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The history of revolutions: Democracy in action or democracy in turmoil?

A conversation with Yevhenii Monastyrskyi, a Luhansk native, historian, and sociologist. Interviewer: Simona Merkinaite, Vilnius University, Open Lithuania Foundation.

May 26, 2021 - Simona Merkinaite Yevhenii Monastyrskyi - Interviews

Yevhenii Monastyrskyi. Source: Private

SIMONA MERKINAITE: With the people taking over public squares in Belarus, we can see a very unique moment to reflect on the politics of revolution. There are basically two ways to look at the street protests and civil disobedience erupting around Europe and even in the United States. The first is the temptation to identify the revolt of the masses as democracy in action, the reaffirmation of the political meaning of each and every citizen, their right and more importantly, their power to disrupt, reform and transform the political world. The second is more cautious. The masses are often mobilised against something, but much less clear or united in what they want. In the end, someone has to take responsibility for what comes next once the existing social contract is broken. Someone still needs to come forward and take responsibility for doing the everyday work of forming a new contract and creating the new normality of political life. So, basically, protest politics can be seen as reaffirmation of democratic power or as further destruction to it What is your take on the politics of the masses?

YEVHENII MONASTYRSKYI: This frustration with mass politics, as seen in José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, is an example of well-educated people writing about the ordinary person entering politics. This is one of the reasons why, as a scholar, I am so fascinated by the period of the early 20th century, the interwar period, and the 1920s and 30s, which are impressive. That was when politics became mass politics. It was a turning point from the politics of the elite to the politics of the masses. Now I have to note that I come from a relatively anti-Soviet family. My father defended a thesis on red terror at the beginning of the 1990s; he was a very active pro-Ukrainian high school teacher and an activist. So, when I first started to research Soviet mass politics in its early development stage, I thought I would find evidence of revolutionary politics, planned by some leaders, cynical people, who came to power, especially at the local level.

Nevertheless, this is not what happened. In terms of language, at least, they were not speaking two languages. The way they spoke to the masses and with the masses was the way they spoke. Was it about genuine beliefs or an absence of any other way to speak with them? The interwar period was the moment of entanglement with the masses. It was an age when personality politics started to dissolve, and the age of mass politics began. This is what interests me – is there a way to tap into mass consciousness?

Talking about democracy, I believe that the things that are happening now by nature are the revolt of the masses, hence the arrival of the “small” people into the “big” politics. Just looking at last year’s protests in the US, it seems like this is when the country is on the verge of change. People in power did not initiate it, and protests are like sports; you have to keep practicing to get better. I think that maybe in the US, people are rediscovering the meaning of the “agora” in the Arendtian sense of presenting oneself and practicing civic liberties. The citizens are reclaiming their voting rights and their civic power. Whereas here, in Eastern Europe, it seems that people are sick of being constantly politicized and dragged into politics. For over 100 years, there was so much turmoil and change. It was a time when politics was what defined the rest of your life. The reassurance of politics by mass support was the key to such a regime as Stalin’s terror regime. And yet, despite always being at the centre of politics, people lived in constant change, a constant race from “darkness to light,” without changing a thing. The same now is happening in Belarus, where voting, the procedure itself, does not move or change things. So, I think there are two opposite tendencies — the rediscovery of the democratic process through voting, while in Eastern Europe there is a disillusion with the meaninglessness of voting, and the disillusion with citizenship, where your voice matters.

The EuroMaidan in Ukraine was a paramount event, it signified the new beginning of revolt for the people in 21st century Europe. It also is considered a new type of revolt, because it was spontaneous and organised from the bottom with no distinct leadership. In a way, when Viktor Yanukovych put a stop to the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement and people started to gather on the streets, it was individual decisions, and at the same time, political reaffirmation of power, the rejection of politics as usual and a rejection of being voiceless…

The EuroMaidan had a definite idea behind it, the idea of Europe. Despite being more abstract, it still captured imaginations and somehow managed to transform into a reality. The idea of Europe gave the masses a direction for the protest. A big part of it, of course, was the long-term direction formed by the government itself. The Yanukovych administration was bombarding people with a message about “going to Europe” and joining Europe. At the same time, there was much fierce debate with national and local elites, especially those who loved the relationship with Russia. Joining Europe meant changing the way things were conducted, such as introducing legal procedures rather than conducting business using corruption. Efficient, rule-based politics is the vision we got from our redirection towards Europe. And people got excited, especially young people for whom Europe meant possibilities – to travel, get an education, and work in a transparent and non-corrupt environment. Those are the ideas people associated with the protests during the EuroMaidan. We had a picture of good roads, education and economic possibilities, all developing into something bigger than ourselves. And then that promise of a better world was broken. So, I would say the revolutionary force that came from this idea was also put into our minds and hearts.

As for mass politics and the politics of uprising, I think that the Ukrainian case is less exceptional. I like to call us “the stepsons of revolution”. Every generation here goes through some form of revolt. Protesting has become a tool to express people’s ideas and their voices, but it has a downside. After the Maidan, political leaders were afraid of the power of the people in the city squares. I think there are two reasons. First, the EuroMaidan showed, as you said, that civil resilience can be built from the ground up, and disobedience can be well-organised sporadically, efficiently, and exceptionally, very fast. Second, due to the war, during the period of the past seven years now, we have more than 460,000 veterans. There is no guarantee that all these people will not pick up their guns in what would become a civil war rather than a protest. With tensions this high, it may be a question of not if, but when – and this is the downside of mass politics in Ukraine. We have gone through so much dramatic turmoil that we are used to it, yet we haven’t experienced enough meaningful political change to exclude such possibility.

Naturally, politics that bring no real change are frustrating as long as the system stays the same – corrupt and benefiting a small group of people. But the other thing I think you are touching upon here is the two different experiences of politics. Politics is a bureaucratic, standardised process that demands time, will, and a lot of precision. On the other hand, politics is often about the mechanics, and frustration about a lack of meaningful participation creates this revolutionary energy. I think this is why there is so much nostalgia, for example, here in the EU part of Eastern Europe for the period around 30 years ago, when people were on the brink of that change, riding the wind of change. And today, there is a longing for that action in concert – the solidarity of strangers. Politics in Europe is so much about the mechanics that it becomes boring. How can there be a balance in this situation?

Regarding Ukraine, I think we did achieve the bare minimum – the criminal, corrupt elite went away, and there was a review of politics and how things are done. The corrupt elite, however, were replaced with their more attentive and careful partners of yesterday. In Luhansk, where I was, we were protesting at the time against our proximity to Russia and rallying for proximity to Europe. Which can sound oxymoronically – the border with Russia is some 40 kilometres away from Luhansk. That was our local EuroMaidan. Issues of freedoms and rights were entangled with it. What was needed next was people not only willing but capable and patient to do the tedious work. The long-term effect of the revolution is that we have a very highly mobilised civil society that works on humanitarian issues and human rights issues in the war zones. Those are the children of the EuroMaidan. But it also has brought about a false feeling that revolt is how change is made. The idea of Europe is fascinating, but once you start moving towards it, it is a labyrinth of rules and procedures, which also is a big part of changing the world.

The reason why right-wing and identity politics are so appealing today in Ukraine, among other things, is because they do not burden you with details and do not force you to really understand the complexity of problems. Mass politics long for fast, redundant policies. Justice reform requires lustration reform and police reform; those are not fast fashion politics. In the US, justice requires an understanding of incarceration and education policies, etc. Failure of justice reform and selective lustration in Ukraine, which came as more of a band-aid to curb and calm street protestors, should showcase how post-protest reforms should not be done. Right-wing politics are monolith politics – dull and primitive. Still, they are exciting when put on the streets, and they offer fast solutions and the greatness of the past at a discount. They make people feel something, whether that is provoked by the hatred of Jews, immigrants, or the Other. It is hard to confront it from the standpoint of rationality and patience needed to make daily changes happen. One of the biggest problems with people who work in governance, as well as people like me who work with EU institutions and attempt to understand the world in its complexity, is the people’s impatience with hearing what we do, what the day-to-day work of making changes to political life entails. And so, there is a lack of understanding of both the issues and the process.

From the perspective of a scholar of the 20th century, what is the biggest difference in the revolts and mass politics of the 21st century?

I would say the most significant difference is horizontal mobilisation. There is a new type of 21st-century media with a ready supply of revolutionary energy, and it is a force, a force of great equaliser. The biggest downside is that people tend to go into their clusters after the height of this mass mobilisation, which does not disappear. Back in the second half of the 20th century, with the uprising against Soviet rule slowly gaining speed, Jan Patočka talked about the “solidarity of the shaken,” but he also said that the feeling of revival needs to follow it, that this solidarity needs to be constructive. But for media-supplied revolts, there may not be a source of this shared understanding. So there is work that has to be done to establish solidarity, which Timothy Snyder, in his latest book Our Malady, stresses as a crucial source of personal liberty. In the 20th century, the people who were forced into the streets had some form of shared world experience. For example, 30 years back, what was familiar to the people of the Baltic states, what united them, was the understanding that all the people belonged to the same state, and they were driven by the desire to take back their state. In Ukraine, it seems that Europe was the middle ground where their differences met. But now, I think we are trapped in this vicious cycle of revolt every five to 10 years.

You raise the issue of the impact of mass movements. The speed with which you can organise a protest, the social connectivity and the minimum funding needed. Mass politics of the 21st century is at risk of becoming an imitation of change, where real issues, such as the regime and all-encompassing idea of the state, are just not addressed. Let’s assume that that this encompassing change comes, that corruption is curbed, the rule of law prevails and the people get to enjoy basic and equal rights. Would that bring an end to the circle of revolts? Or is it the nature of democratic rule for people to constantly try to redefine what is the best form of political association, to rearrange political life around the ideas of citizenship and freedom and equality?

Over 100 years of revolutions on the continent and today’s sign is that politics is not a done deal. Identity politics is a shortcut for xenophobia, while in fact, it is an illusion created by malicious politicians. The question that the history of the past 100 or more years poses to us is whether meaningful change and progress can be achieved without bloodshed. What is happening in Belarus is a complete breakdown of the social contract, the break between the promise of the sovereign in exchange for the right to defend oneself. When we exchange our right to kill for the right not to be killed, this Hobbesian notion of the political contract is broken. As soon as police start killing people, when the blood of citizens is spilled, the time of those in power is over. There is no way back, and the questions are what, and through what means does the society rebuild itself, because it is evident, there is no way back to how things were.

Talking about shakeups, the EuroMaidan was a tectonic shift. Scholars often speak about the “comedown” of revolution – the excitement of moving the political reality through protest and through self-organisation, followed by the disappointment that the newly found solidarity and power of the shakeup, as you mentioned, cannot be sustained. What is the EuroMaidan to you, looking back from this perspective of time?

Looking back, I am personally grappling with the question of the price of the revolution we have paid and still paying. Not to sow doubt about the revolution – I still firmly believe our choice was right and the revolution was righteous. However, two weeks after the bloodshed on the Maidan, when it became clear that we were well beyond the point of no return, a new beginning was anticipated with euphoria, and this is what frustrated me – the general calmness as if someone gave a heroin shot to the whole nation. At the beginning of 2014, right after the end of Maidan, I felt malaise; it was like a bad feeling you get before getting the flu. You go to bed a bit more tired than usual, and then it hits you in the morning. This is what the point between the Maidan revolution and the revolution as a moment in the past felt like. Now we were defined by a new event, a war. As a historian, I have to make sense of these events, and several parallels come to mind. Is Donbas the equivalent of Sudetenland? Living through it, however, there is a feeling of being in a moment of all-encompassing change. It instantly draws a line between before and after. I think maybe Georg Simmel captured it best in his essay “Death and Immortality”. He had this Hegelian notion of a historical process crossing into your life when history intersects your life, and it can crush you or salvage you. It changes how the world works, not just redirects your own life. For me, I would say that I probably am just lucky that I haven’t been crushed by history crossing my life.

What is too often missed, and what Europe lacks empathy for, is that right next to our border, in Ukraine, there are so many people like you, refugees in their own country, who are forced out of their homes and out of their comfort by the war. It is a very unique experience, an experience of loneliness that is almost as if those who experience it have the right to it.

I would say there is a lack of empathy from everyone. First, who are we? We cannot call ourselves refugees – it is an international legal term. We did not move to a foreign land. We are still citizens of the same country, we speak the same language, and we are “internally displaced persons (IDPs)”. I am working on the rights of IDPs and those who stayed in Luhansk and Donetsk. In total, there are about 1.4–1.5 million IDPs in Ukraine and 3.3 million living under occupation, and they are not being reached.

Moreover, there is a lack of work being done with them. They have it much worse than IDPs. They have been demonised because they are considered to be unpatriotic for staying in the occupied lands. Around 50-60 per cent of IDPs live in neighbouring regions because people are very connected to their homes, as it helps them retain some familiarity.

It is bizarre and puzzling to be a refugee in your own country — experiencing loneliness, missing the familiarity of your home and your surroundings. The other frustrating thing is having to start over and rebuild your life. Research data shows that people over 45 have a higher tendency to stay in so-called “temporary occupied territories” despite having their whole life destroyed in the war territories. It is difficult to start over, fight in your own country to re-establish yourself, and justify yourself. While rebuilding lives in another country, refugees have to find a path to a new life, citizenship and settle down in a new environment. Here you are not precisely in a new environment but also far away from your own home. The need to justify and explain yourself is probably the hardest. We, the ones who left, have to prove our love for our land because we have left. While being an IDP is a reality, we also dislike being ourselves because it puts a stamp on us. I have lived for a while in the US as a student, and I felt more at home than at times I do in my own country because I always feel the need to explain myself.

You mean explaining why you left Luhansk?

Yes, I am reaffirming my position, attitudes, and views of the war and where me and my family stands. It would not surprise me if, in time, 1.5 million people will have an addition to their passport, such as stating their patriotic views. The only upside is that when you work with civil society, you enter the room, and most of the people there are IDPs. So I think we get the energy to not only redefine our own life or be defined by what happened, but a realisation that we have to be bigger, do bigger things than just rebuild our own lives. We need to do more in order to re-establish our lives.

The thing with the war is that there is no sense to be made humanly. My grandfather was a war veteran. He marched from Stalingrad to Konigsberg (Kaliningrad) and was injured, so the war was talked about in the form of “never again” in our household. In my family, it is was said that everything is endurable, everything but war. My grandparent’s generation underwent this dramatic war and sacrificed their generation, so we didn’t have to. So, then in 2015, I asked my grandmother about the war in Ukraine. She just said she is relieved that my grandfather is dead, so he doesn’t have to witness this. They felt that there was some form of redemption for them, not because they thought of themselves as so noble for sacrificing themselves for future generations, but because they had no choice. They were born into history, but life in peace made it acceptable. Scholarly, I can rationalise the events, and I can explain what and why things happen, but occasionally I realise that there is still little room to make sense of it in any reasonable way.

What is the aim of scholarship, do you think, all in all? For example, Jean Amery wrote after the war, after he endured the horrors of the concentration camps, that all this intellectual life is just a fantasy and illusion that is shattered in the face of radical historical events. In fact, he argued that intellectuals have a hard time during moments of radical change, because it is difficult to adjust to things that they know “do not make any sense”. What can scholarly knowledge, which is attacked so viciously in political discourse today, offer us?

Maybe hope comes from understanding that if I can endure these things, anyone can. I do not know about hope. I know about fear, and it is a big motivator. I fear that everything that began in 2013 will continue and that there will just be an endless abundance of suffering. I think that salvation will come in an attempt to understand it and master it. Trying to make sense of this complicated world gives more leverage to make better than worse decisions, as it helps you prepare. History, and social sciences at large, are about understanding and comprehending experiences. It does not mean that a guidebook can be written about how to be a refugee in your land, but seeing the history and understanding can make you a bit more ready to approach the subject.

Events are in constant progress, and, of course, they serve as landmarks for our lifetime, as Robin Wagner-Pacifici emphasised in her book What is an Event?. So, by trying to understand and learn from events, you can notice signs that signal that things may be going in the wrong direction. Science can reveal the patterns of events, as brilliantly shown by historians, such as Tony Judt or Timothy Snyder. I am not a fan of the idea of history repeating itself and historical determinism or positivism, yet some modalities form patterns that should alarm us all. Knowledge gives us a standpoint from which to look at the world. But, in the end, some repetition is the norm of life. History has no students; as Antonio Gramsci once wrote, thus we tend to concentrate on patterns instead of senses. You brushed your teeth today, just like you did yesterday, just like you did a month ago. Is that repetition or progression? This same question can be applied to the political world. By looking at things historically, we see how people go back and forth between ideologies, how masses move and how people behave in and outside the institutions when a moment of revolt arrives. And we are lucky, as we stand on the shoulders of giants and have the latitude to understand.

Yevhenii Monastyrskyi is a Luhansk native, a historian of the Soviet Union, and an accidental sociologist. He is the lead researcher at the War Childhood Museum (Ukraine) and Charitable Foundation “Stabilization Support Services”. He is an incoming graduate student in European and Russian Studies at Yale University (starting Fall 2021). Before the war in 2014, he studied history at the Luhansk Taras Shevchenko National University. After fleeing his hometown in October 2014, he studied at the Ukrainian Catholic University (Lviv) and Yale University. In 2018, Yevhenii was a Global Dialogues Fellow at The New School for Social Research. He was a participant of the Russian-Ukrainian war in his hometown of Luhansk (Spring-Autumn 2014) and was held in captivity by the Russian Armed Forces and pro-Russian separatists. He is currently working on a book, titled Agony of Consciousness: Tales from City of All Forgotten, which covers the social and political reality of occupied Luhansk.

Simona Merkinaite is a Rethinking Europe progamme expert with Open Lithuania Foundation and is doing a PhD focusing on Arendt at Vilnius University.


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