The Human Face of Ukraine’s Revolution
27 February, 2018

Four years after the Euromaidan revolution, Ukraine has ousted a Kremlin-friendly government and developed a national identity independent from Russia. But for many, the revolution wasn’t only about political change — it was also the catalyst for redefining personal values.

Marci Shore has been following the situation in Ukraine since the protests started in 2013. A professor of modern history at Yale University and the author of several articles on Ukraine and the people involved in the revolution, Shore recently published a book about Euromaidan called “The Ukrainian Night”.

“My book, to some extent, is really a book about individuals,” she said. “I am only really confident about my understanding at the level of individuals. And, in part, that's because I am a so-called "intellectual historian," which means I tend to write about individuals more.”

Shore believes the 2013-2014 revolution was a time when many Ukrainians “discovered themselves” and developed an understanding of what mattered to them. But since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, answering those questions has become more difficult.

“Among the many ways that the war in Donbas is a tragedy is that it didn't allow the whole society to, kind of, take hold of and observe and evaluate what the Maidan meant because they were immediately thrown into a situation of Ukraine having to defend itself against an aggressive attack through a combination of separatist and Russian forces,” she said.

Hromadske spoke with Shore about her new book and the consequences of Euromaidan.

We are delighted to have with us Marci Shore, who is a professor of history at Yale University and an award-winning author. Her recent book is named The Ukrainian Night and is devoted to the events that happened four years ago, the Euromaidan revolution. Back then, and even later on, the international attention was particularly focused on the geopolitical aspect of what was going on in the region, but, Marcy's writing is so much about the society. Looking at this four years after the event, to what extent do you think the revolution has changed society in Ukraine and in the region? What are these changes?

In some sense, I'm not the best person to answer that question because I'm not there now. I have a sense of how it's changed individuals. I wouldn't feel that I have a sense of how it's changed society at large. My book, to some extent, is really a book about individuals. I do think that those kinds of existential transformations that people went through, the possibilities inside themselves that they discovered, capabilities that they hadn't realised about themselves — I think those changes remain. I don't think people are easily unchanged that way. The Polish philosopher and theologian Jozef Tischner writes about revolution as changing people's souls, as changing who they are, and I don't think that goes away. Now what that means for politics and society is a different question.

But then, how do these individuals add up to the bigger chain? Why is it so important to focus on the individuals in particular? The whole Maidan thing is, first of all, the story of the individuals, rather than a general thing for the country. When we are describing these kind of events, to what extent do we have to tell these personal stories?

As a historian, I've always been very wary of making large generalisations. In some sense, I only really confident about my understanding at the level of individuals. And, in part, that's because I am a so-called "intellectual historian" which means I tend to write about individuals more, I write about writers and philosophers and poets. I think that the... If I were to take a guess about the society — my sense is that the Maidan was really a time of people really asking themselves hard questions about values: what do they want? Who are they? And I think people did discover in themselves and arrive at understandings of what was important to them and what mattered to them. What I don't think, the question that I don't think has been answered, and that's not just for Ukraine, that can be said perhaps for any society is the "Chto delat [what to do]’ question. If we know that we want a society with human dignity, if we know that we need to get rid of corruption, if we know that we need to create a situation in which people are treated as subjects, and not as objects by the government, you know, in which the government can be trusted, how do we get there? And when I talked to people now who were involved in the Maidan and are now involved in reforms, there seems to be a great consensus, for instance, that is absolutely critical to get rid of corruption. But nobody has a magic answer as to how that can be done. and I don't think anyone anywhere else outside of Ukraine has a magic answer as to how that can be done. And I think that's the cause of tremendous frustration.

When we speak about the individual characters you've talked to, and you've probably followed their stories, what would you say, as a historian, this revolution was about for them? Some individuals would say it was about the dignity, freedom, brutality of the police, but later, especially with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war, there would be more people who would say: "No, that revolution was about national pride, the anti-colonial and anti-imperial fight against Russia." Now we are already to a less extent using the term "Revolution of Dignity." But you have saved those stories,  so can we really generalize it? Or is it fair to day that, for some people, it was not a revolution of dignity? How would your characters also describe what happened?

You're right. One of things I try very hard to do in the book is to preserve that moment of the Maidan as it was experienced at the time and kind of bracket, or try to capture the experience of those people, bracketing the knowledge of what comes afterward: the annexation of Crimea and then the war in the east, the uncertainty in the east, the violence in the east, which has now become the war in Donbas. That war is a tragedy for many reasons . George Orwell says that every revolution is a failure in its own way, and Tolstoy says that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way and every war is a tragedy in its own way. Among the many ways that the war in Donbas is a tragedy is that it didn't allow the whole society to, kind of, take hold of and observe and evaluate what the Maidan meant because they were immediately thrown into a situation of Ukraine having to defend itself against an aggressive attack through a combination of separatist and Russian forces. And the questions now that have come up that are so salient about national identity and anti-colonialism are very much, of course, influenced by the fact that this is country that's under invasion.

Not just in Ukraine, not just in Eastern Europe, there is this perception of the revolution in the media that, at the beginning there was a lot of excitement, and then later there was this natural disappointment. The higher the emotions, the more there is at stake, the tougher it becomes later. So speaking about your characters in your book, how do you see this? And how, as a historian, do you think there is this understanding that maybe that excitement could now be perceived as naive?

I see that moment very much as...Really what Hannah Arendt described as "the treasure of revolution beyond victory or defeat." And I think, for instance, what my friends who are much older than I am in Poland, who were formed by Solidarity, what they saw in the Maidan is that they understood that that kind of ecstatic moment of self-sacrifice, of solidarity, of the transcendence of previously existing boundaries, of the coming together the right and the left, and the Marxist, and the Catholics, and the workers and the intellectuals — that kind of solidarity is fragile, it's precarious, it can never be sustained. I mean, in Poland it lasted 30 seconds after communism fell. But those people also understood that it was that extraordinarily precious experience, that most people never see in their lifetimes, that suggests that we have a human capacity for that, even if it can't easily be sustained. To come back to your previous question, now that I'm thinking about it for another 30 seconds; one of the things that — and I'm far away from Ukraine, so I can't judge well, but — that seems so sad to me, a kind of additional tragedy watching the war in the Donbas, is just how relations between Ukrainians and Russians have deteriorated, which I think was not true on the Maidan   about self-determination, it wasn’t about ethnicity or nationality first and foremost. It was about not being ruled by gangsters, it was a revolt against 'proizvol' [tyranny]. I try very hard in the book to translate 'proizvol' and its long tradition in east European history into English, and I don't quite come up with an adequate translation, but it was that we wanted to be treated as subjects and not as objects. We don't want to be ruled by gangsters, we don't want to be the helpless playthings of the brutality, of the people in power. And it was not — it seems to me — anti-Russian language, and it was not against one's friends and colleagues in Russia. The war in Donbas has, I think, done terrible things on relations between Ukrainians and Russians on both sides. I think for many of the people I knew who were on the Maidan, I think their feeling about Russians while they were on the Maidan was, in some sense, this hope that the Maidan could be an example. And Bolotnaya failed in Russia. Masha Gessen's whole new book, in some sense, is about why did it fail and the tragedy of that revolution failing, not becoming a real revolution and the leadership being decapitated. But there could still be a chance, we still have that capacity, if we can do it, you can do it. The widespread support in Russia for Putin's annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, I think, has destroyed so much good will. In a way, that's tragic. And I'm sure I see it as extra tragic because, like in the States — as you know, you were reporting in the states, you came here to cover our elections and wanted to interview Trump supporters, and my husband and I, between us, could not find Trump supporters who we knew to give to you to interview because we live such our own bubble. And, in some sense, wherever I am, be it in Poland, or Ukraine, or Russia, we are all kind of living in our own milieu.

One of my colleagues in Russia I was talking to about the Maidan, when I saw him in St. Petersburg afterward, he said "Мы все смотрели на Майдан с восторгом [we all looked at the Maidan with delight]" and he was being completely honest with me. That was his experience. But I was like: "Валерий, кто 'мы все?' [Valeriy, who are ‘we all?’]".Well that's Valeriy and his two dozen friends. And in some sense, that's my world, that's all two dozen people I saw last, but in Petersburg before the Maidan at his apartment. But that's obviously not representative of Russia, that's a certain kind of intelligentsia. And one of the reasons I'm so reluctant to make generalizations about society is that I feel like my interlocutors are always, to some extent such a selective milieu in whatever country I find myself in.

Marci, as a historian, how do you explain the cause and consequence? The annexation of Crimea happened more or less right after [the Euromaidan] and then there were fast consequences of the events, followed by the war. And then when you read a short summary of what happened: Maidan, then war… And, you know, Maidan is [sometimes] described as the reason; we can argue that the war was kind of a counter-revolution to the Maidan itself.

Part of the Kremlin ideology is to affirm ‘don’t go to the streets, it will lead to war and we’ll prove that in any case.’ And to some extent, they succeeded with that message. They definitely succeeded in showing that to the post-Soviet world and perhaps even to the international world to some extent. Because there is this disappointment with public gatherings, that they can lead to chaos. How, as a historian, do you think this sequence needs to be treated and explained to avoid tricky summaries and tricky explanations?

Well I think you're right that Putin decided to start that war. He instigated that war. There were local elements, and he local allies and he found people who, either for mercenary reason or reasons of authentic inclination were willing to go along with it, but there would not have been a war if Putin hadn't instigated it. And in that sense, I think that was outside of the control of the people on the Maidan to control what Putin was doing. The point you make that you know, Putin said that if you go out on the streets, it will lead to war, and then he starts a war, and so it proves in retrospect his claim. That's a kind of classical move. Hannah Arendt has this wonderful section in part three of Origins of Totalitarianism and she talks about how those creating totalitarian ideology always have the advantage of logical consistency because what they are doing is forcing the world to conform to the logic of their vision. So Putin says: "If you go out into the streets there will be a war, if you try to have a revolution there will be a war." And then he starts a war, therefore making his prediction come true. In a sense, that's a kind of classic totalitarian move. He's creating the world to fit in with the world view that he's proffering, which Arendt says is always the advantage that those propagators of ideology have because they can force reality to conform to the ideas they set forth through violent measures. I don't know how the Maidan or the people on it could have defended themselves against that. I mean, certainly there was the element of the hybrid war, there was the element of post-truth, there was the element of disinformation in the Donbas. And I know people like Serhiy Zhadan were running around there, just trying to talk to people. That six minute video that he made during to so-called Russian Spring, in which he'd just stand there straightforwardly talking to camera and says: "We are not fascists, none of that is true, come over to our side." I think it's one of the most poignant moments ever captured on video of Serhiy and he's not performing in anyway, he's just speaking straightforwardly into the camera, to his fellow people in Kharkiv and saying: "Don't be afraid of us. We're not extremists, we're not fascists. Please don't believe it, it's not true, it's not true." And there were people like that, who were trying very, very hard, but it turned out not to be enough and I don't know what would have made it enough.

How do you see the creation of the myth, especially now, the myth of some of the heroes of the heavenly 100 or some others and that is one point, how helpful is it to do that in 2017. In general, for history, where is the level where we need to remember how it was exactly without overdoing it and where do you see this difference?

My intuition both, as a historian and a human being is to always be very nervous about cults of martyrdom. They inherently make me uneasy, no matter how justified they may seem. Hero worship generally doesn’t go well and it’s generally not a healthy way of building one’s own sense of subjectivity. I think not forgetting people is very important, I think the memory of what happened is very important. But i think reducing that memory to a cult of martyrdom is not really what people want to do. What needs to be somehow preserved in memory, is that moment of self assertion. That moment of taking responsibility. We’re living through on both sides of the Atlantic, a crisis of responsibility and the Maidan the moment of taking responsibility.

Where do you put this revolution in the sequence of the revolution of the latest time. At the moment when democracy isn’t something popular, when there is skepticism and some of the democratic practises are misused and people are gathering against the European Union and not for. Do you think it’s the end of a cycle in our history? Where do you put it?

It’s an interesting question. History always has elements of the cyclical and elements of the forward moving. Marx famously said that history always repeats itself. The first time it’s tragedy, the second time it’s farce, which I think is not exactly true but the fact that certain patterns remerge but never in precisely the same form, is true. There are elements we can understand from the past. What I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past couple of years since the Maidan, both in reference to Europe and the United States, is that moment, a century ago, when liberalism was also crumbling. The fragility of liberalism was being revealed and that was the moment when people were realizing that democracy and liberalism are not the same thing. When Hungary now is very proud of its illiberal democracy and the Americans think that doesn’t make any sense, how can you have an illiberal democracy, of course you can. People can democratically vote against liberalism. There is no guarantee that when you let most people choose that they’re going to choose the thing that you think is nice or that they’re going to respect the rights of the minority. So I think it is a moment when democracy is in crisis, liberalism is in crisis. But i think it’s a moment in all of these revolutions, all of these protest movements, people have say what’s really at stake and what is the thing we want. Is it more democracy, is it more liberalism, is it more free speech, is it some kind of guarantee of human rights, is it the rule of law? One of the things i found very poignant about the Maidan, was I felt this revolt against ‘proizvol’ captured something very essential that we’re not able to express in English.