‘Russia,’ the Russian writer said, ‘is pitted against the West because of its deeper sense of spirituality.’ He was speaking at a conference in Kiev bringing together ‘international intellectuals to carry out a discussion about the meaning of Ukrainian pluralism for Europe, Russia and the world’. It was hot in the room. I felt sick and went down to Maidan, my first visit since the revolution.
The barricades are still standing in the centre of Kiev. As wide as high streets and many metres tall. They are made of advertising hoardings, paving stones, logs, beds, bins, skips, sandbags, posts, trellises, wire, sheds, shoes, pipes and street signs. It almost looks as if the fabric of the city had risen up and rebelled. There’s a large metal structure which I couldn’t make out.
‘It’s part of a playground,’ one of the Maidan revolutionaries explained. They are still there too, living in tents by the barricades.
‘How did it get here?’ I asked.
‘People just dragged it.’
There are thousands of tyres, used as ramparts or set on fire as burning walls. During the fighting people bought spare tyres from their garages, or went out and bought new ones and carried them to Maidan still packed in cellophane, the subways rammed with people carrying tyres.A revolution can transform not only the meaning of a person in society but the meaning of objects. What in another context would be unsightly mountains of rubbish here have become symbols of resistance and sacrifice.
Near the metro, tyres and bits of pavement have been stacked together to form a sculpture-totem to the revolution. But what the barricades most immediately recall are Joseph Beuys installations. Or rather they reply to them: if in Beuys rubble is often taken to signify the collapse of European civilisation and society, here it is the opposite: society rising up, a dream of Europe recovered.
In among the barricades are framed photographs and flowers, to commemorate those who were killed in the fighting. The Maidan is also a temple. There are improvised mounds of mourning: piles of rubble topped off with a candle and a photo. When I passed by, several dozen relatives of the dead had gathered by the photographs. A priest led swelling prayers. Many of the relatives had returned to the place their loved were killed for the first time. Many cried, kissed and stroked the photographs. Then the mourners walked up the hill towards Parliament to ask why there was still no result of the investigation into the killings.
By the time I got back to the conference, the discussion was about ‘how Maidan transformed culture’. Western guests who like me never fought on the Maidan were eulogising the revolution. Bernard-Henri Lévy was there too. The Kharkiv writer Serhiy Zhadan, who has risked his life to fight for the Maidan in eastern Ukraine, looked irritated: ‘We’re kidding ourselves if we think the Maidan has transformed everything,’ he said when he took the microphone. ‘Those who were pro-Europe, pro-change are more so. Those who were against are more so. In Donetsk the same symbols of Maidan are looked on with hate. Come on. Get serious.’