Antuanetta remembers when she climbed on top of a burned bus and sat down at a yellow and blue piano.
The 21-year-old was playing a concert, held in front of a barricade in central Kiev during the Euromaidan protests five years ago. On one side of her stood crowds of protesters, many of whom had camped out for months in the square, and on the other were special police forces, whose shields formed a stark line.
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People’s breath fogged in the freezing air. It was early February and the days brought snow and temperatures below -20 degrees Celsius.
She had chosen to play Chopin’s Etude Number 12, a classical music piece known as the Revolutionary Etude. She struck the first descending notes of the piece and began to play, her bright red boot pressing the foot pedal, her hands skimming across the keys.
Suddenly, there was a loud noise. From behind the police line, loudspeakers began to blast a Russian pop song. It tried to drown out her playing, but she did not stop.
“It was like fighting [or] boxing for me,” she recalls now. “I decided that if they want to fight with bad music, I must fight with them with my classical music.”
And she continued on.
Police vs the people
When Antuanetta was younger, playing piano was as much a part of her routine as showering or sleeping.
She began at five years old and had her first solo performance at seven. She played through all of school and into adulthood; at the time of Ukraine‘s 2014 uprising, she was teaching piano and studying at the National Music Academy of Ukraine, the most prominent music school in the country.
But she was not sure that it was really what she wanted to do.
“It wasn’t like my parents told me you must … but it was like if you do something every day, like wash your hair … you don’t think ‘won’t you wash hair or [not]’,” she says. “You just have to wash your hair, you have to eat, you have to sleep, and it was like I had to play piano.”
Her academy’s white-columned building looked on to Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, and from there she watched protests unfold in November 2013.
Thousands of people, mainly students, gathered to protest against then-President President Viktor Yanukovich‘s decision to withdraw from a potential EU trade agreement in exchange for closer ties with Russia.
Antuanetta was at home in the early morning on November 30, when the government ordered roughly 500 special police to the square. They forcefully removed the protesters.
It was in response to this crackdown that the Euromaidan protests began. In the following days, hundreds of thousands of people occupied the square, calling for an end to government corruption and the resignation of Yanukovich.
‘A little country in our great country’
The square quickly became an organized settlement, with volunteers running centres that catered to the needs of demonstrators as they camped out for months along the streets, providing everything from food to medicine to clothes. A mainstage in the square offered entertainment and political speeches, and the streets leading into the square were barricaded and defended by voluntary soldiers.
“It was like a state, like a little country in our great country,” Antuanetta says.
In December, Antuanetta began going to the square after a friend convinced her to come. She was not sure what she could do to help, but was willing to try. Her worry had grown over the days, wondering what would unfold and what the future of her country would be.
On Maidan, she spotted a piano. It was painted blue and yellow, its wooden frame exposed to the harsh weather.
Men were carrying it towards the barricade, perhaps to use as defence against the government’s forces. She was shocked, and asked them to stop. She did not know what she would do with the piano, only that she did not want to see it ruined, and they relented.
She decided to try playing for people, but did not anticipate the effect that her music would have. She chose Chopin’s Etude Number 4, and a group of protesters and journalists gathered around her. The song was quick and emotional. The crowd listened, and when she finished they asked her to play again.
She continued to play for about two hours before she told the audience that she needed a break to eat and get warm. An hour later she returned and, to her surprise, there were people waiting for her.
Day and night on Maidan
She ended up playing on Maidan every day and night until February.
She played everything from folk songs to classical music to the national anthem. People would listen, sing together and talk to each other, and she received chocolates and flowers in appreciation.
For her, Ukraine has always had a strong tradition of music. Folk songs have long served as a symbol of national identity and woven themselves into the country’s classical music, which has been both shaped by and used in defiance of past Russian influences.
“People like music, people understand it, and when they could hear melodies which they know, it helps them feel like one person,” she says. “It gives [us] our power.”
It was through playing that she realised her purpose. “I saw that my music can help people and that I can speak and talk about important things from my music and from piano,” she says.
Over the months, Euromaidan demonstrators and officials held negotiations and life continued in the square, with tensions tightening and relaxing.
In January 2014, the government passed a law that restricted free speech, banned protests and broadened government powers – it was soon after revoked, but incensed crowds.
“Those days were like a culmination,” Antuanetta says.
The concert held on top of the bus would be one of the last peaceful actions, taking place just 10 days before the most violent day of Euromaidan, in which crowds were shot at by special police from rooftops, and at least 80 people were killed.
When Antuanetta played on top of the bus, she was not scared. She had visited the barricade before, where sandbags and debris were piled up in defence.
She cannot remember the faces of the policemen when she played, or rather, she could not see them. “I have bad eyes and I didn’t have glasses, so I just didn’t see their faces,” she says laughing. “Maybe I wasn’t scared because I didn’t see anything!”
It was important for her that her 12-year-old student also play because she wanted to show the police that they meant peace, and that their demonstration had a place for people of all ages, young and old, as they asked for a better future for their country.
Her fear only came to her once she went home that night. It was not enough for her to hear about Maidan from the news; she felt like she needed to be there. She was worried about what would happen next.
‘After Maidan, I understood, I am a classical pianist’
Now at age 26, Antuanetta still works at a children’s music school and is a full-time concert pianist, travelling for performances and competitions throughout Europe and to the US and Singapore. She uses her music for social work, giving voluntary concerts or working with young musicians.
Last year, she played a two-hour concert in the coastal city of Odessa, and she thinks that people came because of her role in the protests.
“It was not so important for them what I play but it was important for them that I will play,” she says.
She has found what she wants in music, she plays Ukrainian songs as much as possible when she travels and loves introducing classical music to younger generations.
“I want to do music, not for professional people, but … for … people who don’t know who Beethoven is for example or … Tchaikovsky,” she says. “When I was young, I thought maybe I want to be a singer or a composer, or maybe, I want to be a fashion designer. And after Maidan, I understood that, yes, I am a classical pianist, and yes, I can help people, and yes, I want to do it till the end of my life.”
Other cities have also placed pianos in their central squares, and people sent Antuanetta photos of their local piano. She says the piano grew more popular, with more folk musicians and pop or rock stars using them in their concerts. Classical music has become fashionable, as people remember when they were young and went to music school themselves.
“When I saw it, I was so happy and so proud that piano was something very important not only on Maidan and not only part of this political situation, but very important [in our] culture.”
Antuanetta does not know what happened to the pianos that were played during Euromaidan. There were several of them throughout the square; one found its home in the Maidan Museum in Kiev, and she believes that two were destroyed in the conflict.
Five years on, she still feels anxious passing Hrushevskoho Street, where the barricade was set up. It was the site of many clashes – by the end of Euromaidan, at least one hundred protesters and more than a dozen police were killed.
At concerts today, Antuanetta still plays Chopin’s Etude Number 12, the Revolutionary Etude, and a song that she composed during the protests. She had played them the most in the cold winter air on Maidan, and they continue to live with her.
“I play it not at every concert but I think at every second concert,” she says. “[After] five years, I think I can play it with closed eyes.”