Listen to this piece read by the author

When​ I was growing up in the 20th century revolutions seemed significant. At school the Russian Revolution was everyone’s favourite subject but it was less theoretical for me than for most: my parents had ended up in England because of it. The 68-er parents of schoolfriends would tell me about the sexual and cultural revolutions of their youth which, they said, changed the world. I was 12 in 1989, when we all watched the Berlin Wall fall on live TV. It seemed like the Russian Revolution and the 1960s rolled into one, the people taking power from elites while celebrating the subversive effect of U2. Later, when I went to film school and discovered Eisenstein, I realised that revolution had altered the way things looked: that all those CNN and BBC montages with their close-ups of ‘ordinary’ people on the revolutionary streets of Berlin, Moscow and Bucharest, and their stirring music, could have been borrowed from Battleship Potemkin or Strike; they were rolling news versions of Eisenstein’s notion of making the crowd the hero, transformed through the editing into a unified body.

But in the 21st century something changed. Suddenly any national political fight was calling itself a revolution. The Rose Revolution (Georgia), the Green Revolution (Iran), the Tulip Revolution (Kyrgyzstan), the Jeans Revolution (Belarus), the Cedar Revolution (Lebanon), the Jasmine Revolution (Tunisia). Some of these were revolutionary, others not at all. ‘Revolution’ stopped being the name you gave to a transformative historical moment and became the name a political technology gave itself in order to gain importance.

Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004 had all the slogans, the set designs, the pop music, the flag-waving and video mash-ups of revolution but when it was over the same leaders returned to practise the same corrupt schemes as before. By this time I was making documentaries. I would find myself drinking with foreign correspondents in bars: ‘Was Kiev 2004 a real revolution? Was Bishkek 2005?’ we would ask. The Arab Spring made things worse. On TV Tahrir Square looked like something out of Eisenstein – but when it went wrong it did so gradually, in ways that didn’t look so cinematic.

And then there was Kiev’s Maidan: the ‘Euro-revolution’, ‘the revolution of dignity’ which celebrates the anniversary of its awful culmination this month. ‘Another Ukrainian revolution?’ I thought when it began. As thousands gathered to protest against Yanukovych’s decision to abandon an Association Agreement with the EU in return for a $15 billion bung from the Kremlin, and as the protests turned violent, with a hundred people shot before Yanukovych finally fled to Russia, the story of the revolution was already being spun in a hundred ways. ‘It’s a fascist / CIA / Masonic / Zionist / anti-Semitic coup,’ the Russian press declared. ‘It’s all the fault of the EU’s empire-building ambitions,’ insisted the anti-EU crowd in Western Europe. ‘Russia has a right to rule over Ukraine,’ reasoned the big power realists. And the Ukrainians who actually made, or were caught up in, the revolution had their own ways of telling the story, though the stories have changed over the year since Yanukovych fled, as the country has moved through presidential and parliamentary elections and Putin has sponsored, armed and helped man a war against Kiev in the old Yanukovych heartlands.

When I first arrived in Maidan a few months after the violence had ended, the square was still a tent city surrounded by barricades of tyres, car parts and furniture (as if the very fabric of the city had risen up and rebelled). The dregs of the Maidanistas were still living in the tents, refusing to leave. Wandering among them I found a crucible of utopias: Cossacks dreaming of a return to the Hetmanate; ‘liquid democrats’ inventing ways to vote and then unvote for parliamentarians as with ‘likes’ on Facebook; ethno-pagan nationalists searching for pure Ukrainian chromosomes; libertarians, anarchists, neo-fascists and Christian socialists.

After decades in Moscow with its aestheticised cynicism and London with its apolitical resignation, Kiev’s uprush of utopias was refreshing, and occasionally disturbing. Soon I found myself sitting in cafés scribbling my own pet utopia: Ukraine as a Russia 2.0. ‘Russia is not Europe,’ the Kremlin’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, had recently announced. Could Kiev be a capital of a ‘Russia that is Europe’? I started to think which writers would be part of Russia 2.0: Medinsky would get Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn; we would get Chekhov, Turgenev and Nabokov. Tolstoy was a sticking point: one would think he was a Russian Russian, but might his excommunication by the Orthodox Church, which still describes him as using ‘his great talent to destroy Russia’s traditional spiritual and social order’, mean we have to take him in?

The seduction of big ideas was internationally infectious. Returning to my hotel lobby I encountered Bernard-Henri Lévy bathed in TV lights, giving an interview to a local network. BHL had just delivered a lecture at the local university about ‘Putinism as Fascism’: ‘Putin is frightened of the loss of traditional values and the principles of religion,’ Lévy said. At the conference I was attending, on ‘The Meaning of Ukrainian Pluralism for the Future of Europe, Russia and the World’, Paul Berman and François Heisbourg kept returning to the idea of Russia as a home for a kind of clerical nationalism, Ukraine as the battleground for liberal values. Were these grand visions, I wondered, actually playing into Putin’s hands? The Kremlin was doing all it could do to recast the story of a battle against corruption and bad governance as a clash of civilisations. The bigger the ‘idea’ of revolution became, the more it was susceptible to spin.

But many Ukrainians were wary of the excitement from abroad. ‘I don’t want to use the Maidan as my channel’s masthead,’ said Zurab Alasania, who had helped launch the independent TV channel of the revolution, Hromadske, and was now trying to create the country’s new public broadcasting channel. ‘The risk is we become addicted to the idea of revolution: it becomes a substitute for doing anything else.’ ‘We need to move away from the revolution of dignity to the revolution of effectiveness,’ Hannah Hopko told me. She had made a name for herself on the Maidan by collecting money to help feed and clothe ordinary citizens. Hopko had a different idea of the West’s role from BHL’s. She saw ‘Europe’ as complicit in supporting Yanukovych’s violent kleptocracy, providing a safe refuge for all the money stolen from the budget. ‘The IMF want strict conditions for a $2.7 billion loan. That’s only a fraction of the money Yanukovych stole and hid in the West. How about you just give that back instead?’ Six months on, $4 billion of the $100 billion the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office claims Yanukovych stole have been impounded; Hannah Hopko is now an MP.

The new cabinet includes people who have no connection to the old loops of corruption, but the fact they are new also means they have no influence with the entrenched bureaucracy, which persists almost unchanged. The press is freer than it was before: Alasania’s channel has just investigated dodgy real estate development by the new president, but whether that freedom can be converted into influence is unclear. A journalist who camped out in front of the presidential administration building and recorded who went in and who went out reported that many of the old faces from the Yanukovych years had a habit of stopping by in the evening; as for the old oligarchs they are only growing more powerful as the government approaches bankruptcy. In the 2015 Heritage Index of Economic Freedom Ukraine has sunk seven places and is now bottom of the European table. The government has neglected those who are suffering from the consequences of the war in the far east of the country on both sides of the line: bombing civilians in rebel-held areas and cutting them off from whatever welfare might provide has put paid to any residual loyalty to Kiev; meanwhile the hungry and wounded on the Ukrainian side are largely ignored.

But as the old state clings on, a sort of parallel, civil-society government has been self-organising. It feeds and equips the army, provides legal and social services to internally displaced refugees, brings medical aid to those who are stuck in war zones both on the Ukrainan and the rebel-held side. For all the bad news there appears to be some sort of social miracle taking place. ‘We’ve had our February Revolution – we’re still to have our October Revolution,’ a magazine editor I met joked. There is talk of a ‘third Maidan’, but even serious political analysts are wondering whether the next one would be orchestrated by Moscow: having calculated that they can’t suppress the Ukrainian talent for revolution, Moscow might instead try to control the next Maidan from within.

And it’s in Moscow that the main counternarrative to the revolution has been developed. There are many geopolitical dividends Putin might hope to draw by sponsoring, arming and manning the rebellion against Kiev in east Ukraine, but there is an important narrative trick the Kremlin is trying to pull off too: revolution is meant to equal chaos and war, framed not merely as pointless but as downright bad. Kremlin spin doctors put Maidan in one line of disasters along with Syria and Libya (all organised by the CIA), and ultimately question whether the fall of the Berlin Wall was such a great thing after all. The idea is to undercut any desire for revolution at home, which also means policing the stories that are told. On 30 December, Teatr.doc, Moscow’s first documentary theatre in a tiny cellar off the Patriarch Ponds, screened a Ukrainian film about the Maidan which didn’t fit with the Kremlin’s preferred picture. The theatre was immediately raided by the police and the intelligence services.

One of the finest writers to have worked at Teatr.doc is the Ukrainian Natalya Vorozhbit, whose play, Maidan: Voices from the Uprising, had a three-day run at the Royal Court last year. It is based on interviews and set right in the middle of the fighting, beating, shooting, praying, burning, bleeding and dying of the revolution. Vorozhbit plucks out little stories: the soup kitchen girls who feed bums and revolutionaries on Maidan as the Berkut riot police approach, their hands trembling so much the soup spills; the teacher who cries every time he hears the national anthem; the girl trapped in the Writers’ Union, where ‘silver-haired’ literary types try to fight the Berkut; the nurse who has to decide which wounded revolutionary will fly to Germany for treatment and which one will die.

The play’s hero isn’t a person but a place: the Maidan itself. Partners lose their lovers to the Maidan; criminals have near-death epiphanies and are reborn as good people in its furnaces; women look for men. ‘I use the Maidan for intimate needs,’ Good-Looking Patient confesses. ‘I never met men like this in peacetime. Where have they appeared from? From underground? I feel as if I have emerged from underground myself.’ The Maidan gives birth to the Crowd, a flowing organism taking over Kiev, and to an idea of a Common Good: ‘The ideal form of government remains Communism,’ Alexey, Psychologist declares. ‘No government, no army, no money. Everyone according to his abilities, everyone according to his needs – that’s what I saw and felt on the Maidan.’ The real challenge the revolutionaries face isn’t so much the Berkut – in fact, they embrace violent confrontation – but the attitude of family members who tell them that everyone on the Maidan is for sale; or the taunts of the rent-a-thugs who say: ‘Have you had enough playing at revolution?’

The crowd and place as hero, the lack of individualisation, the sharp montages: all this straight out of Eisenstein. If we can still make art like Eisenstein, Vorozhbit seems to be asking, doesn’t it mean we can still make revolutions like they did in the finest revolutionary years of the 20th century? Maidan is an attempt to restore revolution to its former stature: the Maidan as a fight for the possibility of revolutionary change. ‘There was this sense that this is it. The Revolution has begun,’ Red-Headed Girl cries. ‘Now everything has started, the movement, everything will change, everyone will be different. It seemed like the world would change.’

Another Ukrainian writer who has tried to document the course of the revolution as he experienced it is Andrey Kurkov. ‘The revolution continues but I don’t think it will last long,’ he writes in Ukraine Diaries, as the crowds gather in protest against Yanukovych.* At first Kurkov doesn’t feel much solidarity with the protesters: he calls them ‘Maidanistas’, ‘radical romantics who could never defeat the Berkutovtsy – and even if they did, what would we do afterwards?’ When the Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh impounds Yanukovych’s luxury car and has himself driven round town in it, Kurkov remarks: ‘That is just too revolutionary.’

At the start Kurkov is quietly working on a new novel. He mentions the weather, oddities on the news. He goes on holiday to Crimea with his family. Friends bring goat’s cheese from Lithuania. When the first protesters are killed Kurkov is annoyed: ‘How can I keep on working on a novel … when five minutes from the office where I sit at this moment, in front of my computer, the police are waging war with the people?’ As the killings continue Kurkov’s diary fills with rumours. Who shot at the police? Was it the Russians trying to incite violence? What are the protest leaders’ real motives? Revolution isn’t a glorious march forwards but a series of dark acts. Kurkov’s daughter phones to report strange men in black hanging round the apartment. Kurkov rushes home but they are gone. The gates in the courtyard are set on fire. There are more deaths. ‘Nearly fifty protesters were killed during events at the Mariinsky Palace, and … two of them were decapitated.’ On TV he sees his friends and fellow writers on the Maidan’s front line. He flies to Paris on the day of the worst violence and visits the Salon du Livre, where an ‘elderly Russian emigrant couple poured out a string of insults against Ukraine’. A little later a Russian woman tries to buy some books but her credit card is refused because of sanctions on Russian banks – she is close to tears. He starts to get up in the middle of the night to check the headlines: ‘Still no war this morning.’ Finally his last peninsula of privacy, his writing, is annexed when his novel The President’s Last Love is banned in Russia. Politics, he concludes, is awful but unavoidable. Revolution is a necessary evil, the price Ukraine has to pay ‘to cleanse itself of amorality and corruption’. ‘We would like to turn over this page of history as quickly as possible,’ Kurkov writes: it’s the last line of the book.

Lydia Starodubtseva’s Days of Fear, a documentary film, wants to take revolution and put it in a metaphysical context. The film is set in Kharkiv, a border city where pro-Maidan and pro-Kremlin crowds fought in the street, and Russian tanks lined up thirty kilometres from the centre. As the city becomes ‘immobilised by gloomy fantasies and disturbing dreams’, Starodubtseva invites a blind radio journalist, a prosecutor, a priest and a poet to answer ‘one question: what is fear like in Kharkiv?’ The blind reporter can feel the fear in the city: ‘It’s like a void, a void,’ he keeps saying. The poet is haunted by a dream he had as an 18-year-old in which he was told he would die at 39 – his age now. The prosecutor tries to define the difference between a criminal and a traitor (‘a traitor has lost the right to be forgiven’) then breaks off to confess: ‘I’m scared for my wife and family. I want them to leave the country, and I am ashamed of that.’

Instead of a political process revolution becomes the expression of an eternal conflict between freedom and fear. In one of the film’s most striking scenes Maidan activists are captured by a crowd, dragged by their hair, pushed to the ground and made to do a ‘crawl of shame’ while they are spat at and kicked. ‘There are demonic forces that have risen from the core of the city,’ Starodubtseva said to an interviewer about her film. ‘In clever philosophical language’ – Starodubtseva teaches philosophy – ‘you might call it “detemporalisation”, the opening up of a gap in time to events which are ahistorical but perpendicular. The Yellow Turban Revolution in Han China; the Punic Wars; the battles of Guelphs and Ghibellines in Renaissance Italy – they all become completely understandable to a person who falls into this ahistorical crevice, where time rips apart and opens up its metaphysical perspective.’ The ‘crawl of shame’ reminded me of a phrase Kremlin politicians have used throughout the conflict: ‘Russia is getting up from its knees.’ For Russia to rise metaphorically from its knees the Maidan activists have to get down on theirs.

Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, which was screened last year at the ICA and the BFI, pushes the idea of revolution into yet another, even more unexpected framework. Throughout the film the camera never moves. There are long, wide shots with landscapes of the revolution: the Maidan; a hall where protesters are sleeping; the soup kitchen. This is self-consciously anti-Eisenstein. There are few editing cuts, no stirring close-ups, no dynamic montage; the audience’s sympathies aren’t guided, they aren’t told where to look. Loznitsa wants to reconceive the way we make films about revolution. The protesters who carry pieces of the city to build barricades are ants carrying leaves and twigs to build their hill. The kitchen boys and girls who make thousands of sandwiches for the Maidanistas are bees making honey. The Berkut swarming into frame before they open fire look like locusts. When protesters die the camera doesn’t zoom in on their agony: it’s like watching an insect die on the tip of your shoe. From this point of view revolutionary passion seems petty.

As the film moves on, tableau by tableau, an odd transformation takes place. The scenes seem to be more like Hubble shots of the cosmos. The stones thrown by protesters rain down like a meteor shower. Flares floating through the night sky are planetary bodies. The Maidanistas advance and the Berkut retreat in flows of Milky Ways. Loznitsa cuts between a long shot of fire and a long shot of snow: a story of the elements. This is ‘revolution’ in the sense not of ‘forcible overthrow of government’ but of the ‘revolution of planets around stars’. And it makes the Maidan feel more significant rather than smaller – an event with its own astronomy, an epic of outer space. The question of whether revolution is important, or the sacrifice worth it, falls away: how can you be for or against the Milky Way? The question is only: what will your place in it be? When, in the final shot, Loznitsa comes back to the human, as protesters pray at night for the dead, he pulls off the feat of putting the cosmic into the personal. Even as the bodies of the dead are carried through the crowd, there is no sentiment. One mourner scratches his nose, another cries, a third stares. They’re still small and silly, but part of an epic.

Recently, at yet another conference, I was asked whether, given that I was born in Kiev, I should be introduced as Russian or Ukrainian. In my many hyphenated identities I had never thought of myself as Ukrainian. I was nine months old when my family emigrated from Kiev. I knew real Ukrainians, and recognised their complicated search for nationhood, but it was never my search. My parents speak Russian; they brought me up on Russian literature; I had always been ‘the Russian’ at my London schools. But the Maidan gave words new meanings. The term ‘Banderovits’ (in honour of Stepan Bandera), associated previously with anti-Semitism, the slaughter of Poles, the Ukrainian far right and independence from Russia, was embraced by Russian-speaking Kiev Jews who see Poland as a political model and who took to calling themselves ‘Yid-Banderovtsi’. ‘Hohol’, the pejorative name for Ukrainians, was now used with pride. While the 2004 Orange Revolution had been inspired by a 19th-century, language-and-soil nationalism, this revolution seemed to open the way for a new Ukrainian. I suddenly felt very sharply that my mother was from Kiev, my father grew up in Czernowitz, my grandparents are from Odessa and Kharkiv. And so when I was asked the question at the conference I breathed deeply and said words I never thought I would: ‘I am Ukrainian.’ It felt strange. The ‘mmmm’ cut off with the sharp, whistling intake of ‘yuuu’, breaking into the avalanche of ‘krrrr’. I remembered the way revolutionary poets of the 1920s wanted to create new sounds to produce a new world: ‘Iammmmyoookkraaanian.’ The physical sensation of saying the words is revolutionary: like a new planet in the mouth.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences