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Dignity after the Revolution of Dignity

Euromadian protesters raise the Ukrainian flag on the barricades. Photo: Maksym Kudimets. 21 January 2014
Dignity after the Revolution of Dignity
This article is an abridged version of a talk given by Alya Shandra as part of the conference “Human Dignity – Socio-ethical Legacy and Challenge of the Revolution of Dignity” organized by the Center for Eastern Europe and International Studies in Berlin (ZOiS) in cooperation with the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Konrad-Adenauer foundation, and the Open Orthodox University with the aim to rethink the meaning and Christian understanding of human dignity in the Ukrainian socio-political context in Kyiv over 31 October-1 November 2019. Euromaidan Press is publishing it on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of the Euromaidan Revolution celebrated as the Day of Dignity and Freedom in Ukraine.
The Euromaidan revolution is widely known as the Revolution of Dignity. During the 2013-2014 uprising, protesters were rebelling against acutely felt violations of their dignity. But what exactly dignity is for Ukrainians and what needs to change in the country in order for life to become more dignified is much less clear.

Nobody knows who coined the term “Revolution of Dignity” to describe the Euromaidan revolution. But it resonated so much with the term “Searching for Europe, we found ourselves,” which described the burning desire for another way of life of the protesters, and hope for things changing for the better.

What remained unclear was what this “differently” entailed. What is this other life? It was clear that life in Ukraine was perceived as undignified compared to life in the EU, where Ukrainians as felt that citizens had a higher level of dignity. But little thought was given as to why this was the case; the most common denominator was that the political elites were responsible for the poor state of affairs and as soon as they changed, everything else would follow. Large was the surprise of a great part of society when this did not happen. A 2016 online poll by Kantar TNS revealed that only 5% felt that the Revolution of Dignity achieved its goals. 75% say it didn’t – 28% of them said that there are no changes, 16% – that everything became worse, others – that economic standards have fallen, that there is a war, that those who came to power were worse than their predecessors, that oligarchs are still in power, etc.

This poll stands in contrast with the actual demands voiced at Euromaidan. Demands of Eurointegration, the resignation of Yanukovych’s government and early elections, freedom to political prisoners, freedom of the media and assembly, amnesty to all Euromaidan participants were fulfilled. Partially fulfilled were the demands to punish those who beat up the students and shot protesters at Euromaidan, to lustrate Yanukovych-era officials and fight corruption.

So, the protesters had very specific demands, many of which were met. But the online poll reveals that the overall population expected life at large to change after Euromaidan. Ukrainians felt something was wrong with their life, that life in Ukraine was undignified, but didn’t quite understand what needs to change, expecting changes to happen without them.

What is dignity?

Perhaps adding to the confusion about what it is that has to change in order for life in Ukraine to become more dignified is the fact that the concept of dignity is notoriously difficult to pin down. The Universal Declaration of human rights adopted after WWII exemplifies this. Its creators were conscious of the fact that what constitutes dignity is shaped by the philosophical notions of separate countries on which there will never be agreement, they nevertheless laid down two fundamental approaches to human rights which ensure a person’s dignity that shape the discourse today: the concept of political rights which aims to protect persons from the violation of their rights by states, and the concept of socio-economic rights which place obligations on states to ensure that citizens have adequate economic conditions (housing, work, food, etc). However, this fundamental document does not describe what dignity is. Neither do other international declarations and treaties.

Interestingly, I had trouble finding an etymology of the Ukrainian word for dignity, “hidnist” – modern Ukrainian etymological dictionaries simply have no entry for it. However, digging into etymological dictionaries of the past reveals that the meaning of “hidnist” encompasses the following two main opposite aspects: inherent and non-inherent dignity. Inherent meaning that all humans have equal intrinsic dignity by belonging to the human race, that they are worthy/correspond (“hodnyi”) – this is also called “passive dignity.” Non-inherent dignity, on the contrary, is not something one has by default; in this meaning, persons can enhance or lose their dignity by engaging in virtuous and non-virtuous behavior; this is also called “active dignity.”

These contradictory aspects to the meaning of “hidnist” seem to rule out each other: either every person has inherent equal human dignity irrespective of their behavior, or this value is changeable. They also raise an important question – what are the blueprints based on which persons either have equal worth by default, or based on which we can judge behavior to be virtuous or non-virtuous? Christians have an answer – it is because we are made in the image of God and are His beloved children. That although every person is made in the image of God, some persons trample this image in themselves and others; others grow to correspond to this image. This meaning of dignity could greatly help Ukrainian society to move to a more dignified life. However, churches, in my opinion, have not used the chance offered by the Revolution of Dignity to propel these ideas, something we will discuss further.

Although the positive definition of “dignity” for Ukrainians is difficult to identify, it’s easier to identify what the undignified life that Ukrainians would like to see changed is by examining what makes Ukrainians protest and what mobilizes them. Here are some of the recent examples which tell about Ukrainians’ understanding of dignity.

  • Vradiyivka. A horrific rape and murder attempt by members of the police sparked widespread protests and demands to end police impunity in 2013. They were seen by some as a precursor to the Euromaidan revolution. Vradiyivka protests were a reaction to injustice and inequality of Ukrainians before the law, where some were (and still are) more equal than others, as well as a demand to punish state officials, the police who had behaved in an undignified way.
  • Euromaidan. Police impunity, social injustice and inequality, officials violating the law and engaging in undignified behavior, violation of basic human rights were the factors that fanned a usual protest into a revolution. As well, in Euromaidan, the Kantian notion of dignity in which human beings are always an end in themselves and never a means – rises to prominence. The Eurointegration desires of Ukrainian citizens were not to be manipulated in behind-the-curtain agreements of Yanukovych and Russia, which led to the scrapping the EU-Association agreement. This rejection of the right of Ukraine to its autonomy, deprivation of its freedom to shape its own future was seen as an inadmissible violation of dignity. Thus, Euromaidan connected dignity with freedom – and Ukraine are reminded of this each 21 November, with the commemoration of the Day of Dignity and Freedom.
  • The belief that Ukraine is worthy of the freedom to choose its own path, and the violation of dignity associated with a covert Russian invasion and coercion to do Russia’s will, was at the basis of the volunteer movement of the anti-terrorist operation. Hundreds of thousands of people took up arms because it was a breach of the dignity of Ukraine – and its citizens – to be deprived of the freedom to choose their own path.
  • The freedom-dignity connection has been brought to prominence once again in the recent “movement against capitulation” protests, at the core of which is the belief that the recent Donbas-related steps of the Zelenskyy administration constitute capitulation to Russian interests, and consequently, denying Ukraine the dignity of freedom of choice. It is not coincidental that the next large event of the movement against capitulation was set to take place on 21 November 2019, the Day of Dignity and Freedom and the anniversary of the Euromaidan revolution.
  • At the same time, economic dimensions of dignity were important before and still are after Euromaidan. The economic crisis, inflation, and rising prices are issues that lead many to believe that things are worse after Euromaidan, and see the revolution of dignity as having failed. Although there is a visible tendency to dismiss the economic concerns as a socialist relict of the Soviet era from the activist side of society, we mustn’t forget that socio-economic rights are part of the Universal declaration of human rights and a major reason for Ukrainians leaving to search for a more dignified life abroad.

This brings us to the next point of our discussion about dignity after Euromaidan – Ukraine’s Soviet, or rather, post-totalitarian heritage.

Sovietness in the heads

It appears to me that it is exactly this Soviet past which defines much of what Ukrainians perceive to be wrong with their country, without even realizing it. A country with no political freedoms, where freedom of thought and the pursuit of truth were punished, where a person was not an “end in himself” but a cog in the machine supposedly driving humanity towards a communist utopia have left our society traumatized. In exchange, Soviet citizens were guaranteed a guaranteed social minimum, even if of substandard quality. It is this concept of dignity and human rights, where a person surrenders political rights in exchange for a subsistence minimum, that is the foundation for ideas about dignity in post-Euromaidan Ukraine, which albeit slowly, but is being changed. This Soviet concept of dignity relegating persons to a means of achieving the goals of communism in exchange for a subsistence minimum, has many implications for today, giving contemporary Ukrainian society the following qualities:

  • Paternalism and infantility;
  • A culture of systematic corruption, which can be partially explained because criticism of the Soviet system was equated to treason, leading to the brewing of societal ills and establishment of a system where unquestioned corruption was a way of life;
  • Low civic activity, low responsibility, as those who displayed genuine civic activity more often ended up in the Gulag than not;
  • A high tolerance of injustice, as “cogs in the machine” were not supposed to stick out;
  • Confidence in that one’s actions will change nothing, leading to a culture of “keeping your head down.”

In the post-totalitarian country which is Ukraine, lamentably little is said about the impact that this post-totalitarianism has on us today.

The decommunization that started after Euromaidan, although praiseworthy, has antagonized society because there has been no proper discussion about the true impact totalitarianism has had on Ukraine. It all descended into a battle of narratives, battle of historical figures.

Perhaps it is the lack of discussion about dignity and the freedom of persons to shape their own path, as well as hold their own opinions, that is leading Ukrainian society to the polarization we see today. Oleg Sentsov, a recently-freed political prisoner who encapsulated the feelings of the Revolution of Dignity while spending more than 5 years in a Rusian prison, made this observation after being freed and returning to Ukraine: the revolution of dignity has turned into a counter-revolution of hatred, leading to a divided and intolerant society.

Where is the voice of the church?

A discussion around dignity and what it entails would surely help Ukraine move forward. However, what seems to have happened is that Ukrainians overwhelmingly feel that life in Ukraine is undignified, but do not reflect on the reasons, expecting changes to happen without them. However, change will not happen without a moral renovation. Churches could add their unique voice to the discussion. Especially since most of what is intuitively understood by “dignity” in Ukraine pertains to inherent dignity, which the Ukrainian state is seen as continuously violating. Very little is said about the non-inherent dignity, which requires active virtuous behavior, and about the responsibility of each citizen that comes with freedom, both of which are addressed in the Christian tradition through introspection and repentance.

So far, the churches have been reserved in participating in the processes that shape Ukraine’s transition to a more dignified society. The push for Ukraine’s progress along this path has become associated with various civil activists who protest, for instance, attacks against activists, against state capitulation, for honest judges, against corruption. Churches take a neutral stance where they could be proactive in pushing Ukrainians to live out their calling as persons made in the image of God. I personally felt this acutely during the protests at Vradiivka, when I wrote an open letter to the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations to react somehow to the monstrosity of the situation. This brought a result – an official statement by this council was issued, and later – an offer to participate in the moral renovation of police officers. This signals that churches do react to signals by their faithful, but so far do not proactively pursue any pro-dignity agenda.

The participation of churches in the Euromaidan revolution was commendable, but from where I stand, later their voice in the attempts to change Ukraine into a better place could have been louder – at least, from what I can tell from the official communication channels.

Among the major confessions in Ukraine, the Orthodox Churches (Moscow Patriarchate and Orthodox Church of Ukraine) are mired in political battles. Their voice in the discussion about dignity and the path of Ukraine after Euromaidan is virtually unheard.

In relation to this, the Greek Catholic Church positively stands out. Its ex-leader Lyubomyr Husar wrote a book titled “The dignity of Adam” and regularly addressed questions of human dignity. Dignity is something addressed by current Greek Catholic Church leader Sviatoslav Shevchuk as well.

However, Christians have a lot more potential to play an active role in the transformation of society, the demand for which became clear after Euromaidan. And Ukraine has a wonderful example of doing this – that of Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytskyi, the Greek Catholic leader who transformed western Ukraine in so many ways between the two world wars. At the very least, the churches can contribute to the discussion about the meaning of dignity, which has been severely lacking.

Watch the entire lecture here:

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