Ukraine: The First Postcolonial Revolution

With the revolution of 2014, the postmodernism in Ukraine ended. We still do not know how to conceptualize this new reality.

The events of the past year in Ukraine have been unprecedented, and therefore not easily comprehensible as a single yet complex phenomenon. Naturally, both the participants and the outside observers are trying to identify these events with some familiar scenarios, “recognizing” the traits of yet another “color revolution” against a post-Soviet autocracy, or a national liberation movement, or a bourgeois revolution. As a way of expanding the repertoire of available explanatory paradigms, I suggest a serious consideration of the concept of postcolonial revolution. The Ukrainian revolution is a postcolonial revolution because it is all about the people acquiring their own voice, and in the process of this self-assertive act, they forge a new Ukrainian nation as a community of negotiated solidary action by self-conscious individuals.

The Many Faces of the Maidan Revolution

To a superficial observer, any revolutionary rhetoric appears the same, but we should look beyond the obvious manifestations of rebellion. We will see then that not every type of revolution can equally meaningfully describe the realities of Ukraine.

First, it should be explained why “revolution”— and not civil war. Doubtless, over the past year Ukraine has seen an escalation of intercommunal violence, with citizens of the same country killing each other. A typical civil war twentieth-century style implies the principled clash of opposing collective subjectivities, when “two truths” cannot find a compromise. The “Maidanites” are all about distinctive subjectivity, political ideals, and social program. What is the distinctive “truth” of their armed opponents, their alternative program for Ukraine? There is no such program and no interest in Ukraine, as the leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” explicitly announced their ultimate goal to secede and join the Russian Federation. To this, one can respond with an example of the archetypal civil war of the nineteenth century—the U.S. Civil War, which was about secession from a federation. This historical parallel only underscores the inappropriateness of the “civil war” model to analyze Ukrainian events: did American Confederates dream about joining, say, Mexico? Separatism is an understandable cause for a rebellion, why should it be masked by something else?

The notion of bourgeois-democratic revolution is occasionally employed when discussing Maidan and post-Maidan political developments, primarily because the most visible public figures associated with the movement belong to the educated middle-age, middle- class stratum. The appeal of the classical formula is understandable, but in the modern world, “bourgeois-democratic revolution” can be used only as a metaphor rather than an analytical category. It was coined and developed by Marxist ideologues and social scientists in the nineteenth century specifically to denote the radical transformation of society from feudalism to capitalism. Maidan took place in a society with a capitalist market economy and an institutionalized political democracy. Instead of a monarch, it overthrew a legitimately elected president and expressed distrust of the parliament, but it did not question the very values and principles of capitalist economy and parliamentarism.

The concept of an anticolonial uprising makes sense when people rise against either direct or indirect alien rule. Anticolonial rhetoric plays a rather marginal role in Ukrainian public discourse. The very refusal to play the subaltern card as an ultimate justification for the Ukrainian revolution can be explained by their fundamental incompatibility. Subalternity can be found as a significant social condition in Russia, Belarus, or Uzbekistan, but just imagine characterizing the Ukrainian Euromaidan with the authoritative declaration by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak:

Subalternity is a position without identity. […] Subalternity is where social lines of mobility, being elsewhere, do not permit the formation of a recognizable basis of action.

Anticolonial revolution is a powerful act of transcending one’s subalternity, but not one’s embedded dependence on the former colonial master. The anticolonial paradigm just does not fit the imagined community of Ukrainians and the vision of Ukraine “from the Syan to the Don” that integrates the varied regional and local knowledge in Ukraine.

The model of national revolution or national liberation movement seems to better fit the realities of Maidan and the public discourses making sense of it. The abundance of interpretations for the phenomenon of “nation” provide ample opportunities to cast Maidan in national terms. This seems all the more appropriate given the high visibility of Ukrainian nationalists on Maidan and on the front of the Russo-Ukrainian war that followed, as well as the centrality of the discourse on nation-building in post- Maidan Ukraine. This model can be combined with the anticolonial framework (“anti-imperial struggle”) or the idea of bourgeois revolution (“internal liberation movement”), but in any version and combination one fundamental condition remains in place: initially, some sort of a national compound rises to the ultimate consciousness as an entity, and then it moves on to eliminate all obstacles on its path to sociopolitical self-realization. This (essentially Hegelian) historical scenario can be recognized in the story of the downfall of the Soviet system in 1989-1991, quite typical for the twentieth century. Think of the Baltic republics of the USSR that demanded the right to self-determination as a way to restore some preexistent condition of “violated wholeness:” national purity unhindered by Russian/Soviet admixtures, and statehood ruined by the Soviet annexation.

This rhetoric was employed by a rather marginal group of Maidan activists (mostly by nationalists), and does not correspond to the general social and political dynamics of the movement, from November 2013 through January, to post-revolutionary developments. In this broader perspective we see that the main pre-Maidan political force representing organicist nationalism—the all-Ukrainian movement “Freedom”—has dramatically lost its popularity amid the unprecedented national mobilization. There is no contradiction here: what we are seeing in Ukraine is the process of national mobilization and consolidation, only this process takes the opposite course compared to standard twentieth-century national movements. There was no real preexistent historical Ukrainian state to be restored within its original borders. Individual people with active civic positions stepped forward to protest the abuse of their rights by the tyrannical regime, and in the course of their collective action a new type of solidarity emerged, and a new Ukrainian nation came into being. The Ukrainian nation became the product of the revolution, not its perpetrator.

The last and probably the least intellectually productive of the familiar revolutionary scenarios is the concept of color revolution . The most sophisticated rendering of this explanatory strategy views it as a final anti-Soviet revolution. This is an insightful and thought-provoking approach, but it is more a metaphor than a self-sustainable explanatory model. The dominant take on “color revolutions” perceives them as little more than special operations by some powerful political actors. Within a more analytical and academic context, it is recognized that color revolutions were just a milestone somewhere in the middle of the long transition process from Communism, and not “true” revolutions. Code words or not, the names of color revolutions are really meaningless—but we cannot say this about the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 that immediately proclaimed itself the Revolution of Dignity. The Revolution of Dignity could have been produced only by self-conscious moral and political subjects, hoping not just to topple the irritating government but to impose their subjectivity as a new system of coordinates for the revolutionary society.

The Postcolonial Revolution

The 2014 revolution was not purely “political” or “civic.” Its participants of different cultural backgrounds were concerned with stressing its culturally Ukrainian character, using the main symbols of Ukrainian cultural identity: language, patriotic greetings, key figures of the literary canon, dress, and imagery. Even so, this revolution— and the nation it forged—should not be conceptualized in terms of fixed identities (“civic” vs. “ethnic,” “political” vs. “cultural,” etc.) as Yaroslav Hrytsak stresses. The radical breakup with the politics of identity is what sets Ukraine apart from its neighbors, Russia first of all:

The Ukrainians of Euromaidan are preoccupied with modernization and values, whereas Putin’s Russia worries about security and identities […]. National issues were not the only items on its [Maidan] agenda—in fact, they were not even central. Neither were, for that matter, questions of language or historical memory.

This distinction drawn by Hrytsak is key to grasping the unprecedented uniqueness of what is happening in Ukraine.

Ukrainian revolution is postcolonial because it not only set out to overthrow the political and economic hegemony of a tyrant, but also released the forces of societal self-organization. Even more: the public agenda of revolution (and particularly of the post-revolutionary period), has been defined predominantly by the citizens of Ukraine and on their terms, not by Yanukovych or Putin.

We know that this is a new phenomenon because it largely ignores or creatively recodes the readily available historical precedents and symbols. The readily available political symbolism and historical mythology of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) plays a surprisingly marginal role in the country at war. The free subjectivity of Euromaidan revealed itself in its arbitrary appropriation of the famous UPA greeting “Glory to Ukraine! – Glory to the heroes!” without feeling obliged to import the whole complex of twentieth- century identity-fixed nationalism associated with the UPA legacy. When Russian propaganda attempted to “troll” new Ukrainians as “Banderites” for repeating the old “fascist” slogan, they responded creatively, not reactively. Ukrainian Jews immediately produced the meme “Yid-Banderite” and actually developed it into a social identity that many proudly accepted. This is just one episode in a series of creative responses to Russian propaganda that demonstrate more than a good sense of humor: the identity-indifferent, value-oriented imagined community of new Ukraine is capable of accommodating any slur—on its own terms. The most recent example was provided by yet another insanity broadcasted by Russian state TV insinuating that Ukrainian volunteers were promised a plot of land and two slaves (sic!) for fighting in Donbas, followed by the whirlwind of hilarious “creative interpretations” of this news in the Ukrainian section of the Internet.

It is important to stress that this reaction to Russia’s attempts to seize the initiative may be spontaneous, but not unconscious. This became completely clear when President Poroshenko appeared in public sporting the “Dill” insignia: this was an official response to the public campaign in Russia smearing Ukrainians as “ukrops” (literally, “dills”). New Ukrainians can call themselves Yid-Banderites, Dills, or Khokhly, because they do not follow some preset fixed identities and national roles—instead, they negotiate new values and acceptable forms of social interaction. They are creatively minding their business, inventing a new country for themselves, and when they have to respond to outside pressure, they frame the response in their own terms.

This is not just a figure of speech: “they” stands for a majority of Ukrainian citizens who can be quantified in various social situations and interactions. Nothing demonstrates the material power of subjectivity better than the scale and diversity of activities of the volunteer movement in Ukraine. Arguably, the very process of state building after February 2014 has been stimulated, guided, and even staffed by grassroots citizens’ initiative. People could contribute by bringing drinking water to Maidan or volunteering to fight Russian militia and troops in Donbas; carrying military helmets across the border in their personal luggage to donate to the underequipped Ukrainian military or assembling radio-controlled flying models as impromptu drones for the army; accommodating refugees from occupied territories or taking care of the wounded soldiers. Today, former volunteers are serving as advisers to the president and defense minister, as staff for newly created departments in ministries, and they are elected to the parliament.

Interestingly, according to the World Giving Index (WGI) compiled on the basis of data provided by Gallup, in 2013 Ukraine ranked 103 out of 157 countries in the cumulative index: ahead of Russia (ranked 123), but still lagging behind 10 other post-Soviet countries. Specifically, Ukraine was 26th in terms of the amount of volunteer time, but only 112th when it came to “helping strangers.” A recent representative sociological survey revealed a dramatic sea change in Ukraine: between May and October 2014, almost 80 percent of Ukrainians donated their time, money, or property to the army or refugees from the occupied territories.

How does this postcolonial and post-postmodern collective subjectivity differ from “regular” national subjectivity, twentieth-century style? Several authors mention the significance of hybridity as a new phenomenon in Ukraine—from a sign of marginality and parochialism to a trendy and mainstream personal quality. “Yid-Banderites” can be viewed by some as carnival exotics, but the overwhelming role of the new Russian-language and culturally Russian Ukrainian patriotism and nationalism cannot be dismissed. The project “Information Resistance” launched on March 2 by Dmitry Tymchuk on his Facebook account had by mid-April close to 80,000 registered followers (the number of unregistered readers is likely much higher; today he has over 220,000 followers). This Russian-language resource, equally popular with Ukrainian and Russian speakers, embodies the postcolonial nature of Ukrainian revolution as a claim for independent subjectivity. At the time of the general confusion in the wake of the Russian invasion in Crimea, this was the only efficient form of resistance: not by military force (nonexistent at the time in Ukraine), but by refusal to follow the lead of the Russian media. While the role of Facebook and other Internet media in the Ukrainian revolution is a special topic, here it is important to stress the very “hybrid” identity of the postcolonial rebellion by Tymchuk or another cult Facebook personality, commander of the volunteer battalion Donbas, known by his revolutionary alias Semen Semenchenko (close to 187,000 registered followers today). The list can be continued, but it is important to stress here the profoundly hybrid nature of the uncompromised self-proclaimed Ukrainness of these people: though they admit belonging to Russian culture, they are comfortable in the Ukrainian-language environment and consciously embrace Ukrainian “ethnic” culture.

In this perspective, the unexpected transformation of Dnipropetrovsk—arguably no less “Russian” or even “Soviet” city than Donetsk— into a champion of new Ukrainian patriotism and a major factor of public war mobilization efforts appears in a new light. The decisive role in this transformation of the governor (oligarch and leader of the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish community, Igor Kolomoisky) and his deputies (Gennadii Korban and Boris Filatov) has been broadly acknowledged. Their motivations are usually explained by their personal convictions and values, particular business interests, and political rivalry with Donetsk elites. While no doubt plausible, these explanations do not account for the key factor of the “Dnipropetrovsk phenomenon:” the genuine popularity of Kolomoisky and company in Dnipropetrovsk and across Ukraine precisely in their capacity as leaders of the Ukrainian antiseparatist fight. Could it be that the Russo-Jewish Kolomoisky team spontaneously embodied the very essence of new Ukrainian hybridity, which made their example so attractive to many people in Ukraine? After all, the social group that can be tentatively defined as “Soviet Jews” was the most consistent representative of hybridity in the twentieth century. In the nationalist social imagination obsessed with defining fixed identities, they were perceived as marginal and parochial. In revolutionary Ukraine, the marginal type of Soviet Jews has become surprisingly relevant as an archetype of the new, “post-identity” form of solidarity. This is why Russian-speaking “Soviet Jew” Korban and “Pskov peasant” and self-proclaimed “Zionist” Filatov have established close relationships with the charismatic leader of the Right Sector, a true Banderite Dmytro Yarosh— something that blows the mind of “identity Nazis” in Russia, Israel, or Germany.

With the revolution of 2014, the postmodernism in Ukraine ended. We still do not know how to conceptualize this new reality. From the outside, this brave new world looks like high Modernity (but not compromised by the Eros of the state and the supremacy of the “national body”): with self-sacrificial heroes, collective improvisations, and complex forms of self-organization. Most importantly, even the most radical social and personal experiments— manifestations of emancipated subjectivity—are perceived without the familiar postmodern sneer of cynical skepticism: critical reflection is focused on publicly expressed ideas and values, not on the “identities” (and personalities) of the people who dare to express them.

To the citizens of Ukraine it is largely irrelevant how a bunch of scholars will label what is for them the everyday life, everyday referendum and everyday struggle. But to scholars themselves this is truly the last judgment. If the model of “postcolonial revolution” is correct, this means that Ukraine has opened up new historical horizons and is already living in the future. Its adversaries get stuck in the past, and technically—from a historian’s prospective—are dead already, just like a chicken with its head cut off running in circles (and—this is hard not to add—rattling the sabre and waving a flag). Everybody has the right to disapprove of the Ukrainian revolution and wish bad for the country—one should just realize that by doing this in the name of reviving and freezing some mostly imagined past, s/he is getting locked in a different temporality with no future.

There is no grand superhuman “History” to determine the fates of individuals and peoples, deciding who “got stuck” and who got a pass to the future: all are subject of their own fortunes. It is just that some rise up to the role of self-conscious subjects of common history, and others voluntarily surrender their own subjectivity to become the slaves of predetermined identities and scenarios.

The Stance of Outside Observers

“What will happen to Russia?” She doesn’t answer, but looks at me carefully. I wait with trepidation. “Nothing.”

One year after the outbreak of Euromaidan, we see that the Ukrainian revolution has put to the test not just the political order in Europe, but—to a much greater degree—the reputation of intellectuals who are professionally involved in analyzing Ukraine or revolutionary politics. Several authors—particularly Sergei Zhuk, Yaroslav Hrytsak, and Anna Veronika Wendland— express their frustration over the stance taken vis-a-vis Ukraine by professional historians and public intellectuals in the United States, Russia, and Germany. It seems that the main reason for this frustration results from encountering an explicit refusal of very intelligent people to put their minds to work rigorously. Such is the effect of the Ukrainian postcolonial revolution: the main adversary of the self-expression of subjectivity is not another subjectivity, but its absence.

This probably explains the otherwise inexplicable solidarity of West European and Russian left-wing activists not with the Ukrainian anti-kleptocratic popular uprising with a strong anticolonial component, but with explicitly imperialist and chauvinist Russian aggression. This is what makes quite a number of American historians side with Putin’s regime: they are in the “business of identities,” and when pressed to choose between familiar scenarios structuring their field and conceptual revolution brought about by Ukrainian events, they choose “stability” (not unlike their Russian counterparts). Otherwise, they would have to reconsider their ideas of what constitutes Russianness and Jewishness, fascism and nationalism, revolution and reaction. They forget that operating with conventional categories and models is only part of the institutionalized scholarly process. The other part is essential for preventing the process from succumbing into shallow performativity: those conventions should be revised and reconfigured from time to time.

The position of Russian scholars on Ukraine is the least interesting to analyze, as they do not try to preserve even the status quo in the face of rapidly changing reality, but wholeheartedly succumb to excessive archaism and intellectual scarcity. With rare exceptions, the level of expertise on Ukraine has deteriorated in Russia to a state beyond any intellectual relevance.

General public discourse in Russia demonstrates the same fundamental lack of intellectual productivity and distinctive personal subjectivity. The dominant discourse explains everything—from the Ukrainian crisis to Russian domestic problems—through the trope of “foreign agency,” whether the United States, cunning Kremlin manipulators, or aliens from outer space.

The problem is not that a majority of Russians hate Ukraine and believe the state propaganda of unheard of idiocy and crudeness (which is possible only because they want to believe it). The tragedy (for Russia) is that they are doing this for no personal reason, just because these people have no subjectivity as members of society, beyond immediate personal interests.

It is in this perspective that the seemingly strange slogan of the Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny should be perceived: “The Final Battle between Good and Neutrality.” Only through the prism of Ukrainian revolution can the “opportunist” tactics of Navalny be best understood: his readiness to cooperate with nationalists, liberals, and communists is but a soft version of the creative hybridity of new Ukrainians that gradually transforms the political sphere in the country. Thus, the personal choice of Russo-Yid-Banderites received official political sanction recently when the chairman of the Ukrainian parliament, Alexander Turchinov, proposed that newly elected MPs should take an oath during the swearing-in ceremony simultaneously to “three respectful representatives of different parts of Ukraine:” the ex-member of the “pro-Russian” Party of Regions and Jewish activist Efim Zviagilskii, the leader of Crimean Tatars Mustafa Dzhemilev, and Yuri Shukhevych, son of the supreme commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). This decision has nothing to do with “political correctness,” “internationalism,” or “multiculturalism,” because there are no fixed groups to claim representation on the grounds of some fixed quota. These people just represent the most characteristic faces of the same hybrid Ukrainness defined through the solidary expression of individual subjectivity— quite in line with the often-quoted but misunderstood 1882 dictum of Ernest Renan (“nation is a daily referendum”).

The case of Navalny proves that Russian society is not alien to processes unfolding in Ukraine, which, however, have very bleak prospects of success. In Ukraine, it took at least a decade (since the Orange Revolution of 2004) of intensive public debates to collectively produce that new feeling of the solidarity of individual subjectivities.

At least ten years of debating values and goals cannot be “telescoped” to a few months of propaganda even by the most talented and progressive political leaders such as Navalny. To make such a dialogue possible in Russia ten years from now, the public discussion should have been initiated yesterday. It was not, and if it does not begin now, the only hope for Russian intellectuals will be the promise given in April 2014 by Dnipropetrovsk Russo-Banderite and Zionist vice-governor, Borys Filatov:

“We should become an alternative to what Moscow was in the former Soviet Union. We are simply obliged to develop relationships with all brotherly peoples who threw off the yoke of Moscow: the Balts, Moldovans, Azerbaijanis, Georgians. It is to Kyiv, not Moscow, that Russian- speaking citizens of these countries should look. […] Ukraine should become the second home for the Russian (russkaia) intelligentsia, business, and professionals, who are suffocating under the KGB boot of the bald Fuhrer.”

Those intellectuals, who believe that scholarship is incompatible with a civic (and necessarily political) position, and that they should stay away from the public sphere, are simply declaring the absence of personal subjectivity. There is no need to debate their views: socially, these people already do not exist.

Ilya Gerasimov

Co-founder and the editor in chief of the international quarterly Ab Imperio. He is the author of numerous articles in several languages and three books.

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