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.

“But don’t you need some form of positive, unifying national message?” I asked.

“The binding concept is we’re not Russia: they believe in tyranny, we believe in freedom,” he answered.

The night before, on the Maidan, I had seen a music video of a new Ukrainian stadium-rock anthem that reinforced this thought. In the video, shots of the revolution were interspersed with pretty Ukrainian lakes and mountains (they could have been lakes and mountains anywhere), while the rockers, singing in Russian, made a series of distinctions between ‘us’ (Ukrainians) and ‘them’ (clearly Russians, though never actually specified):

You think silence is golden / We light Molotov cocktails

You receive orders / We burn fires of revolt

You have a tsar / We have democracy

“The Maidan is our new national myth,” said Viatrovych. “Look at the people who sacrificed themselves during the fighting, they were from both east and west of the country. This is our new symbol.”

“I wouldn’t use the Maidan as the unifying national symbol,” said Zurab Alasania. “The very word ‘maidan’ divides. My job is to bring the east and the Donbas in. We haven’t listened to the Donbas for 20 years.” One of Ukraine’s most famous TV journalists, Alasania has been tasked with heading up the country’s public broadcaster, a Ukrainian BBC. An ethnic Georgian from the breakaway region of Abkhazia, he left his home after the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict in the early 1990s and built a career in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which is itself defined by being a borderland between Russia and Ukraine—a town of wanderers. When I came to see him in his imposing office overlooking Kiev, he seemed happy to see a fellow journalist after all the bureaucrats. “I’m surrounded by idiots!” he told me, flicking his forehead repeatedly until it gave off a slightly wooden sound. “I just had someone from the Committee for Free Speech try to tell me my presenters shouldn’t talk Russian. Idiocy!”

The Democracy Report

The use of the Russian language on Ukrainian television is limited by law, which means Russian networks—channels that show non-stop anti-Kiev propaganda claiming that the Maidan is a sham created by the CIA, and that its democratic slogans are lies—are currently more popular in the Donbas. Alasania wants to win the Donbas audience back by running talk shows where people from the east can air their grievances.

“I don’t want us to be anti-Russian,” he said. “I dream of making television which is as relevant to a Swede, a Ukrainian, or a Pole—Ukraine as part of a Europe with no borders. I don’t like the word ‘patriotism.’”

For all the efforts of liberal nationalists like Viatrovych, it’s not clear whether multi-ethnic, multi-lingual Ukraine could ever be another mono-ethnic, mono-lingual Poland. But shift the conversation to ‘values,’ an increasingly popular theory here goes, and identity becomes a secondary issue. Politically influential sociologists, such as Yaroslav Hrytsak, invoke the World Values Survey to demonstrate that the border for Ukrainians who believe in ‘European values’ (openness, independence, tolerance) is moving east to encompass Russian-speaking areas of the country, encompassing the youth and new middle class in both east and west. Politicians are picking up on this approach as well. The recent presidential elections marked the first time this century that major candidates spoke about ‘reforms’ and ‘transparency’ rather than playing the various nationalist cards. The Maidan was referred to as “the revolution of dignity.”

The idea of Ukraine as a place where you can glimpse the dream of a post-national, pan-European utopia, where people were prepared to die under the EU flag while standing up to Moscow, is perhaps most popular among certain Western intellectuals. Returning to my hotel one evening, I found the celebrity French philosopher Bernard Henri Lévy, who was in town to lecture on how Putinism is equivalent to fascism, giving a television interview in the lobby. “Putin is frightened of the loss of traditional values and the principles of religion,” said Lévy. “For Putinism, Europeaness is opposed to Eurasianism.” At the conference I was attending, Western panelists, including liberal luminaries like Paul Berman, kept returning to the idea of Russia as a home for a kind of clerical nationalism—the notion of Putin as a new Khomeini, with Ukraine as the battleground for liberal values.

Morning in the Maidan (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

These paradigms play right into Putin’s hands. The Kremlin has desperately sought to transform the story of the Ukrainian revolution from an uprising against corruption and terrible governance—grievances that could apply to Putin’s rule too—into a muddled narrative about ‘Holy Russia’ versus ‘Euro-Sodom.’ The idea of Russia as a beacon of religious conservatism is specious—68 percent of Russians might identify as Orthodox Christian, but only 14 percent go to religious services once a month or more frequently, and 60 percent of Orthodox Russians don’t consider themselves religious. Western liberals risk being spun by Putin.

“The problem with the values discourse is that it is so easily manipulated,” the journalist Mustafa Nayyem told me. Nayyem started the Maidan revolution with a Facebook post in November 2013 that rallied students and activists to protest against Yanukovych’s last-minute refusal to sign an association agreement with the EU.

“I even wrote a manifesto back then—something about this being the time of the youth. But I never published it. It felt wrong,” shrugged Nayyem. I met with him on the 13th floor of a high-rise with views across the Dnieper River, including parks, golden domes, and hordes of Soviet-era apartment blocks. The floor is home not only to Hromadske, the small, independent TV station where Nayyem works, but also to a series of civic groups: anti-corruption investigators, anti-censorship activists, campaigners for parliamentary transparency. In the busy, communal kitchen, conversation centers not on abstract ideals, but on their practical implementation.

“We have to move from a revolution of dignity to a revolution of effectiveness,” said Hanna Hopko, a board member for one of the 13th-floor NGOs who also leads the Reanimation Package of Reforms, a network of experts writing and lobbying for new legislation. Hopko, who worked on anti-smoking campaigns before the revolution, has the ear of 25 parliamentary deputies—a small minority in a 450-strong legislature full of Europe’s most corrupt politicians. She also travels throughout the country, trying to convince people in the east that the Maidan’s battle against corruption is their battle too.

“A cop is just as corrupt in Lviv or Donetsk,” said Hopko, referring to cities in the west and east.

She was chatting with me before rushing off to meet Western funders. The ‘international development consultants’ of the EU, IMF, and international NGOs have descended en masse onto Kiev and the activists of the 13th floor especially, promoting their ideal ‘transition’ templates for how to reform Ukraine.

“I sometimes feel they just cut-and-paste reforms from other countries,” another activist told me. “No one thinks about local context. And what do they bring, a few billion in loans? When Western banks have profited from the hundred billion Yanukovych stole from the budget? We’re the testing ground for whether Europe can still have real democracy. We have to come up with our own ideas.”

But while the 13th floor buzzes with talk of reforms, what I saw elsewhere in the building reminded me of the challenges the revolution still faces. Downstairs, a standoff was underway over control of a city-government construction agency that, investigative journalists informed me, brings in millions of dollars in corrupt, self-dealing contracts to whoever runs it. The managers were worried about being pushed out by people closer to the new president, the oligarch Petro Poroshenko, and the entrance to the high-rise was full of scowling, shaven-headed young men hired to resist raids by government agents.

This is the great fear for those who made the Maidan: that the revolution will devolve into infighting between officials over access to corrupt financial flows. It’s what happened after the Orange Revolution, when President Poroshenko was a government minister and among the officials most responsible for the failure.

“You need some sort of military force with which to pressure your government,” I joked before Hopko left.

“We have one!” she answered, quite sincerely.

***

Gennadiy Druzenko is a constitutional lawyer who also organizes military training for those prepared to go on fighting for the Maidan’s ideals. Druzenko is a former Fulbright Scholar, slight of build and gray-haired. When we met in the lobby of the Hotel Ukrayina, overlooking the Maidan, he was concerned about the lack of bullets in Kiev.

“How are we meant to have military training without bullets?” he complained.

Druzenko runs his trainings on weekends, mainly for young professionals who are taught how to shoot by Afghan war veterans. I asked whether he had always been drawn to violence.

“First I thought we could deal with Yanukovych through diplomacy, but when my friend was beaten by special forces I realized there was no peaceful alternative,” he said. “Throwing my first stone at the police was strange. But by the end my pensioner parents were cooking Molotov cocktails in their bath.”

“But aren’t vigilante military units a sign of chaos and state breakdown, the prelude to total civil war?” I inquired.

“Not at all,” he answered. “It shows society is prepared to self-organize, grow beyond a paternalistic state. It’s progress. Ukraine has a right to experiment. No one knows what the ideal state of the 21st century should look like.”

Euromaidan self-defense units in the Maidan (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Druzenko’s words made me think back to what Pekar, the National University lecturer, had called the “green” phase of development—the self-organizing society. I had asked Pekar if his blue, orange, and green stages of history were moving toward the ideal society. He said that he wasn’t sure. “What comes after the green stage might be something very dangerous,” he had observed. “We need to be ready.”

After meeting Druzenko, I walked to the Maidan. It was getting hot and the place was starting to smell of something rotting. A man in a bear suit was marketing a supermarket next to the shrines of Ukrainians who died during the revolution. The sacredness of the Maidan is fading; some of those still living in tents on the square have a dazed look. “We want our lovely European city back,” Kievans, including some who had been active during the revolution, told me repeatedly. “It’s time to dismantle the barricades” (no one was quite sure what should be put in their place to commemorate the revolution).

In the following days, I found myself returning to the tent city over and over, scraping together the dregs of utopian inspiration. In the post-Soviet space, it’s the idea of utopia, almost any utopia, that is perhaps the most important thing. Cynicism is the great underlying ideology of Putinism, fostered by decades of late-Soviet and post-Soviet disillusion, and now reinforced by Kremlin media, with its recurring message that democracy everywhere is a sham, that the Maidan is a con, its ideals doomed.

This dynamic isn’t confined to Eastern Europe. When was the last time a Western country had a revolution that brought with it the promise of everything beginning again? 1989?

And so I found myself lingering in Kiev, long after the conference I came over for had finished. I wandered and savored the souring Maidan. I spoke with one person who wanted to reinvent elections so that you could retract your vote in a method similar to the ‘likes’ on a Facebook page; to another who envisions Kiev as the capital of an alternative, democratic Russia. I tried not to pay too much attention to the increasing casualties in the Donbas region. Instead, I sat in the cafes around the Maidan at night, among mosquitoes and women in stilettos, scribbling my own manifestos—pleasant projections of utopias for Ukraine, for Europe, for my own life. My wife kept texting and asking when I would be returning to London. Just one more day, I would tell her. And then another.

In late June, the original purpose of the revolution—to force the Ukrainian president to sign an association agreement with the EU—was fulfilled. But the Maidan isn’t budging. Someone has even put up a basketball court in the middle of the tent city. We’re not going anywhere. 

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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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