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Ukraine: from the middle ages to a new world

“State Building”, a painting in the Ukrainian parliament. Photo:
Ukraine: from the middle ages to a new world
Article by: Valeriy Pekar
This article was written based on the materials of the author’s presentation at the international conference “The State of the World, Need for the New World Paradigm and Role of Ukraine in it” held in Kyiv by the fund of Bohdan Hawrylyshyn in April 2015. 

People all over the world have come to realize that the world is changing; that decisive processes and developments not yet fully understood are taking place. We in Ukraine have a sense that what is happening in Ukraine will have serious implications for the global community, and I truly believe that we are not overestimating the import of our central place in these changes and our role in this crucial shift: something big is happening.

So what lessons can today’s Ukraine offer the world?

  1. A first question: what is actually happening in Ukraine?

To answer this question we must first make the assertion that human societies are continuously evolving.

Marxists explain  socio-economic transformations as a four-stage evolutionary process that progresses from the primitive tribal community to a slave society, to feudalism, to capitalism. Political historians explain the transformational process as stateless communities evolving into fragile states (tyrannies) that in turn mature into states that based on the rule of law evolve into an open society (democracy). Social psychologists identify times in history when magical thinking was the dominant force in society, then heroism, then fundamentalism, and finally rationalism. A new label has been introduced for the coming era: it is being called the era of holistic thinking.

All this brings to mind the famous tale about the three blind men who tried to describe what an elephant is by feeling it from all sides. Ideas that shape and advance human history are never isolated and times of economic, political and rational-moral development do not exist as separate, clearly defined eras; they co-mingle like mottled water. Nevertheless, several basic types of society with certain deviations can be recognized for having clear attributes of cultivating economic relations, building a political system, and acknowledging the primacy of morality.

The most interesting societal transition for all of us is the transition from – for lack of a better term – what we will call the Medieval Society to the Modern Society, a transformation that we shall call modernization.

  • Douglass North regards this transformation as a conversion from a natural state to an open society.
  • Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson regard it as a transformation from a society with extractive economic and political institutions to one with  inclusive economic and political institutions.
  • Karl Marx called it a bourgeois revolution.
  • Francis Fukuyama –  the establishment of responsible governance.
  • Clare Graves regarded this transformation as a shift from the blue-orange mode of thinking [a never-ending quest to find peace and satisfaction] to rationalism.

It is a complex, interconnected transformation that  involves changes in economic relations, in social practices and institutions, in modes of thinking, including in the broad culture, and in national identity.

In medieval times finances and economic activity were established around a system of rent status. Click To Tweet

Landowners, oligarchs and members of the political elite, or whatever we call the beneficiaries, enjoyed opportunities for a better life not because they worked or practiced heroism, and not because of their capital or talent, but because of their higher social status which was generally accepted and acknowledged and was undisputed.

While social upward mobility was usually impossible it was great wealth owned by the privileged class that  provided the privileged with their high social status. Politically the Middle Ages was organized in clans centered around the manor arrangement of “patron” – “client” or “overlord” – “vassal.” The law and the courts protected the status of the privileged, often applying different principles of justice to different social groups.

States of this era were empires with their colonies and semi-independent regions that consisted of different ethnic groups. A complex hierarchy of relations held it all together.

The people perceived the state as something superior and foreign. They felt they were subjects of the state instead of its citizens. Ethnicity, based on language, culture, a common history, and a common habitat gave the populace a sense of identity while fundamentalism, paternalism, and family values shaped their morality and provided order and stability.

Not surprisingly, these societies lived an agrarian-based life with only the very basic technology and  industry that brought little benefit or profit. Usually these societies were incapable of switching from a path of stability onto a path of growth and development, even as their stability was conditional: any kind of hardship significantly reduced the welfare of the people and recovery was long and difficult.

The Modern Age, however, establishes and protects the system of rented capital; correspondingly these socio-economic relations are called capitalism.

In the Modern Age the economy is based on free markets, and politics are based on political parties that in turn are rooted in ideologies. The nations of this era are basically nationalist founded on a complex national-political identity oriented on long-term progress and founded on the patriotism and trustworthiness of its citizens who in turn expect a government that is accountable to the citizens.

The citizens’ ethics and morality are based on rationalism and are focused on development and progress, a career and education, usually secular, while social mobility is diverse and wide open.

Such societies build up and accumulate enormous shared capital that enables the development of industrial production adding substantial wealth and sophisticated technology and at the same time modernizing agriculture with industrial methods of production.

As a result the  worth and value of the broad-spectrum prosperity increases immeasurably and, most importantly, continues to grow with the exception of unforeseen periods of crises. The line of progress in a medieval society rises and falls along a horizontal course while in modern society the course is vertical with steady, stable growth.

In this model when we look at the type of economy Ukraine has, when we examine the politics, the values, and the traits most of the people adopt, we have to conclude that Ukraine is stuck in the late Middle Ages. Nevertheless, there is a minority of the population that differs markedly, striving for a modern society, a society that acts rationally and prefers development and opportunities to order and stability.

Polls conducted in 2011 show that a 55% majority wants a paternalistic society while a 15% minority wants a modern society.

A vibrant minority determines the direction the country takes while the passive majority determines the tempo the country adopts.

Thus along the way toward the Modern Age Ukrainian society finds itself at that intersection where on the one hand new forces have already gathered to bring changes to the economy, to politics, to the way of thinking, and to the culture while on the other hand these new forces are being challenged with the biggest questions and the greatest expectations.

The Maidan appeared as a three-pronged revolution for modernization that responds to these challenges and expectations.

As has been pointed out many times by Yaroslav Hrytsak, for most Ukrainians modernization is associated with westernization and Europe. Slogans with calls for euro integration were all over the Maidan, the European Union flag was ubiquitous, and the Maidan itself was labeled Euromaidan.

The Euromaidan was (more precisely, is, because, as we shall see, it is not over yet) a three-pronged revolution for modernization.

  •  an economic revolution: the middle class was rebelling against neo-feudalism and in favor of free markets instead of the oligarchic economic model;
  •  a geopolitical revolution: a revolution for national liberation; an anti-imperialist and anti-colonial revolution;
  •   a revolution of values and attitudes: a revolution of dignity; a revolution bringing to the fore the conflict between the new and the old value systems and thinking paradigms.

Note that the chief driving forces of the revolution were the middle class, the romantic-nationalists, and young people. A triad at the helm of the revolution.

It is easy to see that none of the three revolutions has been brought to a conclusion because none of the three has won and none of the three has been defeated. The revolution is ongoing.

The economic revolution is undergoing a struggle between the old and new forces in the area of reforms and modernization in the economy.

As always happens everywhere, the revolution for national liberation quickly became a War of Independence; empires never let go easily.

The revolution of values and attitudes will generate a new Ukrainian culture and the rapid development of human capital.

Euromaidan's revolution for national liberation quickly became a War of Independence; empires never let go easily. Click To Tweet

So we are living inside three revolutions that are ongoing and they are all aiming for an exit strategy from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age.

But we have a problem with the Modern Age.

The Modern Age, that is, contemporary life, is in the grips of several simultaneous global crises: economic, geopolitical (the globalization of economies is complete, there is no place else economies can go to expand their markets), ethical and moral, demographic, environmental, etc. The belief that progress is limitless is evaporating, science is halting progress, consumer economics has demonstrated that it is unsustainable, and it has been shown that the capitalist system is not fail safe. These are not just crises, these are the labor pains that come with giving birth to a new world. And let’s not attach the term post-modern to the emerging new world, because the term is meaningless. All it says is that something else will come after modernism, and anyway, modernism could have been labeled post-medieval. For the time being let us simply refer to it as the “New World.”

A New World arises out of new systems in economic relations, new social groups, new roles and practices, new values, and a new paradigm of thinking. Its arrival  is most apparent in Northern Europe even though it had first blossomed back in the sixties of the last century in Western Europe and in America. In Ukraine that world remained hidden and unknown to most of the population. Only 2% to 3% of the population was exposed to the events in Western Europe and America and the potential they promised prompted that small segment of society to leave for a better place for self-realization.

So we are on course to the Modern Age, which is already in flames, and after it the New World is being born. Our mission is to enter the flames, to walk through the flames, and to come out on the other side into the New World.

Skipping over things is not allowed. After all, every stage in advancement guarantees the development of new institutions and practices the society needs for further progress as well as new values and attitudes for the people. We must move forward rapidly or we will get burned.

Note that the New World was manifest already both on the Maidan and after the Maidan in the broad participation in volunteer activities. We saw crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, the open source principle and wiki-interaction, giving and sharing, relationships more precious than money, the absence of an hierarchy and collective leadership, etc. – dozens of new ideas and practices that already go beyond the Modern World with its rationality, capitalism and the accumulation of consumer goods.

So the first mission Ukraine must undertake for the world is to gain and comprehend the experience of the late modern age while stepping into the New World. This experience can serve as a valuable example to many nations on their way to the Modern Age that have not yet achieved it. Taking an overdue step towards modernization and making it succeed is one of our time’s greatest challenges facing billions of people around the world.

  1. Second question what is really Ukraine’s place in the world? What is modern Ukraine supposed to be?

What is our chart for the future? Note that countries without their own plans for the future are taken advantage of as a resource for those who do have a plan for the future. And not only a resource but a playground for realizing their own plans as happened with Ukraine in the First and Second World Wars when empires battled on Ukrainian land and used the people and the riches of the land as a resource to benefit their own advancement.

Let us begin by stating that the empire no longer provides security in the eastern European space. Instead it has become a threat to stability. The old system of collective guarantees has been destroyed leaving in its place a dangerous vacuum.

A new geopolitical arrangement and strategy must replace the old: an alliance of friendly nations to counter the Empire, a Baltic-Black Sea Union “from sea to sea” resembling the dreams of Pilsudski’s “Intermarium” but in the new geopolitical context.

The poly-ethnic anti-colonial strategy which will bring together into the same space, while opening up dozens of stifled nationalisms, and will serve as “a band of stability and modernization.” In this context Ukraine will be the center, the hub, the point of balance and connection.

Additionally Ukraine’s mission is to dismantle the empire and to help Russia rethink its position and to choose reform over stagnation.

It was, after all, Ukraine that helped build the empire in the first place: with its land and population, its military might, with its intellectual and spiritual contribution. Each time Ukraine left the empire the Empire was on the verge of collapse; every means possible was used to bring Ukraine back into the Empire.

As the co-creators of the empire, we are responsible for the disposal of the scraps.

So then Ukraine’s other mission is to create a new mechanism for protecting stability in Eastern Europe that would serve as a band of power and modernization in contrast to the likely chaos and disintegration; to invent a new counter-imperial model of open collaboration between nations in this part of the world. To dismantle and rethink the Empire as an idea.

  1. Question number three: who will actually do all this?

Last year Ukraine looked like a typical “failed state:” the state apparatus was ruined, the army was nonexistent, the judicial system was evil and corrupt, the idea of a nation or at least some kind of national strategy did not exist.

Usually countries that find themselves in such condition do not withstand military conflicts and fall apart at first strike.

So why have we prevailed? Why have we become stronger than we were last year? Anyone would tell you that it is thanks to the volunteers and thanks to civic society.

Let us return to the concept of modernization. Typically integration with Europe involves a gradual growth in new values and practices, their implementation in new social institutions arising from the grass roots. The accumulation of the new and modern creates a contrast to the old political system and eventually will clash in a revolution, bloody or not, to bring change and modernization to the political system to allow further advancement.

The Asian way is quite different. There a strong state forcibly installs new institutions and practices from the top and the people are forced to adapt to the new values and to perform the new social roles and practices.

We do not have time for gradual growth nor do we have a strong state. What we do have is a vibrant civic society that is our engine for change.

Mistrustful of the politicians civic society is creating new precedents and new practices. We can rightly call the country that will emerge a “Do-It-Yourself country.”


Ukraine’s third mission to the world is to develop and test new models of post-modern modernization that includes an active participation of civic society.

In conclusion note the following: what our country has to offer the world is important, but more important is the question what our country can offer the future. Renowned philosophers and analysts who say that the future of the world is being born in Ukraine are not mistaken. But all of it has to be done with our own hands, with minimal aid from the government or from politicians.

So have your gloves ready.


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