The Story of Maidan: Part 2 — Paths to Revolution

In Chapter 2 we look at the factors that prepared the grounds for Revolution.

In part 1 — Revolution of Dignity we have seen a summary of what Maidan was or might have been.

“Ukrainians have a disastrously weak state. But we have a huge reserve of patriotism and aspiration for freedom. I can imagine a Ukrainian to be a thief or a corruptionist. But I can’t imagine a Ukrainian to be a slave.”[1]

Dmitry Tymchuk, Head of the Center for Military and Political Studies, representative of the Infromation Resistance Group, from an interview on May 25, 2014.

This quote of Ukrainian political analyst Dmitry Tymchuk is not in context with Maidan. It was voiced three months later, commenting the so-called anti terrorist operation of the Ukrainian army against the Russia-backed separatist movement in the East of the country. But nevertheless, an outsider like myself can transfer that single man’s comment onto the self-reflection of a whole nation. These two sentences contain the keywords that define the situation the country is in and the events that lead to it. The keywords are:

  • Weak
  • Thief
  • Corruption
  • Slave
  • Aspiration
  • Patriotism

These keywords will keep on appearing when I recall the events and reflect on their meaning. The term patriotism is a good starting point because there is the difference to other revolutions like the arabic spring, or recent protests in Venezuela and Turkey. To most who lived within the Soviet Repulic of Ukraine in 1992, it came as some sort of surprise to suddenly wake up in a country that hadn’t existed before. Making them citizens of a nation they had no bonds with. If anything, the Soviet government had for decades tried to quell nationalism with three main tools: they continued the Tsarist politics of imposing Russian language on all its citizens and to discourage nationalstic identity apart from wearing traditional dresses; they wrote a Soviet history that disfavors the history of its nations and peoples (for instance by transforming national heros to Soviet villains) and they forcefully resettled whole peoples like the Crimean Tatars in the 1940ies. If the Soviet Union succeeded in anything, than in the creation of a “homo sovieticus”. In my experience, adults from Ukraine, Georgia and Uzbekistan often share more cultural memories than Austrians and the Swiss do, despite having different languages, different scripture, different religions and different ethnicities. (I call the film title “Ironia Sudby” and everyone from Kyiv via Irkutskt to Tashkent goes ‘aaaahhh!’).

Ironya Sudby. The Irony of Fate or enjoy your Bath!

Every new found nation-state does nation building: Defining what is the nation, which values are in play, who belongs to the nation, how state, nation, people and language are intertwined to create a unified view on oneself. Every new nation-state rewrites its own history. There are proboably many reasons why this process has not worked well in Ukraine. In the 1990ies social scientist Evgeny Holovacha found a social ambivalence, “the orientation towards values that exclude each other.”[2] (The communist Homo Sovieticus vs. the turbo-capitalist neo-Ukrainian). This was typical of a transitional period where two political cultures and two models of interactions in society clashed. Holovacha thinks that this ambivalence is necessary for people to reconcile and cope with the stress of transition. Writer Mykola Ryabchuk adds that while this is good in the beginning, this duality transforms “into a collective neurosis where the people are at the mercy of their ‘psychotherapist’ which is the national power, its propaganda and its manipulation. People with blurry identity and unclear ideas are easy victims of official propagadanda.”

And most importantly, the writer adds: “The post-communists, who remained in power after the collapse of the Soviet Union used this disposition very cleverly to keep society in a non-civic, fragmented, alienated and disoriented state. (Since) A mature civil society can develop to the main competitor for state, its apparatus and its resources.”

Another reason for a potentially incomplete nation building process lies in the diversity of the people. Despite having a broad overlap in cultural memory there are quite some different cultural markers with the majority in west and east.

There are potentially minor ones such as different Christian religions and different mother tongues. I actually consider the different languages as a minor problem as such. (supported by virtually every commentator before 2014 and still the majority now).

Ukrainian and Russian are different enough to be separate languages. But they are close enough to be mutual intelligible. According to a Ukrainian statistic[3] the two languages share 68 percent of its vocabulary. People can understand each other. What creates the divide is both a different perception of history and the current usage of the languages. The parts of todays Ukraine have had different developments in the last 300 years. The Russian empire pushed their influence westwards, settling the lands East of the Dniepr (which cuts todays Ukraine in half) in the 18th century. In their sphere of influence, the Russians tried to assimilate Ukrainians. From 1804 to 1917, Ukrainian language was banned from schools.[4] City dwellers changed their language and even russified their names to partake in what the empire had to offer. The lands West of the Dniepr had different masters (Poles, Lithuanians, Austrians) and different influences.

“This almost total suppression of Ukrainian culture eased somewhat under the Bolsheviks. They permitted a controlled Ukrainization of the party and administrative éite. But Ukraine was to suffer the catastrophe of collectivization, the artifical famine of 1932 and 1933 and the purges. Stalin’s ruthless policies (…) left three million people dead.”[5]

Männer in Kharkiv gehen an verhungertem Körper vorbei. 1932. Alexander Wienerberger [Public domain]

And further: “By 1989 when the last census was taken 21,9 percent (…) of inhabitants in Ukraine were Russian. In many cities of the east they were a majority. Other areas were heavily Russified. Ukrainian parents spoke Russian at home and had to send their children to Russian schools because there were no others.”[6]

So one difference back then was that while in the West people learned both languages, most people in the east only learned Russian. Although nowadays everybody has to learn Ukrainian in school, when it comes to speaking the situation is still the same as decades before.

Here comes the divide: The new founded Ukrainian Republic made Ukrainian the sole official language. Native speakers went from total opression in the empire via relative neglect in the Soviet Union to dictating majority and importance today. On the other side Russian speakers took the opposite direction. Although they lived their whole life in the same spot, the powerful USSR, suddenly they became a lingual minority in a new country. Western Ukrainian people received a potential advantage in creating a national identity, while the eastern Russian people just lost one. They all lost their beloved Soviet Union but maybe the people in the east have not found enough as a replacement.

USSR stamp commemorating the state sovereignty of Ukraine

So there is enough grounds for revanchism. In my opinion this divide was balanced by the common poverty that exists left and right of the Dniepr and the fact that for most of its existence, the country was ruled by élites that came either out of the tradition of the Soviet Union or from the eastern part of the country giving the Russian speakers a little more leverage (most likely just a perceived advantage). That was about to change with the Maidan revolution.

“Everybody who once has been to the ‘far East’ and to the ‘far West’ of Ukraine, say to Donezk and Lviv, will assert without doubt that these are two different countries, different worlds and different cultures,” says (Western-) Luzk-born author Mykola Ryabchuk.[7]

But the divide comes very gradually. There is even a wide area where people speak a mix of both languages (called Surzhyk). The visitor will notice a difference between people in Lviv and in Charkiv but could not find a place where the change happens.

Percentage of native Russian speakers by subdivision according to the 2001 census.

Ryabchuk: “These differences lead many viewers to the conclusion that a separation of Ukraine is inevitable. […] The paradox with this conclusion is that none is able to define convincingly where one part ends and the other begins.”

So in my opinion the country has an inequality in the meaning and the use of its languages. Right now you can have western Ukrainians that find Russian natives arrogant for not learning Ukrainian well enough. Because a.) the westerners speak both and b.) it’s the official language anyway. And you find easterners that a.) feel that their language might be taken away (revenge for centuries of opression) and think that Ukrainians now feel superior and consider Russian native speakers as not Ukrainian enough.

Which brings me to the term “patriotism”. The nation is still in the phase of finding its identity. Both the everyday struggle to survive and the Soviet nostalgia has probably slowed down the process. Something so extreme as the Maidan revolution and even more so the annexation of Crimea and the agression in the East forces the nation to speed up with identity building. Now more than ever, every single citizen stands before the question: what is my nation and how should it look like? The violence very likely helps people coming to different conclusions. I have never seen so much display of national and nationalistic symbols in Ukraine as in the last seven months. During the Maidan revolution there were two different civilian actors with different symbols. There were the Maidaners with their yellow-blue national flags versus the Antimaidaners and paid thugs called Titushki who wore orange-black St. George Ribbons. The latter one being a symbol of military valour from the Soviet Union, becoming famous in the Great Patriotic War (WW2). Support for Maidan came from all sides but weakened the further east one looked. It was given in all languages but still predominantly in Ukrainian.

Maidaners sing the national anthem and shout “Glory to Ukraine — to the heroes glory!” — December 2013

But then there is an even more pragmatic view of the divide: “In fact, this is not an ethnic conflict at all. It is a political conflict and — despite the current opacity — at base not that hard to understand,” says historian Ann Applebaum. “It pits Ukrainians (both Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking) who want to live in a “European” democracy with human rights and the rule of law, against Ukrainians (also both Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking) — who support an undemocratic, oligarchic capitalist regime that is politically and economically dependent on Russia. Some of the regime’s supporters may well believe they are fighting fascists and militant European homosexuals; others may simply fear that deep reforms will cost them their paychecks.”[8]

A system that corrupts even saints

Most people in the country feel that they are worse off than they were living in the Soviet Union. I guess that being hungry and having a comparison with better times subdues patriotism. I could imagine that the new Ukraine has worked less on creating national identity than its predecessor, the USSR has done. Hosting the European Football Championship in 2012 has been a matter of national pride enjoyed in all parts of the country. But soccer is probably not enough against poverty, inequality, corruption, hopelessness and existential despair. My theory is that it was not patriotism that created Maidan but rather Maidan giving patriotism a surge.

My questions are: why did Maidan happen? why did this revolution happen? How do revolutions happen at all? There is a branch in political and social sciences that studies the theory of revolutions. There is the theory of replacing one system with the other by Marx[9], Le Bon stipulated that crowds can be brought to change everything without touching reality and experience.[10] Ellwood says that supression of communication in a population leads to hostility and revolution. Chimene Keitner cites nationalism as the root of revolutions. Huntington describes revolutions as of power struggle between competing interest groups. It is quite likely that all of those theories find their place in the Maidan revolution.

Contrary to theory, experience might be less well-versed but more tangible. On February 17th, a day before the killings in Kyiv reached their last and most violent phase, I accompany my singer friend Rostyslav into the Ukrainian house. The monumental five-storey building, once the All-union Lenin Museum was contested three weeks earlier, taken by the Maidan forces and turned into a safe place for revolutionaries, wounded, a sleeping quarter for self defense soldiers, it had a field hospital and a library.

Ukraine House. By Leonid Andronov Wikimedia Commons

The building is on the far end of the main street in Kyiv called Khreschatyk, situated on a corner from which one can reach the Maidan as well as the barricades on Hrushevskoho Street which were the locations of heavy battles in end of January. We are called to meet with the leader of one of the 42 self defense groups that is stationed in the building. The main street; Maidan; more of the main street; the Ukrainian house and the road up to the barricades on Hruschevskoho result in about 1000 meters of Maidan-controlled area. We walk to the entrance, speak to people, wait for the right guy to appear, pass the sentries, enter the barricaded ground floor where lectures are held and movies shown. The next sentries wait at the bottom of non-functioning escalators prohibiting “tourists” to get closer to the belly of the revolution. The building is dimly lit, inbetween floors there is a young female hairdresser cutting revolutionaries hair in the twilight coming in through milkglass. First floor, past the pharmacy and the hospital, quite empty at that time, more sentries, then a small door leading to a back room that hosts 40 bunk beds made from rough wooden palettes, some manned, some empty. A camping table and three camping chairs at the end of dim lit room. There sits the sotnyk, the leader of his sotnya (group of hundred) from the samoobarona (the self defense). He wears combat fatigues in black and a protective vest. We don’t exchange names.

He has an intelligent, soft face that looks tired and worn. He holds his arms so low like someone who has already resigned. He tells me why he and his men (mostly boys) volunteered and defend the revolution even if they have to use force: “This is not about politics and not about the EU. It is not even so much about Yanukovych. His removal is our objective, but the real reason is that we just can’t take it any longer. Our country is in such a shape that we, the ordinary citizens are already dead. We came here because we felt that we didn’t have anything left to loose.” Then he got even more tired and said: “The new law from January 16th makes every single one of us a criminal. We all will be punished with 15 years of prison. This made our fight definitive. We can’t stop and go home even if we wanted to. I have a wife and two children. I am no soldier, I am an ordinary man. But with this new law I and all my men will stay here until the end. We have no chance against the police. When they really want to, they will destroy the barricades within hours.”

I heard and read many similar reasons for why people joined the revolution. Reality can be so simple. “Having nothing left to loose.”

But what made so many people so hopeless? The Soviet Union had its merits. There was no unemployment, there was little inequality, everything was “deficit” — meaning missing but at least it was like this for everybody. I know from my own upbringing that there is a difference between real poverty and perceived poverty. People had learned to live with the system. One day there would be bedsheets in the shops. So the family went and bought 15 of those, storing 10 in the cupboard for the decades to come. The traditional Soviet home was crammed with stuff that for brief moments was abundant and became deficit again the day after. At the end of the 1980ies the system was worn down to the bare bones. It vanished. From then on the citizens of Ukraine stumbled from one disappointment to the next.

It started with a total devaluation of monetary values. You just had sold your good old Lada and tomorrow that money wasn’t worth anything anymore. Then state business got privatized. Workers received shares, shady businessmen bought those shares on the street for the equivalent of a pair of sunglasses. Those who held political power in the SU kept on to it in the newfound nation. Those who had financial power in the previous era got a head start buying up national goods. To add insult to injury, a widely advertised pyramid scheme emptied the pockets of many. Actually one of the culprits of that Ponzi scheme is now a leader of the separatists in the Donbas.

A MMM share, the Ponzi scheme that brought thousands to ruin

Unemployed soared, investments were not made, industry was and still is down. From afar it looked as if the majority of citizens of the Soviet Union were absolutely ill equipped to mentally master predatory capitalism.

No matter how poor a country is, there is always money to be made. It is quite likely that most accumulated wealth in Ukraine has not been earned but stolen, extorted, diverted or invented.

Yulia Tymoshenko 2010. By Euku via Wikimedia Commons

Take the story of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The magazine The Daily Beast writes: “Ukrainians remember that in the 1990s, before the braids, Tymoshenko was a shrewd businesswoman with dark hair and a dark side: tough, unrelenting, unforgiving, and in a league with then-Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko. She amassed an enormous fortune in the natural gas business. People started calling her ‘The Gas Princess.’ And there she was helped by the sweetheart deals Lazarenko allegedly sent her way.”[11] Then prime minister Lazarenko was later tried, convicted and sentenced to prison in the US for money laundering and other crimes. Tymoshenko was not tried although named in Lazarenkos indictment for bribery. She is said to own six billion US-Dollars from gas trades.

The richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov who deals with steel and coal and telecommunications is valued at 15 billion US-Dollars. A political observer said in 2005: “Akhmetov is the shadow leader of the so-called Donetsk political-business clan, which became very influential in recent years due to its abundant financial resources,”[12] adding that is is no secret that Ukraine’s elite has been closely tied to organized crime groups. Criminal cases of murders that happened as far back as 1988 were opened with Akhmetov as the prime suspect. In 2005 Akhmetov failed to show up at a hearing concerning the case. Although then-president Yushchenko vowed to battle crime and corruption, the case was closed.

The son of ex-president Yanukovich is a registered dentist with a net value of 500 million US-$. In the villa of roman grandeur of fled state prosecutor Viktor Pshonka, Faberge Eggs, golden statues and valuable orthodox artworks were found.[13] When president Yanukovitch’s villa was seized in February 2014, an original size bread loaf (Ukraines famous Baton bread) made of pure gold was found. One can buy replicas of this now on the streets of Kiev. The humor of the Ukrainians can’t be denied.

More (circumstancial) evidence for the existence of a clan in power? Viktor Yanukovych, president, born in Donetsk Oblast, former governor of Donetsk. Mykola Azarov, Prime Minister, moved to Donetsk in 1984, local politician there. Viktor Zakharchenko, Interior Minister, started his police career in 1981 in Donetsk. Serhiy Arbuzov, First Deputy Prime Minister, born and studied in Donetsk. Yuriy Boyko, Deputy Prime Minister, born in Donetsk Oblast. Andriy Klyuyev, head of Presidential Administration, studied in Donetsk. Viktor Pshonka, Prosecutor General, born in Donetsk Oblast. Volodymyr Rybak, Chairman of the Parliament, born in Donetsk. Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraines leading Oligarch, born in Donetsk. Donetsk is to Ukraine what Palermo is to Italy. It is also not very surprising that after the fall of the government the separatist movements in 2014 started in this very district. The clan had held all the power and would not let go without a fight since it had just too much to loose. They had subjected the country to a three-year long shakedown, they had created a “triangle of death” [14], consisting of police, prosecutors and the courts.

To see this practice in action, one can look to some examples from Ukraines IT-businesses. In recent years they often had visits from special police forces usually wearing black masks. They would storm the company, seize the servers and so strip the business from their working basics. This strategy even has a name: Maski-show (Russian for masks show). Andrey Horsev, owner of venture capital firm had that experience right after having a disagreement with former partners over a website. They produced faked papers to take ownership of that website. A large online electronics retailer,, had a maski-show in 2012 forcing the company to pay $1 million for alleged tax evasion. “The state doesn’t wait for court decisions, it just beats, frisks, arrests you,” said Vladyslav Chechotkin, founder of Rozetka. “In the course of that standoff we won 11 court cases, but every time there was another one coming next… If the state wants something from you, you have only one option — to give it up.”[15]

The most ridiculous maski-show happened with print-on-demand company After they fulfilled a clients order to produce T-Shirts with a print critizizing Yanukovych, the office was ransacked by police and ProstoPrint accused of copyright violation. The founder feared for his safety, left Ukraine and reiceived political asylum in Croatia.

Three stories among many. But Ukrainians endured. I am just quoting Ukrainians by saying that enduring is the thing this people can do best.

Part 3 — Repeating History and a Dictator in the Making looks at the Orange Revolution of 2004 and Victor Yanukovich’s rise to power.


[1] — retrieved on 6/18/14

[2] quoted from Ryabchuk, 2005

[3] and

[4] Eternal Russia: Yeltsin, Gorbachev, and the Mirage of Democracy by Jonathan Steele, Harvard University Press, 1988, ISBN 978–0–674–26837–1 (p. 217)–UtYdEC&pg=PA216&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

[5] see above

[6] see above, page 218

[7] Mykola Ryabchuk, The real and the imagined Ukraine, 2005


[9] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1968), p. 182.

[10] Gustave Le Bon, The Psychology of Revolution (Plain Label Books, 2006), p. 115






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