By: Oleksiy Radynski
On December 8, 2013, an angry crowd of Maidan protesters toppled a Lenin monument in central Kyiv. This act was absurdly greeted by liberals in Ukraine and abroad as a final cutting-of-ties with communism—almost a quarter century after it had already fallen. At the same time, skeptical voices claimed that this outburst of mass frustration directed at a historical statue revealed the total impotency of the movement. Soon, monuments to Lenin fell in many other Ukrainian cities. Anti-communist iconoclasm became an important feature of the first movement in twenty-first century Europe whose outcome at least vaguely resembled a revolution.
The site of the Maidan movement in Kyiv is intimately linked to revolutionary ideas and practices, and not only by the old Soviet name for Maidan square—“the Square of the October Revolution”. The urban structure of central Kyiv itself, as envisaged by the Stalin-era city planners, was meant both to commemorate the event of the revolution, and to prevent its repetition by rendering expressions of dissent on the part of Soviet Ukrainians impossible. Maidan square and nearby Khreschatyk Street were designed to accommodate mass communist rallies and demonstrations—as long as these celebrated state policies. The Haussmannian proportions of the central squares and avenues were designed to make it easy for police forces to contain any public unrest.
The monument to the October Revolution, erected in the late 1970s at what later came to be known as Maidan square, was an astute commentary on the relationship between the revolutionary masses and their revolutionary leaders. In this monument, the figure of Vladimir Lenin was surrounded by the four pillars of the October Revolution—the male worker, the female worker, the peasant, and the sailor, all represented in bronze. The figure of Lenin stood apart from the masses not only in size—it effectively dominated the composition—but also in medium: his likeness was made of red granite, suggesting that he belonged to a different, transcendent mode of being. More than twenty years after the October Revolution monument was removed during the Soviet Union’s collapse, this spatial relationship between masses and leaders was re-projected, or reenacted on a different level, during the Maidan uprising. Although the Maidan movement did not have clear leaders or did not accept those who claimed their role, the representatives of the movement were clearly visible and constantly appealed to the assembled public via the large, mounted screens that broadcast the revolution in real time from the square. In this way, the relationship between the screen and the televised demonstrations actually reenacted a familiar, monumental representation of the revolution.
During the Soviet years, October Revolution Square was the site of so many pseudo- or counterrevolutionary rituals that it is hard to imagine it as a site for a genuine uprising. This cynical use of fake demonstrations led to the discrediting of the very idea of public assembly. In 1986, the square was the site of perhaps one of the most cynical uses of public assembly in history. Thousands of Kyivites marched through the square during the official Labor Day parade without knowing that five days earlier, a disaster had taken place in Chernobyl, about one hundred kilometers away. Soviet workers were made to march through the radiation-exposed streets for the sake of communist ritual. While the Labor Day ritual was not cancelled by atomic disaster, little could be done to prevent the Soviet society from its subsequent atomization. Very soon, the Thatcherite formula “there is no such thing as society” was realized in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states in its most radical form.
The 1992 documentary Levels of Democracy (directed by Georgiy Shkliarevsky), which portrays various political assemblies that took place in and around Maidan square in the late 1980s and early 1990s, grasps the ultimate transformation of Ukrainian (and, more broadly, late-Soviet) society into a post-social assemblage of individuals overwhelmed by the need for personal survival. The film’s opening scenes are filled with the joyous exultations of the masses, who for the first time had been granted the right to celebrate their national identity. In 1991, however, the situation changes drastically: the protesters stop caring about national identity, since they are suddenly faced with a collapsing economy and the urgency of physical survival. People still assemble—but instead of listening to performances of Ukrainian national anthem, they now listen to a teenager singing Yegor Letov’s songs on a guitar, or to a speech by a paranoid anti-Semite preacher. When freedom of assembly finally becomes a real constitutional right, practicing it is very difficult due to a sudden lack of basic goods.8
In the early 2000s, when the effects of economic collapse and social degradation started to wane, the Ukrainian people started to reclaim Maidan as a place for assembly and dissent. In the winter of 2000–2001, protesters set up an encampment in the square and called for the resignation of Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, who was accused of ordering the murder of the opposition journalist Georgiy Gongadze. The encampment was dispersed, and in order to prevent any further use of Maidan square for public dissent, President Kuchma ordered that it be redeveloped as a consumer space—a shopping mall combined with a para-historical sculpture park. The new surface of Maidan, dotted with kitschy sculptures and glass domes linking it with the promising shopping mall underworld, was supposed to prevent large crowds of protesters from gathering there. Instead, the public was supposed to assemble in the shopping mall underneath for the sake of pure consumption. On the spot where the October Revolution monument previously stood, a notoriously ugly monument to the independence of Ukraine was erected in its place, its use of imperial Corinthian order absurdly reverting Ukraine’s post-colonial imaginary. But Kuchma’s plan for doing away with Maidan as a public space failed— probably because his corrupt tendencies led him to award the project to a group of wealthy businessmen who had no prior experience in the construction business. Kuchma’s stated reason for redeveloping Maidan was the tenth anniversary of Ukrainian independence. Instead, the second decade of Ukraine’s alleged “independence” saw a tremendous proliferation of protest activity at Maidan square.