Photo: Yevgenia Belorusets

Reviews A symphony of voices on Euromaidan. Ukraine as a subject of history

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 3-4 2015, pp 123-124
Published on balticworlds.com on november 19, 2015

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Suhrkamp’s editor Katharina Raabe describes Euromaidan: Was in der Ukraine auf dem Spiel steht as “the first attempt to take a hold and understand the history of the recent past moment.” The book can be best characterized as the compilation of witness accounts of Euromaidan; most of the chapters present subjective stories of the authors’ experiences of a comparatively short but intensive phase in contemporary Ukraine’s history during the winter of 2013—2014. At the same time, the book provides a rich picture of the everyday realities of Euromaidan (as in the essays by essayist and translator Kateryna Mishchenko and writer Katja Petrowskaja). The essays are mostly written by Ukrainian writers, intellectuals, and artists. Several were written by professional scholars, which is, of course, reflected in the style of writing — passionate and emotionally involved. It might, though, be the only possible style of writing about such turbulent recent history when one has become a part of.

Although the book is about the Euromaidan as a whole (the protests initiated against Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the association agreement with the European Union that started in November 21, 2013 and lasted to the end of February 2014 with resignation of Yanukovych), the authors mostly concentrated on February 2014, the most violent and tragic period. Almost all chapters are united in their attempt to answer the question Why did the Maidan happen? Similarly, as noted by Raabe, the accounts of the authors can be understood as their response to Russian propaganda, which maintained that the Euromaidan was a “gathering of the far-right”. (The problem of outraged Russian propaganda against Ukraine is particularly addressed in the essays of Timothy Snyder, Russian writer Alissa Ganijewa, and Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk). Nevertheless, the essays were not only written to address Russian propaganda, but also Western mass media. The authors addressing this issue reveal their disillusion with the West; the West in the eyes of the intellectuals misunderstood and even betrayed Ukraine (this stance is especially visible in the essays of Mishchenko, Yurko Prokhas’ko, and Mykola Ryabchuk).

Another, although subtle and implicit, feature that unites the texts is the way they demonstrate the authors’ attempts to put into words something very difficult, or even impossible, to convey. These attempts demonstrate how a subject who is positioned in the epicenter of history, the subject who is making the history, becomes speechless under the burden of the historic events. But the authors were not only trying to cope with a “great” historical reality, but also very personal experiences of loss and death, of responsibility before the dead. They were dealing with the guilt they felt about people who they perceived as more active, more devoted, less disillusioned (especially Serhiy Zhadan, Katja Petrowskaja, Yevgenia Belorusets, and Tania Malyarchuk in their essays).

The authors used different devices to deal with the problem of conveying the unfathomable, inarticulable, and unspoken. Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych, who edited the volume, cast the story of his Euromaidan into the genre of a “road movie” when he describes how he travelled across the country with his band tour during the period of protests. The tour goes through many cities of Ukraine from west to the east and south (Ivano-Frankivsk–Ternopil–Kyiv–Zaporizhzhia–Odesa), showing in this way the plurality of Maidans, that what was happening in Kyiv was also happening in other cities.

The plurality of the Maidan in all possible forms is underlined in other chapters. The authors emphasize that the Maidan attracted people of different nationalities, languages, professional backgrounds, and religious beliefs. In this regard, Ukrainian poet and writer Zhadan mentioned the attitudes and the general atmosphere that ruled in Donbas. During the protests, he was in the city for a few days and so could watch the developments firsthand. As in other cities of Ukraine, the Euromaidan meant a “civilizational choice” for the civic activists who were numerous but remained largely invisible and unheard.

The writers also tried to deal with the question of the role of art and artists in the revolution. Both Andrukhovych and Zhadan touch upon this in their essays. For Andrukhovych the connection between art and revolution is irrevocable because art always stands closest to understanding and predicting the future. For Zhadan the answer to this question is not that clear, as he doubts the ability of art to communicate and express the meaning of the events as there is a huge difference in the perspectives of someone who watches the events from outside and the perspective of a person who is in the middle of the events, especially if violence and force are used to suppress the dissenting voices.

Perhaps the only essays that stand out from the series of personal reflections are those by political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov and historian Wolfgang Jilge. Shekhovtsov presents a political analysis of the current history of Ukraine where he discusses the role of far-right groups in both the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan. He draws readers’ attention to the fact that most of the far-right parties in Ukraine were “scarecrow parties,” following Andrew Wilson’s definition of virtual parties created to split voters’ so the parties and individuals in power could be re-elected. Many of the far-right groups that pretended to support Viktor Yushchenko in 2004, united in 2014 under the umbrella of “Right Sector,” the party formed from those groups during the Euromaidan. Jilge also presents an analytical essay in which he scrutinizes the implications of Vladimir Putin’s “Crimean” speech and the main features of the “Russian World” ideology. He highlights the fallacies of this ideology, which go against reality. He examines, for example, the striving of the Russian or Russian-speaking population in Ukraine to unite with the Russian Federation, an attempt that has been repudiated in many surveys done throughout Ukraine during the years of its independence.

The book includes a rich photo collection by Yevgenia Belorusets, the artist and political activist. The photos draw attention to the individual dimensions of the protests, showing the faces of people who stood behind the Euromaidan, who made the historical shift possible.

To sum up, the symphony of voices gathered in the book reveal the multi-voiced character of the protests and call the readers to have more nuanced understanding of the events which took place in Ukraine in winter 2013—2014, taking Ukraine as a subject not an object of history, as most of the authors of the essays straightforwardly stress. ≈