We are now in the midst of the one year anniversary of the inaugural moments of
Ukraine's Maidan Revolution, and it is a simple inevitability that a great many
people will take the opportunity presented at this juncture to look back, to take stock,
to brood upon, and to re-engage with any number of questions and considerations that
still swirl about and linger over this world historical event.
Many of these questions and considerations are understandably fixated on what's still
to come, on the future, on what may or may not happen in the impending months and
years, as Ukrainians try to bring to full fruition all the exigent demands, promises and
objectives that rose up and established themselves during the Maidan Revolution
of Winter 2013-14.
Yet, there are also any number of questions that direct attention backward, on what has
already taken place. Some of these questions have to do with aspects of this event that
have not as of yet been satisfactorily answered, or even properly addressed—questions
of culpability for the horrendous carnage that occurred during Maidan, for instance, or
of the exact disposition and character of Yanukovych's sudden departure from Kyiv
on the night of Feb. 21, abandoning and effectively abdicating his post as Ukrainian
President in the process.
And there are still other considerations emanating from the Maidan Revolution that
likewise call for further deliberation, but are all the same of an altogether different
character—not quite as focused or narrow in their concern, but that rather involve
matters much more far-reaching in their depth and amplitude. These comprise areas
of concern in which ideas predominate, questions and considerations that we might
even wish to call philosophical. In short, these are matters having to do with
the meaning of Maidan.
For Ukrainians themselves, caught up in all the tumult and dislocation that has been
stirred up in the aftermath of the Revolution, all the hardship and catastrophe caused
by the prolonged assault on the nation by its neighboring state of Russia,
it is no doubt very difficult to stop and ponder on such apparently rarefied,
esoteric matters at this moment.
However, I believe it is worthwhile if not absolutely necessary to do so, to try in fact
to think through the ramifications of such things whenever possible, for it is precisely
such (only apparently) rarefied matters that actually lie at the core of everything the
Ukrainian nation is now fighting for—the overriding reasons and purposes, the
substantive values and long-term aspirations that have informed Maidan and its
difficult aftermath, matters to which so many of its people have dedicated themselves,
and indeed, have even sacrificed their lives for.
It is without question the case that one might approach such areas of concern in a
variety of ways; I don't want to make out that the line of thought I am going to
pursue here is necessarily the best or most appropriate. What I am going to outline
is at least one way of trying to think through such matters, though, and it is my hope
it may prove of some value for those who, like myself, are attempting to obtain greater
perspective on everything that has occurred in Ukraine in the last 12 months.
As it happens, it was the co-incidence of another anniversary at just about this same
point in time that in many ways brought this particular line of thought to the forefront
for me. What I am referring to is the 25th anniversary of “Revolutions of 1989”
—the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, and the termination of nearly
all the totalitarian Communist regimes, underwritten by the Moscow-controlled Soviet
Union, that had kept so much of Eastern/Central Europe in its vise-grip stranglehold
for nearly half a century.
Indeed, from a historical standpoint, I would most certainly consider Maidan to be
essentially a continuation of the Revolutions of 1989. Ukraine—a subordinated territory,
significant portions of which were long considered the “crown jewel” of both the Soviet
Union, and before that of Imperial Russia during many centuries of Czarist rule—went
through its own liberation experience near the culmination point of this revolutionary
period that began in 1989: Ukraine's declaration of independence from the
Soviet Union near the end of August 1991, promulgated just as the whole rotted-out
Soviet system lurched towards its final, “end-of-history” collapse.
Everyone knows the unfortunate turn of events that then ensued in Ukraine—the long
procession of disappointments and failures in carrying through on the promises of this
declaration of independence, the intense dissatisfaction over which that exploded in
the Orange Revolution of 2004, and the subsequent series of even greater
disappointments and failures that thereafter followed this juncture.
Throughout this period, Ukraine's relationship to the revived Russian state that had
grown up from the rubble of the Soviet collapse remained mired in one or another
variety of reconstituted vassalage, of continued subordination to the intentions and
interests of Moscow. One might characterize this relationship in any number of ways;
from the perspective of broad historical movement, however, the best way to understand
it to my mind is as the final major structural remnant of ancien régime Imperial Europe
—the majority of which had ignominiously evaporated in the furious wake of the
First World War; most of what then still remained in the Revolutions of 1989.
The Maidan Revolution of 2013-14 therefore meant at the most fundamental level
a fiercely passionate and adamant resurrection of the aims and goals, and the whole
spirit of independence from outmoded Imperialist power that triumphed in Ukraine's
neighboring states at the end of 1989—a spirit that manifested in Ukraine itself in
1991, and then broke through the surface once more in 2004. Now, at long last,
rising so unexpectedly, and with such extraordinary suddenness early last Winter,
it was Ukraine's moment to finally bring things to completion, it appeared, to fulfill
once and for all the promises of post-Imperial liberation that had already won the
day elsewhere in its neighborhood nearly a quarter century before in the long ago
Winter of 1989.
It was in fact the British writer Timothy Garton Ash who I think came up with the most
insightful formulation by which to grasp what was at the root of these Eastern/Central
European Revolutions of 1989. Ash was himself present on the ground, working as a
journalist, and actually participated to varying degrees in a number of these revolutions,
circulating about from one locale to another in those heady, never-to-be-forgotten days
of '89—in Poland, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, in East Germany.
The formulation Ash came up with, both in the final chapter to his book The Magic Lantern,
written in 1990 very soon after these events happened, and then touched on again in the
Afterword to the book that he added in 1999, defined the spirit of the '89 Revolutions in
terms of what he referred to as “a new style of 'forum' or 'civic movement' politics”
—and I think the best phrase to directly convey what Ash is getting at here would be “civil society”
or “citizens movement” politics—a “new style” that, as Ash put it, stands
“opposed to old-style, Western party politics, with its sterile battles between left and right”.
This, he very astutely concluded, was really the reigning idea at work undergirding these
protest movements of Winter 1989, this series of large-scale citizens' actions that somehow
was able to precipitate the thoroughly astonishing dissolution of decades-old Communist rule
within a matter of mere weeks.
Oddly enough, after delineating this “citizens movement” idea in such a substantial and cogent
manner in the last chapter of The Magic Lantern, Ash then goes on in the Afterword to pretty
much discount its ultimate significance, both because it was neither truly “new”—presumably
in the sense that the modern idea of Communism appeared so abrasively new when it emerged
in 19th century Europe—nor did it seem to be carried over and incorporated very much into
the post-Revolutionary era within those nation-states in which it held precedence in 1989.
Indeed, Ash acknowledges in the 1999 Afterword that, in having brought these protest
movements to glorious victory by the end of '89, in the establishment of a new cluster
of free and independent states (or in the case of East Germany, the unification into an
already existing one), almost immediately thereafter this “style of...civic movement”
politics simply “disappeared, to be replaced by local versions of arrangements” already
prevalent in the world. Ash thus notes that all of the Central/Eastern European nations
that emerged anew as a result of the '89 Revolutions quickly enough fell right into the
standard mode of “conventional, Western-style party politics ”.
Of course, along with their descent into “conventional, Western-style party politics”,
these newly reborn nations, whatever their many native problems and disputations, also
managed to construct a pathway that would eventually lead to considerable prosperity
and growth, certainly compared to the decrepit state they had started out in.
The only politics Ukraine obtained in this period was one so utterly corrupt and lawless,
issuing in a mode of governance so deeply and explicitly criminal, that the inestimable
lunkhead Yanukovych—to give merely the most egregious example—managed in just
four short years to amass such a hoard of stolen riches and treasure, conferring upon
himself thereby such a manner of kingly splendour, as Muammar Gaddafi was unable
to attain to in over four decades of dictatorial rule in Libya. Mezhyhirya, Yanik's palatial
digs on the outskirts of Kyiv, stands as the ultimate symbolic or part-for-whole synecdochal
explanation to depict how grotesque and absurdly awful the political system in Ukraine was
before the onset of Maidan.
Indeed, it turned out that, given these wretched circumstances, the only way for Ukrainians
to restore any possibility whatsoever of developing a worthwhile society, one organized by
rule of law and fair opportunity, was not only to band together to bring back this “style”
of “civic movement politics” once more in Ukraine, but to insist now on its perpetuation
with a perseverance and determination so intense and passionate that no other outcome
would be accepted.
This to my mind goes to the true heart core of “the meaning of Maidan”—
that is, a “citizens movement” so focused and resolute in its goals and values
that it would not stand aside until all obstructions immediately blocking the way
to its realization were finally turned aside.
And I would propose that Maidan might therefore be best understood, on the ideational
level at least, in precisely these terms—as a mass-scale assertion of citizenship,
essentially a revolution undertaken precisely so as to insist on one's right to citizenship
—which is to say, the right to engage in a manner of active deliberation that is entailed
in the very notion of citizenship, and to therefore have some voice and sway in the
greater decision-making process determining the ways and means by which the
whole of society is organized.
It is important to remember, though, that those Ukrainians who actually participated
in the Maidan Movement very quickly came up with their own formulation, a way of
comprehending what was happening on the ground that spoke to their own immediate
experience. This is the conception captured in the phrase “Revolution of Dignity”
—Revolyutsiya Hidnosti. What I believe is signified here is simply the demand to be
treated in a dignified manner, to be treated as a free people, that is, rather than like
vassals, like serfs or peons whom one does not even feel the need to consult with
before crucial decisions are made regarding the course of their own future.
The formulation of a “citizens revolution” I am setting forth here is thus really meant
to suggest an additional way of understanding Maidan, one that by no means is meant
to supersede the conception of a “Revolution of Dignity”, but rather working on much
the same ground, I would hope supplements and enriches this understanding, and in such
a way that may perhaps lend it greater illuminative meaning for the world at large, and
for the many historical accounts of this event that are still to be written.
And speaking of broad historical movement, it seems to me that, in much this same light,
following along these same lines, we might in fact consider the Central/Eastern European
Revolutions of 1989 not merely a triumph of Capitalism over Communism, of the
free market over state control of the economy—as it is so frequently and
reductively portrayed now—but in broader terms, as a triumph of the possibilities of a
proactive Citizenship over the stultifications of one or another form of state-
imposed vassalage, which is certainly what the Soviet Bloc experience of
totalitarian state Communism amounted to.
And from this viewpoint, the Ukrainian Maidan Revolution of 2013-14 thus stands not
only as the true heir of the Revolutions of 1989, but as now the primary contemporary
standard bearer of this global “citizens movement”—a movement whose one overarching
objective is to set in place a form of governance that is the direct result of the activities of
a self-organizing, self-motivated civil society. In resurrecting this “reigning idea”
of “civil society” or “citizens movement” politics and applying it to the wretched state of affairs
in current-day Ukraine, the Maidaners both rendered unto Ukraine one more opportunity as a
free and independent nation, and at the same time, also granted this “reigning idea” a new lease
on life as a real possibility in the world as well.
This is hardly appreciated at all in the West at this point, and for whatever it is worth, is
most often treated with fanatical and contemptuous disdain in Putin Regime Russia. Of
course, throughout the whole stretch of Vladimir Putin's fetid reign, Russian civil society
has been ravaged, plundered, and is by this time almost completely gutted out—a trend
that was in fact accelerated to a near paranoiac degree in reaction to the Maidan Revolution
in nearby Ukraine. Indeed, the vast majority of Russian society would seem to exist now
in such a state of Television-dictated zombification that one wonders how it
will ever find the capacity to break free.
Those in the West, however, do not often enough consider the possibility that their societies
might perhaps suffer from their own mode of zombification, one that is not so distinct from
what prevails in Russia. In the overfed, overpriviledged West, this is not an arrangement
foisted on the people by state power, to be sure, but rather by an entertainment slash
“news and information” regime that seemingly by default effects so much of what passes
for social organization, and in so doing drowns out its audience in a tsunami-like barrage
of crass distractions, resulting in a fairly analogous type of generalized anomie, a decisive
implosion of all likelihood of purposeful action in the public sphere.
This is not by any means to draw an easy equivalence between the two societal forms: In
Russia there is neither freedom nor much in the way of realistic capacity for change, but
only an impenetrably rigidifying system of vertical power imposed from above, complete
with state violence and the ever-present threat of arbitrary incarceration. We in the West,
on the other hand, are largely prisoners of our own device, victims of our own prosperity,
the formal structures of freedom largely if not entirely still in place and unmolested,
requiring only a proper form of native citizens movement to revive civic life on the
local grass roots level.
Ukrainians, who are at the present moment confronted with a well-nigh Biblical array
of difficulties and dire straits—continuing war and insurrection in its eastern frontier,
an economic situation hovering near the precipice of utter collapse, and what might be
called a dense institutionalized jungle of corrupt habits, procedures
and modes of operation so deeply ingrained that it pervades almost the whole
of society from top to bottom, a squalid civilizational mess that will take who knows
how many years to fully clear away—are all the same in possession now of one thing
neither of these two much more dominant and powerful societies have to any appreciable
extent: a vigorous and quite fervent practice of civil engagement,
a newly awoken civic life.
It is very much the case, of course, that Ukraine's struggle to implement a form of
governance truly attuned to its burgeoning “citizens movement” is a gradual process
that is still ongoing. The Maidan Movement has so far forced open the opportunity
and created a strong impetus for this “citizens movement” to take hold within Ukraine's
governing structures, and some initial steps have already been undertaken in this direction.
An immense amount of further reformation without question still awaits.
The Revolution trudges on.
Even more unsettled and as of yet unconsummated is Ukraine's struggle for independence.
Most of its other problems, however deeply entrenched and intractable they might seem,
could I think be solved eventually, given enough time, effort and sufficient outside
assistance. The prolonged, “now-you-see-it-now-you-don't” “hybrid” Russian invasion
of Ukraine, on the other hand, is an existential calamity of a different order. It would
appear quite certain that the reconstituted Neo-Imperialist power that Putin Regime
Russia has become is thoroughly committed to do all it can to tamper with, to degrade, and
to ruin once and for all the bounty of promise inherent in the Maidan Revolution, and the
whole of the Ukrainian nation along with it.
It is possible that the Ukrainian people will be able to go on focusing its resources and
powers and find within itself the capacity to hold back and at least temporarily contain
this “hybrid” invasion; the invasion will likely only come to a full stop at such time as
a coalition of nations concerned and interested enough in Ukraine's chances for survival
will come together and force Mr. Putin's hand on the matter.
Yet, if there is any conceivable recompense that could possibly arise from this perilous state
of affairs, and from Ukraine's precarious situation overall, it is just this: that such dire
circumstances simply will not allow for any quick and ready climb-down into “conventional
politics”, as happened with the countries that emerged from the '89 Revolutions, but rather
will absolutely demand an unwavering adherence to the objectives and procedures
of “citizens movement” politics for the foreseeable future.
It may in fact be that this style of “citizens movement” politics is the only conceivable mode
of politics capable of saving Ukraine now. If Ukraine can be preserved in this way as a free
and independent nation, disentangling itself from the unwanted Imperialist embrace with which
Russia wishes to hold it back, and thus begin to actually construct a path that will bring about the
prosperity and full expansion its people truly deserve, then this “citizens movement” politics that
Maidan effectively resurrected might be proclaimed once again as a viable potentiality open to
all peoples across the globe.
And the Maidan Movement itself, which began so inconspicuously on a chilly early
Winter evening one year ago, so straightforward and artless-seeming in its initial
activities, yet imbued with such a Colossus of civic spirit, a veritable phoenix
reborn from the putrid ashes of its own past disappointments and failures, can then take
on its rightful role as one of the most important symbols of our time—
a world-historical apotheosis of civil society and voluntarist public
endeavor, a shining paragon for all to see
of the one real vital path that I think
is still left open for future human societal development.
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