The winter of 2013 was unexpectedly warm. In Kyiv, people sometimes refer to this kind of winter as “European”.
In autumn 2004, I wore an orange ribbon and voted for president Yushchenko. For the next ten years, I felt a bit ashamed; somehow I didn’t want to remember that I’d done that. We preferred not to think about politics, especially not domestic politics in the Ukrainian understanding of the word. We argued a lot about the necessity of mobilization, nationalism, about global social protests and about the general trend towards conservatism in Ukraine, Europe and the world. Quite possibly, there weren’t any young people more politicized than we were then. Today, after the deaths on the Maidan, our politicization seems to have been another form of escapism. Since the protests began, even more pieces of coloured fabric have appeared. Occasionally they would even calsh with each other: the orange in Ukraine, the St. George’s ribbon on white in Russia…
In December 2013, another one appeared: a snippet of acetate silk with an enigmatic pattern – one half is yellow and blue like the Ukrainian national flag, and the other, navy blue with a scattering of stars. I should admit I’ve never held it in my hands. My refusal to do so was no flare-up of intellectual snobbism or leftwing euroscepticism. It is simply that this combination always seemed to me to be oxymoronic. You must agree it is rather strange when, in combination with the flag of one of the world’s biggest political unions, the flag of a huge and very poor country becomes a symbol of a civil protest on its own territory, especially when the relationship between these two entities has always been rather vague.
With each passing year, this constellation of stars has been becoming increasingly alien to outsiders; the points of the stars prick sharply, not permitting anyone inside the ring. It’s as if by remaining distantly loyal to faraway neighbours, those inside the ring can conceal their contempt for a poverty which is close enough to touch. Meanwhile, their delight in the burning glow of Ukraine only confirms their confidence that nothing of this sort ever happens at home.
Nevertheless, throughout this winter, Ukraine has been all over the front pages of the European press. The most popular image has been “the face of Maidan”. We can all call to mind the high resolution colour pictures of its inhabitants: warmly dressed, exhausted and lightly dusted in bonfire-ash. In the daytime, they stand on the square wrapping themselves in yellow-and-blue flags, singing the national anthem. Several times a day, they conduct collective prayers for the victory of their small medieval republic. At night, they light bonfires and make porridge on Kyiv’s equivalent of the Champs-Elysées. And so it goes on night after night, for many months. Is this really about joining Europe? A rhetorical question… Thank God for the cross in the top right corner which closes the window of your browser!
In December 2013, the people of the Maidan raised their hands rhythmically, clutching lit torches, in accompaniment to songs by popular Ukrainian performers. Glory to Ukraine? I shall lay my hand on my heart and confess that this Ukrainian culture was never mine – or more precisely, I have never known joy in collective fits of passionate emotion. And yet among the people of the Maidan, there were a few who attracted me like a magnet.
I remember how I wrote down a name on a scrap of paper: Serhiy Nigoyan. A son of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, he had lived his entire life in south-eastern Ukraine, and thought and spoke in Armenian, Ukrainian and Russian. I wanted to interview him. Or just to talk to him about the multilingual generation of 20 year-olds to which he belonged, about their perception of twentieth-century history, about the Armenian community and the Russian language, and specifically about Ukrainian Russian which now, and for many years has functioned as a lingua franca between various ethnic groups.
Later, I repeatedly watched footage that a group of young filmmakers had managed to shoot with Serhiy. In the edited version, he could be seen quoting Taras Shevchenko’s poems. But, as often happens, the most interesting bits were left out of the film. One of the most memorable scenes showed him standing clutching his wrists in a gesture which should have symbolized determination and answerability. But the camera lingered on his thin, tensed-up shoulders for far too long, long enough to destroy the prior impression. A show of strength became a sign of weakness. On the night of the 22 January he was killed by a precisely aimed shot to his neck. Glory to the heroes? I don’t consider him a hero. He was a boy who grew a beard to look older: as he stood at the beginning of a long journey, he wanted to look strong. His journey was abruptly cut short – and everyone memorized his name, not yet knowing how many deaths would follow.
Last winter at the Dom Kino cinema, I saw a different documentary entitled “Stages of Democracy”, by Georgiy Shklyarevskiy. In 1992, chestnut trees still flowered on Maidan, while on Khreshchatik, which at the time was still cobbled, groups of people stood around and excitedly discussed every decision made by the Supreme Soviet. It was a black and white documentary, shot on Soviet-era film stock. I don’t remember those events; I was in the third form of junior school. But for some reason, I do remember the tense expression of a fellow passenger on the tram, who through the hiss of interference was listening to an extraordinary session of the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, holding a tiny radio with an aerial to his ear. I wanted one too. Just last year, all of this still seemed so long ago; then it still appeared that the post-Soviet world had lost the capacity to find itself in immediate, skin-to-skin contact with politics. And suddenly, it was back again. Today is the 21 February 2014: I can’t tear my eyes from Twitter and online broadcasting on the Internet: for the first time in many years, there’s a new majority in the Rada and for the first time for many years, it interests me.
21 February 2014: out on the Maidan, the sun is shining brightly, but people are filled with gloom. They crave politics, to participate personally in it, and some time ago now this desire moved from being purely intellectual to something physical. I’m convinced I can sense it in the same visceral way as those standing around me. It’s true that this entire time, the number of social and economic demands has not increased. But at the same time, several months of direct collaboration have proved that an alternative economy works: any social imperative can be solved by the improvised distribution of the goods, speeded up a hundredfold by social networks, mobile phones and the mobilization of volunteers: warm clothes, hot food, legal advice, medical supplies, difficult operations… Three months of Maidan is a demonstration of the victory of a spontaneous micro-economy over macrocorruption.
And you get the feeling, just a little bit more, and we’ll have done it. It was probably then that I began to associate myself with the protests.
And what is the upshot of all this? An economy based on grassroots collaboration and policy, as a prerequisite for everyday life. For this, and not for the political tragic-farce that has been going on for years, people turned out to be ready to give up their lives. The performance has dragged on, with its own puppeteers, Quakers, changing performers… And the stage.
In a matter of just a few days in December 2013, stocks of earplugs were exhausted in chemists in the centre of Kyiv. Twenty-four hour music blasting from the Maidan stage prevented people from sleeping in the tents set up nearby. They say loud music was used as torture at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, together with torture by sleep deprivation. In many Muslim countries, sharia law prohibits loud music: the prisoners were going out of their minds. Somebody even had the idea of producing Guantanamo’s Greatest Hits. Meanwhile in Kyiv, opposition leaders appeared on the stage from time to time. I think that over time, for inhabitants of this medieval republic, communication with them turned into a kind of torture.
During the apocalyptic night of the 19 February not one of them was there – only priests, desperately singing liturgies and cursing to the seventh generation the riot police encircling Maidan.
A shadow was cast between Maidan and the stage.
As twilight descended, the day grew colder: this winter has long since ceased being “European”. In the Rada, they’re voting to release several politicians from prison, yet tomorrow perhaps there will be others in their place. The performance on stage dragged on, smoke eat away at the eyes and it is already impossible to tell whether these explosions are fake grenades, fireworks or gunshots, but people are not dispersing. They are not dispersing.