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Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity. Five years later

Interview with Marci Shore, associate professor of history at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Interviewers: Kate Langdon and Jordan Luber

November 21, 2018 - Jordan Luber Kate Langdon Marci Shore - Hot TopicsInterviews

Photo by: Rostyslav Kostenko

KATE LANGDON and JORDAN LUBER: Reading The Ukrainian Night, we see that the Maidan was a mass political project based on ideas. What was the Maidan for? What was it against? What made it a revolution?

MARCI SHORE: It began as “Euromaidan”, a protest against Yanukovych’s sudden decision on November 21st 2013 not to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. This changed after November 30th, when the young people on the Maidan were brutally beaten by a riot police force called Berkut. Until that day, there had been a few hundred-to-several hundred people there, mostly students. Suddenly on December 1st there were close to a million people –now mobilised less by the association agreement and more by the violence against the students. In November the students had been declaring, “Ukraine is Europe”. Now in December those old enough to be their parents and grandparents were declaring: “We will not allow them to beat our children.” The Maidan grew into a revolution against what in Russian is called произвол (proizvol), arbitrariness tinged with tyranny, the sense that one is a helpless plaything of the powers-that-be. It was a revolt against rule by gangsters, against being treated as things and not as human beings.

You say the Maidan represented a return of the existential to politics. What do you mean by that? And what are some examples?

Józef Tischner, the Polish theologian and philosopher who was chaplain of Solidarity, wrote, “Revolution is an event in the realm of the spirit. Each person has changed. In the new person, there is no trace of the clay from which were formed the former slave, vassal, work force. People cannot, even if they want to, regain their former shape. They now have different bones.” The Maidan changed people’s souls; it was a Grenzerfahrung, a border experience that pushed people to places they had not previous imagined, and that pushed them to question what mattered to them most, what was good and what was evil, what was worth living for, and what was worth dying for.

Jurko Prochasko was among those who responded to an SOS call for psychotherapists in the days after the massacre. He spent the last nights of February 2014 on the Maidan, approaching people who had lost their minds, trying to convince them they were not alone. It was an experience that gave him tremendous insight into the revolutionary soul, he describes: “But I had not understood one thing – for me this was the limit of my own experience – I had not understood the moment when a person is ready to die. And there I understood it … it’s a departure, a movement beyond the confines of the self, when you experience being with people who are ready to die for you, to make themselves vulnerable for you, to carry you if you’re wounded … a willingness appears – it’s a kind of rapture, a wonder at the possibilities given to man, an enormous gratitude towards others, simply a Begeisterung with generosity and devotion. And an experiencing of an enormous solidarity.”

The Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity barely inspired the West. In a reversal of previous centuries, elites were more enthusiastic about the revolution than society. Western populations largely remained neutral, sceptical, and critical. Why is that?

As an American, I would in the first place say that Americans, generally speaking, take a minimal interest in what is going on in the rest of the world. I think that what was more hurtful to many Ukrainians was the lack of enthusiasm in Europe, and in particular in Germany and Austria. After all, the revolution begins as “Euromaidan”, with the passionate desire to be part of Europe. And so Europe’s coolness was as if a sign of unrequited love.

I think that this coolness was overdetermined in the Freudian sense that many factors overlapped. There were financial interests: Russian oligarchs have tended to keep their money in Europe; Austrian banks are especially popular. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder was then chairman of the shareholders’ committee of Gazprom. During the Second World War, the Wehrmacht, SS and Gestapo killed millions of Soviet citizens of all nationalities, yet historical memory has tended to identify “Soviet” as “Russia,” and Germany harbours feelings of guilt towards Russia. I suspect that fears of Ukrainian nationalism also played a role, as well as a longstanding condescension towards Eastern Europe. Above all, I would not underestimate the banal fact that our understanding of other people – all the more so those living in other countries, speaking other languages – tends to be limited; most people are absorbed in their own lives.

You write about the atmosphere on the Maidan during the revolution. What strikes us is the breaking of barriers between people, the organisation, discipline, courage, solidarity, diversity, and the act of being beyond the point of decision. Can you elaborate on that atmosphere? How did such a transformation happen to, as you say, normal people?

The Maidan was not only a political protest, but also a parallel polis, a whole alternative society. Spontaneous self-organisation produced an elaborate infrastructure: film screenings, an open university, concerts, libraries, kitchens, clothing distribution, and medical clinics. During the time of Solidarity in Poland, Adam Michnik called on Poles to live “as if” they were free – that is, to live as if they were free persons who bore responsibility for their behaviour regardless of political constraints. On the Maidan people lived as if they were free. People felt and took responsibility for this parallel society. There was no alcohol on the Maidan. Clothing and food and medicine were donated and distributed free of charge. “The Maidan was so clean that you could eat off the asphalt,” Misha Martynenko, a student active there, told me.

Your book has two parts: revolution and then war. Immediately after the revolution, there was the Russian invasion, which seriously disrupted the process of instituting the changes society had already undergone. How has the war taken its toll on Ukrainian society?

I have not been to the war zone myself, so let me in the first place recommend some excellent work by others: The fantastically talented young Polish journalist Paweł Pieniążek wrote two books of reportage, Pozdrowienia z Noworosji (translated into English as Greetings from Novorossiya: Eyewitness to the War in Ukraine) and Wojna, która nas zmieniła. Sergei Loznitsa’s feature film Donbass brilliantly captures the element of the grotesque. And I was especially moved by a short story by the novelist Vladimir Rafeenko from Donetsk, titled “Семь укропов.” I translated it into English under the title “Seven Dillweeds,” accessible here.

Secondly, if the Maidan was an almost nostalgic reminder of the time when people still believed in truth, the onset of the war in Donbas was a moment of post-modern grotesque, encapsulated by Peter Pomerantsev in his book on Putin’s Russia with the title “Nothing is true and everything is possible”. People are being killed in reality for reasons that are fiction. Serhiy Zhadan’s poem (translated by Valzhyna Mort in the collection Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine) opens with a stanza that captures the tragic absurdity of the war:

They buried him last winter . . · ·
Some winter too – not a snowflake, so much rain.
A quick funeral – we all have things to do.
Which side was he fighting for? I ask. What a question, they say,
One of the sides, who could figure them out.·
What difference does it make, they say, same difference.
Only he could have answered, they say, now it’s he said-she said.
Could he? His corpse is missing a head. ·

As for the toll the war has taken, I’m not myself living in Ukraine, so I am not the best person to judge. I would point out that more than 10,000 people have been killed and there are an estimated two million internally displaced persons who have lost their homes (and often everything else) and have become refugees in their own country. Ukrainians understand that the war would not have happened – and would not be happening – were it not for Kremlin instigation and the presence of Russian weapons and soldiers coming from across the border. The Maidan was not anti-Russian – it was anti-Putin and anti-the-strongman-rule he represented, yes, but not anti-Russian. And Russian was as much a language of the Maidan as was Ukrainian. It’s only now, after more than four years of war, that I feel real anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine, including anti-Russian language sentiment. Recently in the Lviv region there were attempts to pass a law banning cultural materials in the Russian language. I was in Lviv at the time and I stopped by a bookstore in the centre of the city. I found hundreds of books in Russian, on shelves marked with a “just FYI”-style warning that some of those books might have been published in Russia. It was an anti-advertisement of sorts, like the warnings on cigarette packages.

A week or so after I’d stopped by that bookstore in Lviv, I gave a television interview in Dnipro, in eastern Ukraine. The journalist conducting the interview introduced me in Ukrainian and then explained to his viewers that he was now going to switch into Russian since it would be easier for his guest (me) to understand. I wasn’t at all offended, but I was struck by the fact that he felt he needed to justify switching languages. I don’t think he would have a few years ago, not only because Dnipro is predominantly Russian-speaking, but also (and more importantly) because switching back and forth between Ukrainian and Russian, be it on or off-screen, has long been so common that it hasn’t required an explanation. And this did feel sad to me. In a piece I wrote for The New Yorker about Serhiy Zhadan’s novel Voroshilovgrad I said just one thing about language in Ukraine, namely this: “I wrote to Zhadan in Polish about a novel he had written in Ukrainian and I had read in English. He answered me in Russian – a situation that was itself very Ukrainian.” I have always loved this about Ukraine: the richness of the multi-lingualism, the code-switching and the linguistic challenge.

Marci Shore is an associate professor of history at Yale University. Her most recent book, The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution, was published by Yale University Press in 2018. Her wide focus includes 20th century Central and Eastern Europe, Jewish history, philosophical history, and post-communist transformation. In 2018 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Kate Langdon is finishing her studies as an Erasmus Mundus scholar in the European Politics and Society: Václav Havel Joint Master Programme at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. She is also an editorial intern at New Eastern Europe.

Jordan Luber is finishing his studies as an Erasmus Mundus scholar in the European Politics and Society: Václav Havel Joint Master Programme at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. He is also an editorial intern at New Eastern Europe.

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