Risking Everything For Democracy

KIEV, Ukraine -- On Nov. 21, 2013, Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president, abruptly suspended long-running negotiations on an association agreement with the European Union.

Though Yanukovych personified the corruption, cronyism and oligarchical capitalism rampant in Ukraine, he had previously promoted the accord, which many Ukrainians, particularly in the country’s center and west, anticipated as a pathway to a better life and communion with the West.

Within hours, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, protesters thronged Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti).

Once the riot police started beating demonstrators, and especially after the first fatalities, Yanukovych was doomed.

By late February, he had fled.

Moscow reacted by annexing the Crimea, Ukraine’s sole Russian-majority region, and supporting an armed insurgency in the Donbass (eastern Ukraine), which, compared with central and western Ukraine, has been shaped more by Russian culture and the Soviet past and contains many ethnic Russians, as well as Ukrainians whose primary language is Russian.

The fighting has killed more than 11,000 people and placed a heavy economic burden on a country that can ill afford it.

Though the Maidan movement cleared the way for the election of the current Ukrainian government, led by the tycoon Petro Poroshenko, the reformers within it face fierce resistance from the beneficiaries of corruption and oligarchy, some of whom are in the cabinet.

The reforms have stalled, eroding public faith in Ukraine’s political institutions.

The dreams that drove the uprising may yet be realized — or dashed, as happened after the 2004 Orange Revolution, whose failure enabled Yanukovych’s election in 2010.

“The Ukrainian Night,” the Yale historian Marci Shore’s compact book (its large-font chapters typically range from two to seven pages), seeks to portray the ideals that animated the protesters.

Shore succeeds admirably, particularly because she tells the story through their words.

Her sympathy for their courage and her support for a democratic Ukraine aligned with the West are evident, her depictions of the sights, sounds and smells on the Maidan superb.

In lucid, if occasionally overwrought, prose she draws evocative portraits of people who braved the bitter cold — and truncheons and bullets — to create a “parallel polis” with barricades, soup kitchens, libraries, rock concerts, fiery speakers and solidarity among Ukrainians of disparate backgrounds.

This is not a work of historical scholarship, nor is it comparable to the detailed eyewitness reportage of writers like Keith Gessen or Sophie Pinkham.

Shore strides through centuries of Ukraine’s past, but the result verges on potted history:

It offers little to readers familiar with Ukraine and not nearly enough for novices seeking to understand the stark cultural and political variations within the country or the complex forces that produced the Maidan revolution.

Shore wishes to give the movement a human face, but she devotes so much space to people’s appearances, professions, families, ruminations and inner thoughts that her account resembles a collage of personalities.

Shore does not dispute that Yanukovych was elected fairly in 2010 yet fails to explain how a crook and a thug (“hoodlum” is her apt description), who betrayed even the inhabitants of the Donbass, his political bastion, prevailed, or why he suddenly shelved the association agreement.

Given her overwhelming focus on Kiev and parts west, she says little about those Ukrainians in Crimea and the Donbass who opposed the Maidan revolt.

Generally, they are voiceless — spoken for by Shore herself, or by her pro-Maidan interlocutors (who tend to characterize them as troglodytes).

The internal political differences produced by Ukraine’s history are obscured, or dismissed as backward when they do not align with the ideals of the Maidan.

“The Ukrainian Night” vividly depicts life on the Maidan.

It is less effective in uncovering Ukraine’s complexities and the roots of a still-unfinished revolution. 

Source: The New York Times