A view of Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution from the square

At Euromaidan, February 2014. Photo: Alex Zakletsky 

Op-ed

Article by: Simona Merkinaite

As the global world is becoming smaller, at the same time it increasingly feels alien as citizens occupy themselves with questions of international economics, global warming, and debate cultures and religions they hardly ever encounter. In the digitally connected world, the political debate slowly loses grip on the immediate reality and everyday experience. The strikingly written book The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution by the Associate Professor of Intellectual History at Yale University Marci Shore returns to the instant and existential in politics.

shoreThe Ukrainian Night, a book about a particular place – the main city square of Ukrainian capital and the moment in history, transcends the time and place and tells a somewhat universal story about the human struggle for freedom and self-determination. For me, as a person who vaguely remembers the fights for freedom here in 1991 Lithuania, when the people were being shot and run over by tanks, the most vivid memory is of my parents’ calmness in the moment they made us, kids, put duct tape over the windows to prevent them from shattering when tanks would pass by. This image of calmness, which would remain the great mystery to me for years reoccurs in the book, as time and again people recall being calm whenever they were in the center of events on Maidan. It’s watching television what made them nervous. “We felt safe only on the Maidan,” recall Taras Ratushnyy and his son Roman.

The revolution felt like a rupture in time, breaking the routine of apathy, alienation and general reconciliation with the rule of oligarchs. After Maidan, Misha, having endured fights, bullets shot at him and too much blood for a lifetime, let alone one day, has headaches, nightmares, fear of falling asleep or being alone.

“For months he dreamt about the blockade, about the policemen with their guns pointed at him. Had he not been there, he would not have had these problems, but he would have had others: he would have had the guilt to deal with for the rest of his life.”

This overcoming of the self, the estrangement of the modern individuals living in the comfortable confines of their own privacy became the power in number, when individual choice added to the choices of all the others pouring into the square from around the country as well as spilling over from Maidan into other town squares.

Euromaidan, December 2013. Photo: Alex Zakletsky

At the same time, experienced by the people of Maidan, the revolution represents something unique in the contemporary world: the political stripped of all the decorum of the ideological, constant debates, and self-interest. While President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych talked about the gathering of neo-Nazis and anti-Semites (at the same time, telling his police forces those were Jewish conspirators and gays), on Maidan lives blended with the events happening in real time.

The revolution became a moment when the whole worlds could witness how the people on the edges of Europe defy postmodernity

People began experiencing the time in a different way. It now was moved by the events on the square. Finally, as the atmosphere escalated fast after 16 January 2014 (when President Victor Yanukovych forced the passage of law revoking the rights of free speech and assembly, as a result pushing the peaceful protesters at Maidan beyond the law), people started losing track of time. No one would go to bed anymore, fearing the unknown reality they may wake up to the next morning. While the citizens in Western countries continue to pick and choose what truths to believe and what lies to tell, on Maidan the people held to the reality unfolding right in from of their eyes.

The kitchens of Euromaidan. Photo: Alex Zakletsky

The revolution felt like a rupture in time, breaking the routine of apathy, alienation and general reconciliation with the rule of oligarchs

The revolution became a theological moment that we associate with a reckoning – something that makes things vivid in the world where we lack clarity and certainty. As Shore rightly notes, the revolution became a moment when the whole worlds could witness how the people on the edges of Europe defy postmodernity. As a consequence, we want to look at the experience of our neighbors not only as something heroic. We are also tempted to search for an opportunity to disrupt the routine of time we live in: to force people out of their comfort zone, out of the confounds of privacy and into the public.

Authoritarian and nationalistic political forces across Europe and beyond reinforce the image of sacrifice, calling for a need to challenge status quo (with complete disregard for the rule of law or democratic process), invite people on the quest for authenticity and unity. They tap into the longing to strip the politics down off of all words and debates and get back to the politics of immediate experience by building up the conflict between the nation and Europe, between “us” and “the foreign.”

Euromaidan, November 2013.

However, the people of Ukraine were not in search of political authenticity, they were not looking for a theological experience exactly four years ago. What they were looking for is stability. A kind of stability that comes with a life lived in a state run by the rule of law.

It helps you plan your own life and predict that in case of violation the social contract, the balance will be restored, in case of illness, you will be inclined to equal treatment, not deepening on your connections or the size of your wallet. The time has a certain rhythm to it and some level of predictability which people who live in a state where the laws of the land have price tags are deprived of. Whenever you have to spend your time and your salary adapting to the ever-changing non-written rules designed to benefit the powerful minority, you start feeling like you are living in a timeless space, where your own world is constantly slipping out of your control. Living in the state where there is no law of the land, where everything has a price – healthcare, education, where the justice can be bought, people are living in total unpredictability.

“The complete absence of the rule of law meant that everyone was vulnerable, that no one had any protection from the government at all,” says Taras Dobko contemplating the adoption of the 16 January law, that provided to be the last drop for many of the protesters.

And this is the biggest paradox and the tragedy of politics. Thanks to the rule of law and well-functioning institutions that accommodate the needs of people, we risk becoming disconnected from each other and the public domain.

The protection of this routine, created by predictability, protection of rule of law, of institutions against anti-democratic leaders, protesting corruption, supporting the free press may not sound as alluring and will not bring a long-lost metaphysical reaffirmation.

During January-February 2014, the Euromaidan protests grew violent. Photo: Alex Zakletsky

The Ukrainian Revolution became an impassioned protest against brutality, corruption, and rule by gangsters. Ultimately, it became also the Ukrainians’ fight for a routine that would allow to plan and live their lives not under someone else’s control, but on their own terms, something we, Europeans tend to take for granted.

When in summer 2014, Yevhenii Monastyrskyi, at the time a graduate student, doing his master’s degree on Soviet propaganda in Luhansk (a region in Eastern Ukraine occupied by Russian separatists) comes back home and tells his father that he was abducted, beaten, and healed hostage by the separatists at the local law enforcement station, the father is left crying in the other room, covering his face with both hands. It represents the despair and the shame of a parent, failing to not only provide care and love to their children but ultimately to take care of the world that the children are about to inhabit, which includes the institutions, the procedures, and the laws, that create the space for a communal life.

Simona

This book review is written by Simona Merkinaite, a PhD candidate at Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University, freelance consultant in the field of human rights, columnist.

 

 

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