The history of the Maidan between November 2013 and February 2014, the work of more than a million people presenting their bodies to the cold stone, is not the same thing as the history of the failed attempts to put it down. Bloodshed had been unthinkable for protestors within Ukraine; only bloodshed made Americans and Europeans notice the country; bloodshed served Moscow as an argument to send the Russian army to bring much more. And so the temptation is strong to recall Ukraine as it was seen from the outside, the arc of narrative following the arc of bullets.
For those who took part in the Maidan, their protest was about defending what was still thought to be possible: a decent future for their own country. The violence mattered to them as a marker of the intolerable. It came in bursts of a few moments or a few hours. But people came to the Maidan not for moments or hours but for days, weeks, and months, their own fortitude suggesting a new sense of time, and new forms of politics. Those who remained on the Maidan could do so only because they found new ways to organize themselves.
The Maidan brought four forms of politics: the civil society, the economy of gift, the voluntary welfare state, and the Maidan friendship.
Kyiv is a bilingual capital, something unusual in Europe and unthinkable in Russia and the United States. Europeans, Russians, and Americans rarely considered that everyday bilingualism might bespeak political maturity, and imagined instead that a Ukraine that spoke two languages must be divided into two groups and two halves. “Ethnic Ukrainians” must be a group that acts in one way, and “ethnic Russians” in another. This is about as true as to say that “ethnic Americans” vote Republican. It is more a summary of a politics that defines people by ethnicity, proposing to them an eternity of grievance rather than a politics of the future. In Ukraine, language is a spectrum rather than a line. Or, if it is a line, it is one that runs inside of people rather than between them.
Ukrainian citizens on the Maidan spoke as they did in everyday life, using Ukrainian and Russian as it suited them. The revolution was begun by a journalist who used Russian to tell people where to put the camera, and Ukrainian when he spoke in front of it. His famous Facebook post (“Likes don’t count”) was in Russian. On the Maidan, the question of who spoke what language was irrelevant. As the protestor Ivan Surenko remembered, writing in Russian: “The Maidan crowd is tolerant on the language question. I never heard any discussions about the matter.” In one survey, 59% of the people on the Maidan defined themselves as Ukrainian speakers, 16% as Russian speakers, and 25% as both. People switched languages as the situation seemed to demand. People spoke Ukrainian from the stage erected at the Maidan, since Ukrainian is the language of politics. But then the speaker might return to the crowd and speak to friends in Russian. This was the everyday behavior of a new political nation.
The politics of this nation were about the rule of law: first the hope that an association agreement with the European Union could reduce corruption, then the determination to prevent the rule of law from disappearing entirely under the waves of state violence. In surveys, protestors most often selected “the defense of the rule of law” as their major goal. The political theory was simple: the state needed civil society to lead it toward Europe, and the state needed Europe to lead it away from corruption. Once the violence began, this political theory expressed itself in more poetic forms. The philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko wrote, “Europe is also a light at the end of a tunnel. When do you need a light like that? When it is pitch dark all around.”
In the meantime, civil society had to work in darkness. Ukrainians did so by forming horizontal networks with no relationship to political parties. As the protestor Ihor Bihun recalled: “There was no fixed membership. There was no hierarchy either.” The political and social activity of the Maidan from December 2013 through February 2014 arose from temporary associations based upon will and skill. The essential idea was that freedom was responsibility. There was thus pedagogy (libraries and schools), security (Samoobrona, or self-defense), external affairs (the council of Maidan), aid for victims of violence and people seeking missing loved ones (Euromaidan SOS), and anti-propaganda (InfoResist). As the protestor Andrij Bondar remembered, self-organization was a challenge to the dysfunctional Ukrainian state: “On the Maidan a Ukrainian civil society of incredible self-organization and solidarity is thriving. On the one hand, this society is internally differentiated: by ideology, language, culture, religion and class, but on the other hand it is united by certain elementary sentiments. We do not need your permission! We are not going to ask you for something! We are not afraid of you! We will do everything ourselves.”
The economy of the Maidan was one of gift. In its first few days, as Natalya Stelmakh recalled, the people of Kyiv gave with extraordinary generosity: “Within two days other volunteers and I were able to collect in hryvnia the equivalent of about $40,000 in cash from simple residents of Kyiv.” She remembered trying and failing to prevent an elderly pensioner from donating half of a monthly check. Aside from donations in cash, people provided food, clothes, wood, medications, barbed wire, and helmets. A visitor would be surprised to find deep order amidst apparent chaos, and realize that what seemed at first like extraordinary hospitality was in fact a spontaneous welfare state. The Polish political activist Sławomir Sierakowski was duly impressed: “You walked through the Maidan and you are presented with food, clothing, a place to sleep, and medical care.”
In early 2014, the vast majority of the protestors, some 88% of the hundreds of thousands of people who appeared, were from beyond Kyiv. Only 3% came as representatives of political parties, and only 13% as members of nongovernmental organizations. According to surveys taken at the time, almost all of the protestors—about 86%—made up their own minds to come, and came as individuals or families or groups of friends. They were taking part in what the art curator Vasyl Cherepanyn called “corporeal politics”: getting their faces away from screens and their bodies among other bodies.
Patient protest amidst increasing risks generated the idea of the “Maidan friend,” the person you trusted because of common trials. The historian Yaroslav Hrytsak described one way that new acquaintances were made: “On the Maidan, you are a pixel, and pixels always work in groups. Groups were mostly formed spontaneously: you or your friend bumped into somebody you or your friend know; and the person whom you met did not walk alone—he or she would be also accompanied by his or her friends. And thus you start to walk together. One night I walked with an unlikely group of ‘soldiers of fortune’: my friend the philosopher and a businessman whom I know. He was accompanied by a tiny man with sad eyes. He looked like a sad clown, and I found out that he was indeed a professional clown who organized a charitable group that worked with children who had cancer.”
Having come as individuals, Ukrainian citizens on the Maidan joined new institutions. In practicing corporeal politics they were placing their bodies at risk. As the philosopher Yermolenko put it: “We are dealing with revolutions in which people make a gift of themselves.” People often expressed this as a kind of personal transformation, a choice unlike other choices. Hrytsak and others recalled the French philosopher Albert Camus and his idea of a revolt as the moment when death is chosen over submission. Posters on the Maidan quoted a 1755 letter by the American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty, to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”