“COUNTRY UNDER RECONSTRUCTION. SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.” (from Ukrainian anarchist group Blackmaidan)
“It is as if, for a moment, the ‘projection’ of the outside world has stopped working; as if we have been confronted momentarily with the formless grey emptiness of the screen itself…” (Slavoj Zizek, describing the scene outside a traveling couple’s window in Robert Heinlein’s “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”)
Revolutions are times like these, when the “formless, inchoate mist” of the Real makes its appearance from behind the facade of everyday normality. Yet they are driven by the desire for normality– a new, transformed normality. They arise when there is a hope and belief that another world is possible.
And making sense of them requires stepping outside one’s own normality, which can be more difficult for outsiders than it is for the revolutionaries to step outside theirs.
All revolutions have their specificities: ingredients that mix and blend in a simmering stew; conditions that ripen, then converge with events to set off catalyzing tremors and quakes; pivotal moments that shift the system an orbital leap upward, or elsewhere.
The conditions behind modern-day revolutions — the Arab Spring, Eastern Europe’s color revolutions, and others — share many of the same features: authoritarian rule, economic distress, political resentment and frustration, and a growing population of youth connected to global society but unable to participate in it as they would like. The shifting moments, too, parallel each other: massive protests, severe crackdowns, murders or martyrdoms (like Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia).
It is in the ingredients that we find the greatest differences. In the Muslim world, it has typically been the divide between Islamists — who range from traditionalists (of one stripe or another) to moderates and modernizers — and the liberal center and left that has served as the prominent fault line marking revolutions. The Iranian revolution of 1979 coalesced around a broadly Islamic coalition that accommodated liberal and left-wing strains, only to alienate them in the post-revolutionary era.
In Egypt’s revolution of 2011, the conditions (i.e., Mubarak’s rule) managed to bring Islamist and pro-democracy activists together without any real consolidation, and the post-revolutionary government of Mohammed Morsi utterly failed at the latter task — which has led to the current, seemingly insurmountable (and violent) stalemate.
In Eastern Europe, the terms have been somewhat different: religion’s role has been muted, and Soviet rule left behind a cultural and political legacy that has impacted the social fabric in substantially different ways.
But in Ukraine, like in Egypt or (earlier) Iran, the corrupt and authoritarian governance of a president and his clan has managed to unify groups across the political spectrum — and much of the religious and cultural spectrum — in opposition to it. Even so, it’s difficult to map that spectrum out against western notions of what’s “right” and what’s “left.” In what follows, I’ll try to do that while noting some of the distinctive features of this revolution, as well as some of the troubling issues that remain for it.
Trigger points & strategies
What’s most clear in Ukraine is that Yanukovych’s U-turn on negotiating a deal with the European Union surprised and disappointed many people. Some of them went out to protest, and stayed — in large numbers and cold temperatures.
Uncomfortable with the size of this protest, the government hardened — it set some riot police after the protestors, injured some (and eventually killed a few), and passed an array of draconian laws intended to make protest of any sort illegal. None of this dispirited the protestors; instead, it strengthened them.
Among the protestors — the vast majority of whom had been gathering and demonstrating nonviolently in increasingly cold weather for weeks — there emerged some who were frustrated and/or motivated enough to begin resorting to more radical measures. These were quickly labeled “extremists” and “far right nationalists” (and it didn’t help that among them was a group that went public under the name “Right Sector”). But where in the past the mainstream would have quickly disassociated from them, this time it didn’t. It understood their frustration; it shared it.
As with the Orange Revolution of 2004, but perhaps more maturely — both in terms of social media use and in terms of how widely disseminated it is now across the country — the revolutionaries have made extensive and innovative use of the internet. Oppositionist media are available in many of the country’s larger urban areas, but not so much in the Eastern industrial belt, where Yanukovych’s power base resides. National media tend to be controlled by the government or its cronies. But activists across the country are online.
Additionally, they came up with a series of innovative strategies, including the Automaidan — car convoys that blockaded roads to slow the arrival of trucks carrying riot police, or that blocked the exit of president Yanukovych from his exurban mansion, the burning of rubber tires to provide a smokescreen for protestors, musical performances in front of riot police by masked protestors, and more.
The geographic dimension of the revolution has been critical. Kyiv (Kiev), being the capital, has been the leader, and Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) has been the heart and center of the movement. Where tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands have gathered at the Maidan, the more radical elements have dispersed outward from there, with more violent confrontations taking place on nearby Hrushevskoho Street.
But activists are all over the country, and when they started taking over government buildings in the provinces and convincing police units to defend “the people” rather than the government, Yanukovych was forced to take notice. It’s agreed by many that those events precipitated the latter’s offer of more serious negotiations, including the proposal to offer senior government positions to two of the opposition party leaders. In some places, activists have organized parallel local governments and volunteer self-defense units.
One of the memes that has circulated most rapidly among oppositionists and their supporters are maps of the country indicating which state (oblast’) houses are now in the hands of the opposition, which are still contested — and which ones have seen opposition support coming from clubs of local football (soccer) fanatics.
The right-left thing
Western media treatments have frequently depicted the opposition as led or dominated by right-wing nationalists or extremists. As scholars of far right, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic groups have pointed out, these characterizations are misleading. They are, in fact, repetitions of talking points dreamed up by Russian “Eurasianists” and the Kremlin’s “political technologists.” More on that in a moment.
Ukraine’s opposition includes the full spectrum of political opinion: from the nationalist right to the moderate and liberal center to the radical left. The right has received more media play (more on that, too, in a moment), but the left includes socialists and Left Oppositionists, trade unionists, anarcho-syndicalists, ecoanarchists, feminists and LGBT activists, and others.
As Yuliana Lizer and Pavel Nikulin show in their overview of Ukraine’s left-wing organizations, only the Communist Party of Ukraine — denounced by most leftists as a “political-technological fake” — and the Marxist euroskeptical group Borot’ba have remained opposed to the Euromaidan. To their list can be added the signatories of a recent letter that has all the hallmarks of “political technology” — signatories like Natalia Vitrenko, leader of something called the Progressive Socialist Party, and the members of various Eurasianist groups, whose overarching goal is to reconstitute a culturally conservative brand of Russian hegemony across Eastern Europe and northern and central Asia. Influential in Putin’s inner circles, neo-Eurasianist ideologues like Aleksandr Dugin have deep links with the European New Right of Alain de Benoist and others, which makes their accusations of “fascism” more than a little ironic to anyone familiar with their views.
Other left-wing groups have participated in the Euromaidan to varying degrees, with the Kharkiv anarchists even co-organizing their local protests. But the passing of the draconian anti-protest laws of January 16 cemented the support of “practically all the left forces.” As one Maidan anarchist put it:
“Under the new legislation [since rescinded], we aren’t allowed to fart quietly, and for standing on the street they shoot at us without discriminating between those of us behind the red-and-black horizontal (sign) of UPA (the WW2-era Ukrainian Partisan Army) and those behind the red-and-black diagonal of Anarchy.”
That said, Ukraine’s leftist opposition is not as strong as the right or the center, and there are historical reasons for that. Two of them are straightforward: Stalinism, which is arguably the worst thing that could have happened to left and progressive movements anywhere; and the Holodomor, or Stalinism in practice in a country that wasn’t willing to submit to it. (The Holodomor was the artificially engineered famine of 1932-33 which resulted in the deaths of some 1 in 6 Ukrainians in the part of the country under Soviet rule at the time.)
The third reason is the historical circumstance that Ukraine, unlike most European nation-states, has never really had a chance to consolidate itself as a politically sovereign nation. (There was a brief exception to that in the 1920s, when Communism was supplemented by a policy called “korenization,” which referred to the “rooting” of Communist ideals in particular national and ethnic milieus. The Ukrainian cultural renaissance was dramatic, but got even more dramatically — and violently — squashed by the late 1930s, and the legacy of that “executed renaissance” — and of its muted and temporary revival in the 1960s — only adds to the sentiment that what had begun to flourish was never given a chance to fulfill itself.)
The sense that “everyone else has been allowed to rule themselves, why can’t we?” is a palpable sentiment among many Euromaidan activists. To be fair to their critics, they have had elections, and at least one of their presidents, Yushchenko, was a favorite of the western-style democracy advocates. But Yanukovych is the anti-Yushchenko, perceived by many oppositionists to be a petty criminal in cahoots with a foreign regime.
In any case, left and right are not particularly well defined, at least in the parliamentary political system. The ruling Party of Regions is hardly identifiable in those parameters: it is a party that mixes neoliberal reforms with utter non-transparency, favoritism for its cronies, and authoritarian methods of maintaining power. The post-2004 Orange coalition included conservatives, neoliberals, liberal leftists, populists (of whatever stripe), and others more difficult to pin down. The Communist Party is recognized by most real leftists as a mix of Stalinist nostalgia and populist conservatism. (The Socialist Party, a kind of agrarian populist party that seemed headed in a Euro-socialist direction, collapsed as a result of its sticky ambivalence with respect to the pro-western and pro-Russian factions in Parliament.)
The extra-parliamentary spectrum is a bit clearer. I’ve mentioned some of the groups on the left. On the right, they include supporters and allies of the nationalist Svoboda party, which grew from xenophobic roots but has tempered them in the same way other European new right parties have done that. Svoboda’s level of support ballooned from less than 1% in 2007 to 10% in the 2012 elections as a result of a massive protest vote, arising from disenchantment and frustration with establishment parties and the fragmented opposition. And there are a slew of more marginal groupings — such as the Right Sector, Trident, and UNA-UNSO — whose recent visibility has made it possible for people to fear the right-wing presence in the Euromaidan. That’s despite much of the far right’s “euroskepticism.”
The society of the provocation
While western capitalism might be accurately be described as a “society of the spectacle,” Soviet and post-Soviet societies are more aptly considered a “society of the provocation.”
In a society of the spectacle, everything is upfront — the spectacle is the constant flow of images by which the world is “always already” made sense of, its options reduced to a few pre-selected choices among politicians (or hamburgers) that diverge very little in substance, only in image. The critical question is whether there is anything of substance behind the precession of simulacra — that is, aside from the PR firms and spinmeisters who act as the wizard behind the screen.
In a society of the provocation, there is also spectacle — from May Day parades with their muscular displays of Soviet military might, to Yeltsin’s triumphant jump atop a tank in front of the Russian White House, to cults of personality from Stalin to Putin. But everyone knows what’s behind that spectacle: Soviet (or post-Soviet) power. And at the same time, no one knows, since the real power-dealing occurs behind closed doors, where everyone can be a spy or a counter-spy, and where gossip and vodka-fueled intimacy are the main styles of accommodation.
Aside from the spectacle of power, however, there are always provocations occurring on the sidelines and in the shadows. Technically, a provocation is a kind of chess move: an act intended to provoke a reaction, with the goal of setting up a causal sequence that’s almost scientifically predictable, in its being rooted in human response mechanisms. But it’s never clear whether or not something was a provocation, or perhaps a meta-provocation — a provocation intended to look like a provocation, so that the provoker might have been the one you’d think would benefit from the act, or it might have been the one who’d benefit from the unmasking of the one who’d more obviously benefit. And the layers of the onion grow from there.
The events of December 1 are a good case in point. While several hundred thousand demonstrators were in the Maidan (Independence Square) protesting the violent police crackdown of November 30, riot police were, oddly, amassing near the president’s administration and the monument to Lenin (both several blocks away from the Maidan). Suddenly, a group of masked individuals seized a bulldozer and began heading towards the president’s administration. As Halya Coynash reports,
“A detailed report from the police on facebook was suspiciously swift in appearing. It asserted that 200 protesters had tried to storm a cordon outside the administration and said that 5 officers had received injuries and three had inhaled some unidentified gas. The number of injured officers was later put at 70.”
But videos from before and after the event show some of the supposed “nationalist hotheads” milling about with the police, and eyewitnesses reported Dmytro Korchynsky — a former nationalist activist who’s widely believed to be an agent provocateur, on the payroll of pro-Russian oligarch and Putin ally Viktor Medvedchuk — leading the bulldozer brigade. Maidan activists claim that it was a provocation intended to legitimize a further police crackdown. And, indeed, the ones who got most bloodied were Maidan activists unrelated to Korchynky’s group (one of them was a former leader of the popular rock band Okean Elzy).
So what was the provocation? Did Maidan activists get violent and rough up the hapless riot police (as the government claimed)? Did provocateurs do that in an attempt to discredit the Maidan activists, showing them up to be explosive and dangerous extremists (as many in the opposition believe)? More sinisterly — since the police made no secret that Korchynsky may have been involved — did provocateurs do that in order to send the message to activists that they, too, risk getting their heads bashed in? Working our way backwards, was the first police crackdown intended to trigger exactly this kind of reaction among the activists — but since it didn’t, it had to be staged?
What about Dmitry Bulatov, the Automaidan protest leader who disappeared for a week and reappeared with one ear missing and with the signs of having been crucified with metal spikes in his hands and feet? Was this an inside job of the “deep state”? A job of foreigners (the Russian state)? A job by overeager activists, or thugs hired by an overeager oligarch? And if so, was it intended to trigger fear in the activists? Or the kind of rage that would strengthen their protests? Derail their protests? Derail the negotiations? Call forth a state of emergency? Or foreign intervention? (Tanks from Moscow? UN peacekeepers?)
Not all of these interpretations are as plausible as others, but the point is that the events seem intended to generate interpretations — powerful ones, contradictory ones — and reactions.
Clarity amidst provocation
The society of the provocation is a society in which intentions are blurred and multiplied, conspiratorial gossip is magnified, and ambiguity — a kind of “dirty” version of Zizek’s formless, inchoate mist — grows.
The opposition is not immune to that mist. But somewhere in there are efforts to bring an unusual clarity. The sign above — “COUNTRY UNDER RECONSTRUCTION. SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.” — is simple, direct, and, in its ambiguity, rather profound.
But there is also a clarity in revolution — for those most involved in it — that is akin to Zizek’s (or Lacan’s) “Real,” or perhaps to the moment of nakedness, described by William S. Burroughs, as the moment “when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”
That clarity is bound to disappear after the revolution, no matter which way the latter rolls. It inevitably gets blurred by geopolitics — by US and EU involvement, by Russian phonetapping and foreign ministerial commentary, and by economic realities setting in, as they inevitably will. (All of that, freshly charged up over the last few days in the anonymous publication of Victoria Nuland’s comments, adds further layers to the society of the provocation.)
But people don’t spend their winter in tents on the streets of a cold capital for geopolitical reasons (or for cash allegedly disbursed by geopolitical masters; it’s notable that those who do, the so-called “titushky,” don’t stick around for long).
They do it for faith in a clarity that exceeds the misty greyness of a world they aren’t willing to accept anymore. That clarity may be ideologically tinged (left or right), but, for most of the Maidan activists, ideology is besides the point. They’ve had enough of the society of provocations, of gossip, and of cronyism, and they believe that another world just may be possible.
Kyiv’s monument to Lenin, removed by protestors in December, has been replaced by a golden toilet — a reference to the golden toilet reportedly owned by President Viktor Yanukovych. Graffiti below the toilet reads “CORRUPTION.”