Reflections on Maidan, December 8th, 2018

Dear Liaisons friends,

From Maidan to Paris

The joyful festival that seized the Champs-Elysées on the 24th of November resurfaced on Saturday the 1st of December in the biggest riot that Paris has seen since 1968. Who knows if the events brought to life by the Yellow Vest movement could take the form of an insurrectionary movement in the weeks to come? At the same time, however, the confusion that marks our time spreads within the movement itself. While the national press is busy rambling on about the unreasonableness of the Yellow Vests for having welcomed “thugs” into the movement, the crassest elements of the far-right are trying to appropriate its momentum, the left of the unions gets timidly involved, and a certain autonomous milieu—however revolutionary it may be—doesn’t know how to relate to a phenomenon that exceeds it. Meanwhile, dubious flags fly under a haze of gas and at the barricades, and songs from a sordid history ring out, bringing many people to question the movement’s direction and the relevance of expressing solidarity with it. Indeed, we attest to the fascist forces organizing, flowering, and gaining importance both physically and discursively in the media, which all bears a strong resemblance to the last insurrectionary situation witnessed in Europe.

The last major uprising in Europe crystallized in the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 and resulted in the dismissal of President Viktor Yanukovych. As a powerful neighbor, Russia also used the situation to start a more or less low-intensity war between the two countries. Because of their opaque character, which complicates any ideological reading one might make of them, in some ways the Ukrainian events resonate with the French context of the last weeks. Alexey Samoedov’s text, “A Very Long Winter,” shows how national myths and imaginaries were mobilized and transformed at Maidan, destabilizing a large part of the left and resulting in its distance from the insurrection. Let’s not make the same mistake. We have asked Alexey to briefly summarize some lessons learned from Maidan. What follows is his response.

                               Lessons from Maidan

Maidan sheds a strangely familiar light on the current situation in France. As it seems to be an important issue facing the Yellow Vest movement, it’s useful to begin by addressing the issue of the far right.

First, do not abandon the fight against the fascists so easily. There is a Russian proverb that says, “if you place a spoon of shit into a pot of honey, it becomes a pot of shit.” It’s a principle that seems to guide anarchists and the left in their perception of social movements. They barely see a handful of fascists acting publicly in a movement of several thousand people before they curse everything and return to their homes, mumbling something about the unconscious masses.

Nevertheless, during Maidan, certain events that transpired at Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, provide an interesting anecdote. The anarchists had arrived and settled in at the occupation just before the Nazis came. When the fascists showed up and saw banners with anarchist iconography, they returned home, lamenting the fact that the “communists” had taken over the revolution. The proverb goes both ways. I imagine that this mode of operating is useful for a zero-tolerance policy regarding our own spaces and events, but it does not work at the scale of a mass movement.

One must come, see, bear witness and be there. Only then can a decision be made. I know this much is true: the far right’s presence does not mean its hegemony. If such a hegemony exists, it is most often produced by the media’s coverage.

In Maidan, for example, the far right was not a decisive force in the movement, but the images of Nazis at the forefront of the rebellion—an image produced by the Russian media and circulated by some Ukrainian liberals—were so widespread that the Ukrainian right benefited from the situation and still benefits from it today. Moreover, this right also has a large portion of the informational networks of anarchists and the broader left to thank for spreading the same propaganda, which still continues today. The media’s constructions even dominate the narratives of our own comrades. It is a terrible lesson: we can “accidentally” support the right just by spreading the story that fascists have the advantage.

Another important lesson that I learned was the result of a certain feeling of losing my bearings in the situation. We were completely overtaken by the events surrounding us, and activist approaches to the events barely helped. Our little theories were based on assumptions that had nothing to do with what was happening before our eyes. The aspiration to keep the political situation under theoretical control and have a stable explanation for the chain of events that unfolded, which is very characteristic of certain radical groups, is truly paralyzing. Our ideas of the “people” and “normal” behavior became immediately obsolete and it was soon clear that we didn’t know many people outside of our own small circles. Normally, we expect whomever we meet to be a sort of tabula rasa, in such a way that a “political” interaction would consist of combating some ideas and defending others, which, we hope, will allow the ideas that we defend to grow. This seems paternalistic and vanguardist, but I believe that most radicals then thought and still act this way today. At Maidan, most protesters may have had no prior political experience, but they certainly had a political perception of the situation. This was not always clearly articulated, and often changed. The professional politicians barely had any influence over the movement and didn’t define its tactics or agenda. It would be very misleading to want to explain the discourses and the directions of movements by the sole presence of this or that political group. For example, the symbols and slogans that appeared had little to do with their traditional uses, and were continually reinvented. There was no single idea that appeared, circulated, and gained hegemony. Maidan functioned in a much more creative way, and you had to take part in the movement to understand it.

The insurrection was absolutely refreshing and radically open, even to a frightening degree. It was entirely the opposite of the closed and rigid event that certain analyses have made of it. The people around us, even our own comrades, were transformed in brilliant and sometimes surprising ways.

A second aspect that follows from this feeling of losing one’s bearings, of drowning in a flood of events, was the capacity to surpass a pessimism so omnipresent in political circles and realize that much of what we believed to be impossible was, in fact, still possible. If we had been more open to the event from the beginning, we would have perceived these immense possibilities much sooner. Sadly, most radicals (activists, leftists, anarchists, etc.) weren’t ready for the overwhelming scope that such an event could take. In general, they were happy that “something was happening,” without for all that counting on whether the “masses” were acting correctly.

It is difficult to theoretically classify such an event, but one thing is certain: the experience of Maidan changed all of us. It was a radical, open event—like every insurrection, I imagine. This is why I often feel sad when I see texts from revolutionaries that speak of Maidan as just another failed insurrection, just another case of capitalists and the far right profiting off of the deceived masses. Such narratives close off our own histories from us, robbing us of the possibility to perceive them in a totally different way.