KIEV, Ukraine, Nov. 24 -- With the blessing of their boss at a cosmetics factory, groups of as many as 25 employees at a time came in shifts to Independence Square to join tens of thousands of supporters of presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko to protest alleged fraud in elections Sunday. Alexander Kmet, 30, found himself shuttling between work and the plaza up to three times a day.
"I don't realize I'm freezing and exhausted until I get home every night and collapse," said Kmet, his hands shoved in his pockets and his shoulders hunched and shuddering as he spoke. "But this is an inspiring moment in the history of our country. We have to be here."
Supporters of newly declared President Viktor Yanukovych gather in downtown Kiev while opposition leaders called for a nationwide strike.
(Ivan Sekretarev -- AP)
"The truth makes us warm," Ala Babich, 38, a management student, said before breaking into the protest song "We Shall Overcome" in English.
A presidential election that the opposition and Western monitors said was marred by serious fraud has made instant political activists of large numbers of citizens in this country of 48 million people, which lies between Russia and the European Union.
Outside the offices of the Central Elections Commission, several hundred men gathered to show support for Viktor Yanukovych, the government-backed candidate who was officially declared the winner Wednesday. At night, they retired to tents pitched in a nearby park.
Their turnout was dwarfed by the scene each day in Independence Square. The vast plaza, overlooked by the 14-story Hotel Ukraine, became a sea of cold, determined people, their clothing often soaked by melting snow.
"At first we watched it on television, because we're not so young anymore and we live on the edge of the city," said Galina Kiyashko, 68, a retired engineer who came to the square with her husband, Grigory, a writer of children's books. "But our hearts called us out."
Wednesday afternoon, the Kiyashkos found themselves physically lifted off their feet by the surging crowd as they stood by the stage waiting for Yushchenko to speak.
"Look at how strong we are," said Grigory Kiyashko, marveling at the throng as he searched for his footing. "Other people are probably jealous of this unity. I've never seen the country so happy and together."
This wasn't the first dubious election since Ukraine became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it was among the most competitive. Yushchenko was largely shut out of state television programming and barnstormed across the country holding old-fashioned rallies.
In the square, the swell of protest since the vote surprised many people. "Our nation is finally awake," said Yurig Shekurko, 28, a priest in the country's Greek Catholic Church, who traveled to the capital from Staryy Sambir on the Polish border. "Before, we talked and complained, but now we're actually doing something."
Shekurko said he had come with 10 other men, among thousands who have poured into Kiev from the western provinces where support for Yushchenko is strong. They have bunked down with friends in Kiev, grabbing something to eat from volunteers who are providing hot food around the square.
"It's hard," said Shekurko, "but freedom is never easy."
A hard core of several hundred opposition partisans maintained a presence through the night in the square, often chanting, "Yushchenko, Yushchenko."
In the morning, crowds began to filter back after sleeping at home or the houses of friends. During the day, politicians, athletes, singers, poets and other celebrities addressed the crowd, their images displayed on huge video screens.
The candidate himself, looking increasingly tired, stepped onto the speaker's platform once or twice a day, his imminent appearance generating an excitement that was never quite matched by his somewhat flat oratory. "Because you are together, you are warm," he said Wednesday, as falling snow swirled around him.
Yushchenko's speeches were constantly interrupted by chants of his name that rose in volume to the level of a boom, carrying into nearby streets like the distant sounds of fans at a football game.
"We are not going home until we get our freedom," said Sasha Zobas, 20, an engineering student at the National Aviation University. "The authorities think they can wait us out, but they won't."