DONETSK, Ukraine — It looked peaceful at first. A few thousand locals carrying colorful balloons and flags, mostly communist or pro-Russian, came out to mark the first May Day holiday in what they consider the sovereign area of eastern Ukraine under pro-Russian control.
Their leaders, the “executive committee” of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic, told the crowd to “quietly” and “accurately” walk toward the city’s central police station and make sure that police supported the republic.
“The only choice police have is to be with the people, and not to shoot or arrest our heroes!” the committee’s speaker, Vladimir Makovich, said to the protesters gathered before a monument to Soviet heroes in Donetsk.
An old Tavria hatchback with a flag of Stalin over it followed the procession around the city, playing an old Soviet military song on loud speakers: “Let the noble fury boil! This is a holy people’s war!” the lyrics went. A few demonstrators sang along.
Two women in bright red lipstick and colorful blouses said they felt “euphoria” when listening to the song; to them the “holy war” had once again come to Donetsk, and they were determinate to win it.
“We’ll celebrate International Labor Day by conquering the last Ukrainian fortresses,” one of the women, Victoria Metelin, said.
Outside the central police station, the protesters demanded that their militia put the flag of the People’s Republic on top of the building to prove that the police had volunteered to defend the separatist movement.
“Flag! Flag!” the crowd chanted.
The separatists have proved more potent than the current leadership as they attack banks, police stations and other official buildings.
“The separatists have been successful at expanding their activities steadily and nonstop for a while,” Ivan Lozowy, a political analyst based in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, said Thursday.
What stopped Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, from sending the army to Donetsk? “The principal reason of Turchinov’s passivity is the exaggerated fear of potential Russian invasion and a consequent disruption the presidential election set on May 25,” Lozowy said.
By 2 p.m., a dozen militiamen in masks had entered the Donetsk police station “for negotiations” with police commanders. Once again, Makovich took a stand at a microphone to congratulate the protesters for their “victorious march” and promise more successful days.
“This is our first real celebration in the Donetsk Republic; next will be the Victory Day holiday on May 9 and on May 11. We invite you all to the usual election stations to vote at the referendum for sovereign republic!” Makovich said, announcing the plan.
Meantime, word came from inside the station that the police commanders had “agreed to be with people” and would allow the “republicans” to join their street patrols. A few protesters installed the republic’s flags on both sides of the building’s entrance.
After the demonstrators had moved on, a few police officers walked out on the porch.
“We continue to serve Ukraine and defend every citizen we see in accordance with the law,” a police officer said to journalists.
The protesters moved on.
At the general prosecutor’s office, protesters of all ages broke up the pavement in front of the building, passing the bricks to the front lines. Many families, little children in tow, watched as the street battle began.
Officials shot rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades at the protesters.
“Fascists! Fascists!” people shouted at the officials defending the state building.
Three men carried a bleeding man and put him on the ground.
Yelena Guseva was still holding her red and white balloons when a rubber bullet hit her in the forehead. “Coming to our peaceful march this morning, I could never imagine my ending with a war on the streets of Donetsk,” she said, pressing a handkerchief to her bleeding wound.
The battle took less than half an hour.
Once again, the Tavria with the Stalin flag drove by, playing the song about holy war.