Is Maidan the Defeat of Culture?

May 22, 2014
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Is Maidan the Defeat of Culture?

Not long ago, at the conference "Ukraine: Thinking Together" (15-19 May 2014), the writer Serhiy Zhadan said the following:

For me, the events of this winter and spring are proof of the complete defeat of our culture. The complete loss of illusions […] This cultural defeat is one of the biggest losses of the past six months. […] What has changed? We have realised fully the meaning, role, and faults of this culture. 1 

With the word 'fault' (provyna), I figured that the time for jokes had ended. Who was to blame? Surely the flawed must be held accountable? When you answer for something, it is worth knowing exactly for what, so: what has Ukrainian culture gone and done now? This time I want to know the specifics, instead of smearing my forehead with protective ash and keeping one eye over my shoulder. Imagine, for instance, that you are a medic who volunteered on the Maidan. And someone tells you that the entire Ukrainian Revolution was a “complete defeat” of Ukrainian medicine because it failed to save so many people. What would be your reaction?

Zhadan explains his position rather vaguely:

EuroMaidan started out as a huge cultural event. It was the same in 2004-2005, because, I remember, many of those who came out onto the Maidan in Kyiv or other cities expected exactly the same sequence of events as 10 years ago. […] Thanks to the cultural dimension of the Maidan, people wanted to demonstrate their desire and readiness for constructive dialogue. But it turned out that these things were neither particularly clear, nor particularly persuasive. When any kind of serious situation, event, or geopolitical shift is at hand, culture finds itself utterly defeated. It is defenceless before the world of politics, the world of finance, and machinations behind-the-scenes.

Zhadan's reflections are not only mistaken, but dangerous as well. We will get to the danger in a moment, but first let us address the mistake. It is a very simple one: he equates culture with peaceful protest. This point of departure leads Zhadan and us, his listeners and readers, inevitably astray again and again. The foundation of his error is the actual nature of the 2004 protests and the beginnings of EuroMaidan. Yes, the Maidan could be construed as a “cultural event” in some respects. And I admit that many observers who experienced the so-called “peaceful” Maidan or saw it on television also saw it as a “cultural event”. Something like a politicised version of Slavianski Bazar (Vitebsk), Kazantyp (Crimea), or Banderstadt (L'viv), depending on one’s personal tastes and fears. However, is peaceful protest not possible without a cultural dimension? It is indeed possible. Was the protest of miners driven to despair over unpaid wages in 1998 any less peaceful for its lack of a cultural element? Because they only banged their safety helmets against the asphalt, but without songs or guitars? 

Unlike 1998, EuroMaidan was a revolution of wounded dignity, not actual hunger. It was the voice of values and geopolitical choices, not the roar of a desperately wounded beast. It is for these reasons that there was so much culture here. Culture was the oxygen keeping us alive, not a “peaceful” substitute for a stones or Molotov cocktails. 

I doubt that a single person on the Maidan was so naive as to perceive culture as a means of communicating with the authorities, as Zhadan suggests. Was there anyone who really believed that those in power would be touched by the songs of Okean El'zy or Liapis Trubets'koi? That they would accept them as a signal to open a dialogue and start it then and there?

I recall a story told by a Bosnian writer who lived through the siege of Sarajevo from the first day until the last. She said that even in the worst period, when there was no running water or means of keeping clean, the people of the city still tried to look clean and smart. They put on special clothes for holidays, took care of their hair and their beards. “Of course, they [the Serbs] failed to notice this,” she said. “We did it only for ourselves. So as not to forget that we were human.”

Why do I bring this up? Because culture on the Maidan was first and foremost a way of reminding ourselves of our own values and motivations. Alongside the shields and bags of snow, it was the building material for another space – a more amicable, ex-territorial body of hopes and humanity; the embassy of a utopian, idealized Europe. All that singing and collective action, the building of spontaneous 'art objects' (like a log pyramid bearing the names of towns and villages), the posters and the placards – all of it was the creation of an alternative “spiritual space”. Culture on the Maidan was this, and not a megaphone that had something to say to the figures on the other side of the barricades. 

There is a final important and possibly crucial question to be asked here: with the end of the peaceful period on the Maidan, has culture truly come to an end? Reading Zhadan's speech without knowing how events unfolded, one gets the impression that culture became rags for Molotov cocktails. This impression is dangerously reminiscent of the one Russian and some Western mass media have tried to give their audiences – the “militant” Maidan. A band of aggressive fighters about as cultured and humane as a hungry dingo in the Australian outback. Yet we know about the amusing identifying marks for the Self-Defence Brigades. We know about reading books on the barricades. We know about the artfully painted safety helmets. We know about all these seemingly trivial things, which together prevented us from descending to the level of those in Mariins'kyi Park, to the level of looting in the style of Kyrgyzstan or Mariupol'. 

I want to stress this point again, because I am convinced of its truth: the Ukrainian protest was cultural to the very end. 

I suspect (not expect, mind you, but truly and quietly suspect) that in years to come, the iconic image of the Ukrainian EuroMaidan will be neither of burning tires, nor young men in balaclavas with flames leaping behind them. These images certainly exist, and continue to appear in various places and combinations. But the lasting image of the Ukrainian protest will be the blue and yellow piano that stood before a row of riot shields. And if anyone thinks you can break through the wall of a country residence with culture, then I suppose they had better reach straight for the revolver.

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