KIEV, Ukraine — It was well after midnight on a chilly, damp day last November, and the thousand or so people who came to Kiev's central square to protest Ukraine abruptly spurning Europe for Russia had dispersed.
Things didn't look promising for the protesters. The protest hadn't begun until 10 p.m., and had looked like it was fizzling out early. When a man with a megaphone proposed marching on the presidential administration, people laughed. Police hadn't even bothered trying to control the demonstration. Opposition leaders, speaking into an improvised PA system in the back of a truck, had failed to energize the crowd. And anyway, all trailed behind the corrupt incumbent, pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, in polls for the next election, slated for 2015.
Across the street, a small group gathered around a table in a traditional beer hall, discussing their next steps over vodka and bowls of meaty soup. Some, like Afghan-born investigative reporter Mustafa Nayyem and opposition TV host Svyatoslav Tsygolko, were journalists who had campaigned against Yanukovych's crackdown on the press. Others, like Pavlo Petrenko and Andriy Shevchenko, were up-and-coming pro-European lawmakers whose party leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, was languishing in prison on charges Yanukovych had concocted.
They knew they had their work cut out for them.
"Remember what they did on social media in Egypt? We need to be like that. Who's going to write in English?" said Nayyem, who had called for the protest on Facebook earlier that day. Though the restaurant, a favorite of local students and Western sex tourists, was all but empty, he stood at the head of the table gesturing excitedly to be heard by his dozen or so colleagues, who were glumly discussing the tasks ahead.
It didn't seem like much at the time — not to the activists, who failed to galvanize much more than a small Occupy-style tent encampment on the square for the next week, or, indeed, to this reporter, who didn't so much as think to write it up.
A year later, seemingly everything is changed. Yanukovych is long gone since February, replaced by chocolate baron Petro Poroshenko, a prominent voice in the early days of the protests on Independence Square, known as Maidan. Petrenko has one of the most difficult briefs in the government, as acting justice minister. Tsygolko is Poroshenko's spokesperson. Nayyem now leads a small group of reform-minded activists in parliament. And Nov. 21, the first anniversary of what came to be known as the "Euromaidan" protests, has now been designated a national "Day of Dignity and Freedom."
Ukraine has certainly suffered much to get there. Crimea is lost to Russia, at least for the foreseeable future. Officials also sound increasingly pessimistic at the prospect of returning rebel-held areas in the country's east that are trying to act like fully fledged states. Conflict has claimed 4,000 lives and displaced a further million, according to the U.N. The economy is closer to collapse than ever, with at least $19 billion needed to avoid default next year.
"Nobody would wish on any country what Ukraine has endured over the last year, but everyone feels the consolidation in national identity that's happened, the surge in patriotism, and the resolve to move the country forward," Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, told BuzzFeed News. "The questions Ukrainians have to answer is, was it worth it?"
Many of the most prominent Maidan activists, frustrated by the slow pace of reform since Yanukovych fled for Russia in February, have gone into politics to convince Ukrainians of that. Hanna Hopko now leads a party, Self-Help, that will most likely form part of the new government after coming third in last month's parliamentary elections — despite being formed only two months earlier. Poroshenko has pledged to make her "reanimation package" of reforms, which she struggled to get through parliament for most of this year, part of a coalition agreement.
"I'm optimistic," Hopko said on Wednesday. "Ukraine has historical momentum to build a new country. There is a new generation of state-builders."
They will certainly have their work cut out for them — not just in the face of further Russian aggression, but against Ukraine's insipid bureaucracy and venally corrupt political class, much of which remains stubbornly in place. The fact they have come so far so quickly, however, seems encouraging enough in itself.
"There is a big dream what we want to do, and there is the little steps we have now," Nayyem told BuzzFeed News. "This is just the first results of Maidan."