Is There a Future for Ukraine?

DNA nationalism, Euro-idealism, crony capitalism: Which utopian vision will win out?
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Reuters

KIEV, Ukraine—“The Maidan is a time machine,” Valerii Pekar explains, and “during the revolution the space-time continuum seemed to break. We built medieval catapults by glossy shopping centers. Priests in monasteries rang the bells to warn us that special forces dressed like RoboCops were attacking. We invented new digital means of making crowd-sourced decisions while living in a Cossack encampment, kindling fires under neon-advertisement hoardings. Days seemed to last months. And in a few months the whole country hurtled forward through several eras and into the future.”

Pekar wears glasses and looks like a laboratory scientist. We met at a terrace cafe near the National University, where he teaches at the Kiev-Mohyla Business School. He specializes in “future management,” bringing the country’s brightest together to project the political model for a New Ukraine. Before the revolution, during Viktor Yanukovych’s kleptocracy, this sounded touchingly optimistic. Now, suddenly, anything, or at least something, seems possible. In cafes, students scribble manifestos on napkins; dinner conversations end with grand plans about what is to be done. It’s infectious: a passing English music journalist is, after a couple of days in town, lecturing local barflies on the country’s geopolitical destiny. For citizens of a supposedly post-ideological world living after the ‘End of History,’ Kiev’s residents have many utopias on their mind. And the war in the east is only spurring these visions along.

The Maidan revolution has thrown Ukraine from the “blue” developmental level of neo-feudalism into the “orange” level of free market, representative democracy, Pekar wrote in a recent article, “and has allowed us to see through the flames into the ‘green’ level”—the crowd-funded, post-capitalist, self-governing, wiki-politics of the future.

It’s the Maidan itself, which is situated at the very center of the Ukrainian capital, that serves as the crucible for this revolution. When I arrived in the city, months after the violence that unseated Yanukovych, to attend an international conference about “the meaning of Ukrainian pluralism for Europe, Russia and the world,” the square was still occupied by revolutionaries cutting off traffic (“We’re making a new country, sorry for the jams,” a taxi driver told me). Massive tents are still pitched in the middle of the street, pinned to the asphalt. Towering barricades of tires, rocks, and rubble are everywhere, as if the very fabric of the city rose up and rebelled. Opposite sushi bars lie piles of chopped-up tree trunks for firewood. Metal ovens cook great vats of soup. Improvised shrines and hospitals sport fluttering flags.

If Kiev’s layout can be transformed, can’t all of society?

***

Every tent on the Maidan, it seems, houses its own ideology: anarchists hand out pages of Kropotkin; young Cossacks, their heads shaved with one forelock dangling, practice fighting with metal poles and talk of reintroducing Cossack governance (“It’s direct democracy,” one tells me). There are priests calling for Ukraine’s spiritual rebirth, agrarian socialists, Euro-idealists. And there is the Right Sector, the right-wing, nationalist group whose members were among the Maidan’s violent avant-garde during the overthrow of Yanukovych.

“You can’t get away from genetics: Ukraine’s ancestors, the people who lived in this region, had a dominant DNA code of R1a1. They fought mammoths. It’s the warrior gene. That’s the genetics of Maidan,” said Yaroslav Babych, one of the Right Sector’s leaders, as we drank iced tea in Cafe Cossack on Shevchenko Lane, just off the Maidan. “We’re pagans,” he continued, “we worship DNA.”

Babych’s day job is as a lawyer in a Ukrainian investment company (“There’s nothing to invest in here,” he told me when I asked for a tip), but we met over the weekend and he was wearing a ring with ancient runic lettering and a T-shirt that said ‘Slavs.’

“What about those in eastern Ukraine and Donbas who have rejected the revolution?” I asked. The news that day was of Kiev losing control of cities in the Donbas region to pro-Russian separatists, and of Ukrainian police and army divisions defecting.

“A lot of people in the Donbas are Russians who were moved to the region after Stalin’s enforced famine wiped out the Ukrainians. They have different genes,” he responded.

A Ukrainian soldier near Slovyansk on July 7, after driving pro-Russian rebels out of the eastern Ukrainian town (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

The Right Sector has been a godsend to the Kremlin, whose propaganda has heralded the group as the fascist core of the Maidan, out to terrorize ethnic Russians in the east of the country. Unfortunately for Moscow, the Right Sector flopped in Ukraine’s presidential elections in May, mustering just 1 percent of the vote. The organization’s brand of pagan-DNA nationalism may be a fringe view, but its tents on the Maidan are still among the busiest.

“The people on the Maidan now aren’t the ones who made the revolution, just the ones with nowhere to go. The real activists are entering real politics, or they’ve signed up to fight the insurgency in Donbas,” said Volodymyr Viatrovych, as we sat in his vast, dim office in the leafy, shady district of Lipki. Viatrovych commanded one of the battalions on the Maidan, and has since returned to his job at the National Institute for Memory, where he works to create a Ukrainian identity.

For many on the Maidan, the revolution was about a Romantic, 19th-century idea of nationhood—one that envisages Ukraine united by spirit and language in a long anti-colonial struggle for liberation from oppressive Russian, Polish, and Soviet empires. Poland, which in previous centuries was seen as Ukraine’s oppressor, is now perceived as a best friend and ideal model: a homogenous, Eastern European state. It’s a narrative that is traditionally stronger in the west of the country, especially the city of Lviv. After the Orange Revolution in 2005, President Viktor Yushchenko tried to make it the country’s official narrative, promoting the Ukrainian language, anti-Soviet sentiment, and misty myths about noble knights in the 11th-century Kievan Rus. The attempt wasn’t all that successful. Some Russian-speakers felt alienated; in the east, where Soviet nostalgia dominates, teachers would tell their pupils to disregard new history textbooks. Meanwhile, Donbas-based political leaders like Yanukovych shored up their popularity in the region by telling the population that the rest of the country looked down on them.

Viatrovych, who is originally from Lviv, believes he can help bridge these divisions and create a story that is at once nationalist and integrationist.

“You can’t just throw the east and the older generation overboard, you need to find ways to subtly shift their associations,” he told me.

Viatrovych is best known for his work on reformatting Ukraine’s relationship to the Second World War. Ukrainians fought on different sides of the conflict: most for the Red Army, others for the Ukrainian resistance and, at one point, the Nazis. One person’s May 9th Victory Day is another’s May 9th Occupation Day. This year, Viatrovych advised the Ukranian government to move the national holiday to both May 8 and May 9, and helped rename it “Remembrance Day” instead of Victory Day. Then he changed the symbol for the holiday from the Kremlin’s orange-and-black ribbon to the poppy, an international symbol of mourning war dead.

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Peter Pomerantsev is a TV producer based in London. He is the author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, a forthcoming book about working inside Vladimir Putin’s postmodern dictatorship.

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