It was the rare moment when the political became the existential. I saw friends, colleagues, acquaintances I had known for years, people who valued their privacy, suddenly laying bare their souls, taking decisions they never could have imagined of themselves a few months earlier,” writes Marci Shore near the start of her strikingly innovative The Ukrainian Night, which she wrote prompted by her sense of how little Ukraine’s 2014 revolution was understood. “Journalists and politicians commented on NATO policy, international finance and oil investments, but not the transformation of human souls.”
Shore, an Associate Professor of Intellectual History at Yale, is trying to rescue “revolution,” a concept made near meaningless by over-repetition, and return its metaphysical meaning. For Shore’s characters—writers and artists, philosophers and students—the revolution was initially about standing up to “proizvol,” a “Russian word combining arbitrariness and tyranny, the condition of being made an object of someone else’s capricious, or malicious will.” Viktor Yanukovych, the gangster turned President, symbolized this quality with his casual use of violence, his casual revoking of Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union, his overriding of any judicial norms—but also in his lack of any higher ideals: “Yanukovych himself offered no grand narrative, no promise of transcendence, no story about a higher purpose of present suffering.”
It’s “higher purpose” that Shore’s protagonists were looking for in their protests against his rule in Kyiv. As she traces their stories, she develops a scale of revolutionary behavior through which the individual is transformed, and which opens the way for society to have purpose again.
The first stage is “spontaneous self-organization,” where previously alienated, passive groups are brought together to create improvised street kitchens, hospitals and self-defense units in a “laboratory of social contract”: “a union of IT specialists from Dnipropetrovsk and a Hutsul shepherd, an Odessa mathematician and a Kiev businessman, a translator from Lviv and a Tatar peasant from Crimea.” The far-Right is present too, but if the revolution is to be truly democratic, wouldn’t it have to contain all parts of society, even the most sickening?
Stage two involves taking a radical, often life-threatening choice: in a space of no ideology, the readiness to embrace personal risk confers meaning. The rock singer Slava Vakarchuk (seen by some as a future President) believes that the first deaths among the revolutionaries instigated “the main tectonic shift. . . towards something more responsible and less paternalistic.”
Next comes a strange sense where “time is smashed,” where those involved in the revolution seemed to enter a space where the normal clock was suspended, and which created a condition in which the next, critical, phase could be born: the emergence of values. “The revolution of dignity” was the name bestowed on the Maidan, which can sound somewhat wishy-washy, but to Shore’s characters specifically circles around overcoming “prodazhnost,” the idea that anyone is for sale, the existential dimension behind the catch-all term “corruption.” It’s no coincidence Kremlin propaganda tried to dismiss the protesters as being paid tools of the West, or that regimes like Putin’s or Yanukovych’s cultivate social models where everyone has to be corrupt in order to get by: when everyone is “for sale” then all ideals can be dismissed as mere PR.
After “values” comes what Shore refers to as the “non-analytical point,” where all rational calculation breaks down, and where a mass of people are prepared to die for a cause, and after which, if they survive, some sort of “revolutionary soul” emerges, defined by the revolutionaries’ readiness to sacrifice themselves for each other. Shore invokes Camus, for whom “the desire that led to rebellion was the desire at once to defend an essence of selfhood and to overcome alienation from others. The dialectic of rebellion was that it always began from the individual but transcended the individual.”
Taken together, these various phases—which Shore weaves in far more delicately and poetically than I have in my crude summary—allow for the emergence of a subjectivity where people are no longer playthings of “proizvol.” It’s a subjectivity that in Ukraine was framed by the logic of social media. The protests were organized on social media, which became the vehicle through which new selves were both performed and undermined:
When the young paramedic Olesia Zhukovska, blood pouring from her neck, typed on her phone, “I am dying,” her Twitter message traveled the globe in minutes. To strangers around the world, that message made Olesia Zhukovska a real person. At once that message robbed death of its intimacy; and this self-violation of intimacy became the means for the assertion of selfhood…The sacrifice was privacy.
Social media both produced and revealed another paradox. On the one hand it enabled the emergence of a new idea of Ukraine and Ukrainian-ness. On the other, its fractured, polarizing, echo-chamber nature meant that the Maidan’s transformative experience was contained in a bubble, alien to millions in the country who live in other information ecologies.
As Shore’s book moves out of the cauldron of revolutionary Kyiv, her heroes confront a world where their heroism is rejected, where many are ready to believe the Kremlin’s lies about their revolution and support Moscow’s invasion of the country. Many of Shore’s revolutionaries saw Maidan as Ukraine’s movement towards an idea of “Europe” defined by rule of law and dignity. But this logic means that some of her characters are forced into seeing anyone who opposes them as a priori “backwards, postcolonial people with a Soviet mentality, who were simply too lazy to define an identity for themselves.”
But this attitude, problematic in so many ways, also misses the profusion of narratives involved.
Many in Ukraine do live, or did live, among Kremlin-orchestrated propaganda paradigms, but the media kaleidoscope is far more fractured and complex than a simple “pro-Maidan” versus “pro-Moscow” tension. A city like Odessa, for example, has dozens of television channels and many more online news sites, each answering to the whims and priorities of myriad tycoons, ethnicities and passions. One can’t reduce the city to a simple “Soviet” past versus “European” future story. Instead, every little group lives in its own micro-narrative, bumping against others and getting into fights but for reasons which can have nothing to do with why others are fighting them.
These non-linear narrative relationships are reflected in the “Leninopad,” the campaign to pull down statues of Lenin in Ukraine. Some of Shore’s pro-Maidan activists see the pulling down of the statues across the country as about toppling the past, ridding the country of the vestiges of Soviet imperialism. And it’s certainly true that some of the Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas have attempted to recreate a Soviet Dismaland in Donetsk. But for many other Ukrainians the statues had nothing to do with either of these ideologies:
Nelia Vakhovska, the young translator of German literature, tried to explain. She was an intellectual and lived in Kiev, but she came from a small town … where young people earned pitiable salaries doing heavy unskilled labor at a sawmill where the workers’ hands often got caught in the saws. These are the people, Nelia wrote, “who my pure-as-snow friends dubbed the enemies of the revolution.” In that little town activists on the side of the Maidan took down the Lenin statue. Nelia learned of this from her parents: “‘They tied him by the neck and dragged him through the city.’ This phrase holds unexpected pain.” She tried to explain to her friends from Kiev, and from western Europe: “The statue is their personal Lenin, it’s where they used to kiss, where they stole roses from the flowerbeds, where they went on pointless parades and equally pointless rallies. Until now, he had been guarding their memories, storing them all up in one spot.”
Traveling through Ukraine today, one can have the sense of tumbling from one reality into another with every person one meets. Some Maidan activists have formed into the truly remarkable volunteer movement, which has armed and fed the army and supported hospitals and refugees, but whose members often tell me they feel they are living in a separate headspace than their neighbors. Even among the troops one finds people fighting for completely different reasons, each making up their own motivation. In many major cities, there are swathes of the population for whom the war with Russia might as well not be happening; it doesn’t seem to be their war to either support or reject.
Shore’s book ends with the ominous signs of the first stage of her first revolutionary scale, “spontaneous self-organization,” starting to fall apart as far-Right thugs who were present at the Maidan beat up a Maidan left-wing activist, Vasyl Cherepanin. Cherepanin, however, is less bitter than one might imagine: “‘I am a happy person,’ Vasyl told me: he had now had an experience of real democracy, an experience that most people never have in their whole lives. And despite having been beaten by right-wing nationalists from Svoboda, Vasyl wanted me to know that when he had been there on the Maidan together with members of Svoboda, he had felt safe with them.”
The book ends with a nation which needs to somehow spread the same sort of trust and solidarity throughout its people as was present on the Maidan. But what strikes me is how similar this challenge is to the ones we see in Europe and the United States: the falling apart of a common, national public space; the struggle to define any sort of notion of the future; disinformation black holes pulling people into warped nostalgias; parts of the population not so much polarized as living in a separate somewhere or other. And beyond all that, a series of nagging questions: What does it mean to be a nation in a time of globalization? How can one embrace both the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual reality and a coherent polity? How does one generate a discussion of progress in an age of ultra-relativism, where everyone has their own version of the truth?
Rather than trapped between “Soviet” past and “European” future, Ukraine is our common, contemporary crisis brought into sharp relief, the country where the West’s problems are now most vividly surfaced as life-or-death drama. Early in the Maidan, one of Shore’s characters remarks on how some in the West didn’t want to see the truth about their own problems in Ukraine’s revolution. This excellent observation concerns the far-Right, but one can apply it to so many other areas too:
“The immediate Western response was hypocritically colonial, proclaiming that Ukrainian protesters were not European enough to claim allegiance to European values. In reality, the juxtaposition of neo-Nazi symbols with EU flags in the streets of Kyiv exemplified a pan-European malady. . . The ideological composition of Ukraine’s Maidan square mirrored Europe. That’s why so many in the West turned away from that mirror in horror.”