Ukraine's Maidan Curse

Step by step, Maidan after Maidan, life in the country goes from bad to worse.

Mon, Mar 16, 2015
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Not the first "Maidan," and probably not the last...
Not the first "Maidan," and probably not the last...

Yury Nickulichev is a professor at the Russian Academy for National Economy and Civil Service


The diligent student in contemporary Ukraine must long have noticed a very peculiar – nay, exclusive! – feature of the country’s political life. It’s the regular, recurring, cyclical, unavoidable and inescapable Maidans. Topographically, Maidan is the central square of Kiev (and of a few other Ukrainian cities), the word meaning “an open field” which has traditionally served as a location for various local gatherings.

There was a time when this area in Kiev was a vacant ground called the Goat Swamp. But here we are not talking about topography, of course, but about politics. Since the 1990s, Kiev’s Maidan has become something very close to a powerful political “institution” rivaling the central state authorities (or, as in the case of Euromaidan of 2014 - 2015, even overthrowing them).

Since “perestroika”, the place has seen at least four large-scale and lengthy political rallies, not to mention a number of smaller ones. In 1990, some 100,000 students gathered here to demand independence from Moscow (and soon the Ukraine’s president, Leonid Kravchuk, would refuse to sign the New Union Treaty, thus effectively paving the way to the dissolution of the USSR). In 2000 – 2001, it was “the Ukraine without Kuchma”, i.e. a mass protest campaign demanding the resignation of the newly elected President Leonid Kuchma. Then there came the famous Orange Revolution of 2004. Now it’s Euromaidan.

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Since no other post-Soviet country has ever experienced anything even remotely resembling this form of a mass radical activity, here’s the conclusion: the MAIDAN is a unique feature of Ukrainian politics. There must be something in the country’s political culture that sends some of the people to live in tents for weeks or even months, summer or winter, protesting against what other people do.

The problem therefore is dual. Because the other side of the coin is almost a total corruption of the powers that be. In Ukraine, this corruption is of legendary and epic proportions; it encompasses all spheres of public life; it’s almost ubiquitous and eradicable; it is both economic and political. Not surprisingly, In 2012, Ernst & Young put Ukraine among the three most corrupted countries of the world, while, according to Wikileaks cables, none other than American diplomats did not hesitate to describe the regimes of Kuchma and Yushchenko as a typical kleptocracy. But considering the scale of the problem, isn’t it, too, a manifestation of the traditional political culture?

There’s something very uncomfortable with this picture, is there not? We have a society whose one part regularly “steals”, while the other no less regularly takes to the streets to protest against corruption and other forms of social injustice. But aren’t they the same Ukrainians? Two-faced Janus – two faces but one body? We’ll never understand the Ukrainian politics without finding a clue to that contradiction.

But it requires a closer look at history.

Historical accounts might differ, but what’s unquestionable is the fact that up to the Soviet times, Ukraine had never been an independent state (so when Ukrainian “activists” were taking down statues of Lenin throughout the country, they were destroying the monuments of the founder of their first nation-state). Historically, the territories of modern Ukraine had been under the rule of several external powers, originally of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, later Russian and Austrian Empires. As a result, and adding the insult to injury, during the 17-th and 18-th centuries these lands practically lost their own, Ukrainian-speaking, aristocracy, once very powerful and influential. With only very rare exceptions, the nobility en mass was abandoning not only the Ukrainian language and customs but also the traditional Orthodoxy of the land, embracing Catholicism along with “all things Polish”. (Even as late as the end of the 19-th century Polish was one of the most widely spoken language… in Kiev, to say nothing of Lvov and vast areas of Western Ukraine!).

But in early modern Europe, for a people to be left without an aristocracy was roughly as good as being a body without a head, with nobody to provide political leadership and purpose, patronize education and high culture, support the church and endow the people with a sense of national identity. Not surprisingly, with time passing, even the ethnonym “Ukraine” was forgotten, parts of the country having their own names and titles.

Later, at the end of the 18-th century, when Ukrainian territories were fully integrated into the Russian political system, the nobles of the land now began assimilating with the Russian nobility. “Alas, Madness has befallen us through these disgusting and ungodly lords,” lamented the famous poet Taras Shevchenko, number one in the national cultural pantheon. “They changed their good native mother for a despicable drunkard”, “despicable drunken” representing here Russia of course. (Ironically, writing this, Shevchenko himself resided in Saint-Petersburg, wrote mostly in Russian and drank like a fish). For many of his compatriots, however, the loss of the Ukrainian-speaking aristocracy was tantamount to a national tragedy, approaching death of the nation.

And now we are getting to the heart of the matter.

I argue that, historically, there emerged a specific type of political culture in Ukraine. Let’s call it the Maidan culture. It was the political culture of small communities – either of Cossacks or peasants, with only marginal participation of the local petty gentry that survived. There were towns of course, but those were few, scattered, small, politically insignificant – and all had their own maidans! Historical data also shows that the local communities of the then Ukrainian lands, especially those of the Cossacks’, were inherently democratic and egalitarian. Inevitably, this type of political culture was entirely and completely parochial, for how could it be otherwise with a stateless people? Having rural Ukraine as a locus of ethno-cultural identity, it was very limited in an ideological sense.

Due to the lack of a native nobility and underdeveloped public life, many ideas of a higher order just could not emerge. In terms of social psychology, there was a very sharp divide between us and them, “them” being the rest of the world. Thus the country was existentially divided, much deeper than the popular theories of “East/West” or “Ukrainian-speaking/ Russian-speaking Ukraine’s divide” suggest. Regretfully, but quite naturally, such communities never had any loyalty to any external power whatsoever, be it Poland, the Osman Empire, Moscovia, their own rulers, the Russian Empire or the USSR (see the history of Ukraine). From time unmemorable, or at least since the 17-th century, the most vicious enemy has of course been the 'moscal’, i.e. the Muscovite. To wit, it’s a culture of a built-in anarchy.

Well, my point here is that this type of political culture has survived despite the 70-year long Soviet rule. Sure, Ukraine is a modern state with a range of political subcultures and the archaic Maidan-type subculture is only one of them. But periodically, it resurfaces and even begin playing a crucial role.

After the outbreak of the protests on the Maidan in Kiev at the end of 2014, a sociological study revealed that residents of Kiev made up only 12 per cent of protestors, with 88 per cent thus being from outside Kiev, and people who came from Western, predominantly rural, Ukraine making up 55 per cent (24 per cent were from central and only 12 per cent from the southern and eastern Ukraine). What’s also interesting is the fact that in February, 2015 the number of activists representing a political party on Maidan constituted only 3 per cent. No affiliation with the agents of mainstream politics!

Instead…

Many observers were puzzled and mystified at the sight of the torch-lit march in Kiev on January 1, 2015. Technically, it was said, the event was staged by the “Svoboda” party (But “Svoboda”, again, is not a political party; it’s a very loose “political association”). What was it then that brought some 2,500 people to the streets of the “civilized” Kiev? We now know what. It’s “the blood and soil”, the most (or only?) solid foundation of the Maidan political culture.

Time flies by… Step by step, Maidan after Maidan, life in the country goes from bad to worse. Is it a curse of the Goat Swamp?        

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