As in medieval times this was a sign that the city was under siege, and a call to citizens to come to its defense.
Down a steep hill, columns of riot police, in black helmets and bearing metal shields, descended on Independence Square, popularly known as Maidan (square), from three directions.
Maidan, the site of revolutionary protests over the past three weeks, seemed to be facing its most critical hour.
There was no panic, only resolve.
Young people held hands, some cried.
Inside the barricaded encampment, sombre-looking men put on helmets and padded coats for protection.
Women were advised to leave the square.
The winter air was electrified with tension.
On the illuminated stage, projected on a screen, protest leaders called for calm and defiance, priests read out prayers and Ruslana, a popular Ukrainian singer, led the national anthem: “Ukraine has not yet perished, nor her glory, nor her freedom.”
Thousands of Maidan protesters struck up the chorus line: “Souls and bodies we’ll lay down, all for our freedom/And we’ll show that we, brothers, are of the Cossack nation!”
The Ukrainian and European Union flags fluttered alongside each other.
On the other side of Khreshatik, the main street, the riot police charged forward to storm the barricades.
Several people were injured in skirmishes.
But the protesters on Maidan itself held their ground, displaying formidable discipline and giving the police no excuse for using violence.
At about 4am, with the police floundering, the atmosphere changed.
Expectation of an inevitable defeat gave way to a premonition of victory.
It later transpired the police did not have an order to disperse the crowd, only to push it aside.
Standing in temperatures of minus 13°C (9°F) , ready to be beaten up, the people on Maidan were defending something far greater than an association agreement with the EU, which was the initial cause.
They were standing in the way of a police state, defending fundamental European values and defying the post-Soviet order imposed by Russia.
Whatever advantage the riot police had in equipment, the protesters had moral superiority.
They were on the right side of history, pushing against the authoritarian power of President Viktor Yanukovych.
“This was the birth of the nation,” says Petro Poroshenko, whose television channel provided blanket coverage of the stand-off.
As dawn broke over Kiev, the police retreated.
Their attempts to recapture two municipal buildings occupied by protesters were easily thwarted.
While some defenders of Maidan fell asleep in their tents, new helpers handed out hot tea and sandwiches, repaired barricades and cleared streets of snow.
But in spite of a sense of moral triumph, the morning provided little explanation for the timing of and motives for Mr Yanukovych’s actions.
On the face of it Mr Yanukovych’s move defied common sense.
Only a few hours earlier, he was shown on television talking to three former presidents of Ukraine about finding a peaceful way out of the crisis; he held talks with Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign-policy boss, and Victoria Nuland, America’s assistant secretary of state, and spoke by phone to Joe Biden, its vice-president.
Launching an assault on Maidan with both diplomats in town seemed a deliberate provocation.
The reaction was quick to follow.
John Kerry, America’s secretary of state, expressed “disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kiev’s Maidan with riot police, bulldozers and batons”.
Sanctions could follow, Mr Yanukovych was told.
On the other hand Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, must have been pleased.
Mr Yanukovych’s actions revealed his adherence to Mr Putin’s school of governance.
And Mr Yanukovych has good reasons to keep Mr Putin happy.
Having ditched the pact with Europe (even though he assured Baroness Ashton, perhaps for tactical reasons, that he still intends to sign it), Mr Yanukovych is now reliant on Russia’s money to rescue Ukraine’s collapsing economy.
Mr Yanukovych and Mr Putin are supposed to meet next week in Moscow to sign several agreements which are thought to include cheaper gas for Ukraine and, rumour has it, to allow Mr Yanukovych’s family business into yet another opaque vehicle for importing gas.
Mr Yanukovych is terrified of upsetting Mr Putin, who is likely to have made this deal dependent on Mr Yanukovych’s ability to clear protesters off the streets.
The botched crackdown dealt another blow to Mr Yanukovych’s dwindling legitimacy.
His orders are being sabotaged.
The oligarchs, who control most television channels, defy his orders.
Considering Ukraine’s looming financial crisis, Mr Yanukovych’s position is not much stronger than that of the Communist coup-plotters in the Soviet Union in 1991, who lost legitimacy and power in three days by inciting violence which the country rejected.
What keeps Mr Yanukovych in power is the lack of a clear opposition leader.
None of the three main options, including Vitaly Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion, can really negotiate on the protesters’ behalf.
For now the stand-off continues with no clear way out.
Mr Yanukovych may play for time and bring out an army of paid supporters.
But one thing is clear: the bells are tolling for him.
Source: The Economist