.”
The president was taking note. After Yanukovych was ousted, the opposition raided Mezhyhirya and found over 100 pages of documents, notes from that day: license plates, names, descriptions. The information would be used to devastating effect. In January alone, 129 cars were destroyed. A law was passed banning groups of five or more vehicles driving together.
Automaidan got more creative. Owners stood hunched over the hoods of their strewn cars for hours pretending to be stuck. Others staged minor wrecks to block routes from the police to the protests.
“Supporting the idea of Ukrainian Euro integration and opposing authorities at the time was a very brave thing to do,” says Sergey Panashchuk, a writer and broadcaster in Kiev. “Ukrainian politicians treated people as slaves, rightless animals. Automaidan was a sparkle of civil society.”
Bulatov was beginning to get threats, via phone and email. Some of them promised him death. His followers began to don masks and balaclavas; he refused. “My family was very scared,” he tells me, his voice shaking slightly. Anna wouldn’t turn on the TV. She warned he was in danger.
He told her, “This is our future. If we don’t do anything we will have no future, for me or you.”
It’s difficult to imagine Dmitriy Bulatov wake-boarding. He stands at least six-two and as big around, and when he sits beside you his shadow does half the talking. We first met on a frosty Kiev morning, at a crowded cafe where actors practiced their lines for the theater next door. Bulatov was pleasant but guarded. It took some time to convince him I was a journalist, and not one of the spies and schills so many Kievans are afraid of.
He switched between Russian and English, which he spoke well. The three cappuccinos he ordered looked like espressos in his huge, starchy palms and he waited for each one to cool before downing it in one or two big gulps.
He has approached life with a similar zeal. Born Dmitriy Serhiyovych Bulatov in Kiev, Ukrainian SSR, on Aug. 13, 1978, he excelled at school and got an engineering degree from Kiev Polytechnic in 2001. Thus followed a succession of stints in, among others, hospitality, marketing, construction and energy, piecing together investments like any well-educated post-Soviet grafter. By then he had married Anna. Today the couple live in Kiev’s suburbs with their three children, Nikita, 17, Denys, 14, and 7-year-old Alysa.
Sport has remained a passion. Sometimes, in summer, when the sun is out and the winding Dnipro River isn’t frozen solid, Bulatov dusts off his wake board. That happens less and less these days, he admits. A fondness for cars has largely taken its place. He prefers them simple, functional, cheap to run. When we’re finished talking he leads me outside to a silver Volkswagen Polo.
The good thing about German cars is they don’t depreciate much, he says, stepping into the driver’s seat. It’ll be worth a good percentage of the new price when it comes to selling. But that won’t be for a while, he says, as the engine fires a cloud of steam into the cold gray sky. This is the car that started a revolution.
As Automaidan grew, so did Bulatov’s fearlessness and stature in Ukraine’s opposition movement. In December 2013 he met Denys Sergienko, a fellow protester whose own brutal treatment at Berkut’s hands would become emblematic of the government’s violence. He warmed instantly to Bulatov, assisting him in demonstrations. Today he spends his time divided between Kiev and the war in Ukraine’s east, fighting with a battalion of volunteers known, for their bravery and strength, as the “cyborgs.”
I met Sergienko in a restaurant in downtown Kiev where chintzy Christmas tunes piped loud and young couples held hands. His eyes remained fixed on me throughout, a thousand-yard stare he admits he brought back from the war. “From the first till the last we became very close friends,” he says, stopping for a sip of green tea. “If people don’t know how to do something he doesn’t shout, he just does it himself.”
The threats continued. Anonymous voices called Bulatov’s home, warning that his businesses would be repossessed. All of the companies were in Anna’s name. He told them to get lost. They said they’d prosecute for tax irregularities. By mid-January, with Yanukovych in retreat and Automaidan winning column inches around the world, Bulatov’s bank warned him his assets were about to be frozen. Get the money, his clerk told him — it may all soon be gone.
It was the 22nd, and the parts of Kiev that weren’t on fire or blocked by a quarter of a million protesters were caked in a thick layer of snow. Automaidan had to continue: He needed that cash. He got dressed and left. He wouldn’t be home for dinner.
Bulatov set out for the Raiffeisen Bank of Pyrohova Street, a small, tree-lined avenue just off the sprawling, Soviet-styled Shevchenko Boulevard. It was cold, even for Kiev, and his thick hat and the snow dulled his senses. Even so, he felt something wasn’t right. Someone was following him.
Bulatov ducked into one of Kiev’s many underground walkways. Half-jogging he emerged on the other side of the street, stuck out his arm and hailed a cab. The car spluttered away. Bulatov thought he was safe. He told the driver to leave the neighborhood. They traveled 15 minutes to a remote spot. He said to keep the meter running, got out and walked to an ATM.
He stopped halfway. More men. This time, a few of them. Titushki? Perhaps. He waited, checking them out, seeing if they’d leave the spot. Then, from behind, a boot raking down the back of his leg. He hit the ground. Another pulled a sack over his head and he was thrown into a van.
Another 15 minutes, this time longer than any in his life. The deafening roar of the engine. The happy chatter of his captors. A scuffled exit.
Bulatov was held in a small room, empty but for an old, rusted bed frame. Glasses, their lenses covered in medical gauze, were strapped to his face. There he would stand, blind, motionless, terrified, for hours. “Stand still or we’ll beat you,” were the only words between the quiet.
Anna knew something was wrong within hours and raised the alarm. Soon Automaidan followers were searching the city. A $25,000 reward was offered for information that might lead to his discovery. But he wasn’t the first protester to disappear. Others had been killed before him, and few held out much hope.
By the third day, they were beating Bulatov with wooden bats. Between blows, they demanded he admit Automaidan was being financed by the CIA. “They made me say into a camera that I was a spy for the United States,” he tells me, “that Americans were giving me money.”
Eventually, amid the torture, he admitted the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, had given him cameras to film the protests and $50,000, to buy gas. “When I was free I said to the ambassador, ‘I’m sorry, I had no choice.’” Another big, long gulp of coffee. “It’s not true. I had to say it.”
By day five the men had begun to cut Bulatov, leaving him to lie in a pool of his own blood. When, two days later, they brought out a hammer and crowbar, he thought he would soon be dead. They had already sliced off half his ear, and his whole body was stained purple with bruises. Screaming in agony, and still sightless, they began crucifying him, driving nails through his palms into the doorframe of his prison.
It was the final agony. Eight days into his kidnapping Bulatov, barely able to move, was thrown in a car and dumped on the outskirts of Kiev. He had lost a lot of blood; he thinks the captors balked at killing him. He stumbled from house to house, begging for help. “People wouldn’t let me in their homes. I was covered in blood. I tried to tell them I wasn’t a drunk, that I’d just been kidnapped.”
Eventually an old man called Bulatov an ambulance, but even at the hospital, police staked out his ward, waiting to arrest him for the bogus tax arrears. News stations and social media were abuzz at his reappearance. So much was the concern over Bulatov’s safety that he was flown across the border to Lithuania, where doctors at the Klaipeda University Hospital confirmed his claims of torture. Within a few days, with Anna by his side, Bulatov stepped out to face the international press for the first time since his escape, his face blotched purple with huge, painful bruises.
One journalist asked him to prove he’d been crucified. Bulatov raised his hands, palms out. Silence. The two small puncture marks told them more than he could. When he got back to Kiev that night, a handful of Maidan activists were waiting for him. Skype was going “crazy,” he says. They were begging him finance more protests.
It would be tough to call Maidan an outright victory. What began as a solid opposition movement fragmented. Yanukovych fled on Feb. 22, 2014, leaving behind mountains of debt and a mangled society. Separatists, with backing from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, have declared breakaway states in ethnic-Russian regions like Luhansk and Donbas.
Crimea, a peninsula of almost 2 million people, was annexed by Russia last March amid a haze of political chicanery, taking from Ukraine’s coffers billions in oil, gas and renewable energy. To date more than 5,000 people have died and almost a million displaced in a conflict that has cleaved Ukraine across its fractious social lines, and sees no sign of ending.
Once again, Ukraine is the pawn in a battle between the European Union, United States and Russia. Media impartiality has been thrown to the fire: Propaganda on both sides has become almost laughably jaundiced.
When on Jan. 30 Bulatov emerged, Leonid Kozhara, Yanukovych’s Foreign Minister, dismissed his injuries. “Physically this man is in a good condition,” he told an Al Jazeera reporter. “The only thing he has is a scratch on one of his cheeks.” The alleged story, he added, was “not absolutely true.”
But as Bulatov’s condition became clearer, Kozhara had to admit his remarks were hasty. By then word was out that the leader of Automaidan, feared dead, had returned, ready to address the world from his hospital bed. EU policy chief Catherine Ashton was “appalled by the obvious signs of prolonged torture.”
Kozhara’s press secretary dashed off a statement. “The minister is profoundly sorry for what happened to Dmitriy Bulatov and wishes him a speedy recovery.”
It’s a gray day and Dmitriy Bulatov is smoking a cigarette. He has just taken me on a tour of Kiev’s government buildings, which snake around the back of Maidan and up leafy Hrushevsky Street toward Mariinsky Park, the gold-domed convent of Pechersk Lavra and the absurdly giant statue of Mother Russia, who stands over 100 meters tall and casts a stoic glare over her former demesne.
Bulatov seems dismissive of the neoclassical Verkhovna Rada building that houses Ukraine’s parliament. Perhaps it’s because he has seen what happens inside. When Viktor Yanukovych fled, a Maidan-centric cabinet to take over.
Bulatov, still recovering in Lithuania, popping pills and tired, was asked to return. Opposition leaders wanted him at a meeting of the “Maidan People’s Union,” a nebulous group set up to consolidate antipathy to the government, but which now found itself in charge of the country. Arsen Avakov, the new interior minister, called him. “Dima,” he said proudly, “buy a ticket and come back.” Anna was unsure, but Bulatov said yes.
When he returned, “everyone was there”: former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko; confectionary magnate and future president Petro Poroshenko; former foreign minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk; and boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko. They wanted Bulatov to become head of the police, but he declined. In the end, they convinced him to be minister of youth and sports, a position he took on account of his athletic past.
Business had always come easy to him: the fast pace; the quick judgements. Politics was different. Getting things done amid all the bureaucracy was tough enough. Worse, there was no money. The best Bulatov could do to win hearts was to send tennis rackets to soldiers in the East, where Sergienko, his old protest friend, was fighting. “Perhaps he should have brought armor,” he says. “But these guys had so little. He had a very tough job in the ministry.”
There was no time, and no legacy to be won beyond Automaidan. The Ukrainian government was like a plane in a holding pattern, circling with little fuel, waiting to reach an uncertain destination. “I don’t know if he was a hero or whether he was a good minister or bad one,” one journalist, Ivan Svishch, from Odessa, tells me. “His personality is a mystery to me.”
He still received the threats, too. “You boar, your balls have already been cut,” read one email. “Your head will come next.” There were accusations he’d bought a $2 million condo and a Lexus. One minor news website scored a wave of traffic by claiming to be in possession of a sex tape showing Bulatov having a gay affair with a local journalist.
“Well, was it you?” I ask him.
“Sure,” he laughs, that shadow hovering closer. His mother had heard it was him, and she telephoned him, dismayed. “I said, ‘Mum, watch the video! The guy in the video is 70 kilos and short. Perhaps if you cut me in half it’s me,’” he says. “Of course, she hadn’t watched the video. No one had. That’s how this gossip spreads.”
Soon it became clear that steering the slow ship of government wasn’t for him. Bulatov wanted desperately to make politics more transparent, to reduce the chances of another Yanukovych. Most people weren’t interested. “I felt like my job as minister was a mix between a promotion and a punishment,” he says flatly.
And besides, he never wanted to be famous. “It was scary. I never got used to it. I did what I did, and what happened happened. I didn’t enjoy the media attention.” Anna and his children felt the same. “They didn’t want all this politics. They wanted to be normal people.”
Bulatov’s political career lasted barely nine months. When Yatsenyuk, who had become prime minister post-Yanukovych, was asked to form a new government in December, Bulatov wasn’t considered a part of it.
Whether he left or was dismissed is up for debate. What’s true is that, for the first time in over a year, Bulatov could slow down, take stock and enjoy his family. Nikita recently made it into Kiev Polytechnic, following his father’s footsteps. He has his mother’s surname, something for which Bulatov is grateful. “I don’t want his life to change because of me,” he says.
Bulatov still meets up with civil society groups and NGOs on a regular basis. Ukraine is not yet a better place. Until the war is over, Automaidan’s legacy will only ever be half-complete. For Bulatov, though, it has defined his entire life.
“Do you think you can ever live a normal life again?” I ask him.
He shuffles, takes another gulp of his coffee, leans back in his chair and smiles, for the first time in a while, warmly.
“I don’t know if I can live a normal life again,” Bulatov says. “I made this road. Now it has made me.”
Sean Williams is a writer and reporter living in Berlin, Germany. He has written for The Economist, The Guardian, Vice, Esquire and others. You can follow his work here.
Edited by Ben Wolford