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Philosophical thoughts from Kyiv – 20 March 2014

Philosophical thoughts from Kyiv – 20 March 2014

portrait_wynnyckyjBy Mychailo Wynnyckyj, Associate Professor of the Department of Sociology and Kyiv-Mohyla Business School,  Director of the Doctoral School, National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”

Today is a noteworthy day. Exactly 120 days ago a few hundred people set up a tiny protest camp on Kyiv’s Independence Square. On November 21, this small group of people was outraged at the sudden about-face of the Azarov government, and its refusal to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Treaty. I returned to Kyiv on Sunday November 24 (after a short teaching assignment in Lviv) to participate in a fairly substantial demonstration: the first Sunday “viche”. We were pleased that upwards of 50 thousand came out to protest on that day. How far we’ve come since!

Looking back on the past 120 days, I feel like I’ve lived 5 years! I suspect many others feel the same…

In late November, I honestly believed that there was still a chance, that under popular pressure, President Yanukovych would sign the EU Association deal at the Vilnius Summit. How foolishly innocent I was, and how wrong. During the early hours of November 30 (the night after Vilnius) Yanukovych showed his true violent self: students peacefully camped out on Independence Square were savagely beaten by police, and forced to take refuge in St. Michael’s monastery. Then on Sunday December 1, when a crowd of over one million, consisting primarily of Kyiv residents, demonstrated their outrage with the regime, Ukrainians realized that their country would never be the same. All remnants of innocence were lost. It was on that day that I began referring to what was going on in Kyiv as a “revolution”. In retrospect, I was wrong not to have recognized events for what they were 10 days earlier.

How incredibly we have changed during a short 120 days! Below is a short list of things that no one in Kyiv would have considered even remotely possible less than 4 months ago:

  • President Yanukovych and the Party of Regions (together with their Communist Party allies) no longer exercise practically absolute power in Ukraine. Yanukovych, Azarov (former PM), Pshonka (former Prosecuter General), Zakharchenko (former Interior Minister) and many other key actors within the former regime, have all fled Ukraine. A new Kyiv government headed by Oleksandr Turchynov (acting President) and Arseniy Yatseniuk (Prime Minister) has begun the process of fundamental political and economic transformation, and enjoys support from a new majority in Parliament.
  • Yulia Tymoshenko, the highly controversial former Prime Minister who was jailed by the Yanukovych regime has been set free, and is set to run for President (and in my opinion is likely to lose!); “Mezhyhiriya” – Yanukovych’s opulent residence – has been opened to the public, together with the houses of other high-ranking decadent officials who benefitted from the all-encompassing system of state corruption; Dmytro Firtash, one of the key oligarch financiers of the former regime has been arrested in Vienna and is awaiting extradition to the US for trial for money laundering.
  • Crimea has been occupied by Russian troops and sovereignty over the region has de facto transferred to Russia. The United Nations Security Council has met 8 times in the span of 2 weeks to discuss the issue, and the entire western world (plus China, Korea and Japan) has voiced support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and outrage that Russia has violated its international commitments under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Wide ranging sanctions have been imposed on Russia in retaliation for the Kremlin’s aggression.
  • Ukraine announced the institution of a visa regime for visitors from Russia (last night), and Russia closed 3 local border crossings to Ukrainian citizens (today). The Ukrainian Armed Forces have been mobilized and equipment and personnel transferred to the eastern borders to defend against a possible invasion by Ukraine’s supposedly closest ally.

To have suggested a single one of the above circumstances as being even remotely possible a mere 120 days ago would have prompted disbelief if not ridicule. But we now live in a new reality.

The changes that have occurred during the past 4 months in Ukraine have come at enormous cost. Over 100 civilians have been killed and many more seriously injured as a result of violence (including sniper fire) in the center of Kyiv. Incidentally, the most violent day of protest was exactly one month ago: February 20. I passed through Maidan today on my way to a press interview – fresh flowers are still brought to the barricades and to spots where the “Heaven’s Hundred” lost their lives. No one has forgotten the dead. Ukrainians were once proud of the fact that their country was the only European post-Soviet republic to have avoided significant violence after the collapse of the USSR. No more…

Over multiple weeks in sub-zero temperatures, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in Kyiv and in other cities demonstrated amazing levels of civic activism, restraint, self-organization, and spontaneous cooperation while demonstrating their individual and collective displeasure with their rulers. Hopefully, they will now be rewarded with an opportunity to elect not new rulers, but new representative governors (the difference is not trivial). Presidential elections (and a Kyiv mayoral vote) are scheduled for May 25, and Parliamentary elections are likely to be called immediately afterwards. If only we have peace…

The interim post-revolutionary government has not been without fault. Although restraint was probably the correct strategy in the face of the initial Russian aggression, the fact that Ukrainian military personnel have still not been evacuated from Crimea (after the de facto annexation of the peninsula) has been widely interpreted in Ukraine as a sign of weakness, and dereliction of the government’s duty. Yesterday’s forceful entry by three Svoboda MP’s into the National Television Company director’s office (with video streamed live on the Internet) and their forceful demand that he write his own letter of resignation, was clearly inappropriate. The fact that Ukraine’s post-Yanukovych Prosecutor General is a former Svoboda MP makes a prompt investigation of this incident unlikely. Indeed, the lack of demonstrable action on the part of Mr. Makhnitsky since his appointment 4 weeks ago has increasingly become a source of concern among Ukrainians: not a single Berkut officer has yet been prosecuted, nor have any criminal cases against corrupt Yanukovych-era officials yet been brought to trial. One could argue that not enough time has yet passed to pass judgment on the interim government, but given how much was accomplished during the previous 90 days, the lack of real action by the post-revolutionary rulers on corruption and judicial reform is worrying. Of course, one should understand that they inherited a terrible economic mess from Yanukovych, and they have had to concern themselves with aggression from Putin, but how long should Ukrainians accept such excuses as valid?

Notwithstanding post-revolutionary growing pains, after what I have lived through and witnessed during the past 120 days, I am an incurable optimist when it comes to Ukraine’s future. Today, Kyiv’s Maidan has lost some of its relevance, and although the stage still stands, the focus of attention is no longer on protest, but rather on ensuring accountability of the interim government, and keeping alive a symbol of protest in the face of Russian aggression. Whether the protest camp on Maidan is required today or not is a question that will be answered by those who are not on Maidan: by Putin and by the Yatseniuk/Turchynov government.

But, even in its heyday, Kyiv’s Maidan was not just a place of protest. It was (and continues to be) a space for intellectual exchange; for the formation of new senses, their discussion, acceptance/rejection, and popularization. It is a place where new paradigms are constructed, molded, and engendered in discourse, symbols, and other communicative artefacts – spontaneously, and at speeds that boggle the mind. A friend of mine commented recently that having been away from Maidan for a week (due to a business trip), he had problems orienting himself: on the surface everything looked unchanged, but the tone, mood, and undercurrents had changed completely.

It is difficult to quantify exactly how Maidan transformed during the revolution because its material and political contexts from late November to the end of February seemed uncomfortably stable: protesters, tents, barricades facing police lines, speeches, songs and poetry from the stage, and never-ending negotiations between the opposition party leaders and the regime. But what was most interesting (to me at least) was what was going on below the surface – in people’s value systems, in their conversations, in the symbols they used to express themselves. The Maidan was (is?) a collective social actor that spoke in multiple voices – none of which is really in synch with any group within Ukraine’s political elite. To simplify this phenomenon to a classic “social movement” or an expression of “right-wing nationalism” is to reduce Maidan to an absurdity that it certainly was (is?) not.

Just before the climax of the revolution (i.e. February 19-22), I attended a roundtable discussion in Ukrainian House (on European Square, inside the perimeter of the barricades) during which the various portrayals of Maidan in the western press were discussed. The question of whether the portrayal of Svoboda, and the Right Sector as radical right organizations was justified (as argued by one English journalist) sparked very emotional reactions from the audience. Self-identification and patriotism should not be confused with xenophobia or fascism. This point has been made by many, and need not be repeated – those to whom it is addressed are not listening anyway. They have their own political agendas, and in retrospect (in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Crimea, and his triumphant speech in the Kremlin on March 19) it has become clear whose interests these agendas served.

More interestingly, the writer Yuriy Andrukhovych and philosopher Volodymyr Yarmolenko pointed out that under normal circumstances, global public opinion is supposed to be shaped by both journalists and intellectuals, but in the current situation, whereas the western mass media seemed to be struggling to understand Maidan through the simplistic lenses of existing paradigms (e.g. classes/oligarchy, nationalism/extremism, clash of civilizations / geopolitical jockeying), western intellectuals were noticeably quiet. Although this observation has become less salient now that Putin has become an actor in Ukraine’s internal affairs, and his actions have become scrutinized by both journalists and intellectuals, prior to the Kremlin’s intervention, the silence of western intellectuals and social scientists (e.g. Habermas, Beck, Giddens, Stark, Sztompka…) with respect to the Maidan as a social phenomenon was deafening.

The problem (in my opinion) with the past 120 days for global intellectuals is that Ukraine is not explainable through existing paradigms, and therefore silence is the preferred option while one searches for a new analytical lens. During the past 30 days, Ukraine has forced many intellectuals to revive long forgotten (and seemingly discredited) Huntingtonian explanations for Putin’s actions; others have dusted off the Cold War paradigm of east-vs.-west, and have struggled to reconfigure the clash between communism and capitalism in terms of authoritarianism-vs.-democracy; still others (including myself) have sought to explain Putin using the “Hitler metaphor” of expansionist nationalism/Eurasianism. However, if we return to the real essence (and uniqueness) of the Maidan protests, we find what I now believe to be the real foundation for the Kremlin’s extreme fear of Kyiv, and all that the Ukrainian revolution stands for: Maidan was (is?) a producer of new phenomenological senses that represent a step forward not just for European, but possibly for global civilization.

I submit that the Ukrainian Maidan has made a contribution to the global intellectual community. My former MBA student (and now good friend) Valeriy Pekar who continues to be a key activist of the Maidan has made the following points during several presentations to both activists and observers. He sees current events in Ukraine as a combination of three separate social processes:

1)      A revolution of the middle class against “oligarchic feudalism” – a process comparable to the bourgeois revolutions described by Marx as having been at the root of social upheavals in Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

2)      A national uprising that is a reaction to post-Soviet neo-colonialism, but also a realization of the viability of a distinctly Ukrainian nation – an event similar to the Spring of Nations of 1848. It is this process that Putin has denounced as a threat to ethnic Russians on “historically Rus lands”, and has countered with his own version of nationalist myth.

3)      A declaration of dignity: a reflection of a shift of values from a state-centered Soviet-era heritage and paradigm to a nominally individualist, “modern” worldview that leaves no conceptual space for a regime that tortures, maims, and hunts down its own citizens.

Although a western reader, living in an established liberal democracy (e.g. an EU or North American nation-state) may find the third social process hardly revolutionary. However, in my opinion, it is exactly this element of the Maidan that needs further explication because it is here that Ukrainians have offered a unique contribution to the world’s civilizational development. Indeed, it may be this third social process that the Kremlin truly finds threatening, and worthy of being crushed by military aggression.

To explicate my point, I need to delve into the concept of “dignity” – a seemingly superficial demand of Ukraine’s protesters, and simultaneously a deeply philosophical concept. At first glance there is little difference between demanding “dignity” and demanding “freedom.” Indeed, in the words of Yuriy Lutsenko at one of the revolution’s regular Sunday Viches: the Euromaidan protests represent a shift of the “line of freedom” from the city of Chop on the western Ukrainian border to “Khutir Mykhailivsky” – a small village on the easternmost border with Russia. But in fact, the concept of “dignity” is much more complex, and I submit, the fact that demonstrators in Kyiv focused specifically on this concept may reflect the leading (civilizational leapfrogging?) nature of the social phenomenon of Maidan.

Dignity is a concept that has its roots in the Western European Enlightenment, and is often viewed as extension of the concept of individual rights – fundamental to the paradigm of western liberal democracy.

However, the concept of dignity as expressed on Maidan is distinctly different from Anglo-American individualism: dignity is a concept that can only be actualized in a relational sense. In order to have dignity, an individual must be recognized as having it by another. Thus, dignity requires more than an individualistic conception of the subject – dignity is only possible within a collectivity of persons: a concept close to the still underdeveloped strand of philosophy called “personalism”.

Before I get too philosophical, let me digress for a moment. When I moved to Ukraine in 2002, I worked closely with Pavlo Sheremeta, the founding Dean of Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, and now Minister of Economics in the new post-revolutionary government. At the time, Pavlo had recently returned from studies in the US, and I had just moved to Ukraine from England. Both of us were interested in understanding cross-cultural differences between US/West European and Ukrainian management styles. We asked Ukrainian managers to answer standardized survey questionnaires put together by Hofstede and Trompenaars (well-known scholars in the field) that sought to measure (among other parameters) the level of individualism/collectivism in a particular culture. The results were fascinating: Ukrainians are radically individualistic in their desire to realize their rights, and radically collectivist when it comes to responsibility. A decade ago, Pavlo and I both interpreted these findings as a negative lay-over effect from the Soviet era – a manifestation of the “Homo Sovieticus” illness. Today, having experienced Maidan, I understand that our findings were correct, but our interpretation was totally wrong.

Anglo-American liberal democracy is antithetical to personalism (as the late Pope John Paul II never tired of pointing out). Its philosophical basis is the individual – a being with inalienable rights and individual responsibilities. Paradigmatically, it is this individual who has become the central actor of modernity, of consumerist industrial society. But this Individual (writ large) stands in sharp contrast to the “person-of-Maidan” who declares his/her individual rights, but simultaneously recognizes collective responsibility (i.e. a duty to help, defend, feed, and sacrifice for others). Indeed, this unique values complex is a strange mix of western individualism with respect to rights and Slavic collectivism with respect to the need for recognition of those rights, and with respect to responsibility. This notion seems to be extraordinarily threatening to Putin. Its essence has been captured in the phrase “Revolution of Dignity” (the word “hidnist’” in Ukrainian is more emotionally charged than its equivalent in English), and in the underlying value of the Maidan – that of a demand for natural justice.

As is the case with “dignity”, the Ukrainian word “spravedlyvist” translates poorly into English. The direct translation is “justice”, but in English this term has a legalistic connotation: justice is best achieved with the intervention of an impartial judge, and impartiality is best secured when one can benefit from the “rule of law.” In Ukrainian, there are two possible translations of “rule of law”: a) “verkhovenstvo zakonu” (meaning rule of statute law), and b) “verkhovenstvo prava” (meaning rule of natural law). During the original Parliamentary debates that led to the adoption of Ukraine’s Constitution in 1996, the formulation of the article declaring the country to be a “rule of law state” was hotly debated, and eventually the phrase “verkhovenstvo prava” was adopted.

The concept of “spravedlyvist”, which is absolutely central to the current Ukrainian protests, is intimately linked to the idea of “pravo” or natural law. During the height of the revolution, I was repeatedly puzzled by the fact that even though every Ukrainian knows that the court system is fully corrupt, and that many in the country’s police were coopted by the regime to persecute their own citizens, protesters on Maidan continued to abide by legal procedure (e.g. file appeals, register claims in courts, appeal to the Prosecutor General and law enforcement to have cases investigated). In the aftermath of the revolution, police presence has effectively disappeared from Kyiv’s streets, yet people continue to obey laws, and my subjective feeling (not confirmed empirically) is that traffic offenses and petty crime have actually decreased during the past month, rather than increased. An explanation for this may be that Ukrainians hold a deeply rooted belief in the existence of a “natural justice” (i.e. “spravedlyvist”) that will eventually overcome the defective legal system – one just needs to pick away at the rock face (readers of the poet Ivan Franko will recognize the reference).

Several weeks ago (before the Crimean invasion), I participated in a Skype video link between Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, and a group of students at The College of New Jersey. One of the participants on the Ukrainian side asked the US students to characterize how they viewed current events in Ukraine. A very honest and forthright young lady of Ukrainian descent answered with shocking frankness, and I’ll try to relay the description as accurately as possible. According to her (and I submit that her view reflects the majority opinion in the West), Ukraine is a poor and backward country that by accident of history, happens to be located in Europe, between Russia and the EU, and therefore is of some interest to the United States; the problems in Ukraine are essentially Ukrainians’ own fault – after all, they tolerated corruption and descent into poverty for so many years, and were unable to resolve their regional/linguistic differences. Ukrainians need to become modern. And to do this they need to decide on a leader who will modernize their country…

This description of Ukraine stands in sharp contrast to the very public declaration of Kyiv as “the cultural capital of Europe” pronounced from the Maidan stage by the visiting French philosopher Bernard-Henry Levy just before Yanukovych’s ouster. Levy’s depiction may have reflected the typical French orator’s tendency to exaggerate, and certainly the phrase was directed more towards EU and European political leaders than to a Ukrainian or US intellectual audience, but this particular philosopher’s observation may have been more profound than even he realized.

In the 18th century, the Founding Fathers of the United States made a claim that must have seemed outrageous to the elites of Europe at the time. They claimed their model of socio-political organization to be a model for the world: “a beacon on the hilltop”. For a Europe that had lived under absolute monarchy for hundreds of years, such a claim must have seemed unbelievable, possibly frightening, but more likely laughable. Similar reactions will be forthcoming to my claim that the Maidan (and Ukraine) more broadly may be a harbinger of a future socio-political program that may yet become an example for the civilized world.

To be a cultural capital, a city must produce valuational and semiotic novelty. Though I am still unsure of the objective novelty of Kyiv’s symbols, there is little doubt that Ukraine’s revolution was fought on a symbolic battleground: the real tactical significance of Hrushevskoho St. was minimal; traditional sites targeted during rebellions (e.g. television transmitters, key government buildings, key political personae) remained untouched. Instead, the demonstrators occupied INDEPENDENCE square, EUROPEAN square, and UKRAINIAN house, in addition to the KYIV city council building.

The parallel between Maidan and the Sich of the 16-18 century kozak period of Ukrainian history has been pointed out by several observers: barricades, a church at the center of a fortified enclosure, spontaneous cooperation, self-sufficiency, individual and collective patience in the face of extreme hardship. Perhaps the most striking parallel between the protest camp on Kyiv’s Independence Square and the home of the Zaporozhian Kozaks is the lack of hierarchy, and temporary nature of leadership within each of these institutions. For the Kozaks (as with the protesters), the Sich was a place to find justice and to have one’s dignity recognized by one’s peers.

The parallels to Ukraine’s past are obvious. What is less obvious is the opportunity that the newly enacted values and enunciated paradigms may provide for Ukraine’s future development. For most Western European countries, where a purely individualist paradigm became popularized during the Enlightenment, and where a hierarchical system of social organization had existed for centuries, industrialization and modernization (including the establishment of liberal democracy in the political sphere, and a stable stratification system in the economic sphere) developed as natural processes. In Ukraine, industrialization was imposed by Stalin by force, and most Ukrainian analysts have traditionally seen the resulting modernity as somehow “incomplete” or “skewed”. This may have been true for the past 2 decades (or more), but the Maidan may have given us a new perspective. Perhaps the “beacon on the hilltop” of the future will be in Kyiv – a place that offers the world a new civilizational principle of “spravedlyvist” (natural justice) and “hidnist” (individually realized / collectively recognized – dignity).  Or maybe I’m being too optimistic…

If only the Kremlin would allow us to find out!

God Bless Ukraine!

Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD

Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

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