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Remembering Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity

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Nearly six years after the fall of the regime of Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-2014 is increasingly becoming a subject of historical analysis, albeit one still fraught with political controversy.

This is clear in Mychailo Wynnyckyi’s book, Ukraine’s Maidan, Russia’s War: A Chronicle and Analysis of the Revolution of Dignity, published last year. Wynnyckyj, Associate Professor of Sociology at the National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, was a participant in the protests held on Kyiv’s main square, the Maidan. Wynnyckyj prefers the term “Maidan” to “Euromaidan,” as the latter suggests that the protest movement was merely about having Ukraine sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, when from December 2013 onward this was a revolution aimed at overthrowing Yanukovych.

Wynnyckyj openly admits that his account may be one-sided, and to be fair to the author, it is an academic memoir. Throughout the book, he reminds readers that he supported the protests at the Kyiv Maidan. Not only did Wynnyckyj take part in protests there, he worked with other Maidan activists trying to spread the message of the Maidan to other regions of Ukraine (devising with them a banner in Russian, “Understand us. We’re fed up!” [Poimite nas. Zadolbalo!], displayed across one of the Maidan’s main barricades and photographs of which spread worldwide). Later, after Russia began its war with Ukraine, he and other patriotic Ukrainians helped donate money and supplies for Ukraine’s military forces, including its volunteer battalions. He served as an advisor in Ukraine’s Ministry of Education, implementing key reforms which he identified with the spirit of the Maidan.

Wynnyckyj’s memoir differs significantly from others on the Maidan and its aftermath as he offers valuable first-hand observations of events in Kyiv. During the Maidan protests, his Facebook postings (“Thoughts from Kyiv”) became mandatory reading for understanding events in Ukraine’s capital. The first part of the book is a chronology of events covering the Maidan protests, the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime, and then Russian military intervention, first in Crimea, then in the Donbas region. Much of this chronicle comes from Wynnyckyj’s Facebook blog, as well as his other personal observations and observations of friends of his.

He makes use of general press articles from the time, including many in English from journalists and foreign observers. Wynnyckyj’s chronology is unmatched in its detailed analysis of the implosion of the Party of Regions and the Yanukovych regime itself. The resignation of Mykola Azarov as Prime Minister at the end of January 2014 brought a split among seven different factions within the Party of Regions. Some supported closer ties with the European Union and a peaceful resolution of the country’s political crisis, while others insisted on closer ties with Russia and a violent suppression of the Kyiv Maidan.

Wynnyckyj makes a compelling argument: that the Maidan sped up the decline of oligarch-controlled manufacturing industries in Ukraine’s east and south which had dominated Ukrainian political life for decades

The second part of the book is an analysis of the significance of the Maidan Revolution, also called the Revolution of Dignity. Here Wynnyckyj stresses that the Maidan was a revolution as understood by Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution (1963), where a dramatic shift in values and ideas, rather than a shift in social and political structures, took place. Wynnyckyj sees Ukraine’s “creative class” – its advertisers, computer programmers, managers (particularly in investment firms, agrobusiness, and the IT industry), university professors and journalists – as the revolution’s driving force.

As they entered Ukraine’s post-Maidan government and parliament, this group replaced the Yanukoyvch-era oligarch clans that were on the decline. They stood for values such as self-reliance, fairness and a sense of social responsibility. Wynnyckyj, whose PhD dissertation from the University of Cambridge focused on small entrepreneurs and large industries controlled by oligarch clans in post-Soviet Ukraine, makes a compelling argument: that the Maidan sped up the decline of oligarch-controlled manufacturing industries in Ukraine’s east and south which had dominated Ukrainian political life for decades.

In Ukraine’s west and centre, small entrepreneurs focused on service industries and digital technologies have increasingly become the engines of the country’s economic growth. Committed activists from their ranks, as well as investment bankers, have formed the core of a reform movement in post-Maidan Ukraine’s government. According to Pavlo Sheremeta (p. 275), the interim government’s Minister of Economic Development, the ideological rigour of the new government officials appointed after Yanukovych’s ouster in early 2014 surprised even IMF officials. The latter said they had never met government ministers from developing countries who were “more liberal than the IMF.” Wynnyckyj sees their ideology as akin to that of libertarianism in removing state interference (and thus corruption) as much as possible from people’s lives.

Wynnyckyj underscores the global dimensions of the Maidan Revolution. He focuses on Russia’s role in fomenting unrest in Crimea and Donbas in what was called the “Russian Spring”. He highlights Russia’s use of heavy weaponry and regular military units in crushing Ukrainian forces in Donbas in the summer of 2014. Wynnyckyj sees Russian military operations in Ukraine paving the way for its intervention in Syria the next year (2015). He stresses that only a hardline approach to Russian military aggression (such as providing further military aid to Ukraine and not compelling Ukraine to make political concessions) will prevent further Russian expansion into Ukraine’s affairs.

Wynnyckyj sees the fate of the Maidan as a turning point in the history of Western civilisation. A postmodern phenomenon, the Maidan suggested new ways of conducting politics, where heterarchy (in which power is located in several areas rather than one), rather than hierarchy, affected social relations, where social relations became more horizontal and less vertical, and where personalism (in which individuals acquire a sense of obligation to serve the larger community), rather than individualism, became important for social interactions.

Wynnckyj’s book offers a nuanced and informed perspective on Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution, yet it remains a perspective of only the creative class made up of his friends and former students in Kyiv. It equates the Maidan with Ukraine, yet polling data suggests that nearly half of Ukraine did not support the protests throughout their duration. In a nationwide poll conducted from 24 January to 2 February, 2014, nearly half of those polled (46%) said that they did not support current protests going on in Ukraine, while roughly the same number supported them (47%). This was already after violence against protesters had become lethal. Likewise, the ascending scale of violence did not undermine Yanukovych’s popularity; a poll taken from 17 January to 26 January 2014, indicated that he remained the most favoured potential candidate in a future presidential election.

Wynnyckyj refers repeatedly to millions of Ukrainians who brought about the end to the Yanukovych regime (e.g. on pages 351-352), yet the protests that he chronicles never reached more than 500,000, or 900,000, in the early days of December 2013, and their numbers dropped to the tens of thousands thereafter. He recalls his Facebook post from 30 November 2013, where he suggested Ukrainians have a general strike (p.71), yet no such strike ever occurred. It is not clear who these “millions of Ukrainians” overthrowing Yanukovych were. Wynnyckyj hardly discusses what Maidan protests took place outside Kyiv, and thus the role of Ukraine’s regions in supporting or opposing these protests remains murky. Wynnyckyj’s chronology shifts from discussing Ukrainians’ grievances with Yanukovych to Maidan protesters’ grievances with the political opposition and Yanukovych. Kyiv’s protest camp, rather than Ukraine, thus becomes the centre of the story.

While Wynnyckyj views the Maidan Revolution as the “birth of the nation”, it seems as if what he is describing is the birth of a specific community – the Kyiv Maidan – and its positioning of itself as spokespersons for the nation

Wynnyckyj himself admits that many of the post-Maidan government reforms failed to be implemented fully. The austerity measures of post-Maidan governments, as well as conflict with Russia, caused a drastic decline in people’s standard of living. The value of the hryvnia to the US dollar plummeted from 8 to 27 (as of 2018). In 2015, the average salary of Ukrainians was 190 US dollars a month (a little over 6 US dollars a day). From 2014 to 2017 (before even visa-free travel with EU countries began), over 25 percent of all working age, economically active citizens (those not students, pensioners, mothers on maternity leave, or those disabled and unable to work) left Ukraine for employment abroad.

Discontent with these reforms was real. A 2018 Gallup poll found 91 percent of Ukrainians claimed government corruption was widespread. Ukraine’s national government was the least trusted in the world (9 percent), far below the median for former Soviet republics (48 percent) and the global average (56 percent). Even the Yanukovych administration did not have such a low rating, though admittedly confidence in that government was also extremely weak (no higher than 24 percent).

Yet Wynnyckyj sees this discontent threatening Ukraine’s revolution with a leftward turn to the “social question” and populism, which, as Arendt once suggested, was “a leftward discursive shift from idealism to materialism that led to the guillotine in France and terror in Russia,” as he puts it (p.362).

Given that the reforms had stymied and that the new political elite was swept from power in elections in 2019 (first for president, then for parliament), can one even say there was a revolution in Ukraine? Wynnyckyj himself admits that by 2018, the values central to the Maidan Revolution had not yet received institutional expression (p.322). This suggests that a key tenet of Arendt’s definition of a revolution has failed to materialise. As Wynnyckyj quotes from Arendt, “[O]nly where change occurs in the sense of a new beginning, where violence is used to constitute an altogether different form of government, to bring about the formation of a new body politic, where the liberation from oppression aims at least at the constitution of freedom can we speak of revolution” (p. 18). While Wynnnyckyj claims that “a new body politic” emerged out of Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity (p. 18), it is not clear that this new body politic embraced most of, let alone all, of the people of Ukraine.

While Wynnyckyj views the Maidan Revolution as the “birth of the nation” (243), it seems as if what he is describing is the birth of a specific community – the Kyiv Maidan – and its positioning of itself as spokespersons for that nation. Here, he suggests that symbols from such right-wing nationalist movements as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its leader, Stepan Bandera, and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) have received new meaning. Still, outside the community of Maidan believers, it is not clear that those new symbols have brought Ukrainians together and bridged regional divisions.

Since this book’s publication, Ukraine’s post-Maidan government and parliament lost to political novices promising an end to the war in the Donbas and more effective reforms. In April 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and television producer with no political experience, won the final round of presidential elections with 73% of the vote. In July 2019, Zelensky’s political party, Servant of the People, just formed in time for early parliamentary elections, won an outright majority, a total of 254 of 450 seats.

Both elections were unprecedented in independent Ukraine’s history, where presidents won bare majorities, and where political parties in parliaments always had to form coalition governments. While it is still not clear what changes these political forces will bring to Ukraine, the Maidan Revolution has ended, and a new era has begun.