What exactly was the Maidan?

Beitrag verfasst von: Dr. Andriy Portnov



[Gastbeitrag]: Andrij Portnov with some remarks on the “Euromaidan”.

The multifarious and dynamic situation in the Ukraine widely known as “Eurorevolution” surprised many observers. In my view the key to understand Maidan is the fact that a sizeable part of the country’s population has tried to formulate a demand for a new (“European”) political and social lifestyle and showed eagerness to die for this goal.

The very first protest on Thursday 21 November 2013 was a reaction against the refusal of the government to sign the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement and to the style and form of the way it was announced. Citizens were informed about this decision post-factum without any sort of open discussion, even though on the previous day the authorities assured everyone that the Association agreement would certainly be signed. The first protesters on the Maidan were not political activists, and they had no political leaders. At 4am on Saturday 30 November, under the pretence of preparing the square for the New Year Tree, the police brutally attacked the students who were camping there. This first act of violence turned the protest into a mass movement with clearly anti-governmental, not just pro-EU slogans. From the very beginning Maidan has tried to formulate the need for a programme of reforms as well as the need for a new socio-political force.

So what exactly was the Maidan? How can we explain the phenomenon of its self-organization? Which historical metaphors can describe its nature? Possibly the most popular, though far from incontestable, is the metaphor of the Zaporizhian Sich. It refers to the early modern political phenomenon of Cossack self-government which ended in the course of Russia’s absolutism at the end of the 18th century. While most visitors lived in tents set up in the centre of Kyiv, the crowded weekly Sunday gatherings (up to a million people in the centre of Kyiv) were comprised of educated, enterprising and well-off middle-aged people woving their hopes for change into a loosely-defined notion of Europeanization.

Maidan’s pro-European rhetoric was based on the mythology of Europe as a space of the rule of law, social justice, freedom of movement and expression, which can be compared to the positive notions of Europe widespread in countries of the former Warsaw Pact and the Baltic nations prior to their joining the EU. This mythology of Europe far surpassed not only the content of the failed association agreement but also the actual condition of the European Union which still remains very attractive to a lot of the neigboring states. The European mythology of the Maidan proved to be a strong mobilizing force for the most active part of the Ukrainian population all around the country.

The Maidan, then, can be described as a temporary space of non-conflicting cooperation and coexistence of people from very different social circles. Without unified political leadership Ukrainian civil society created a complicated structure of social interaction. People on the Maidan were united not just by their denunciation of Viktor Yanukovych`s regime, but also of Ukraine’s post-Soviet political and economic situation in general.

The pro-European rhetoric of the Maidan was set into complex interrelation with nationalism. On the one hand, the Maidan has legitimized nationalist slogans (such as “Glory to Ukraine – Glory to the Heroes!”) and flags (such as the black-and-red flag of the nationalist, mostly anti-Soviet, underground in 1940-50s) as symbols of a pro-European protest. On the other hand, those symbols underwent a transformation on the Maidan acquiring a broad patriotic sense. It does not mean, of course, that the political scene neither in the Ukraine nor in other countries is free from right-wing and xenophobic actors. But it should be stressed that such sentiments and attitudes have never played a decisive role on the Maidan. On the contrary, one of the interesting social phenomena emerging from the Eurorevolution is the legitimization of the Russian language, alongside with the Ukrainian, as a language of revolution and pro-EU stance.

To understand the nature of the Euromaidan we should keep in mind Ukraine’s ability to avoid mass violence while solving political conflicts since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The country’s post-Soviet history saw no parliamentary executions, no use of firearms against demonstrators, no pogroms. Both society and political elites have shown their resistance to violent scenarios, leading towards finding peaceful solutions to every crisis. The lack of a uniform national public consensus on memory or language issues has often been not so much a force for division but rather a stabilizing factor in a state characterized by so much diversity. It maintained ambiguity as a way of avoiding social conflict and an obstacle to the monopolization of the public sphere in the service of one political force or another. Until 22 January 2014 no one had been killed in mass protests or demonstrations. The violent agony of Yanukovych`s regime and the Russian intervention in the eastern parts of the country dramatically ruined Ukrainian tradition of non-violent resolution of political problems and questioned a distinctive pluralism of post-Soviet Ukraine`s public space. Initially, almost 100 people were shot on the Maidan. And then thousands of soldiers and civilians died in the eastern region of Donbass.

It seems that Vladimir Putin misinterpreted the nature of Ukrainian-Russian language and cultural coexistence within Ukraine thinking that speaking Russian automatically means political loyalty to his project of a “New Russia”. At the same time, Russian intervention and the ongoing war intensified the formation of Ukrainian political nation and proved that regularly replayed theories about the non-existence of Ukraine as a cultural entity mistakenly describes contemporary Ukraine as an analogue of Czechoslovakia that could peacefully split into two (or more) parts. Instead of unrealistic and inevitably violent “splitting” scenarios the Ukraine should receive a full recognition of its hybridity as an autonomous complex subjectivity. What is need is the reconceptualization of the country`s diversity as its biggest treasure and a way of preserving pluralism and ambivalence as preconditions of freedom and democracy.

Dr. Andriy Portnov is a historian and essayist from Dnipropetrovsk and Kyiv, currently Guest Professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin, founder and co-editor of the intellectual website Historians.in.ua.