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Turning a protest into (someone else’s) metaphysics

A new account of Ukraine’s Euromaidan focuses on the spirit of revolution rather than dissecting events as they emerged.

Smoke rises over Independence Square, Kyiv, on 20 February. Photo: Andreas Stein/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.It has been over four years since late February 2014, when the sky over downtown Kyiv turned black, one of its main streets became awash with blood, and over 100 people were killed in Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution. The blood shed on Kyiv’s Instytutska Street and Hrushevsky Street over 18-20 February 2014 brought about the sudden end to the pro-Russian regime of Viktor Yanukovych. It provoked counter-protests in Crimea and the Donbas region, and Russian military intervention, leading to Crimea’s illegal annexation by Russia and a war in the Donbas that continues to the present day.

Four years on, one can safely conclude that the Euromaidan Revolution failed. While Ukraine has signed an Association Agreement with the European Union (EU), a goal of the Euromaidan protests, at least 10,000 people have been killed in the war in the Donbas. Anywhere from 1.4 to two million people have become internally displaced persons. High-level corruption continues to flourish under the new regime of Petro Poroshenko. Non-governmental organisations, activists, and journalists face intimidation and persecution by the state. Almost no one responsible for the deaths of over 100 people in late February 2014 has been brought to justice.

Though the Euromaidan Revolution would end violently and ultimately fail, western observers fell in love with it early. Ukrainians had given the EU new meaning. While citizens of EU states had become skeptical of the merits of their political and economic union, Ukrainians were clamouring to join it for the sake of such EU values as equality before the law, transparent government, and respect for human rights. The Yanukovych regime prevented Ukrainians from realising their European identity. The Kyiv protests symbolised the power of ordinary people forming a “warm ocean”, dissolving a corrupt regime peacefully. Civic nationalism, rather than a exclusivist nationalism based on ethnicity or language or culture, had come of age in Ukraine. One nation was standing up against a tyrant in the fashion of American colonists revolting against Britain. Even after more than 100 people had been killed in central Kyiv, advocates of nonviolent resistance dismissed the violence as “eye candy” for the media and claimed that nonviolent means of resistance ultimately brought down the Yanukovych regime.

The Euromaidan Revolution has thus become not only a study of the dynamics of popular protest, but also a study of people’s identities: whether or not they belong to a Ukrainian civic nation, whether or not that nation is “European” or “Eurasian”, and whether or not Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions are a part of that civic nation. These studies of identity are far from neutral. They become intertwined with larger geopolitical games. For example, Andrew Wilson’s 2014 book on the Ukraine crisis, while featuring a cover photo of protesters burning tires on a night at the barricades in front of police on Hrushevsky Street, is really about Russia versus the EU, NATO and the United States. The Euromaidan Revolution is only two chapters in the entire text. Ukrainians fighting to join “Europe” and overthrow the pro-Russian Yanukovych regime is their main theme. Russia seems to be provoking Yanukovych’s circle to drown the protests in blood.

Three years after Wilson, historian Marci Shore of Yale University has published a book focusing more on the protests themselves, The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution. Shore writes that her book rectifies the excessive attention observers paid to the geopolitics of Euromaidan. It does not address Ukraine’s current political situation and does not predict any political outcomes. Instead, it is “an exploration of revolution as a lived experience given to individuals”. The book argues that the protest camp in downtown Kyiv, the Maidan, brought about a return of metaphysics to eastern Europe, where, for the first time since state communism’s collapse, people started asking questions such as where evil came from. It stood for the truth and values such as rule by law, equality, social justice, and human dignity.

The Maidan opposed proizvol, the abuse of power by government officials, which had plagued Ukraine since 1991. Maidan protesters and supporters had to make the most existential choices, risking their lives and thus affirming the value of them, as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would put it. Maidan participants, as they chose to rebel as individuals, achieved a higher state of self by overcoming their own selfhood and experiencing solidarity with others.

Selective intimacy, selective symbolism

The first half of The Ukrainian Night reveals fascinating details about individuals’ experiences at the Maidan in Kyiv and at Euromaidan protests in cities like Lviv and Kharkiv. The second half of the book deals with Ukraine’s hybrid war with Russia. While mostly about pro-Maidan Ukrainians, it includes a very detailed letter by a friend from Russia, Polina, who sharply criticised the Maidan and perceived western interference in Ukraine.

Still, the book offers only a very limited account of what life was like at the Kyiv Maidan. Shore’s sources are interviews and communications with her friends and colleagues. They are all intellectuals: translators, journal editors, writers, historians, graduate students, philosophers, and in one case, a famous Ukrainian rock singer (Slava Vakarchuk of Okean Elzy) who later was a visiting scholar at Yale University. The only exceptions are a businessman from the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk (now Dnipro), who helped form volunteer battalions to defend Ukraine and some battalion volunteers. No one from Ukrainian far-right groups as Svoboda and Right Sector appears in Maidan events, unless mentioned by people interviewed. Most of the characters seem to be from western Ukraine, especially the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

The problem is that the Maidan was not one set of values, nor one essence

As a result, The Ukrainian Night produces a simplistic, misleading and awkwardly written account of Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution. Authorities in continental philosophy somehow explain the spirit of Maidan. Vasyl Cherepanyn, a lecturer at Kyiv Mohyla Academy and director of the Visual Culture Research Centre in Kyiv, claims that Maidan protesters demonstrated the saliency of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology by providing conceptual content to the signifier “Europe”. In fighting proizvol, protesters stood for such values as rule of law, treating humans with dignity and human rights. In Shore’s account, they thus defended the “Europe” that for Husserl in the 1930s signified the Enlightenment project of human reason against the “Europe” threatened with irrationalism, and thus the loss of its identity to barbarism. It is as if “Europe” did not also mean a higher standard of living. The book assumes that opposition to proizvol necessarily meant standing up for “Europe” and its values. Slogans chanted at Maidan rallies like “Bandits out!” (Bandu het’!) and “Crook out!” (Zeka het’!) may have just signified a desire to overthrow a regime full of bandits, including Viktor Yanukovych.

Photo: CC BY-ND 2.0 streetwrk.com / Flickr. Some rights reserved.The problem is that the Maidan was not one set of values, nor one essence. It was what semiologist Yuri Lotman called a “floating signifier”, something that meant different things to different people at different times. For activists from right-wing groups such as Svoboda and Right Sector, and not just them, the Maidan embodied the virtues of Stepan Bandera, leader of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), an organisation linked to fascism and violence against Poles and Jews in the Second World War, yet also to a guerrilla movement that fought Soviet rule in western Ukraine after the war had ended. For one Ukrainian diaspora activist on Facebook in early 2016, the will of “the Maidan” would be realised if a former US official, hedge fund manager and post-Maidan Minister of Finance, Natalia Jaresko, was appointed Prime Minister. For others, “the Maidan” signified nothing close to what Shore writes. In early January 2014, one man from Donetsk wrote to me that the Maidan was “a circus” (shapito) and a disgrace to Ukraine.

The Maidan monolith

The Maidan changed over time. By mid-December 2013, exhaustive field interviews conducted by Olga Onuch and Tamara Martsenyuk demonstrated that the students, intellectuals, and activists from primarily western Ukraine (the main subjects of The Ukrainian Night) were in the minority. Not everyone was using Facebook to get news about it, and their motives for coming to the Maidan varied by age group. According to Andrew Wilson, opinion surveys of protest camp residents conducted over three months indicate that intellectuals and professionals started playing less and less of a role at the camp, while more and more camp residents were from out of town, less educated, and more militant – people, perhaps, who had nothing to lose and who were less willing to compromise.

In contrast, Ukrainian Night acts as if the Maidan were an unchanging entity from its inception. Its narrative meanders from short story to short story, without explaining key events that affected the protest camp. After some gripping scenes about the fight for the Maidan in late February 2014 and an incomplete introduction to Ukrainian history (it skips over the history of Soviet Ukraine from 1945 to 1991), there is a long, ponderous narrative about Galicia, a former province of Austria and interwar Poland joined to Soviet Ukraine during the Second World War, and the nostalgia translator Taras Prokhasko had for it since childhood.

21 November 2013, the first day of the Maidan. Source: Hromadske.

When the book finally turns to the beginning of the Euromaidan protests, it acts as if nothing had happened in 2013 until journalist Mustafa Nayyem posted a call to show up at the Maidan on 21 November. In July 2013, spontaneous riots in the southern village of Vradiivka presaged the kind of violence Kyiv would witness in January and February 2014. A crowd attacked a local police station with Molotov cocktails after officers were accused of raping and beating a local woman and trying to cover up the crime. The incident inspired protests against the Ministry of Internal Affairs in other parts of Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv. This was a reaction to the proizvol of the political system without references to an ideal “Europe” that Shore’s book focuses on.

By focusing on the Maidan’s spirit, The Ukrainian Night fails to appreciate ways in which people still wound up becoming objects in someone else’s game

The book acts as if violence only arrived on the Maidan on the night of 30 November, when Berkut forces brutally broke up the first protest camp. It leaves out early clashes between protesters and police (like in front of the Cabinet of Ministers building on 25 November). When protesters seize control of the Maidan on 1 December, the book mentions nothing about radical nationalists seizing control of the Kyiv City Hall or attempting to storm the Presidential Administration building. After describing attempts by Berkut forces to clear the protest city on 10-11 December, and an Okean Elzy rock concert at the Maidan attended by at least 250,000 people, there is no mention of the declining numbers of people showing up at Maidan demonstrations. By late December, it looked as if the Maidan was dying out.

Manipulating the revolutionary masses

By focusing on the Maidan’s spirit, Ukrainian Night fails to appreciate ways in which people, in acquiring higher states of selfhood, still wound up becoming objects in someone else’s game.

The protests themselves follow a strange pattern, where the protest camp loses momentum and numbers, and then some act committed by or attributed to the Yanukovych regime provokes outrage and revives its militancy. When Berkut forces broke up the first Maidan on the night of 30 November, hardly anyone was there. The next day, over one million people showed up to reoccupy the Maidan. After withstanding advances by Berkut forces on 10-11 December, the protests started to lose momentum until the night of 25 December, when investigative journalist Tetiana Chornovol was brutally beaten by unknown assailants. News of the beating, spread on the social networks and the Internet, gave additional energy to a rally planned for 29 December, when the Maidan was to march on Viktor Yanukovych’s mansion at Mezhyhir’ia, north of the city.

12 January 2014: car rally to summon Viktor Yanukovych to a "people's court" near Mezhyhirya. CC BY-SA 3.0 Mykola Vasylechko / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Likewise, by early January 2014, fewer and fewer people were coming to the Maidan. Suddenly, the Dictatorship Laws of 16 January, which seemed to make all protests at the Maidan illegal, brought thousands out to the 19 January Maidan Assembly. Automaidan activist Serhiy Koba called on protesters to march on the Ukrainian Parliament from European Square. This march made no sense at all. First, Parliament was not in session, so there was no one to put pressure on. Second, the road to Parliament was blocked by busses on Hrushevsky Street. This was when these young men in surgical masks, wielding clubs, converged on the crowd at Hrushevsky Street and started throwing rocks and then Molotov cocktails at the riot police. The site became a theatre for pitched battles, including fatal ones, yet it was nowhere near to Parliament, whereas there were other routes to Parliament that protesters could have used for their march. Nothing about the fighting on Hrushevsky Street made sense, except that they discredited the protests as violent and led by extremists. They also made it very convenient for the regime to threaten to declare a state of emergency.

People at the time knew that something was up. The mysterious circumstances around the beating of Chornovol, a journalist known for causing scandals, caused at least one Euromaidan activist at the end of 2013 to consider distancing himself from the protests and focusing on the next 25 years of his life. He later was shot and killed on the Maidan on 20 February 2014.

Very suspicious provocations happened after violence broke out on Hrushevsky Street in late January. Indeed, as Shore’s subjects recall, protesters were arrested, beaten, tortured and kidnapped. Hired thugs known as titushky made the streets of Kyiv so unsafe that the Kyiv Mohyla Academy had to cancel classes and conduct distance learning in late January. Yet many of the stories about murders and kidnappings were probably rumours. Worse, there was one story that was possibly fake. The kidnapping and torturing of Automaidan activist Dmitry Bulatov, which is not mentioned in Ukrainian Night at all, evoked an outpouring of anger at the regime at the end of January 2014. One activist who had himself been kidnapped and tortured, Ihor Lutsenko, referred to Bulatov’s story as proof that this was a revolutionary war against police brutality, or proizvol as Shore would put it.

“We need to be careful in making comments on extremely sensitive divisions – linguistic, geopolitical, and etc. The struggle takes place against the regime, but also for its electorate”

In later months, though, people questioned Bulatov’s story and said it did not add up. Automaidan leader Serhiy Poiarkov told the press in late November 2014 that he and other Automaidan activists knew it probably wasn’t a kidnapping, especially since they had expelled Bulatov from their ranks three days before his disappearance. They chose not to say anything public about their suspicions, because they did not want to undermine the formation of a new government after Yanukovych had fled (Bulatov became the interim government’s Minister of Youth Affairs and Sport).

27 January 2014. Photo: Sergiy Anishchenko/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved. More importantly, Bulatov claimed that his alleged captors who tortured him spoke Russian with accents indicating they were from Russia itself. This news came a little over a week after activist Yuri Verbytskyi had been kidnapped, tortured, and killed, and where his captors allegedly punished him the most because Verbytskyi was from Lviv in western Ukraine and thus a radical nationalist, a “Banderite”. One Euromaidan activist warned that spreading such stories threatened to deepen divisions between those who supported the Euromaidan and those who did not. This made it even harder for the forces of the Maidan to win over supporters in Ukraine’s south and east. “The only way to counter this is to exercise caution and carry out an effective positive mobilisation”, concluded Yegor Stadny, active in the Student Coordinating Council that led student strikes in Kyiv during the Maidan. “We need to be careful in making comments on extremely sensitive divisions – linguistic, geopolitical, and etc. The struggle takes place against the regime, but also for its electorate”.

Revolutions and their enemies

Alas, the revolution may have united and transformed its participants, but it did not unite Ukraine at all. Opposition leaders called for an all-Ukrainian strike from the beginning of December 2013 to the middle of February, but almost no one went on strike. By mid-February 2014, on the eve of the violent overthrow of the Yanukovych regime, opinion polls suggested that kidnappings, torture, murder, and violent clashes between police and protesters only reinforced the regime’s existing base of support. When likely voters were asked whom they would vote for as president, a total of 28.9% said they would vote for Viktor Yanukovych in a hypothetical first round of elections. That figure had not changed at all from the last poll taken on 26 December 2013 (28.9%).6

Ukrainian Night sides with those who struggled against the Yanukovych regime, not with those who wanted to win over the regime’s electorate. As it seeks to prove that Ukrainians were filling a phenomenologist’s signifier with ideal content, the book valorises an either-or choice, a struggle between an absolute good and an absolute evil, between “Europe” and the “Russian world”.

The book does almost nothing to explain why millions of Ukrainians in the south and east did not support the Maidan at all

In this account, those who are not with the Maidan are not normal. When the book mentions participants in rallies for the Yanukovych regime, the Anti-Maidan, they are objects of pity, who have no idea why they are there except to be paid. Ukraine’s south and east, where most people did not express support for the Maidan, is almost completely absent from the book. The book only deals with Dnipropetrovsk after the Yanukovych regime has ended and war with Russia is underway. The Donbas region is a “zombie apocalypse”, where time moves sometimes forward, sometimes backward. It is a land where criminality flourishes. The people of Donbas are indifferent to the Ukrainian state and refuse to leave territory occupied by the Russians because they have never traveled outside their own villages, let alone to the capital Kyiv or abroad. Because they have never left their villages, they fail to understand “that life exists” and that a Ukrainian state exists. The author did not bother to ask if villagers in central Ukraine or western Ukraine were any more mobile or less caught up in the past.

As for the southern port city of Odessa, it becomes scene to a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (“Ode to Joy”) in late March 2014, in a crowded fish market, where “There among the market stalls filled with scents of sardines and smoked herring they played ‘Ode to Joy’ – drowning, for a moment, the voices of Putin’s sirens”. Were customers and fish mongers spreading Russian propaganda amid the noise? The book makes almost no mention of the fight between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian crowds in the city in May 2014, which led to the deaths of as many as 42 people when the regional Trade Unions Building caught fire.

A May 2014 commemoration service for those who died in Odessa's Trade Union building fire. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.There is nothing about who those people were who opposed the Maidan and who decided siding with Russia was better than standing up for an independent, united Ukraine under a post-Maidan regime. The book does almost nothing to explain why millions of Ukrainians in the south and east did not support the Maidan at all. At most, the book suggests that, were it not for provocations by the far right at the Kyiv Maidan, more people from those regions would have joined it. At worst, its reliance on narratives by people obsessed with identity politics and European values risks dehumanising entire regions of a country. In a blog written by historian Andrii Portnov in the early months of the conflict in the Donbas, some of the intellectuals Shore later quotes treat Donbas residents as less Ukrainian and less European than their counterparts further west.

Far-right puppets

As for far-right political forces on the Maidan, such as Svoboda, Right Sector or the organisations that were under Right Sector’s alleged umbrella, Ukrainian Night only notes in passing what others said of them. No one from the far right speaks in this book, except for two people who joined the Right Sector volunteer battalion during the Donbas war. Far-right nationalists are either unwitting agents of Russian propaganda, or they are a very small group always present on the Maidan, or they physically attack their opponents on the left. Admittedly, the latter comment was very telling about the harmony of “Noah’s Ark”, the Maidan and its different factions. The teenage son of a Kyiv journalist referred to Svoboda setting up a torture chamber in the Kyiv City Hall which it occupied, beating up and tear-gassing policemen and titushky they had captured. In the early days of the Euromaidan, the far-right attacked feminists, tearing up their posters and spraying tear gas in their faces.

15 February 2014. Far-right on Kyiv's main Khreshchatyk Street prior to an incident with AntiMaidan protesters. Source: flackelf.livejournal.com. Thus the far right has no agency in this book. This leads to the false impression that they played no decisive role in events that affected the outcome of the Euromaidan protests. The far right, sometimes at odds with security forces, sometimes at the encouragement of security forces, escalated the violence. On 1 December 2013, it was they who seized control of an administrative building, Kyiv City Hall. That same day, they tried to take control of the Presidential Administration building, but coordinating their attack with riot police and Berkut forces. Video cameras from the time show one “radical nationalist” crossing riot police lines unhindered as rioters assault police with chains and rocks and drive a bulldozer at their ranks. A week later, far-right activists demolished the Lenin monument in Kyiv on 8 December. This probably also happened with the knowledge of security forces. Riot police had been defending the monument during a Euromaidan rally on 24 November, and they prevented radical nationalists from taking down Lenin on 1 December, but they were mysteriously absent the night Lenin finally came crashing down.

While they were not the only principle figures on the Maidan, far-right forces were there early, and they had their own agenda

Connivance with security forces did not mean that the far right was simply working for the regime. Eyewitnesses later recalled the attempt to seize the Presidential Administration building on 1 December as a spontaneous protest, drawing in young men who wanted to start a “national revolution” that-far right activists had been advocating for years. Svoboda and Right Sector held rival rallies to remember nationalist leader Stepan Bandera on the anniversary of his birth, on 1 January 2014. They claimed Bandera as a hero of the Maidan, erecting a portrait on his memory near the main stage that stood there for the duration of the protest camp.

When the Yanukovych regime enacted the 16 January Dictatorship Laws, making nearly all forms of protest illegal, Right Sector took advantage of people’s anger and started attacking police forces on Hrushevsky Street, leading eventually to people in Shore’s book learning how to make Molotov cocktails. The regime itself provoked the violence. The Party of Regions forced the laws through Parliament literally through a show of hands, in blunt violation of procedures. Thousands of people risked going to jail. The far right then channeled the protesters’ anger and used it to start their battle with the regime in late January 2014.

More importantly, the dramatic escalation of violence between security forces and the Maidan on 18-20 February 2014 makes no sense without discussing the role of the far right. Shore claims the violence began on 18 February when police attacked protesters who marched on Parliament to demand a return to the constitution of 2004, thus limiting president Yanukovych’s power. She mentions nothing about what had set off the police. Numerous videos posted on Youtube (such as this one) reveal a peaceful march on Parliament that had gotten out of control. At one point, the crowd near Parliament, egged on by young men, took down the fences separating them from the police and started fighting police and titushky behind them. Titushky eagerly joined in the fighting, hurling explosives in the direction of Maidan protesters. Berkut forces then struck, savagely beating everyone in their path. They attacked protesters with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets.

The young men starting the fights most likely were from the far right, who just three days earlier had gotten into a fight with supposed Anti-Maidan forces allegedly trying to “clean up” Khreshchatyk Street and remove barricades. On 18 February, some of them broke into the nearby Party of Regions headquarters, the headquarters of Yanukovych and the ruling party in Parliament, and set part of it on fire; one person inside died of asphyxiation from the smoke.

18 February 2014. Photo: Volodymyr Tarasov/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.Strangely enough, despite making the violence of 18-20 February the opening scenes to the book, Shore does not explain at all what happened on the Maidan on 20 February. Her sole source for events that day is Misha Martynenko, a historian from Kyiv making plans to attend graduate school in Lviv. Martynenko was not there when the mass shootings started that day; he and a friend arrived over an hour after they had happened. A reader not familiar with events would get the impression that Berkut forces started shooting at people to clear the Maidan a second time (the first attempt having failed the night of 18-19 February after a truce was called between Yanukovych and opposition leaders). This truce was broken early the next morning by armed men from the Maidan. Men with shotguns appeared at the conservatory, where protesters were staying after the Trade Unions Building had burned down. They started firing at police forces above the Maidan, killing Berkut officers and breaking the truce. Then protesters rushed forward, up Instytutska Street, as if to retake those positions the Maidan had occupied prior to 18 February (the entrance to a metro station beyond the Hotel Ukraina, as well as October Palace). That was when snipers from atop neighbouring buildings opened fire on them, killing them “like rabbits”, as one eyewitness reported in a documentary by Ukraine’s 1 +1 television channel.

The Yanukovych regime would not have collapsed in the way it did, had it not been for violence instigated by the far right (and encouraged by the regime itself). That violence came at the cost of lives, including those from such far-right political parties as Svoboda. While they were not the only principle figures on the Maidan, far-right forces were there early, and they had their own agenda, where the collapse of the Yanukovych regime would bring about their long-expected “national revolution”. They regarded Stepan Bandera as a hero, yet the book does not explain how the Bandera cult retained an influence after the war (and his death in 1959) because Ukrainian history somehow stops at the end of the war and resumes in 1991. The far right in independent Ukraine has no history. Because this book focuses on a group that was distanced from the far right, we get no impression of who these people were or what their experiences of revolution were.

We only know that in moments of danger, they became allies of people who would identify themselves as “liberal”. Thus a Svoboda activist named Ihor is happy to see an old university classmate (Misha Martynenko), who hated Ihor’s nationalism and anti-Semitism, when both are fighting security forces at the Maidan on 18 February.

European dreams and Russian demons

Because Shore’s group of friends and colleagues is so narrow, the story of the Maidan and the war that followed suffers from blind spots that critical distance would have remedied.

The narratives told by these friends and colleagues valourise a clash of civilizations between “Europe” and “Russia”. The revolutionary heroes are on the side of the former and ultimately against the latter. An outside reader might get the impression that this revolution really did develop as Russian propaganda said it did: an uprising inspired by Galician intellectuals enamoured with “Europe” and disgusted with the Soviet past, who had connections with both the west and Kyiv, whose relationship with Ukrainian nationalism was ambiguous, and who thus tolerated neo-Nazis and far-right nationalists as strategic partners. While attributing the war to outside Russian aggression, Shore undercuts her own argument by suggesting that a civil war really was going on in the Donbas. Witnesses connected with Donbas speak of divided families, shattered friendships and even radically different notions of time.

In this metaphysical moment in eastern European history, Russia and the “Russian world” become absolute evil. Vladimir Putin is referred to as “Caligula” for an entire chapter called “Caligula at the Gates”. All of Russia seems to be in some kind of time warp. One interviewee claims that time for Russians moves backwards, while time moves forwards for Ukrainians. For residents of the Donbas, time remains somewhere in between.

In gratuitous fashion, Russian literature helps explain everything wrong going on in Ukraine. The far-right activists who brutally beat Vasyl Cherepanyn, in Kyiv in September 2014, are compared to nihilists in Dostoevsky’s The Devils. Shore concludes her section on the Maidan with a chapter called “Chekhov’s Gun”, suggesting that the presence of armed men on the Maidan would produce some gunfire before those men would leave it. Donbas is where the state failed, and where Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov helps explain what is happening there. By contrast, continental philosophers are used at every opportunity to describe what adherents to the Maidan experienced.

An absent west

As for the west, Shore’s book stresses its failure to support the Maidan or understand its significance. This is especially true for Europe. When violence broke out in late February 2014, Austrian newspapers referred to the protesters as “kids from Kiev”. The Polish newspapers, by contrast, properly called them powstańcy, or “resistance fighters”. In contrast to residents of EU countries further west, Poles understood the Maidan the best, because, claims Shore, they had experienced rising up against oppression under incredible odds many times before. Thus Polish dissident Adam Michnik’s expression of solidarity with his “Ukrainian brothers” on 20 February, after so many had been killed on the Maidan.

Shore does not consider the possibility that Ukraine, for some Polish politicians and intellectuals, is a useful buffer zone against Russia rather than a “brother”

Shore does not consider the possibility that Ukraine, for some Polish politicians and intellectuals, is a useful buffer zone against Russia rather than a “brother”. Europeans’ reluctance to take action against the Russian annexation of Crimea represented another example of western indifference toward Ukraine’s fate. It set the dangerous strategy of appeasement and a dangerous repetition of history, where Putin, not Hitler, was about to decide the fate of Europe. Vasyl Cherepanyn tells Shore that while he expected international protests to support the Maidan, where a “real revolution” had taken place, “there was no real international solidarity”.

Ironically, this book completely ignores the degree to which the west not only expressed solidarity, but even intervened on behalf of the Maidan several times. Unlike the Orange Revolution of 2004, the social networks, Youtube and Skype made contacts between protesters and supporters around the world possible. In the very first week of the Euromaidan protests, Ukrainians were calling on people to express their support for the Euromaidan by organising Euromaidan rallies in their own communities. I saw on Facebook photo after photo, video after video, of Ukrainian diaspora and their friends gathered in cities in Europe, North America and Australia in support of the Maidan. Facebook groups emerged, like “Euromaidan USA”, which I became an administrator for at one point. These groups raised funds for Maidan activists, wrote letters to politicians, organised protests in front of Ukrainian embassies and homes of Ukrainian officials, and scheduled global Twitter storms. Because my town had no Ukrainian diaspora, I organised a Facebook page for it that turned into a forum for sharing English-language translations of events in Ukraine. It grew to nearly 6,000 people at one point. Some, myself included, even traveled to the Kyiv Maidan.

Besides revolutionary tourists like myself, there were plenty of foreign politicians and officials who came to the Maidan. The list is impressive: Loreta Graužinienė, speaker of the Lithuanian parliament (26 November 2013); Jarosław Kaczyński, former Prime Minister of Poland and that country’s opposition leader (1 December 2013); outgoing German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle (4 December 2013); Mikheil Saakashvili, former President of Georgia (6 December 2013); Assistant US Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt (10 December 2013); Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief (10 December 2013); US Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy (15 December 2013); and Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian member of the European Parliament and leader of its Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (21 February 2014). Some even spoke to the Maidan from the stage. On 9 February, French philosopher and celebrity intellectual Bernard Henri Lévy, speaking through an interpreter, told demonstrators that they were the ideal Europe he and so many others were longing for.

Nearly a quarter century of corrupt governance, tolerated by the EU, the United States and Russia, had made proizvol a normal part of Ukrainian life

Most notoriously, western politicians actively sought to replace Yanukovych’s government with another one more amenable to the EU and the United States. In early February 2014, Assistant US Secretary of State Nuland negotiated between Ukraine’s political opposition and the Yanukovych regime to put together a transition government. Information over these negotiations leaked out in an intercepted phone call between Nuland and Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, where Nuland, exasperated with EU reluctance to put together such a deal, said: “Fuck the EU.”

For some reason, though, western intervention is ignored, while Russian intervention becomes a key theme. People like McCain are not revolutionary tourists, but the people from across the Russian border who showed up in Kharkiv and the Donbas were. Orthodox women in Donetsk who bless Chechen fighters defending them from outsiders are disoriented.

As Shore’s book gives credence to an east-west civilisational divide determining the Maidan’s fate, Lviv, touted as the most “western” of Ukraine’s cities, fails to be identified as a problem. Lviv seems to be the driving force for ideas about “Europe”. Shore’s walking through historic parts of the city becomes part of the narrative. Yet there is not a single word about the “Night of Rage” that rocked Lviv on 18-19 February 2014. In that night, protesters attacked regular police, riot police, Security Services of Ukraine (SBU) and prosecutor’s office buildings in different parts of the city, smashing property, burning documents, and stealing firearms. The arrival of such armed protesters from Lviv to Kyiv on 19-20 February may have caused security forces to consider ways to strike at the Maidan before it was too late. These incidents made it very easy for pro-Russian activists to justify seizing buildings and destroying property in the Donbas later.

The perils of Facebook revolutions

Finally, Ukrainian Night takes at face value the assumption that social networks like Facebook and Twitter form a more transparent society open to revolutionary change. (Incidentally, none of Shore’s friends or colleagues seem to use the Russian social network VKontakte, even though it was widely used for information about the protests.) The live-streaming of Maidan events, including people being shot to death, may have given greater intimacy with a revolution worldwide. Nonetheless, Facebook and Twitter postings created a fragmented world where fellow thinkers liked and shared each other’s posts and banned “Kremlin trolls” and “bots”.

Seeing blood and gore in real time made people who were not on the Maidan anxious, as some of the Maidan participants in this book state. Facebook and Twitter became places where people spread unconfirmed rumours and news stories that disoriented readers. I found myself translating for Facebook eyewitness accounts that were completely fictitious, rumors of morgues filled with bodies that were later proven false, and videos of tanks headed to the Maidan just because some officer told the cameraman they were headed that way. It got even worse on 18-20 February, when phony stories circulated about Berkut literally sewing captured protesters’ mouths shut and police forces running over and decapitating a protester near Parliament.

The risks of revolutionary love

Ivan Krastev of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, one of the many critics praising Ukrainian Night in its set of cover blurbs, writes: “The best way to make sense of a revolution unfolding in front of your eyes is to fall in love with it”. Falling in love with a revolution has its risks. Group solidarity indeed can bring about moments of transcendence, where individuals achieve higher states of selfhood, where they are willing to risk their lives for some larger entity beyond them. Yet such solidarity draws boundaries between insiders and outsiders. As members of the group distinguish between good and evil, they raise the stakes in any confrontation with those outsiders.

February 2015: Ukraine commemorates first anniversary of Maidan killings. (c) Sean Gallup / Getty Images. All rights reserved.In the case of Ukraine’s Maidan, the stakes became “Freedom or Death” (Volia abo smert’). This slogan dates back to the days of Ukraine’s struggle for independence in 1917-1920, it thus set up boundaries between different armed groups engaged in a bloody civil war as well as a war for national liberation. This slogan was on one of the banners hung on the New Year’s Tree whose construction had been the excuse for Yanukovych’s regime to clear the Maidan with brute force in late November 2013.

“Freedom or Death” epitomises the tragedy of the Euromaidan Revolution. While it captivated outsiders’ hearts and transformed their souls, it was the culmination of social unrest that had little to do with Europe and much more to do with daily life in Ukraine. The revolution had become a zero-sum game for its most committed supporters, because there seemed to be no other option left.

Violence by the state, not appeals to “Europe”, mobilised the masses

Nearly a quarter century of corrupt governance, tolerated by the EU, the United States and Russia, had made proizvol a normal part of Ukrainian life. It produced a political elite whose opposition was just as corrupt and dishonest with voters as their counterparts in power. By late November 2013, “Europe” became Ukraine’s saviour, given the ineffectiveness of the country’s political opposition.

Violence by the state, not appeals to “Europe”, mobilised the masses. Thus hundreds of thousands of people, if not a million, came to the Maidan in the first half of December 2013, after the brutal crackdown of 30 November. What had seemed like a protest dying out had taken on new life. Yet the symbolic performance of showing up at the Maidan quickly lost its saliency. No government ministers resigned. Opposition leaders called for a nationwide strike, yet no strike took place. The Maidan seemed to be separate from the rest of the country, though claiming to speak for all of it. Anyone visiting downtown Kyiv in January 2014 knew that this city of millions lived a life separate from the revolution. As one Kyiv resident later told me, it was only when the metro lines for the whole city shut down on 18-20 February that the revolution affected them.

While the Maidan offered a platform for so many people committed to bringing Ukraine closer to Europe, it was ultimately the refusal to compromise that sustained the Maidan. In late January 2014, far-right activists like Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh said a compromise with the Yanukovych regime was possible only following radical concessions, including the resignations of government ministers and possibly Yanukovych himself. A government amnesty of protesters that took effect on 17 February 2014 failed to produce a spirit of compromise on the Maidan. While protesters gave up control of administrative buildings, including Kyiv City Hall, protesters freed still had criminal cases open against them. No security forces were facing criminal charges for excessive force they had used against protesters. Russia’s decision that same day to release two billion USD in aid to Ukraine raised fears that Russia was encouraging Yanukovych’s regime to clear out the Maidan as a precondition to receiving this and the rest of $15 billion in aid.

Thus in the last two months of the protests, what drew crowds to the Maidan was the threat of a violent crackdown. This time, no press reports talked of hundreds of thousands of people showing up. Then on the fateful night of 18 February, as Kyivans found out about the metro lines closing, people left work. Khreshchatyk Street and neighbouring streets turned into a sea of people, but most were walking away from the Maidan and heading home. Unlike the night of 10-11 December 2013, they chose not to defend the Maidan against security forces.

The slogan “Freedom or Death” symbolised the failure of nonviolent resistance and civil society’s inability to prevent violence from overtaking a protest movement. A “warm ocean” had turned into rivers of blood on Instytutska Street. The Euromaidan Revolution failed to win over hearts or minds, or change souls. It hardened the resolve of its supporters. Unintentionally, it demonised the protests in Crimea and Donbas, making appeals for Russian help more than just calls by “Putin’s sirens”.

Watching horrifying videos shared on Facebook only reinforced the idea that the Maidan was about “freedom or death”. One of them appeared on 23 January 2014 with requests in English to repost it so that the whole world would see it. It featured police humiliating and torturing Cossack Mykhailo Havryliuk, stripped naked and standing in the freezing cold. When I watched it, I wanted to leave Milledgeville, Georgia and go back to the Maidan, which I had left just four days earlier. I posted the video, explaining its contents in English, to my own page and to a group page. My friend, a medievalist, told me in comments, “Bill, you are a historian. Please, keep historical distance with these things!” I got angry with him and said he did not understand the need for historians like me to act, even if just on Facebook. I told him that because I had shared this story, “my conscience is clear”.

Four years later, after reading Ukrainian Night, I understand what my friend meant. Turning a national tragedy into a moment for metaphysics does great disservice not only to the people who went to the Maidan and died for it, or those who supported it in Ukraine and beyond. It also does a historical injustice to those policemen who were stuck defending law and order and who were demonised because of it. It dehumanises people in Ukraine who could not find sense in the protests and yet had to live with their consequences. Critical distance is often the best way to understand a revolution and its significance.

 


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