In the past 48 hours Ukraine has reached that tipping-point where the romantics become realists and the realists romantics. In the conventional world, romantics are those who think in terms of national destiny, the will of the people, of battle, of glory and self-sacrifice, of the radical political gesture; the realists those who prioritise money, balance sheets, personal safety, resignation, fatalism, the acceptance of an unjust, imperfect world where people know their place and limits, where things change slowly.

This graphic on the Ukrainian government website, which tries to account for President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to reject an association agreement with the European Union in favour of an alternative deal with Russia, must have seemed to whoever drew it to explain things sensibly. We were realists, it says, we were pragmatists. Look! Sign a deal with the EU and we lose $37 billion: Russia will charge us high prices for gas, we lose $15 billion in trade with Russia, EU goods flood our markets. But if we sign a deal with Russia, they immediately lend, give or invest $22.5 billion and slash the price of gas. Trade with Russia and the EU is much more to our advantage. Look! Net gain to Ukraine: $5 billion!

Leaving aside the poorly grounded assumptions underlying the figures, the short-term thinking, and the unnecessary, bullying insistence from Moscow that the two deals are mutually exclusive, this attempt at political justification in dollar terms now looks hopelessly idealistic. It is the ideal of a cynic; it is the ideal of a complete cynic, Vladimir Putin, the one ideal a complete cynic can have – that people have no ideals. The ideal that they are motivated only by money and fear of the big stick. Yanukovich went to Moscow in the private Airbus of the necromancer who performed the original political alchemy on him, Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, and the two obligingly confirmed to the arch-cynic Putin that, as he has consistently and contemptuously believed, Ukrainians are a greedy and frightened people in their entirety.

This has turned out not to be the case. The supposedly greedy have turned out to have, at least some of them, other ideals; and though the protesters on the Maidan and their supporters are no doubt frightened, they have stood their ground. To the cynic whose ideal is that people have no ideals, altruism and a willingness to make sacrifices can only appear as a kind of mental illness. To the cynic, there are only two kinds of people – cynics (that is, normal people) and ‘extremists’, sometimes ‘terrorists'.

This isn’t about the economy, duraki. If it were, the protests, which are bringing the already weak Ukrainian economy to its knees, would not have begun. Nor is it about the palely elephantine modalities of frowning Eurosuits in Brussels or Berlin or Stockholm. Europe is a metonym for a conceptual escape from what passes for governance in Ukraine – crooks, backhanders and family ties, like a Sicilian village in the 1940s – to something fairer, more just, more honest. It may be a fantasy, a paradisal vision. But there are times when visions take charge.

Late last year, when the protests in Kiev had begun but before they turned violent, a sceptical Russian blogger, Ilya Varlamov, spent time on Independence Square asking why Ukrainians seemed so determined to associate themselves with the European Union, a grouping with so many problems, whose own members seemed so disillusioned. He found protesters full of mistaken ideas of what Europe might promise – but that, he concluded, wasn’t the point:

This demonstration is not for the fastest possible integration with Europe, but against Yanukovich, his team, and his warm friendship with Putin. The refusal to sign the deal [with Europe] was merely the last straw for many. People have many questions for Yanukovich and his friends. They are, in the first instance, about falsification of election results, about the atrocious level of corruption (you wouldn’t dream how bad), the absence of a proper judicial system... I don’t think I need to explain this to my Russian readers. It’s just that in Ukraine all these problems are even worse than in Russia.

There are, indeed, many questions about Yanukovich and his friends – about one friend in particular, his fellow citizen of the Russian-speaking eastern coal city of Donetsk, Rinat Akhmetov. (British politicians concerned about the weakness of EU sanctions against Ukraine might remember that Akhmetov owns a steel mill in Newcastle and Britain’s most expensive dwelling). Little is known for certain about the careers of either man between Yanukovich’s rumbunctious young Soviet adulthood (he was sentenced to three years in prison for robbery, and two years in prison for grievous bodily harm) and their emergence onto the political and business scene in the mid-1990s. At the same time, there are reports the two aren’t getting on so well; and it is a problem for supporters of the anti-Yanukovich movement that he was elected president in 2010, by a 3.5 per cent margin, in a poll judged fair by international election observers.

For the time being, such nice issues of electoral democracy, like economic questions, are secondary not only to the blood and fire in the centre of Kiev, but to the terrible logic of this map showing the polarisation of the country in the wake of the 2010 election. The seeming starkness of such data visualisations can be misleading; after all, a similar map of the US showing states that have endorsed or rejected President Obama’s healthcare reforms might appear to show a rerun of the American Civil War was imminent. Yet in Ukraine the mechanisms of potential separation – many mid-sized regional capitals with all the apparatus of self-government, an immature and little-respected central bureaucracy, traditions of self-sufficiency, two languages, and, in Poland and Russia, two interested neighbours offering support and sanctuary – could easily come to seem stronger than the forces keeping the country, as presently constituted, whole. And that would hurt most at the meeting point of the two potential polities: Kiev. There was always a strong element of the existential in Ukraine’s deciding on independence, the act which, lest it be forgotten, ended the Soviet Union, a country that had seemed permanent. Stalin gave Ukraine a fake parliament: Ukraine’s romantics decided to use it as a real parliament. Now the hour of the romantic defining the real has come again.